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  • John Edward Martin

A Novela of My Own: A Review of "Zorro" (2024)



When I visit my mom, we spend most of our time cooking, chatting, and watching telenovelas, her favorite entertainment. My Spanish comprehension is marginal at best, so unless there are subtitles, I have to settle for having a long familiarity with the kinds of characters, storylines styles, and tones of voice used in these serials that give me a general idea of what’s going on.


When I was younger, we watched American soap operas, like All My Children and General Hospital. But since retiring and moving in with another fluent Spanish speaker—my aunt Adela—and gaining access to dozens of Spanish-language channels, mom has turned to Mexican and other Latin novelas. The shorter format, familiar character-types, recurring actors, melodramatic style, and romantic plots allow for comfortable, entertaining viewing every day of the week. And she can usually bring me up to speed with a few quick explanations of the plot so far (“See, that mean lady hates the pretty, crying girl because she’s jealous of the rancher who…”).


Until recently, though, I don’t think I’ve ever had a novela that I could call my own, given my love of comic books, superheroes, and adventure stories. That is until I stumbled on the new Spanish series Zorro (2024), created and written by Carlos Portela, and currently available on Prime Video. This isn’t the first novela-style Zorro series to come along—an earlier one, Zorro: La espada y la rosa (The Sword and the Rose), aired on Telemundo from February 12 to July 23, 2007. And this one might not be considered a true telenovela since it’s being aired as a streaming series in “seasons” rather than as a daily or weekly serial. Stylistically, however, it does follow many of the conventions of a traditional novela: the romantic-heroic theme music, the melodramatic plots about love, betrayal, revenge, and intrigue, and the use of familiar characters and archetypes, as well as the all-Spanish speaking cast (some from Spain, others from Mexico and Latin America).

Stylistically, it does follow many of the conventions of a traditional novela: the romantic-heroic theme music, the melodramatic plots about love, betrayal, revenge, and intrigue, and the use of familiar characters and archetypes. . .

In this case, too, the characters come from a different, if related, genre of storytelling and one with a long history of its own: the pulp fiction Westerns and adventure stories of the early 20th century, as well as their off-shoots in television, film, comics, and other media. In particular, it draws on the now-iconic characters first introduced in Johnston McCulley’s 1919 pulp magazine serial, The Curse of Capistrano: Don Diego Vega (later, “de la Vega”) and his alter-ego, the masked vigilante and hero of the oppressed, El Zorro (the Fox); his loyal servant and friend, the mute Bernardo; his lady love, the beautiful Lolita Pulido; and a cast of villains that includes brutal military officers, greedy aristocrats, and corrupt politicians.

The characters come from a different, if related, genre of storytelling and one with a long history of its own: the pulp fiction Westerns and adventure stories of the early 20th century, as well as their off-shoots in television, film, comics, and other media.

Although a purely fictional character, Zorro has his origins in earlier dime novels and popular magazine serials, particularly those telling the exploits of the legendary California Mexican outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta, a semi-historical figure who came to represent the resistance of the oppressed underclass of Mexican and Indigenous people in California after its annexation into the United States following the U.S.-Mexican War (1846-48) and the Gold Rush of 1849. Blake Hausman’s article, “Zorro’s Ancestor: Connections between Zorro and Joaquin Murrieta” featured in a special issue of Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities (v. 38, no. 1, 2018), edited by Frederick Luis Aldama and Mauricio Espinoza, offers a wonderful analysis of the history of Murrieta and his influence on the character of Zorro.

 

In this series, Zorro is played by Spanish actor Miguel Bernardeau, who has the look and mannerisms appropriate to the classic swashbuckling character. Don Diego, the aristocratic son of a wealthy California landowner, returns from Spain, where he was receiving military (and possibly espionage) training to find his hometown, El Pueblo de Los Ángeles, in the midst of chaos and corruption as a result of the harsh rule of the Mexican governor and resistance by the mysterious figure known as El Zorro, who begins the show as a member and champion of the local Indigenous community. When this Zorro is implicated in the murder of Don Alejandro de la Vega, Diego’s father, he is hunted down and slain by the local authorities, leaving the mantle of El Zorro empty—for a time.

 

One interesting element of this series is that there is not one, but two, claimants to the mantle of El Zorro. The first, Nah-Lin (Dalia Xiuhcoatl), an Indigenous warrior and sister to the previous Zorro, claims the right to assume the mask and title in order to avenge her brother and her people for his murder.

There is not one, but two, claimants to the mantle of El Zorro. The first, Nah-Lin (Dalia Xiuhcoatl), an Indigenous warrior and sister to the previous Zorro, claims the right to assume the mask and title in order to avenge her brother and her people for his murder.

But in a stunning turn, the ritual of succession, led by the community’s shaman, Cuervo Nocturno (Cuauhtli Jimenez), sees the sacred fox, herald and namesake of El Zorro, select Don Diego as its chosen successor, much to Nah-Lin’s outrage. This sets the stage for a season-long rivalry between the two Zorros and an interesting debate over who has the right to stand as champion of the oppressed—a member of that class of people or a member of the privileged aristocracy who has helped oppress them? 




One could easily ask the same question of some of Zorro’s descendants in popular culture, comics, and film, including the Batman, the Green Hornet, or the Green Arrow. In fact, the series plays with many of the other familiar motifs that have been borrowed from Zorro by these and other later vigilante heroes: the masked/caped crusader, his secret identity as a wealthy playboy, tragically orphaned, with a secret cave lair, an awesome ride (his black horse, Tornado), a loyal 'butler', and lots of clever tricks up his sleeve. In evoking these motifs, the series reminds us that Zorro was the archetype for these heroes, but also that they are all potentially problematic heroes when seen through the eyes of those they supposedly protect. Can billionaires still be heroes? If so, whose?

Can billionaires still be heroes? If so, whose?

The show offers some other interesting challenges to the classic Zorro mythos as well, including a love interest, Lolita Marquez (Renata Notni), who his anything but the delicate lady or damsel-in-distress popular in the classic pulp novels.  This Lolita is a fierce, defiant, sharpshooter who gives both Zorros as well as her military fiancé, Captain Monasterio (Emilia Zurita), a run for their money. Monasterio himself is a more complex character than the soldiers we often see in Zorro stories, who are either cruel tyrants or bumbling idiots. This Monasterio is a man of principle and law who nonetheless finds himself a pawn of corrupt officials who order him to do things that violate his conscience and his honor. This makes him a sympathetic rival to Don Diego both for Lolita’s heart and for leadership of the community.




Without revealing any other major plot points, I’ll just say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this series so far and look forward to another season. It does a good job of capturing the spirit of the Zorro mythos while also adding a few modern updates, especially in regard to gender, race, and the historical politics of California.

It does a good job of capturing the spirit of the Zorro mythos while also adding a few modern updates, especially in regard to gender, race, and the historical politics of California.

But mostly it’s just a fun adventure series that evokes those classic pulp romance tales, Westerns, Golden Age comics, and modern telenovelas in a style that is by turns serious, melodramatic, funny, and playful, but which also has plenty of action, fight scenes, and intrigue to keep the whole familia entertained.

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iriswhispers
14 февр.

Great review and you've convinced me that I have to watch this!

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