On a recent Saturday afternoon, a dozen men saddled horses, brushed their manes and picked out their hooves. The men's spurs clinked as they led their mounts down a dusty lane that bisects some very modest stables. Most of these men, like Aparacio Ruvalcaba, are from Jalisco, Mexico. At 63, he looks like a Mexican Marlboro man.
This scene is not taking place on a dusty plain in rural Mexico, or even out in rural Riverside County. It's in the heart of Los Angeles.
Jalisco, Mexico is well known for producing tequila and ranchera music. It's also home to a centuries old tradition of horsemanship. Many immigrants from Jalisco have settled in Southern California and brought their love of horses with them.
“This little horse was bought by my sons,” Ruvalcaba says in Spanish. “It’s part of the tradition one brings from Mexico. And my sons were able to follow it, learning it too. They liked it and so here they are too.”
Cesar Ruvalcaba is one of his sons. As we ride out of the stable area, he points out that we are: “smack in the middle of L.A. But you can see how easy it is to get away from all that traffic, the asphalt jungle. We’re riding our horse on a nice sunny day.”
In fact, we’re riding along the San Gabriel River, between Pico Rivera and Whittier. Canada geese, ducks and egrets feed in the water. Cyclists cruise by on the bike path to our left.
The horses are stabled along the river because the land is cheap. Cesar Ruvalcaba, who is 41, works as an asbestos consultant. He says it’s mostly Mexican Americans who keep horses here.
“Factory workers, blue collar. We’re just normal people," Cesar Ruvalcaba said. "I mean, if you saw us on the street, you’d say you ride horses, no way."
But what’s different about these riders is that they’re carrying on a tradition that is hundreds of years old. The Mexican vaquero (Spanish for cowboy) roamed California long before it became part of the U.S. And the iconic American cowboy owes most of his traditions to the vaquero, whether it’s in the saddles, the spurs or words like lasso. California cowboys were called buckaroo, which is just vaquero anglicized.
But as Cesar Ruvalcaba’s brother George Ruvalcaba explains, the tradition also helps escape from the modern world.
“It’s a nice little relaxation,” George Ruvalcaba said. “It takes you out of that craziness of bills and all that other stuff right here. Coming here and walk, you forget all about it.”
Riding a horse, the San Gabriel mountains in the distance, it’s easy to imagine the California of 200 years ago….until Cesar Ruvalcaba breaks the spell.
“In a short distance were going to cross Whittier Boulevard,” he tells me. “We’re going to have to go on the street there.”
After we cross Whittier Boulevard single file, we pull into the parking lot of an AM/PM convenience store. A couple of the guys dismount while we wait on our horses…next to parked cars.
“The rancheros are invading our parking lot!” Jose Romero calls out. He works in Sal’s Fast Lube next door. Romero also happens to be from Jalisco. He says he's been seeing these guys come by for years.
While Romero changes tires on a car, one of the riders makes his horse rear up in the parking lot, to the delight of shoppers.
A few minutes later a couple of the guys appear with 12 packs of beer, a modern convenience that fits right into vaquero tradition. One again we hit the trail, at first sharing the bike path with cyclists, who seem like they’re used to seeing horses.
Eventually we come to a bridge just as a train approaches, which makes the horses a bit nervous. But as soon as we clear the underpass, the landscape changes completely. Suddenly we’re surrounded by wildflowers, tall grasses and trees.
“It reminds me when I was a kid in Mexico,” Cesar Ruvalcaba says. “The grown grass. In the mornings on your horse… to get the cows.”
And now, by riding almost every weekend with their father, Cesar Ruvalcaba and his brothers say they’ve brought a piece of home to the U.S.
“It’s American people, doing Mexican things,” Cesar Ruvalcaba says.
But inevitably the modern world intrudes again, this time it’s a ringing cell phone. Turns out it’s good news.
“Now we’re going to go back, because we just found out that the food is ready,” Cesar Ruvalcaba says laughing. “We’re hungry.”
Whether it’s the horses knowing they’re headed home or the rider’s hunger, the return trip is considerably faster.
Back at the stables, Gilberto Vergara is making tacos de cabeza de res using a secret recipe. As to what cabeza is, well, suffice it to say it’s not a part of the cow that is often eaten in the U.S. (It is the head of the cow.)
But after a day riding with vaqueros smack in the middle of Los Angeles, it’s delicious.