Many ask WHAT IS LA FIESTA DE LOS VAQUEROS? La Fiesta de los Vaqueros is Arizona’s celebration of the “cowboys/cowgirls” and takes place annually during the last week of every February. It is Southern Arizona’s oldest and most celebrated heritage event, and one of the top 25 rodeos on the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) calendar in the nation. Rodeo activities includes bareback riding, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping, team roping, women’s barrel racing and bull riding. The Tucson Rodeo enlists over 650 professional cowboys and cowgirls from all over the world competing for prizes and money.
La Fiesta de los Vaqueros is a significant week for Tucson. It is the only city in the whole world that celebrates ‘Rodeo Week.’ Local schools (and some work places) are closed during that Thursday and Friday of the last week in February, so families can enjoy the annual Parade and Rodeo. I remember school curriculum would include rodeo activities and dressing up in our cowboy/cowgirl gear to school. Imagine seeing a bunch of tiny kids in big cowboy hats and boots walking to school. It sure is a sight to see!
The Tucson Rodeo Parade is billed as the longest non-motorized parade in the world. An estimated 200,000 spectators line the parade route to see over 150 western-theme floats and buggies, folklorico dancers and marching bands.
The Mexican cowboy traditions influenced the cowboys we see today, including La Fiesta de los Vaqueros. Although this tradition of La Fiesta de los Vaqueros was established in 1925, my family has been celebrating los vaquer@s for many years before that. Vaqueros are America’s first true cowboys, but not much information of them exists. This blog is dedicated to the real vaqueros of the southwest : my family. My ancestors are part of the history/herstory of why we celebrate La Fiesta de los Vaqueros today.
Tucson, Arizona is located 70 miles north of the Mexican – American Border. I am a fourth generation Tucsonan and I often get asked, “What part of Mexico is your family from?” My parents and grandparents were born in Arizona. Some of my great grandparents too. Some of my great great grandparents were born in Arizona and in the state of Sonora, Mexico. When I share my family roots with people, I often receive puzzling looks when I tell people that my family has lived in Tucson since it was Mexico. What? How is this possible? Well, let me explain. Arizona, the Grand Canyon state, achieved statehood on February 14, 1912, the last of the 48 coterminous United States to be admitted to the union. Historically part of the territory of Alta California in New Spain, it became part of independent Mexico in 1821. After being defeated in the Mexican–American War, Mexico ceded much of this territory to the United States in 1848. Arizona was a part of northern Mexico in the 1840’s. The southernmost portion of the state was acquired in 1853 through the Gadsden Purchase. There was no infrastructure of the “border.” My family did not cross the border, the border crossed us.
My great, great grandparents, Antonia and Casimiro Gallego were in Arizona during this era working as ranchers. Their son, Florencio was my great grandfather (pictured behind his father). In my life, I have heard many stories of this man and his wife, Mercedes.
The start of this blog: Tucson’s Original Vaqueros begins with Florencio and Mercedes Gallego. My great grandfather, Florencio Gallego was born in 1891 at the corner of Kennedy Street and Convent Avenue (which is also known as Barrio Viejo). In 1914, Florencio married Mercedes at his parent’s ranch. That same year, they homesteaded and became the owners of Ocotillo Ranch, better known as La Sierra, which was southwest of San Xavier Mission. El Ocotillo was 640-acres and was located near Twin Buttes Road. The ranch was known as a place of herding, roping and branding cattle but also a place for family, roundups and fiestas. According to my Tia Lydia (deceased), both Florencio and Mercedes loved to dance ‘rancheras’ and ‘chotis’. In 1935, during the Great Depression Era, they moved to South Tucson and had a business selling wood and would go back and forth to the ranch until they sold it in 1959. My great grandparents had a total of (12) TWELVE children (6 boys and 6 girls) : Lupe, Cruz, Florencio, Antonia, Francisco (my grandfather), Lydia, Lolita, Casimiro, Delia, Jesus, Mike and Armando. The majority of their children also lived in Tucson.
Florencio and Mercedes Gallego were hard working parents. The older Gallego siblings attended school by the mines. It was called Zinc School and only had 2 classrooms. The capacity of the school was twenty students and nine of those children were Gallego children! I heard stories that they were often late because the horse that pulled their wagon was too slow. The children named their horse ‘Franque.’
Florencio raised cattle, trained horses and was an around cowboy. Mercedes cooked, made a lot of tortillas, cheese and took care of the children. Some of their children continued the cowboy/girl way of life.
My grandfather, Francisco”Frank” Gallego was one of them. My grandfather Francisco V. Gallego was born in 1921 and grew up working on the ranch, along with his siblings. My tata received his education at Safford Middle School (where he met my nana). After he married and had his first child, my tata served with the U.S. Army during World War II. My mother told me that when my tata returned from the war, he pursued being a cowboy and rancher more than ever. My tata was an devoted horseman and expert roper. He often competed in rodeo competitions across Tucson, Sells and Sacaton (O’Odham Reservation).
“He taught his nephews and grandkids to ride and rope,”my tio Frank would tell us. “He loved cowboy things – boots, hats. He wanted everybody to be a cowboy. And he loved his grandkids, always encouraging them to go to school.” My tio Frank told us that my tata “was a strong family man, a strong patriarch. He instilled honesty, hard work and strong values.”
My tata married my nana, Erlinda Gastelum at Santa Cruz Church in 1942. They had 3 daughters and 1 son: Gracie (my mom), Artemisa, Irene and Frank Jr. – all born and raised in Tucson. They settled on the southwest side of Tucson and my parents created their own ranch home. Francisco taught his children and grandchildren the traditions of being a cowboy.
In 1998, Frank passed away from heart complications. However, his legacy is living strong. So next time, you are attending La Fiesta de los Vaqueros, think about the Gallego family and all the rest of the vaqueros who are from Southern Arizona.
My tata also enjoyed singing corridos and playing his guitar. I will close this blog with one of my tata’s favorite song’s : Te Vas Angel Mio. Enjoy!
THANK YOU to everyone who helped contribute to this story. I appreciate every photo, story and advice you shared.