Out West

Arnold Rojas & the California Vaquero

Arnold R. Rojas

Also known as “Chief Rojas,” he chronicled the life and lore of the California vaquero.

Arnold R. Rojas
Arnold R. Rojas

The late Arnold R. Rojas (1896 – 1988) was one of the most important Latino writers of the last century. “Chief Rojas” was, and still is considered, the most celebrated chronicler of the life and lore of California’s vaquero. He was an intelligent, energetic, self-taught man who as a child at the age of 9 left behind forever the formal school education offered by, what he termed, “Yankee school m’arms” and followed the life he dreamed of among the vaqueros of the San Joaquin.

After 35 years of riding for many ranches in and around California’s Great Central Valley—with years also devoted to the study of English and Spanish literary classics—Rojas began writing articles, first published in the Bakersfield Californian. He wrote about what he knew and loved—the world of the California bridle horse and vaquero. He could see it vanishing and described as much of it as he could in his stories and later in his books—a series he didn’t start publishing until he was in his mid-50s, beginning with The California Vaquero in 1953. He wrote seven books over the years, the final one being Vaqueros and Buckaroos in 1979, released in three editions. The covers of his books were illustrated by artists who understood the vaquero and his ways, including Ernest Morris, Nicholas Firefires, Rich Rudish, Felipe Barreto and Jack Swanson.


Rojas celebrated the horses and men he rode and worked with for more than 50 years. Of that effort he reflected in his story, The Brown Vaquero Horse.

I have written my stories as seen through the eyes of old vaqueros, they are something of the splendor of those days, for there will never be another cattle ranching era in California that produced such men. Their sayings, proverbs and maxims woven into the fabric of California legends and folklore were so much a part of the vaquero’s daily life that he applied them in all his dealing with men, horses, cattle and other denizens of the ranches. They were so often pat to the occasion or circumstance that he accepted them as the true experience of life, and gained more from them than from the long poring-over of books.

When a vaquero saw a boy riding a young horse, he would say, “There goes a pair of dolts.” (He meant that the boy didn’t have experience enough to teach the horse, and that, as a result, the horse would never learn anything.)

To a vaquero a horse was an open book in which his rider’s virtues and vices were written for all to read. He could tell if a horse had had a young or an older rider. A horse ridden by an old man was always quiet, because old men never quarrel with their horses. A young man, on the other hand, will often fight his horse.

A horse that carried his head high, with his eyes rolled back, indicated that he had been jerked; a horse that jumped whenever his rider moved had been whipped; a horse that jerked his head away when his rider raised the bridle to put the bit in his mouth indicated that he had been hit over the head. A horse that reared or plunged had had too much spinning and turning and gone sour.

His writing had a style of grace that never displayed or came from anger.

If I wrote in a lighter vein, it is because most vaqueros and buckaroos never took life too seriously. If what was written was pleasantry, it is because my experiences were pleasant. If I do not write of hatred, it is because I saw none.

Considering that he never progressed beyond the third grade in formal education, he was a voracious reader and constantly asserted the importance of the quiet pride the vaquero took in his work.

Last of the Vaqueros book

In an interview in 1986 with renowned California historian and writer Gerald Haslam, Rojas was asked if he was ever tempted to write about other subjects. He replied, “No, I would like to write only about the topics with which I am familiar. I do not know enough about any other subject to be able to write factually of them. Vaqueros, horses and ranches are all I know.”

He would, I believe, be pleased to see the current resurgence of interest in vaquerio culture and in making fine bridle horses. Rojas was a throwback, one who respected the old ways and the viejos (the old ones) with an uncompromising pride in his heritage—his family coming to California in the 1820s from Sonora, Mexico.

Lore of the California Vaquero book

Today, his books are part of the foundation of Latino pride that was built upon in the tumultuous era of the 1960s. And with that Arnold Rojas has found his place in history as an important literary contributor to the legacy of the Pacific Slope region in the West where once the horse and horseman were kings, and the value of a man was placed in his character and competency, not what was in his pocket. Simply put, in Rojas, the vaquero found his champion.

These Were the Vaqueros book.
Bits, Bitting and Spanish Horses book.
California Vaquero book

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