Gerald W. Haslam
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ARNOLD R. ROJAS, VAQUERO

An old wrangler named Ramon Dominguez first told me about Jefe Rojas. I was sixteen at the time, and Ramon was regaling his son Freddie and me as he often did with tales of nearly forgotten men, California's vaqueros. "There's this one guy I used to ride with that even wrote a book," he said, more wonder entering his voice than I ever heard when he spun yarns about magical figures such as los chisos or la llorona.

Ramon rarely avoided expanding a remark into a story when an audience was present, so he added, "My father said he seen this guy walking across a hay field years ago by San Emideo, no horse or nothing, just a bedroll, and he carried some books. The boss hired him. That guy he pulled the teeth of horses," added the aging hostler.

"He did what?" I asked. Ramon and his family lived then in an old, poor neighborhood of Bakersfield—once the state's cattle capital—a section near Union Cemetery populated largely by Hispanics, and this conversation occurred in the early 1950s when attentive youngsters could still listen to the recollections of men who had cowboyed on the ranges of Rancho Tejon, Miller and Lux, and the Kern County Land Company. Still, that was the first time I'd heard anyone mention pulling horses' teeth.

"He was horse dentist, that guy Still is, I think."

I looked at Ramon's son, not certain I wasn't being roped. "No lie," Freddie nodded.

I listened that day to tales of the buckaroo who pulled horses' teeth, who read books, and who had now written one, but it wasn't until five years later—1958—that Freddie handed me a slim volume, Lore of the California Vaqueros, and I first read the work of Arnold R. Rojas, known locally as Jefe or Chief. In it I found a faithful sense of the stories told by old vaqueros, the voices of Dominguez and Urrea, Albitre and Garcia. It was like sitting under a tree on a long summer afternoon listening to los viejos.

What I didn't know was that San Francisco Chronicle book editor William Hogan had been so impressed with the same volume that he had referred to Rojas as "the vaqueros' Homer," and not without reason, for Jefe had written tale after fascinating tale, pulling them like a magician's endless chain of handkerchiefs.

For example, he recounted the experience of a buckaroo who tried to ride a bronco while wearing a pocket watch:

The watch fastened to a buckskin thong dropped out of his vest pocket at the first jump and swung in an arch and hit the buckaroo in the nose. The next jump, the watch gave him a black eye and as long as the horse bucked, the watch swung. If the horse had not quit bucking, the watch "would have beat him to death," as the vaquero afterward said. He untied the buckskin thong and threw what was left of the watch as far away as he could.

He also recounted a meeting with Harry Gillem, a tough, black vaquero:

Seeing that he was bandaged I asked him if he had been in an accident. He told me of having been set upon by three men. He had fought them until he had just about whipped all three, when one of them drew a knife and slashed him. Harry was cut badly and spent some time in a hospital. But he carried off the honors of war, however, because he had fought fair and when he was out of the hospital, two of the men with whom he had fought paid him $5.00 apiece to not fight with them again.

All of Rojas' books have been collections of sketches that, like much good folklore, straddle the boundary between history and fiction. A man of prodigious memory he writes of incident after incident, character after character, no two exactly the same, revealing a world of proud, hard-working men.

"Professional vaqueros rode first for one company then another," he writes. "A youngster, twelve to fourteen years of age, school not being compulsory received a starting wage of $5.00 a month. After a year or two it was raised to $12.00 and it usually took five years of working experience to earn $25.00 a month. Reatas and hair ropes were furnished free to the vaqueros."

The language Rojas employs has merited critical comment. In the Mexico City News, Margaret Shedd observed that Rojas' use of Spanish featured "espanol que no esta escrito" ("Spanish that is not written"), California terms like "chirrionero caballo pajarero" ("a horse that shies at shadows") or "agarrarse del sauce" (literally "take hold of the willow," meaning to grab the saddle horn when riding a bucking horse); it is the language of the folk not the professor, idiomatic and colorful, a product of the working men about whom he writes.

Now ninety years old, Jefe Rojas resides in Wasco, where he is writing his eighth book. He remains a living link to the great ranches of the last century For a time he worked on Rancho Tejon, where he was hired by the legendary mayordomo J.J. Lopez, who ramrodded riders there from 1874 until 1939.

Rojas rode into a Tejon vaquero camp seeking work in the 1920s:

I had sat down and was fixing something on my saddle when, looking up, I found watching me, an elderly man dressed in a pair of corduroy pants faded white from countless washings, a pair of World War I GI canvas leggings, a mohair coat affected by office workers of that period, shoes and an old hat. Surely I thought, this couldn't be the renowned Don Jose Jesus Lopez.

It was. "I got the job," he continues, "and as time passed I found Don Jesus a man of many parts—shrewd, well educated, with a keen sense of humor."

Jefe was born in 1896 in Pasadena into a family that had migrated to California from the western Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa in the 1820s. His Indian ancestors were Yaquis and Mayos, while his Spanish progenitors were Sephardic Jews who migrated to the Americas to escape the Inquisition.

Following the death of his parents, the boy was placed in an orphanage in San Luis Obispo in 1902. He ran away when he was 12. "I wanted to come to the San Joaquin Valley and I did," he explains. He hoped to become a rider and the San Joaquin, along with the mountains that surround it, was cattle country

He rode first for the V7 Ranch in San Luis, then on the vast San Emideo Ranch operated by the Kern County Land Company and later on the Tejon. For the next quarter century Rojas worked horses and cattle on the California range, knew its denizens, learned its legends.

