A Journey Into History


Later this month, 74-year-old Julian Orozco will don his traditional outfit, mount his horse and ride 70 dusty miles to pay homage to a Gold Rush-era Mexican folk hero who embodies Orozco’s own immigrant experience.

Orozco is one of the original horsemen who 20 years ago first made the three-day pilgrimage from Madera to this stark community. This year, he will be joined by more than 100 riders, including his son, Ignacio, and three of his grandchildren, on the annual journey across the sweltering west side of the San Joaquin Valley in search of the spirit of Joaquin Murieta.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. July 27, 2000 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 27, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Gold Rush writer--"The Robin Hood of El Dorado,” a fictionalized account of Gold Rush-era bandit Joaquin Murieta, was written in 1932 by Walter Noble Burns. A July 9 Times story incorrectly identified the author.

“This is a tradition other Mexican families and we keep, something we feel proud of,” Orozco said.

Nearly 150 years after Murieta’s death, the modern riders will saddle up July 27. They will ride for three days in heat that may top 100 degrees, stop overnight in Firebaugh and arrive at Our Lady of Lourdes Mission Church in Three Rocks. Hundreds of friends, family members and well-wishers will greet them at the church for a Saturday night fiesta.


The next morning, Orozco and the others will eat breakfast, attend Mass and lead a 6.2-mile procession to Arroyo Cantua, the reputed site of the shootout that matched Murieta and his sidekick, Three-Finger Jack, against California rangers on July 25, 1853. Doves representing the men killed will be blessed, sprinkled with dust and released to symbolize the freedom of Murieta’s spirit.

For thousands of Mexican Americans, the legend combines ethnic pride and Gold Rush history. For Latino people worldwide, Murieta stands for resistance to Anglo domination and colonial oppression.

Orozco said he considers Murieta a Mexican American folk hero--a Robin Hood figure who came to this country to work in the gold mines but instead turned to crime in vengeance after white settlers robbed and beat him, raped his young wife and murdered his brother.

When Orozco’s friend, Sigurdur Christopherson, proposed the expedition two decades ago, Orozco immediately joined, never expecting it to generate such a following.

“The first year, there were only three horsemen and one lady who said she was a great-grandniece of Murieta,” said Orozco, a machinist who works the alfalfa fields near Mendota.

After Jess Lopez, a former Madera County supervisor, and Los Charros Unidos de Madera, a group dedicated to preserving the traditions of the Mexican cowboy, got involved, the annual ride began to grow.

This year Orozco expects about 200 people--half on horseback, half in cars carrying food and water--to ride in homage to Murieta and in honor of Christopherson, who died recently.

Every year the riders follow the route they believe Murieta took to his hideaway nestled against the coastal foothills near Three Rocks, about 50 miles southwest of Fresno.


Whether Murieta actually hid out in Three Rocks or was shot at Arroyo Cantua is a matter of debate. A fictionalized account of his life was written in 1854 by a half-Cherokee newspaper and magazine writer, John Rollin Ridge, also known as Yellow Bird. Later writers embellished the tale. Ridge’s novel and another written in 1932 by Chicago Tribune editor Walter Burns Noble are often cited as sources for later historical references.

Internationally, the tale spread through translations. Poet Pablo Neruda wrote a play called “The Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta,” and Ireneo Paz, mother of Mexican poet Octavio Paz, wrote a literary history of Murieta. Hollywood, of course, transformed Murieta into a dashing, romantic lead, most recently in “The Mask of Zorro.”

Professor Richard Griswold Del Castillo of San Diego State’s department of Chicana and Chicano studies said the Murieta myth is significant to the Latino community on literary, historical and political levels.

“For the Chicano movement, he is a legendary figure, a romantic figure, a political figure,” Del Castillo said. “Joaquin Murieta would have been forgotten if not for the Chicano movement. His story echoes the struggle of a people today.”


To Orozco, Murieta was like many Mexicans who come to this country to work and support their families. They arrive expecting equality, he said, but often find discrimination.

During the three-day pilgrimage, the modern charros have much time and motivation to think about the abuse and heroism of Murieta. “We think about what he had to endure and what he stands for today,” Orozco said. “He is a hero to us.”

Del Castillo, in a foreword to a 1999 edition of Ridge’s “Joaquin Murieta,” attempts to sort through the fact and fiction. Much remains unclear about Murieta, but what is known is that an outlaw named Joaquin Murieta lived in the 1850s and that state rangers were ordered to bring back his head.

There were at least five bandits named Joaquin looting and robbing in California’s Gold Rush days. A bandit named Three-Finger Jack--believed to be one of Murieta’s gang--was shot by rangers. The rangers returned to Sacramento with the head of a bandit named Joaquin and the hand of Three-Finger Jack pickled in jars that were later displayed throughout the state.


The head apparently was lost during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, although many people questioned whether the rangers had killed the right bandit.

“This or other tracings of the facts will not damage the Murieta myth,” Del Castillo wrote in his foreword. “His eyes flashing, his knife ever ready for a gringo’s ribs, his gallantry beyond doubt, his horsemanship superb, and his aim unerring, Murieta will ride down the years as California’s great Gold Rush legend. . . . Murieta remains the perfect Gold Rush manifestation of man’s compulsion to construct a hero out of the best materials available.”