These horses live next to the Mexican rodeo grounds (the Charriada), just down the road from me. The horse in the top photograph was scratching his nose on a piece of barbed wire wrapped around a fencepost.
My mother let me take horseback riding lessons for a year when I was a kid. And that’s the limit of what I know about horses. So, coming from a suburb to live in Elkhorn–where there are many horses and riders, and where residents look forward to rodeo season in the summer–has been a big change for me.
One summer day, as I was driving down the road toward my new home, I passed a man on horseback, dressed like a vaquero. Let me clarify: he was not dressed like the “Marlboro Man,” and clearly had no aspirations to do so.
He was dark, had a full mustache, and sat tall and proud astride his beautiful horse. His clothing seemed to be a mix of Hispanic cowboy styles. I can’t remember exactly the details, but I do recall a wide-brimmed hat, short jacket, spurs, and a lot of silver. I started to feel a little out of place. “Well, Toto,” I might’ve said to my dog, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas.”
Since then, I’ve seen a lot of other vaquero types, and some of them do dress like the conventional Anglo cowboy, but most wear jeans and baseball caps. They occasionally dress as vaqueros for the rodeo.
When this region was Alta California, governed first from Spain, and then Mexico (this was before the Gold Rush, when the Anglos from the east began claiming the land as their own), the first cowboys actually were the vaqueros. Most of them migrated to south and central California (and generally the southwest) from northern Mexico. The huge ranchos of the Californios, awarded to them as the original Spanish land grants, dominated the area. They raised cattle, and traded hides with the ships that sailed into the port of Monterey (Monte Rey, or King’s Mountain).
Perhaps that’s why, when I had that first glimpse of the tall, dark vaquero riding his horse toward me down Castroville Blvd., I felt as though I was seeing a ghost.
A slide show of the last Californios, by William S. Dean.
See also the award-winning dvd, “Los Californios de Monterey: Pioneers of Alta California 1769-1848,” produced and directed by David A. Anaya.