Riders honor California’s half-mythical, half-real Robin Hood
MADERA (AP) – Hoofbeats pounded the dry dirt into fine powder. Though the sun had just arched over the surrounding orchards, sweat covered the horses and riders and formed muddy rivulets as it mixed with the dust.
In spite of the day’s triple-digit heat, dozens of Californians of Mexican descent joined the start of a three-day ride over 70 miles of country roads, their yearly homage to Joaquin Murrieta, Central California’s own Gold Rush-era Robin Hood.
“He’s a hero to the poor, to the people of these ranches – and the first one around here who stood up for our rights,” said Victor Valenzuela, a construction contractor who considers himself a descendent of one of the men who rode with Murrieta.
The legend of Murrieta began with newspaper accounts of the crimes he committed in the 1850s, when he roamed the vast San Joaquin Valley and the gold-bearing foothills of the Sierra Nevada with his band, the Five Joaquins.
Over time, his exploits took on mythic proportions as Mexican-Americans made him a hero of the downtrodden, someone who spoke to their identity and tied them to the landscape. Later versions of the story tell of a Mexican miner who turned avenging bandit after suffering violence at the hands of the ruling Anglos. He robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, adopting one of folklore’s oldest themes.
When the annual rides began in the early 1980s, the horseman seized on Murrieta’s story to draw attention to the plight of farmworkers being forced from their homes by Fresno County officials who said the structures weren’t up to code, said Tomas Nunez, a lawyer from Fresno who serves as the group’s historian.
“He was a symbol of the fight against the injustice these people were suffering,” he said.
That legacy is what inspired Valenzuela to leave behind his air-conditioned home near Sacramento and bring his three children along for this year’s ride, his 15th, late last month.
“It’s a real source of pride,” he said in Spanish, tightening the straps on his horse Hosco’s saddle.
On the first day of the ride, Valenzuela wore a broad-brimmed sombrero and suede chaps with buttons of bone. He was saving his charro outfit – the typical attire of the Mexican cowboy – for the third day, Sunday, when the riders would attend Mass and a priest would bless their horses.
But some riders couldn’t wait for the last day to dress up.
The silver on their saddles and dark sombreros glinted through the clouds of dust as they paraded alongside rows of grapevines and peach trees, following the route they believe to have been the Five Joaquins’ final journey.
The group has grown from the original handful to 200 or so participants who ride each year from Madera to the dusty hamlet of Cantua Creek, where Murrieta’s band was ambushed by rangers. This year, nearly 300 people joined at least part of the observance.
The commemoration gives riders an opportunity to show off their horsemanship. Evening encampments are filled with couples dancing to the staccato rhythm of accordion music, and exhibitions of horses trained to prance to the festive beat.
More importantly, participants say, it keeps alive the spirit of Murrieta, who defended Mexicans at a time when few others would.
“A lot of Mexican people were losing land to squatters, losing their rights,” Nunez said during a midday stop when the riders grilled meat over an open fire and rested on hay bales in the only shade they would see all day. “Society didn’t afford Mexicans a way of making a living. We were discriminated against, couldn’t vote, couldn’t hold office or testify against a white person.”
Little is known about Murrieta the man, as journalists of the time were prone to drama and exaggeration, said Bruce Thornton, a professor at California State University, Fresno, who wrote a book about the bandit.
Many believe he was born to a mining family in Sonora, Mexico, and made his way to California around 1850 – amid the lawlessness that followed the state’s hand-over from Mexico to the United States, the discovery of gold in the foothills and the influx of hundreds of thousands of fortune-seekers.
The articles describe a bandit who roamed California committing extraordinary violence, robbing thousands of dollars in gold, stealing horses, and killing more than a dozen people, many of them Chinese laborers. It’s unknown whether all the crimes attributed to Murrieta were actually committed by him.
“There was basically no law and order at the time, so you could take your pick of the crime you wanted to commit,” Thornton said. “But newspaper articles could be little morality tales, meant to make a point, and known for inaccuracies.”
But Murieta’s gang caused enough trouble that on May 11, 1853, the California Legislature signed an act establishing the California Rangers, led by Capt. Harry Love, who were to be paid $150 a month until they captured the Five Joaquins.
They caught up to Murrieta’s gang on July 25, 1853, in Cantua Creek, where they killed Murrieta and several of his cohorts. Accounts say the bandit’s head was taken around the state in a jar, along with the severed hand of Three Fingers, one of his men.
But there are others who believe Murrieta escaped the massacre that claimed many in his band. And thus the legend was born.
A year after the ambush at Cantua Creek, the first dramatized account of Murrieta’s life – “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta, the Celebrated California Bandit” – was published by journalist John Rollin Ridge.
The novel describes three blows said to have turned the peaceful miner into an avenging outlaw – being driven from the claim he’d staked, seeing his brother lynched, and finally, seeing his home destroyed and his wife raped.
The romantic image mirrors pictures published in books and newspapers at the time. Produced by painter Charles Nahl, they depict a dashing, swarthy Murrieta with his long tresses blowing in the wind.
Like most details surrounding Murrieta, his defense of the poor is disputed. Thornton pointed out that he was said to have killed a number of Chinese workers, who were more discriminated against than the Mexicans.
But it is the righteous Murrieta who lives on in the ride, and in the steady, accordion-driven beat of corridos – storytelling ballads – that Valenzuela and others know by heart.
“Long live Joaquin Murrieta,
Three Fingers and all the others,
who died defending
their Mexican brothers …”
Valenzuela’s three children drank in the Spanish words with their morning coffee.
“I get excited when the ride is coming,” said Valenzuela’s daughter Valentina, 8, in a pink straw hat. “It’s like a birthday.”
Her brother, Joey, 13, decked out in a wide-brimmed hat and the silver-buckled suit of a charro, rode his own horse alongside all the others.
The ride, and the figure of Murrieta, is more than a celebration of myth. It’s a link to the land and the people who have fought against discrimination and injustice, the riders say.
It’s also about community, Valenzuela said, his face burnt by the sun after a long day of riding.
“It’s like when you go back to Mexico, and you’re important, everyone knows who you are,” said Valenzuela. “It’s like going home.”