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  • Writer's pictureGabriel San Roman

Slingshot: Searching for X Atencio, Disney's Latino Legend

X Atencio's legacy awaits all who plan on returning to Disneyland once the theme park reopens from its long, pandemic slumber. The late animator and Imagineer's voice will caution "dead men tell no tales!" as it always has from a talking skull above the first big dip on Pirates of the Caribbean. Across the way in New Orleans Square, people will hear him again as his voice begs "let me out of here!" from a coffin inside the Haunted Mansion. Aside from those cameos, Atencio served as the lyrical genius behind "Grim Grinning Ghosts" and "Yo Ho! (A Pirate's Life for Me)." Both tunes endure as beloved themes for their respective attractions. He also penned the quote-worthy scripts! But who was the Disney legend before his creative credentials? It's a lesser known story, especially by Chicanos who would find it most interesting. The famed nickname, "X," never intrigued me as much his Spanish surname. That's what traces Francis Xavier Atencio back to the historically Mexican town of Walsenburg in southern Colorado that was once known as La Plaza de los Leones. Born to Agapito and Ida Atencio in 1919, X grew up in a place known more for coal than cartoons at the turn of the century. But his Southwest roots stretched deeper still. Jesus M. Abeyta, X's great-grandfather, first brought his family to nearby Trinidad, Colorado around 1864, according to an account signed by former state senator Jose Miguel Madrid. Before that, Abeyta was born in Abiquiú, New Mexico in 1820 while it still belonged to a nascent nation called Mexico. Jesus' father and grandfather also hailed from New Mexico dating all the way back to 1757--that tops my own Land of Enchantment lineage through La Union's founding in the south by more than a few decades! The Abeytas were one of several documented pioneering families of Trinidad. X's grandfather, Teodoro Abeyta achieved markers of prominence, which Chicano Studies professor Armando Navarro briefly made note of in his book Mexicano Political Experience in Occupied Aztlan: Struggles and Change. "Up to the early 1900s, a semblance of ballot box politics was still practiced by Mexicanos," he wrote. "Teodoro Abeyta from Trinidad held local offices between 1885 and 1902. His brother, Vivian, during the 1890s was elected as a state legislator and county commissioner." According to a Colorado legislative manual from 1901, Atencio's abuelo served as Las Animas County's assessor, a post once held by the famed politician Casimiro Barela. In 1933, he was only one of six original pioneers still living in the county after more than 60 years. As for Agapito, he became the editor of El Clarín, a Spanish-language newspaper in Walsenburg and worked as a postmaster after that. Far from sleepy, Walsenburg saw its share of tumult in those years. During X's youth, a coal strike led by the Industrial Workers of the World gripped Colorado. State policemen killed Mexican miner Clemente Chavez after shooting into the IWW's Walsenburg office on January 12, 1928. Another bullet slayed Celestino Martinez, a teenage bystander. A thousand people saw Chavez off to his grave at St. Mary's Cemetery. Less than a decade after that dramatic incident, X finished up classes at St. Mary's Catholic High School when he sharpened his self-taught artistic skills. But, as was recounted in a recent online presentation on his life at the Bowers Museum by his daughter and granddaughter, X originally sought to follow in the footsteps of his father as a journalist. He soon discovered that a journalist's life wasn't for him after not getting accepted into J-School at the University of Denver. Instead, he moved to Los Angeles at 18 and stayed with his tias who lived there. He enrolled in the Chouinard Art School in 1937. A year later, Atencio applied for a job with Disney, not expecting much. A short storyboard submission showed a scruffy cowboy named Pacheco reading from the pages of El Clarín. The character proved life-changing. "I got a job at Disney!" said Atencio happily to anyone who'd listen! Back home, local newspapers reported the news with similar enthusiasm in clippings shared during the Bowers Museum event. "Grandson of Mr. and Mrs. Teodoro Abeyta, of This City, Working for Disney," read a headline in Trinidad's The Morning Light. "This coveted position of honor and recognition of artistic ability is much treasured by young Atencio," the article read, "and both his grandparents and parents are very proud of his achievements and accomplishments in the artistic line." The hire also made news in the Spanish-language pages of El Nuevo Mexicano. X was the proud son of Walsenburg and carried on with a legendary career that shored up the sentiment. His animation resume included work on classic films the likes of Dumbo, Fantasia and Mary Poppins. Walt Disney tapped X's shoulder to become an Imagineer in the 1960s when his famed work on the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean commenced. At the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, X oversaw the development of Epcot Center's Mexico Pavilion and hired Chicano artists to help craft the Rio del Tiempo attraction. These days, Mexico Pavilion hosts "The Story of Coco," complete with balie folklórico and mariachi performers. X became officially minted as a Disney legend in 1996. He lived to see Pirates of the Caribbean be repurposed as a series of blockbuster films starring Johnny Depp. As mentioned in the Bowers Museum presentation, the two met on the set of one of the films. Depp asked X to autograph a copy of the "Yo Ho! (A Pirate's Life for Me)" lyrics. Towards the end of his life, assembling the history of his family lineage became of great importance. X passed away two years shy of his own centennial in 2017 but not before cementing a pioneering legacy of his own as an early Latino in Hollywood, one who never forgot where he came from. It all started with Pacheco, a cowpuncher from Walsenburg, after all.

- Gabriel San Román

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Mouse Muckraker returns next week! / Photo by Federico Medina

By the Byline

The first month of 2021 is all but in the books. Whew! That also means my monthly "Off the Page" column with LibroMobile is coming soon!

Be sure to check out the Arts and Culture section of the bookstore's website on Friday for my latest installment!

Lead photo: Frances Xavier, no time off for good behavior! / Credit: Steve, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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