By Stan Santos
In the early morning hours of July 27, the Joaquin Murrieta Riders began their 40th anniversary pilgrimage, tracing the route traveled by the famed rebel until his “death” in 1853. Dozens of riders started in Madera near Highway 99 and Avenue 7 and traversed about 60 miles of country roads and several communities, mostly along Highway 33. The majesty of the horses and expertise of their riders are reflections of a rich culture dating back to an era prior to California statehood.
Joaquin Murrieta in the History of the Valley
History buffs and several books debate whether Joaquin Murrieta was a ruthless bandit or a wronged man who only sought to gain his wealth panning for gold and mining the hills and creeks of the San Joaquin Valley. The Gold Rush of 1848 and the statehood movement in 1850 triggered the tragic chain of events that led to the dispatch of California Rangers to hunt down and kill Murrieta. Some still claim that he was not the man killed in Cantua and that he lived to a ripe age.
Most accounts agree that Murrieta was a Mexican national, born in Sonora, Mexico, before California became a state. He came north as a young man to claim a rightful share of the riches of the unsettled lands of “Alta California.”
White settlers, most of whom were recent arrivals, attacked those who came from the south, and a series of murders and lynchings took place, causing a dramatic decrease in the California Latino population. Early Californios who had lived here for generations were also targeted. Around 1850, California instituted the “Greaser Act,” a legal statute to dispossess them.
Sadly, Murrieta lost everything; his family life was destroyed, and he took to roaming the hills and arroyos around the confluence of the San Joaquin River and Fresno slew, once known as Las Juntas, now Mendota.
Some 20 years later, another noteworthy Mexican “bandit” known as Tiburcio Vasquez would also roam the San Joaquin Valley, engaging in spectacular and profitable robberies involving thousands of dollars in currency, gold and jewelry. Some of his operations took place in historic locations such as the town of Millerton and Kingston, a town that no longer exists, between Fresno and Hanford. He reportedly claimed to be fighting in defense of his countrymen who were deprived of their rights until his capture and subsequent hanging in 1875 in San Jose.
The first day of the Joaquin Murrieta Ride ended in Firebaugh, which was the launching point of Saturday’s ride. The Firebaugh to Mendota leg was joined by a dozen or so participants in the March Against Walls and the Separation of Families.
The marchers, mostly young people from Fresno and Mendota and a few adults, left Firebaugh around 8:30 a.m. and moved at a brisk pace, reaching Lozano Park in Mendota around 11:30 a.m. Temperatures were mild, as the riders and marchers relaxed in the shade of the park’s trees. They enjoyed a program of music, punctuated by presentations and recognition of distinguished guests, including some elected officials and State Senate Candidate Anna Caballero, currently an Assembly Member. Meanwhile, the horses pranced and performed rhythmic movements that displayed the intimate relationship between horse and rider.
On Sunday, the Joaquin Murrieta ride swelled to about 100, trotting the final three-mile leg along Highway 33, from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church to the gathering point in front of the Half Way Store. The horses and riders ended their journey in Three Rocks with a jaripéo, or festive rodeo-style celebration, with live music, speakers and more horse dancing and intricate maneuvers.
Parallels in History
One theme that emerged during this year’s celebration of the legacy of Murrieta was the intersection of early California’s history of injustice and the current wave of criminalization and abuse of immigrant families and communities.
Immigrants, their supporters and even some conservatives have been appalled by the unusually inhumane treatment, particularly the separation of children from their families.
Almost a thousand immigrant children of all ages remain in ICE custody or foster care. For them, there seems to be no end in sight, as the Trump administration claims that the parents were deported and cannot be found, have criminal antecedents that preclude them from being reunited, or simply surrendered their parental rights.
However, this is not the first time such brutal measures have been implemented by the United States against people of color. California instituted the Indenture Act of 1850, which allowed the enslavement of Indian people. The current tragedy recalls the not-too-distant past and the removal of indigenous children from their families and their forced adoption by Anglo settlers and, later, acculturation institutions. It was only in 1978 that Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act to halt that practice.
Although a federal court judge demanded the reunification of children with their families, the Administration continues to flaunt court orders and instead requested that the Flores Settlement against indeterminate detention of minors be suspended. That would mean the establishment of massive internment camps, already under way with the conversion of military bases, similar to the internment of approximately 120,000 Japanese from 1942 to 1945.
Murrieta Ride Unites with Immigrant Rights
During the planning process for the 2018 Joaquin Murrieta ride, organizers heard the pleas of their anguished communities and opened the door to the participation of the movement for immigrants’ rights. This was a unique opportunity for groups such as El Despertar del Sueño Americano (The Awakening of the American Dream) and the Central Valley Committee for Immigrants Rights to participate in this historic event. Most of the young ladies who marched were members of a newly formed group, Jovenes del Valle Central (Youth of the Central Valley).
On Sunday, the Joaquin Murrieta lead horsemen allowed the marchers for immigrant rights to walk ahead of the procession in what would become a powerful symbol of support and unity. Many echoed the chants of “No to the separation of families” and “Si se puede!” Although an important bridge has been built between the cultural heritage of the Valley and the movement for immigrant rights, much work lies ahead as we spread the word to other westside communities, including Kerman, San Joaquin, Tranquillity, Huron, Coalinga and Avenal. Community Alliance readers are encouraged to share their contacts in these communities and support the empowerment of rural communities.
(Author’s note: The March Against Walls and the Separation of Families expresses its deep gratitude to the Board of the Joaquin Murrieta Committee: President Juanita Orozco Gonzalez and Board Members Raul Gonzalez and Jesse Sandoval. The March also thanks Eliseo Gamiño, the members of the Central Valley Leadership Roundtable and Maria Barajas, owner and publisher of the Fresno weekly newspaper, Pique.)
Stan Santos is an activist in the labor and immigrant community. Contact him at email@example.com.