FIESTAS AND FUN
Life seemed easy for the people on the California ranchos. They were described by visitors as happy, carefree people who liked to have fun.
There were many reasons to have a fiesta, or party. Some fiestas were connected with a Church holy day. Feast days of the saints were such occasions, with a procession from the church at the end of a service, followed by feasting and dancing. Fiestas were held to celebrate weddings, baptisms, or deaths. At the end of a round-up there was always a fiesta. Whenever a trading ship was in port, the ship's crew was invited to a fiesta.
A fiesta seldom lasted just one day. The merriment often went on all night and continued the next day, or perhaps for four or five days. Sometimes there would be a day and night of feasting and dancing at one rancho, then people would go home for a day or two, and then move on to another rancho for a new round of feasting and dancing.
Since the fiesta was held outside, usually in the courtyard of the rancho, there could be many guests. Often the family holding the party would invite dozens of other families, so there might be over a hundred people at the fiesta. Sometimes an entire town held a fiesta, and people from all the nearby ranchos came in to the town plaza to join in the fun.
Men, women and children all enjoyed a fiesta. They wore their fanciest clothes. The children joined the dancing in the early evening, and then were sent off to bed while the adults continued dancing.
Guitars and violins provided the music for the dancing and singing at a fiesta. Sometimes there would be just one guitar player. At bigger parties, there might be as many as three guitar players and three violinists. The musicians (usually men, though
women sometimes played the guitar) often wore ribbons and flowers on their hats and shirts. The people kept time to the music by clapping their hands.
Favorite dances of the rancho people were the jota, borrego, fandango, contradanza, jarabe, and bamba. The fandango was a fast and difficult dance to perform. The women dancers held their bodies very still, with their arms at their sides, and moved only their feet. The men danced with more movement, weaving in circles around their partners. The term fandango later came to be used to refer to any big dance.
In the bamba dance, young ladies showed how graceful they were by dancing with glasses of water balanced on their heads. Those who managed to dance without spilling any water were showered with coins by the men. Older women watched the dancing, clapping for the younger dancers.
Another favorite dance was the sombrero dance in which men placed their hats on the head of a woman dancer, making a pile of hats as high as she could balance. After the dance, each man had to give the dancer a coin in order to get his hat back.
In another version of the hat dance, a man would place his hat on a woman dancer's head as she danced. If she liked the man, the dancer would keep the hat on her head and return it to him at the end of the dance. If she did not want his attention, she would throw off the hat immediately. Sometimes the hat would be slipped on her head from behind her back and she wouldn't know whose hat it was. This made it difficult for her to know whether or not to throw back the hat.
Don Juan Bandini, a ranchero (rancho owner) in the San Diego area, introduced the waltz to the Californios. He had learned this dance while living in South America. It is said that Don Juan Bandini was an excellent dancer. The waltz was considered to be a difficult dance, an accomplishment of the finest ladies and gentlemen.
A part of many fiestas, especially near the end of the party, was the cascarón. The custom was to sneak up behind someone and crack an eggshell open on the person's head. The eggshell had been prepared by making a hole in the shell, blowing out the egg contents, and then refilling the eggshell with confetti (tiny bits of colored paper) or with scented water. When times were very good, the eggshell might be filled with gold dust.
The cascarón was a type of flirting between young men and women. A young man would break an eggshell on the head of a girl that he liked; a girl would break an eggshell on a favorite young man.
Feasting was an important part of every fiesta. The eating was always done outdoors. A pig or steer was roasted on a spit over the hot coals in a fire pit. To this was usually added frijoles (beans), tortillas, pickled olives, and fruit.
COCKS, BEARS, AND BULLS
The rancheros loved to place bets on who would win a contest. That is why they enjoyed seeing a match between two roosters. A cockfight often started with two bantam cocks fighting. Then two larger cocks would be pitted against each other. Men, women, and children all gathered to watch the cockfight.
Grizzly bears lived in the mountain areas near the ranchos and sometimes killed rancho cattle. Vaqueros (cowboys) might catch a bear at round-up time. The captured bear was used as a part of the fiesta entertainment, matched against a bull in a fight. Sometimes the bear and the bull were fastened together by a reata (long rope). The bear usually won these contests.
One historian tells that Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune newspaper, watched a bull and bear fight on a visit to California. He then applied the terms "bear" and "bull" to the Wall Street stock exchange business.
The rancheros' skill on horseback led to a variety of competitions between the men at a fiesta. Horse racing was popular. A track was laid out, and those who were not competing in the race enjoyed watching and betting on which rider would win.
Other competitions took place on horseback, such as attempting to pick up a handkerchief or coin on the ground while riding past. Sometimes a live chicken was buried in a hole in the ground with just its head sticking out. The horseback riders would try to pull the chicken out of the hole as they rode past.
Vaqueros competed with each other in using the reata, the long rope with a lasso loop in the end. The men liked to show off their skill in lassoing animals. Another competition was called "tailing the bull," where the vaquero would catch a bull by the tail and try to throw the bull on its back.