By Danny Neill
We can define Chinacos through various times of history. They were guerrilla liberals in Mexico during the War of Independence. They were common people. They were horsemen, independent, proud, and artisitic. But they were not always so.
These men originally came from Spain, from the Salamanca and Andalusia areas. They learned of horses from the Moors who conquered Spain in 711 AD and stayed for over seven hundred years. The Moors brought them Arabian horses, which were lighter and faster than the European horse. They also introduced them to a smaller saddle with bags, spade and halfbreed bits, spurs, and fancy outfits. And the Spanish adopted all of these new ways to fit their needs.
By the time Cortez came to Mexico in 1519 he brought over three hundred men who could ride horses and fight, many of them Chinacos. As more men came from Spain and the fighting slowed down, the Chinacos settled in haciendas, eventually owning cattle ranches, becoming proud riders, representing personal independence and respect in the cultural context.
Having ridden since youth, they were perfect cavalrymen who did not like any outside authority. They carried everything that they needed with them and were beholden to no one. They were the first to say We are free men in Mexico and do not have to obey the King of Spain. When the War for Independence started in 1810, they left the ranches to bravely fight the forces that threatened their independence. Again, in 1846 when America invaded Mexico, they fought against guns using only their reata (lasso) and lance.
The Chinacos settled throughout Northern Mexico, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California and, as the Americans started moving west, they taught the new gringos to become what we now call cowboys. Since many had settled in California, it was peppered with Chinaco-held ranches. We see evidence of them in early James Walker oil paintings, sometimes called Californios. When the French invaded Mexico in 1962 these same men were so bold and unafraid that thirty Chinacos could fight three hundred Frenchmen. They had a passion for their way of life, horses, cattle, ranches, women and children which helped them defend their honor against any and everything, even against impossible odds.
Their clothing and outfits were impressive works of art, worth more than thousands of dollars in the early 1800s, wearing colorful blankets similar to the Andalusian peasants, beaver hats, long cotton trousers covered by other pants, sewn, fastened by a set of buttons that were eventually used by the charros (who at that time had slightly more clothing similar to the Chinaco but more ostentatious). With a handkerchief tied over his head, the picture here is of an 1860s Chinaco. He looks to have been a very wealthy hacendado, by the fancy outfit he is wearing.
Every time you see a cowboy in Montana, Texas, California, or Mexico put on his chaps and spurs, step into the saddle, or tip his hat to the ladies with his shoulders back, head held high, he is carrying on the Tradition of the Chinacos of Mexico, the first American Cowboys.