By Jim Tuck
Pretty Boy Floyd:
The “Marcos” of Mexico
The line between outlaw and Robin Hood-style populist guerrilla is often difficult to draw. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. Yet certain criteria can be defined. Take the case of a man who, though technically outside the law, never preys on the poor, tears up mortgages, distributes stolen bank money to the needy, and -in the end- leaves a privileged sanctuary where everybody protects him because he doesn’t want to subject these home folks to continuing harassment from police and federal agents.
Such a figure was Charles Arthur Floyd, a good ol’ boy from the Oklahoma hills known to friends as Chock, because of his fondness for Choctaw beer. (The “pretty boy” label, which he detested, was the gift of an enamored Kansas City madam.) In publicizing Depression outlaws, Hollywood blunderingly focused on Bonnie and Clyde. Floyd despised them as vicious killers who victimized rich and poor alike.
Floyd’s image problem was largely rooted in his lack of education. Marginally literate, he would periodically write ungrammatical letters to newspapers protesting (truthfully) that he had not been involved in some brutal crime ascribed to him. (One of the most touching was a letter thanking an editor for comparing him to Jesse James.) Unlike Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, whose education level was roughly similar to his, Floyd never amassed enough power to recruit a band of intellectuals who could transform his primitive populism into a coherent political program. After his death he became a Marxist folk hero. Woody Guthrie wrote a ballad about him, but his popularity was pretty much limited to left-wing literati.
There are striking similarities between Floyd and the once-famous “Sub-Commandant Marcos”: both champions of the downtrodden, both chivalrous in combat, and both seemingly invulnerable in wild hill country where, to quote Chairman Mao (speaking of other like-minded individuals), they “swim amid the population as a fish must in water.”
There are also striking differences. Where Floyd was a true son of the Cookson hills, the ski-masked Mexican who formerly commanded an Indian insurgency is a white urban intellectual who has been variously been described as a university professor, a disillusioned social worker, and a liberation theology-oriented Jesuit priest.
Whatever his identity, Marcos was a master of media manipulation. He gave interviews in English, French, and Italian, appeared on “60 Minutes” and attracted an international band of cultural elitists to a convention where he is able to expound his programs to a world audience.
This is truly a case of public relations skills making the difference. Where Marcos emerged as a global Robin Hood, Charles Arthur Floyd is still fixed in the mind of most Americans as a small time redneck bank robber who died in a shootout with the FBI.