If you ask any of the musicians who stroll our bars and restaurants to sing “El Moro de Cumpas,” chances are they will respond with a corrido or ballad whose beginning translates into English as

“On the seventeenth of March in the city of Agua Prieta

People came from all over...”

As long as we’re only a few days away from that famous date, here’s the story behind the song:

In the 1950s, Rafael Romero owned a popular nightclub in Agua Prieta, Sonora, called el Club Copabana. He would travel to Mexico City to book the top acts of the day. He became friends with the great ranchera singer, Pedro Infante, who gave him a complete set of charro regalia to wear in parades.

Now charros don’t walk — they ride, and Romero didn’t have a horse. But he knew a dairyman who owned a fast but gentle race horse named Relámpago (Lightning), and was willing to loan it to Romero. When the friend died, and his widow said to Romero “I feed the cows and they give milk; I feed the horse and he gets hungry again. Buy the horse.” Romero did so, using juke-box receipts from his nightclub.

As soon as Sr. Romero acquired Relámpago he started to receive challenges to race him. One such challenge was from the Frisby family of Cumpas, Sonora, owners of a well-known dapple grey named El Moro. Now Sonoran horse races are one-on-one match races, putting up two fast horses from two different communities or ranches against each other, in the Mexican tradition of the brave individual fighting for the honor of his community.

The date was set for St. Patrick’s Day, 1957. The race took place along Calle 4 in Agua Prieta. People came from far and near, betting large sums of money on the outcome. The Moro, the favorite, started off ahead, but Relámpago was better at long distances and won. The race was contested, and at least one re-run was held, with the same result.

A local musician named Leonardo Yañez, leader of the Mariachi Copacabana, had some previous experience in writing horse-race corridos. He stationed a man at the beginning of the course, another halfway through, and himself stood at the finish line. The resulting song became, and still is, a standard part of the local repertoire.

I will write later about the future careers of these two beloved horses. For now, suffice it to say that it is possible to hear the song all over our region.

For more on the race and the song, with details I had to leave out, see Chapter 7 of my book A Shared Space: Folklife in the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands (Logan, Utah State University Press, 1995, pp. 123-146.)