Text by Daniel Talamantes, photos by Jesús Romo
Taking Shape of the River
“In it, you realize the river has no shape,” reflects Jesús Romo on his photo, “Riding in the River.” The photo depicts a pair of vaqueros wading through a tributary in Whittier Narrows. Above the horses’ cannon, water splashes above their knees, infusing motion in the still. Twilight eclipses a vaquero’s greeting hand and sombrero as his riding partner advances toward us—or is he following Jesús Romo? Ripples, ephemera, trace the contours of Jesús Romo’s ghost in the water out of frame as he puts the scene in focus. The patina of ordered ripples contrasts with the shoreline brush of shadowy chaos.
“Riding in the River,” though taken recently, feels like it belongs in another place and time. The photo conjures modalities in movement, of diaspora, and an environmental legacy that were once ubiquitous in the region, but now reduced to a rare and confined natural space. Wilderness and vaqueros elicit a pathos or melancholic reflection of what could have been. While the photo may hint toward a better depiction of the San Gabriel Valley’s natural setting, it does not necessarily portray the accurate social history of Mexican and Latinx communities. Still, it shows how vaqueros or vaqueras have gained success in claiming public space and reclaiming Mexican presence in the San Gabriel Valley.
What remains of Whittier Narrows is only a hint of what the region used to be. As David Reid in East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte writes, “[Whittier Narrows] ensured the survival of some 400 acres of forest, lakes, trails, lawns, and soccer fields… preserved a link to the Whittier Narrows area’s history and to the natural world… and offers the first taste of the natural world to many locals.”1 Always under threat of development, Whittier Narrows, cleaved and siloed by the 60 freeway, 605 freeway, and Rosemead Boulevard remains a site of natural wonder, preservation, and recreation for the surrounding communities of Avocado Heights, El Monte, South El Monte, and La Puente, among others.
The oneiric quality of Whittier Narrows is troubled by the waking reality of the Whittier Narrow Dam. Despite community efforts to preserve Whittier Narrows by relocating the dam further down the river, the dam ultimately punctuates the city and county’s priority for energy extraction and management. But there’s a great irony here: the county’s erection of the dam had arguably secured Whittier Narrow’s survival. This is an important consideration. It evinces this space as an example of a contested site of culture and power. The dam becomes a metonym for industrial control and extraction of diaspora’s flow. Just beyond the frame, a titanic urban landscape lurks. It encroaches. Matrices of roads and freeways, telephone wires, and pipes fasten to strangulate the veritable island of wilderness. Waste facilities, manufacturing plants, and distribution centers leech pollutants into streams and soil. The air over it so thick of smog can be noisome of sulfur, ammonia, rubber, or other strands of toxic fumes.
In winter, without any other form of access or way to bridge neighboring communities, Jesús Romo explains that the tributaries are the only passable trails connecting this natural corridor to his community of Avocado Heights, until they are too deep to traverse. Auto industries, waste facilities, and housing developments converted a rich agricultural and natural landscape into grids of pavement, fences, pipes, and wires. Avocado Heights, among many surrounding communities, became what city planner scholar William Fulton refers to as the “suburbs of extraction,” where Latinx individuals, despite attaining political power, struggle in economic scarcity to access resources and fund public services.2 Furthering this, scholar Laura R. Barraclough writes in Charros: How Mexican Cowboys are Remapping Race and American Identity, suburbs of extraction like the many in San Gabriel Valley, “[find] themselves empty-handed, with few strategies available beyond luring businesses such as casinos, pawn shops, and scrap metal recycling yards—all of which…extract any remaining wealth from already-disinvested sources.”3
Situated between the Puente Hills, California canyons and Whittier Narrows, Avocado Heights is an unincorporated neighborhood east of the 605 freeway and just north of the San Jose Creek which feeds into the San Gabriel River. The town’s population remains approximately fifteen thousand people, yet it is surrounded by much larger cities such as City of Industry, La Puente, El Monte, South El Monte, and adjacent to a constellation of other unincorporated communities such as Bassett and North Whittier. A distinct feature of Avocado Heights is its designation as an equestrian district which traces its legacy to the vaqueros of early Californio’s and Mexico—of which hold a vast majority of the demographics. And while Avocado Heights has a prominent identity and agency of its own, its characteristics are as interpretable as the river.
Wading through the river, vaqueros interact with assemblages of making and being. Contested sites, specific histories, and cultural exchanges emerge and submerge in expression of power and resistance. Though we can abstract histories and narratives from the photo, “Riding in the River” is material. The photograph is now a part of Whittier Narrows’ ecology. It is a fragment of the location, both as a living portal and as artifact. It would not exist if not for its historical contingency. Despite attempts at cultural erasure or despite the elision from regional, state, or national narratives, Avocado Heights is immutable. Photographs expose. They are taken, putting moments, people, and places into focus.