In 1935 he purchased a stable in Bakersfield—"I called it the Bar-O because I borrowed everything"—and began serving as a dentist for horses. Both his location and his work kept him close to the men with whom he had toiled and many a warm afternoon was spent swapping yarns while leaning on a corral fence or hunkered next to a hay bale. He listened well.

From the start he had been different from most of his fellow vaqueros in one respect: he became self-educated, reading voraciously As a teenager, he was staying at his uncle's cabin in Soledad Canyon near Acton when an aging neighbor—"He was starving out," Rojas explains—asked to be staked to some coffee, flour, beans, and sugar. The old man noticed that Rojas was reading an O. Henry "Heart of the West" tale in a magazine, so when he returned, he brought books—Dumas, Cervantes, Kipling, Irving—which he exchanged for the loan of food. That was the beginning of Rojas' literary training.

His reading was like frosting on a cake of practical knowledge, for he not only learned the technology of ranch work, as well as how to survive in a rough environment, but he also talked to men who claimed to have known the legendary bandit Joaquin Murrieta, to have eaten ostriches on the Rancho Tejon and to have ridden camels there, to have been singed by the Devil at San Emideo or to have confronted the fabled weeping woman, la llorona, in San Antonio.

Rojas became a writer following World War II when he was named chairman of a rodeo sponsored by the American Legion in Bakersfield. Jim Day editor of the Bakersfield Californian, suggested that Jefe compose something that could be used as publicity for the event, so he wrote thumbnail sketches of several old vaqueros whom he planned to honor at the event. A few days later, the cuentitos appeared in Day's column, "Pipefuls." Thereafter, Jefe was an occasional contributor to the Californian and, in 1952, his work came to the attention of California historian Monsignor James Culleton, who eventually published three volumes of the ex-vaquero's tales at the Academy Library Guild in Fresno: California Vaqueros (1953), Lore of the Calqornia Vaqueros (1958), and Last of the Vaqaeros (1960).

Visiting Jefe in Wasco over thirty years after first having been told about him, I ask if he remembers Ramon Dominguez. "Ramon, why sure. He was Frank's boy He was a good old vaquero, Frank Dominguez, and he gave me a lot of material. Ramon worked as a teamster on the ranch."

Rojas is a man with strong opinions. When I inquire about the relationship of "old California families" and more recently migrated Mexicans, he responds:

When gringos entered the area and sought title to its riches, the only way to acquire the land was to marry a daughter of the landowner, and the gringos had already started a campaign of discrimination. They solved that problem by creating "old Spanish families" and marrying into them. But those who had no lands left became Mexicans, doomed to work for cheap wages and to suffer discrimination.

"The gringos taught the paisanos to be ashamed of their race," he adds.

Has that changed much? I ask.

"Those of muddy complexions seem to suffer most, but not so much nowadays. The 'White Trade Only' signs are no longer posted, and one sees Mexican kids as news commentators, speaking faultless English, as managers of stores, banks, and other businesses." He smiles.

"When I was young I left Southern California because I refused to be a fruit picker. I came to the ranches but the only work a man of my race could get in those days was as a mule skinner or vaquero, both cheap 1abor."

The San Joaquin Valley—now conceded to be the richest agricultural area in the world—was different when Rojas entered it early in the century He shakes his head. "Except for the lupins and poppies, which covered the valley in the spring, the country was semi-desert and the climate was horrible, with pea-soup fog in the winter, and 110 degrees in summer. No one ever thought it would be covered with orchards and vineyards as it is today"

Even then, he points out, the economic pattern of large land holdings characterized the region. "When I came here, three big companies owned most of this part of the valley and the small farmer was poor indeed. Much of the land was left for cattle ranges."

Before I pose another question, he adds a postscript: "Today there are too many people."

Jefe remains a handsome man, lean and leathery with classic Western features. Standing on his porch and squinting into spring sunlight, he seems to encapsulate an aspect of California history "I'm still working," he explains, "but it's harder. Sometimes I don't write for months. Most of the old timers who told me stories are dead, and it's getting harder to find material?"

When These Were the Vaqueros: The Collected Works of Arnold R. Rojas was published in 1974, the old horseman placed his writing in perspective: "I started as a skinny kid, and the men I admired were the vaqueros who wrote this book."

lt is a prescient statement for, if his style has been to a degree polished by his reading, his content directly reflects the hombres del campo with whom he rode; it is in the work of Jefe Rojas that this state's vaqueros have found their collective voice.

Down the street, four brown children are kicking a soccer ball and chattering in Spanish. Jefe's hawk eyes—eyes that have watched great condors sweep from the wind to strip the bones of dead sheep, that have seen men now long-dead struggle to pull stranded cattle from Kern River's sucking sands— lock for a moment on those happy youngsters, those niños who are growing up in a world remote from the one Jefe once knew on these same ranges, and who may never understand their own intimate heritage in this place. After a moment, the old man smiles and says to me, "lt's been an interesting life."


Voices of a Place is available in paper and E-book from:
Devil Mountain Books, P.O.Box 4115, Walnut Creek, CA 94596.