The Vaquero

I was in Texas a few years back, and had a Sunday to kill. Took to my Instagram feed — like all the kids do — to see what was happening in the world.

It turned out a friend of mine, Heather Benjamin, was at the Round Top Antiques Fair selling her boutique jewelry. (She is an amazing artist.)

Even better, Round Top was on the way from Austin (where I was) to Houston (where I needed to be). I headed south and took the Google ordained exit to Round Top. Ten miles from the address Heather gave me, for as far as I could see down this two-lane country road, fields had been transformed into a massive antique market.

I see you, Texas.

I was a bit early so I took a stroll to see what the Round Top Antique Fair had to offer. Grabbed myself a Budweiser and wandered through the market, taking my time as Marty Robbins’ “El Paso” wailed from tinny speakers in a barn of collectibles.

Just outside the doors, I agreed “Such a great song,” to a gentleman nodding to the music in his lawn chair. Perhaps those were his speakers.

My wandering took me through a maze where I found a stall selling old rodeo posters. From big to little, nearly every poster was a white dude on a horse. Grinning amiably or galloping furiously. Or, holding on for dear life on the back of a thrashing bull.

See, I grew up in Salinas, California. Home of the California Rodeo, the largest rodeo in the state and one of the top 20 in the country. And one week every summer, our little city would be taken over by the California Rodeo. A daily horse parade started at one end of Main Street, going through town till it reached the Rodeo Grounds. So much of the city was wrapped around this one event.

My parents immigrated to Salinas from Pakistan. There aren’t rodeos in Pakistan. I look goofy in cowboy boots. (And I want to wear them because they are so darn comfortable.) The California Rodeo was my window into another world.

Of course, when we went to the rodeo, I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t leave the Rodeo Grounds wanting to ride a horse, lasso a calf, ride a bull. But it was fun. It was Salinas.

So, of course, at the Round Top Antiques Fair, standing in front of dozens of rodeo posters, I knew what I was looking for…

Hoping, at best, I would find a white dude on a horse in Salinas, I asked the woman sorting through a bin of prints, “Any chance you have a California Rodeo poster?”

She looked up at me, scrolling through her mental inventory, and kindly said, “I don’t think so.”

Resigned to my fate, I turned around to take one last look.

There he was, framed in gray barn wood, a Mexican cowboy, a vaquero, on a brown horse with white markings. Sitting straight, holding the reins short as his ride, flowing white mane and tail, bearing a gleaming breastplate and embossed martingales, reared its head back.

The mustached vaquero wore a bright red charro suit with chaparreras and a short jacket. He looked back under a broad sombrero over the cactus scrub. A lasso in hand.

In red script, “The California Rodeo” arched along the top of the poster. “Salinas ~ Est. 1872,” along the bottom.

I set my Budweiser down and as I took the poster off the wall, I asked the woman at the bin, “How much does this cost?”

In the Spring 1985 issue of the Journal of Sport History, Mary Lou LeCompte traced the history of the rodeo back to 1823. When it turns out, Spanish conquistadores didn’t want to work the land of their sizable Mexican ranches. So they eased laws prohibiting horsemanship and “allowed Indians and mestizo vaqueros to perform the hacienda chores.” Soon, as LeCompte found, “These first cowboys became skilled horsemen and ranch hands,” eventually managing entire ranch operations as the owners moved to the cities.

In the 1850’s, as the Texas ranching industry grew, vaqueros were hired by owners to the north. Richard King, who established the famous King Ranch in 1853, “imported entire Mexican villages to live and work there.” The skills and showmanship of the vaqueros was soon shared with — and replicated by — their white employers and counterparts.

The charrería that began on the haciendas of Mexico gave way to rodeos across the United States. And, over time, the true history of the sport was pushed to the background as the mythology of the American West became a white man’s domain.

These days, when I see the vaquero behind me during zoom calls, I am reminded of more than Salinas. I am also reminded how cultures cross borders, just like people.

Yet, I still can’t wear cowboy boots.

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President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.

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Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.

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