“Community desfile” and “la paseada patron saint festival AH style” are celebrations of the patron saint festival, La Paseada. Celebrated in Avocado Heights annually, this is the second biggest event in Avocado Heights Park after the Easter celebration. Romo says, “Starting a few years ago after a group of different families in the area formed an association to raise money and connect with their loved ones back home by several individuals who were undocumented and unable to visit their home communities.” The organizers of the event originate from Las Palmas, Jalisco and like most patron saint festivals, these are religious celebrations that coincide with the whole community having the week off.
The celebration in Las Palmas is known for having a large cabalgata to inaugurate the event, Romo continues, “Given that this is horse country, we all join in their festivities in the Avocado Heights version as if we are there in Las Palmas for the week.” Along with the tamborazo, a reina usually carries the American and Mexican flag while following an altar containing the patron saint. The Independence celebrations in Yahualica, Jalisco are on September 16, 2016. The celebrations in Avocado Heights and among the equestrian community, at times, closely resemble the celebrations in Mexico.
It is not uncommon for the escaramuzas and charros of the San Gabriel Valley to compete with some frequency down in Mexico, or to attend an annual coleadero at their ranch, and then to come back to the US and give an update to their family and group of friends about the latest community gossip, who’s the leading equestrian athlete, and what musical group headlined the event. For being a relatively small neighborhood, Avocado Heights epitomizes in many ways this unique bilateral relationship with Mexico. These are not relationships that exist because parents grew up in a particular place, but rather, these are relationships that are constantly reinforced by the consistent back and forth travel that occurs for recurring events, such as patron saint festivals or independence celebrations.
On September 16, 2016, in the city streets of Yahualica, Jalisco, Romo joins a cabalgata underway. The vaquera centered in the photo is Nadia. And while she doesn’t announce her sexuality publicly, she is widely known in the horse community for being a prominent fixture at horse events and is often seen accompanied by her partner. Romo explains, “After marching on horseback in the parade, Nadia hired the banda and it was myself and one other escaramuza, kind of a protege of Nadia’s, who joined her for an impromptu parade once again throughout the town.” Nadia was not dressed in the typical escaramuza outfit, but rather a charro outfit. “She triumphantly led us on a long-winded post-march route with a loaded gun in her holster. It was a very public and triumphant display and I just had to document the photo.”
In Nadia’s story we have a unique exposure to the dimensions of gender embodiment and representation in vaquerx culture. She is both a leader and yet presents herself in traditional charro outfits. Likewise, her partnership, according to Romo, remains a discretionary fact. It is no doubt the case that vaquero culture celebrates and predominantly exhibits traditional masculine traits. Yet, it is and historically has been a space and identity that has opened gender fluidity and resistance. Across the United States and in Mexico, vaquerx spaces foster hetero-, homo-, and transsexual performance. Massive conventions occur every year in cities including Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, and Mexico City which host queer reuniones vaqueros. The events feature live performance combined with regional Mexican food, drink, music, and dancing. Though these conventions are unique, they also amplify the reality of the vaquero/a/x everyday—one present in Avocado Heights. Romo, who established his ranch in Avocado Heights as a queer space for artists and vaquerx, disrupts masculinized narratives in his photographs’ style and through his positionality.
Historian Susan Stryker argued that gender representation is analogous to a digital image. She writes, “It’s unclear exactly how [a digital image] is related to the world of physical objects. It doesn’t point to some ‘real’ thing… it might in fact be a complete fabrication built up pixel by pixel or bit by bit—but a fabrication that nevertheless exists as an image or a sound as real as any other.” Like the digital image, gender is a construction, not a material fact. Pixel by pixel, bit by bit, the bodily stylings through clothing and accessories, a person’s behaviors and interactions, their movements, dancing, songs, vocal utterances, and expressions add up to the mix of gender, sexuality, class, race, ethnicity, and nationality identifications present in vaquerx lifestyles.
Away from the recursive performance of male bodies in vaquero spaces, Romo shares that out on the trails, men transcend typical male behaviors and share intimate details and stories about their lives with each other over bonfires. They exhibit acts of care, play, and bonding that transmute traditional male roles. Heteronormative behavior characteristics are often found to be more fluid where the binary gender model of nuclear family orientation is out of the picture. Men and women ride together in the desfile around the central park of Avocado Heights to show off their horses, socialize, and play. Performative gender hierarchies, though present here and there, are most often ambiguous and indeterminable within these events or settings. Vaquero/a/x practices can disrupt imposed binaries and essentialist notions through endless re-imaginings of sex/gender models, white/brown bodies, and middle class/working class lives. Vaquero/a/x performance digitizes and decolonizes the body. Like music, it blends and flows in measures and meter imperceptibly.
