Forty years ago, four horsemen set out from Madera toward barren Cantúa Creek to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers living in trailers without electricity or running water.
Last weekend, about 300 horse riders (men, women and children) repeated the 62-mile route to continue the tradition of also honoring the legendary horseman Joaquín Murrieta, who supposedly was ambushed by California Rangers in Arroyo Cantúa on July 25, 1853.
They also want to showcase the horse culture that Mexican charros introduced to the western United States.
“I love this! I love the legend. I love the history. I love the story of this man,” said Pedro Ornelas, minutes after belting his best vocal of ‘El Corrido de Joaquín Murrieta’ outside the Half-Way Store a couple of miles south of Three Rocks on Highway 33.
“All Mexicans should read the history,” said the service tech mechanic who was born in Aconchi, Sonora, the Mexican state that gave us Murrieta.
The route was the same taken by Sigurdur ‘Mexican Sigui’ Christopherson and other horse riders 40 years ago. A group left the Lienzo Charro de Madera on Avenue 17 just west of Highway 99 and traveled to Firebaugh for an overnight stay.
The horse ride picked up additional participants on the Firebaugh-to-Three Rocks segment on Saturday. Sunday’s proceedings started with mass as Our Lady of Lourdes, and a blessing of the horses, before the group moseyed two miles to the Half-Way Store and then returning to Three Rocks for a grand finale that included horsemanship, trick roping and music.
(The ride split into two groups in 2010, with the other riders reversing the route).
José B. Martínez, a 47-year-old truck driver, took the weekend off from his job hauling tomatoes and other produce. His uncle got him hooked on the Murrieta horse pilgrimage so much, that Martínez bought his own horse seven years ago to take part.
Martínez was 14 years old when he arrived from El Salvador.
“I’d see the horses year after year,” said Martínez, who didn’t care if he lost his job for taking time off. “I need to be here. It’s my culture. It’s important to be here.”
Jesús Sandoval, a fellow truck driver who is originally from Zacatecas, helped raise money to pay for the band that played outside the Half-Way Store. The band was led by vocalist Benancio Esparza, brother of the lead singer for Bronco.
“I want this tradition to continue with the younger generation,” said Sandoval.
More importantly, Sandoval and other participants said, is for the horse pilgrimage remain a family affair. “Brothers, sons, wives, grandkids ... this needs to continue for the family,” said Sandoval.
▪ Víctor Valenzuela, who owns a Sacramento construction company, made a surprise appearance on Sunday to wish Half-Way Store owner Leticia Fernández a happy birthday. Valenzuela had been a major part of the Murrieta horse pilgrimage until he went with the other group.
“I don’t play favorites. I’m neutral,” said Valenzuela, who rode Saturday with the other group.
▪ Oakdale’s Andrés Rubio and his 13-year-old son, Andrés Jr., carried the flags of the United States and México, respectively. He is president of the Asociación de Charros Los Caporales.
“I’ve been taking part in this back when Mexican Sigui was around,” said Rubio, who said he is 70-something.
The California flag was carried by Hubaldo Figueroa of Firebaugh.
▪ Armando Valdez, a longtime Fresno videographer, showed up all three days as part of a documentary on the ride. In addition to shooting video, he interviewed some key members of the ride.