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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Last Friday night Susan and I spent the evening in celebration of old California.
There are those who say that the golden age of California wasn't the 1930's or the 1960's. It was the 1840's - before the gold rush that changed everything.
That era has been part of the romance of the Golden State ever since the 1920's when the mission architectural style became part of the landscape and silent films like "The Mark Of Zorro" with Douglas Fairbanks introduced the Romantic image of Alta California to the world.
So, in a semi glittered and western attired crowd we met in the heart of Old Santa Barbara at El Paseo and mingled with some of the oldest families in the State. We were invited to see the newly restored "Ranchero Room", traditional headquarters of the famous (and infamous) Rancheros Visitadores. The room is decorated with original western art painted directly on the white washed surface of the interior walls.
But I digress...
What the Spanish established and cultivated in California still exists, despite the distortions of Hollywood or the arrival of the worlds' elite.
That is the story told in a series of films by Susan Jensen and Paul Singer. In Los Primeros, they show us the origins of Vaquero culture in Spain, it's movement to the new world 500 years ago and it's eventual spread from the great Haciendas in Old Mexico to the Grand Mexican Ranchos of Alta California.
The 1840's must have been a great time to be a wealthy patron - to be independent and self sufficient in a place with generous resources and Mediterranean climate. History informs us that it was also a lonely frontier and that there were winners and losers in the fight for this land. After the Gold Rush, many Mexican families were themselves displaced and many were bitter over the loss of property and status. Hence a nostalgia for the "Old California" that was lost to the Anglo Americans.
But the remarkable footage in Los Primeros vividly depicts a way of life that is still found on California's ranches today. We see glimpses of what was, and of what was lost.
The care, the elegance and the technical quality of the California horseman has made me appreciate the difference between "Vaquero" and the generic term "western" when it comes to equestrian style. There is a lot in this film the for those like me who enjoy picking the brains of those who know the old ways. For others, the details of technique and gear may be a little too much.
Even so, the film makes much of the people we meet along the way from Spain, to Mexico to the Pacific Coast. It's easy to see that their music and stories come from the heart and I felt a warmth for them and from them throughout the film. This is a tribute to Susan and Paul, who approached a normally reluctant group of very private and often maligned people and allowed them to speak of honor and traditions that have passed from hand to hand for generations.
The story of the West can be dismissed as dime novel fiction. Or it can be read as prelude to the issues we face today. In this film we are reminded again that American culture is not solely the East to West migration of Europeans. The New World mixing of Spanish, Mexican, Indian and American skills and traditions created a unique bond between people, the land and the horse.
UPDATE - 02.11.09
To purchase your copy of "Los Primeros" on DVD visit: J&S Productions
You'll also find information about the other films in the Vaquero series including:
Tapadero, The Remuda, Holo Holo Paniolo and Houlihan