Horses become the witness of human behavior. Witnessing their play, love, and connection, exists an entire irreducible lifeworld. The horse, the viewer from vantage of the horse, is immersed. They can grasp a sense of the embodied experience but are always in some way dispositioned. One can lament the separation, but the degrees of connection and distance are innate in every interaction, whether that is by photograph or in embracing a partner for the dance. The interaction between man and animal exposes gestural language. In behaviors between animal and human, or photographer and researcher, or dance partners are modes of interaction, coding and decoding practices, and unconscious and conscious choices.
In “The Vaquero Way” a horse trainer, Sheila Varian explains, “The Vaquero method of training is a beautiful song sung with the softness and beauty of the rhythm of the horse. It is about the total harmony and togetherness of horse and rider.”7 The process of becoming a vaquero often begins at an early age. Training involves more than the act of breaking or taming a horse, but developing a mutual relationship, a partnership with another being grown from respect. The best horses are trained over varied terrain and can navigate their surroundings through experiential learning. Feeling and unity with the horse comprise the methodology.
Like a photographer and their subject, or a historian and a past culture, animals and human beings train together to become “available to events.”8 French ethologist Jean-Claude Barrey’s analysis of this phenomenon is defined as isopraxis. To him, isopraxis articulates the “unintentional movements” of muscles that fire and contract in both horse and human at the exact same time.
“Talented riders behave and move like horses… Human bodies have been transformed by and into a horse’s body. Who influences and who is influenced, in this story, are questions that can no longer receive a clear answer. Both, human and horse, are cause and effect of each other’s movements. Both induce and are induced, affect and are affected. Both embody each other’s mind.”9
Animals and humans, like material and their environments become response-able. The interface reveals that between space and place, signifier and significant, forms lose distinction. Through iterations, intention, and idiosyncratic relations, emergent patterns evince rich cultural understandings.
The complex interactive relations described between Avocado Heights’ connection with horses, their fellowship to other riders, how the vaqueros/as become innate stewards of the land, and how this connection ties history to the present situates humans, nature, and horses as central actors in the story. As anthropologist Anna Tsing argues, “Species interdependence is a well-known fact— except when it comes to humans. Human exceptionalism blinds us.”10 No matter the cultural variety available, many believe humanity, the biological human, is a constant. Instead, from molecule to ecosystem, humans reshape as they are reshaped. In considering the domestications that closely knot humans with horses and all other organisms, Tsing asks, “What if we imagined a human nature that shifted historically together with varied webs of interspecies dependence?”11 She and Haraway submit that humanity is an interspecies relationship. It is more than us. It is more than human.
With the connection to the horses, the specific natural history of the San Gabriel Valley, and continual exploitation of the community’s health, Jesús Romo’s photographs convey that we are indelibly intertwined with our environment. Our subject of human nature and what is natural has historically excluded, or marginally considered, nature as a critical element of culture and society. Human behavior is a part of natural processes and never exempt from them. Everything from viruses, evolution, mycelium, deforestation, drought, food systems, tectonic shifts, to cosmic events are essential explanations for behavior. Environmental racism through development discourse is not just material but epistemic violence. Between fact-retrieval through the modalities of linguistic conventions, embodiment and space, or nature, these are “exposures” which emancipate past stories, events, places, things, and people from the rigor of hegemonic, settler, colonial regimes. As each modality can lead one down a lifetime of research for just one subject alone, the researcher alone depends on this collaboration to make something of the findings. The intention of the project and the responsibility of its representation are most important.
Photographs, when not outright exploitative practices, almost ensure a type of embodiment or positionality less credible in alternative medias. Jesús Romo’s positionality, affiliation, and agency inspire an even greater trust in the content and intentionality in representation. Jesús Romo’s photographs are exposures of interspecies assemblage of the San Gabriel Valley.
 David Reid, “Whittier Narrows Park,” East of East: The Making of Greater El Monte, edited by Romeo Guzman, Caribbean Fragoza, et al. Rutgers, 2020. 191
 Barraclough, Laura R. Charros: How Mexican Cowboys Are Remapping Race and American Identity, 1st ed.. University of California Press, 2019. 164
 Barraclough, Charros, 159
 Kara L. Stewart. ”The Vaquero Way.” Horse Illustrated. November 16, 2004
 Donna Haraway. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2008.
 Vinciane Despret. ”The Body We Care For: Figures of Anthropo-zoo-genesis.” Body & Society. Vol. 10(2–3): 111–134. DOI: 10.1177/1357034X04042938
 Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: an Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005.  Ibid.
Daniel Talamantes is a writer from the Central Valley of California. He is working toward a doctorate at Claremont Graduate University currently as an environmental historian, ethnographer, and environmental justice activist. Essays, short stories, and poems of his have been published with Entropy, Elderly, SF Chronicle, Soft Punk, to name a few. His first poetry chapbook Ruminate Emergent was the winner of the Desert Pavilion Chapbook Series and set to be published Fall 2022.
Jesús Romo is an activist, photographer, and resident of Avocado Heights. You can find him on the trails and fighting for clean air, water, and land with and for SGV residents.