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Searching for X Atencio, Disney’s Latino Legend, in the Southwest

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By Gabriel San Román

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. Of course, 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 Latinos who would find it especially interesting.

Born to Agapito and Ida Atencio in 1919, Francis Xavier Atencio grew up in Walsenburg, Colorado, a historically Mexican town 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, a historical period that saw Abiquiú play host to the last of the major witchcraft trials that began centuries ago in Europe.

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."

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According to a Colorado legislative manual from 1901, Atencio's grandfather 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.

Sharpening his self-taught artistic skills, X finished up classes at St. Mary's Catholic High School. But, as was recounted in “Pillaging Pirates and Grim Grinning Ghosts,” a recent online presentation on his life at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana by his daughter Tori Atencio McCullough and granddaughter Kelsey McCullogh, 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 aunts 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 before getting smooched by a horse. The character and the gag proved life-changing.

"I got a job at Disney!" said Atencio happily to anyone who'd listen as he ran back home from Disney’s original Hyperion Avenue studio!

Back home, local newspapers reported the news with similar enthusiasm in clippings shared in slides 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. More recently, 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.

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It all started with Pacheco, a cowpuncher from Walsenburg, after all.


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