My Story

Born a Buckaroo in Old California

Why I’m reclaiming forgotten voices from the fringes.

The word buckaroo derives from vaquero. With my red hair, you might be surprised to know I was born with the surname Fernandes. It’s Portuguese, although I’m also Spanish, Basque, Scots and Western European. I’m most of the cultures you’d expect to find in a Catholic Church in Old California — the ranching communities established long before the US had a glint of gold in its eye. I was born a fifth-generation buckaroo in San Benito County and rode ranches older than my nation, listening to stories at the knees of an old and invisible horse culture. In the photo to the left, you can see some of the gear that vaqueros have used for centuries. I didn’t know my family’s way of life was fringe until I was older and far removed from the west where I grew up. When I was seven, my dad decided he didn’t want to be a buckaroo or work his father-in-law’s turkey ranch turned golf course. He wanted to be a logger since he couldn’t be a hermit. We moved to a small mountain town in the least populated county in California on the Nevada border. Another fringe.

That’s where I met women doing interesting things. Mrs. C. used to feed me stale cookies from a tin and strong tea in a china cup. She’d tell me how she waited tables at the motorcycle bar down the street from her cottage. I wasn’t from Alpine County, like she was, and it made me feel more connected to learn her stories; to know what it was like before bikers, tourists, and sports enthusiasts replaced ranchers, loggers, and miners. Old one-eyed E. told me fantastic tales. Before becoming an invalid who paid me a quarter to deliver her weekly six-pack of Coors (my mother ran the general store), she used to ride the backcountry alone on horseback. She repaired the telegraph lines and pushed cattle like J. still did. Eventually, I pushed cattle to those same summer pastures in the Sierra Nevadas once J. realized I could sit a saddle. I rode the backcountry alone, too, and waited tables to go to college.

I know what women do out west. I’ve lived in all western states except Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon. But where are these stories in the written record? Oral traditions are often overlooked or discounted. It has never served us to believe that if society didn’t record it in print, it didn’t happen. Not to mention, those who recorded history were often biased or wrong. As a writer, I listen for what was omitted. I learned to find places the Washo elders told me about, minding my way around the spirits and water babies. Historians might dismiss such tales as legend or scare tactics to keep children away from dangerous holes on the rivers and yet, I found buttons where they said two blind sisters lived in a wikiup. I found centuries-old holes pounded into granite where waters met and Washo once gathered to grind pine nuts. I became a story-catcher, reclaiming voices from the fringe.

Wallace Stegner once said, “In fiction I think we should have no agenda but to tell the truth.” My writing is fiction, and although not fact, my stories are real. When I stand in an abandoned cemetery, I don’t literally hear a haunting voice groaning a tale in my ear. But when I read the tombstones carefully, search the census records and talk to people with roots in the area, I formulate an idea of what life could have been like for women living beyond kitchens and bedrooms. I sit down to write and a new voice appears on the page. I listen. I add to it my own experiences and that of the women and cultures before me who influenced my perception. I explore the women’s experience as a veteran spouse and a daughter of the West. I write stories to give voice to the women who are often silent on the fringes that can be anywhere people are overlooked. I am one of these people.

I was born a buckaroo.

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