Peter Murrieta grew up hearing stories about his ancestor Joaquin Murrieta, also known as Robin Hood of the West, from those close to him – about intelligence and resourcefulness Joaquin was, how he buried gold all over California and how he stood up for the less fortunate. Men from each generation of Peter Murrieta’s family, he says, were named Joaquin – including Peter’s father and his own first-born son.
“Whenever life knocked the Murrietas down,” Peter told an interviewer, “we had the legend of Joaquin to help us up.”
Emmy Award-winning producer and writer Peter Murrieta. Photo by Jarod Opperman/USS
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Now Peter, an Emmy Award-winning television screenwriter and assistant principal of the Sidney Poitier New American Film School at ASU, is sharing Joaquin’s story with the rest of the world. In this conversation, the Tucson native talks about “Blood and Gold: The Legend of Joaquin Murrieta,” the book he co-wrote with Jeffrey J. Mariotte and is adapting for the screen, as well as his journey to becoming a writer and the power to change the lives of teachers.
Question: What shows/movies/books were important to you growing up?
Responnse: One of my favorite books when I was a kid was this book called “There’s a Monster at the End of This Book”. It’s a Grover Sesame Street book. I found that really wonderful when I was a kid. Completely forgotten. And then when I was an adult, I was at a garage sale and I saw this, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I remember this book!” And when I read it again as an adult, I realized how much it had influenced my acting, my way of looking at art and all that. It was very interesting, very meta, quite funny. The big joke is on the main protagonist at the end. All those sorts of interesting things.
As I got older, I found comics, and it was a big part of my literature growing up. I’ve always been interested in secondary characters. I’ve always been interested in Robin, I was interested in that alternate universe version of Superman where he was older and married. So, I always gravitated toward (unsung characters). Even though they were in books, they just weren’t the main characters.
Q: Where do you think that impulse came from?
A: I totally think it stems from a lack of representation. It’s interesting. People my age, there are a lot of activists who — it’s a two-way sword, I would say. Because, as a child, I had none. I would have liked to, but I didn’t. But I created it myself. I went, “OK, Robin has black hair and he’s a kid. Okay, I can work with that, that can be me.” So I think I just put it on things. I printed it.
I had this conversation with this producer that I’m working with on something – who’s also a comic book fan, also my age, and he’s gay – and he was talking about the same thing: going to tape stores drawn and find your way around it that way. When I say it cuts in two ways, I mean in a weird way, it was really wonderful to open myself up to imagining things the way I wanted. I believe in reports and studies and everything we know now about people seeing each other and how important that is, so I don’t want to minimize that at all. But I think there are ways to make the most of things.
I guess it goes both ways too, because now, maybe it’s because of my age, I hear a lot of people say, “Well, I created this show or that show because I didn’t see myself growing up”, and as someone who’s been doing shows for 25 years, and other people like me who’s been doing shows for 25 years, it’s like maybe you should watch my show more early. Maybe it would have been on, and maybe it would have stayed on. I do not know. So I think the fight is the fight, and we keep fighting.
Q: You grew up hearing the stories of Joaquin Murrieta, didn’t you?
A: From my dad and my grandparents and my uncles and my aunts – those are all the kinds of stories we were told when we were kids. He was a hero in our family to look up to. There’s fiction in the book, because of course it’s a legend, and it’s hard to pin it down. What helped me see what the book could be, for anyone reading it, was creating a relationship with the man who would later stalk it. It was really kind of a writer’s decision in the sense of trying to give an arc and an understanding to that.
Q: How did you start writing or start telling stories?
A: I have a memory in fourth grade of writing a story – I think we were given a lemonade prompt, or lemons, or something. I remember returning mine. It was sheets of paper that you are supposed to fill out, very easy. But I remember the teacher asked me to read it. And I still remember that the title was “The day it rained lemonade”. And I think I read it, and I really didn’t know why. And then I think later on there was an open house, back to school – not the parent-teacher night, but the one where you go with your parents. And, you know, the professor posts things. I think at that point I understood, because I saw the other stories… and I guess I realized, wow, I didn’t think what I was thinking was so different, but I guess so. And I think it’s a vague memory of the beginning of that.
Q: The influence of teachers is so powerful.
A: It’s incredible. The other professor was Donna Swain, who was a professor at the University of Arizona. She really told me that I was a writer. She was like, “You have to do this.” And that didn’t interest me that much.
Q: Why not?
A: It was hard and it felt like something no one I knew had done, and it felt like a mystery. I was well on my way to becoming a high school English teacher. I was very excited about this idea at the time.
And that has been hard. I was right. It’s funny when you think about those things you don’t try because they’re hard, and you think about the things you To do try because they are hard. I guess that’s where we find courage.
Q: You’re not that far off from being a high school English teacher.
A: I did not do it. It took me a long time, though. It took me a long time.
Q: Was (the show) “Mr. Iglesias” based on who you were going to be?
A: “Mr. Iglesias” is based on the fact that Gabe (Iglesias) had a teacher who assigned him to high school – the only teacher who thought he was worth anything. He was his speaking/communication person. So that was a conversation he had with Kevin Hench, the show’s creator, about what would have happened if Gabe hadn’t become a comedian, and Gabe said, “You know, I I always thought I would be a teacher.” And I said, “Oh, that’s funny, I always thought I was going to be a teacher.
Q: You posted a great Bad Bunny quote on social media: “No one asks a gringo artist to change. This is who I am. It’s my music. It’s my culture. If you don’t like it, don’t listen to me. Have you always felt this?
A: No! I would say it’s recent, like in four or five years. I would say that at the beginning of my career, on television anyway, I tried a lot to seduce and try to explain. And the last four or five years, it was more like, “I think I’m just going to do what I do, and if you don’t understand, that’s cool.” And (Bad Bunny) is so amazing I could talk about him forever. The fact that he’s Bad Bunny, the fact that he didn’t choose a Spanish name but chose to sing in Spanish. The fact that he is interested in everyone. It’s all about gender fluidity. And he quietly does what he does. And you can enjoy it or not. It’s just awesome. I never feel like he teaches me. I just feel like he’s doing his thing. And when I saw this quote, it resonated with me. Because I think we should do more. We should do more like, here’s who we are, here’s our authentic self, and then hope people like it, hope people like it, hope people enjoy it, I guess.
Q: What do you enjoy about being at ASU?
A: I love the culture that asks us to do things with intention and uplift those around us, and I love that at my school we prepare people. And I just think that keeps me there. I think I ask myself this question like every third Sunday when I fly. This is a question I think about a lot. I think I’m inspired by the students. I take inspiration from my colleagues. And I’m not just saying that. A student made a video for the freshman orientation course which I posted this morning on Facebook which was just amazing. So it’s a literal inspiration, where you’re like, “Wow, I better be on my game, I better not sleep on all this, because they’re coming.”
Q: They are coming, are they the future?
A: They are the future and they are the competition. Both. They arrive. And I think that’s also part of my secret agenda is to overwhelm my section of Hollywood with tons and tons of people who are educated, who have voices, who are from underserved communities, and just to make sure let it be undeniable that this is what happens next. Just undeniable. Instead of asking, everyone shows up.
Q: Do you have anything to add?
A: the cartoon hand man that I did last year with Starburns Press and “Blood and Gold” with Sundown Press are just two great examples of stories I’ve always wanted to tell, stories I’ve pitched in Hollywood that don’t have not been bought, rejected, not listened to, for whatever reason. The idea of not stopping that from letting you tell your story is super important to me. It’s super important to me that you keep in mind that if your job is to tell a story and you want an audience, go find it. Don’t wait for permission.