The Myth, the Legend, the Statue
It’s exactly four minutes past two in the morning, and my dorm room is softly illuminated with Christmas lights and the glow of cell phones. My feet dangle over the edge of the sink counter as I lean back into the cold embrace of the mirror, watching the three girls sprawled across my bed. My best friends. The twins are tossing popcorn at each other, with Cayla opening her mouth as wide as possible to catch Calli’s lopsided underhand. Laura is laughing along, ignoring the missed kernels that we’ll have to vacuum up tomorrow. My body feels restless in its inertia, and I’m suddenly hit by a wave of claustrophobia. We need to get out of this room, this 20 by 11 foot box made smaller by the two beds and piles of clothing scattered throughout. I stand up.
“Let’s ride the bronco.”
Three pairs of eyes snap to my face, and I see a small smile lurking furtively at the edge of Cayla’s mouth. She sits up, popcorn forgotten, and nods her approval. Laura leaps up from the bed to dig out her Santa Clara sweatshirt, and suddenly all four of us are in frantic motion, scrambling for pants and pulling on shoes amidst excited chatter. We’re out the door by the time the clock reads 2:05, Christmas lights on and popcorn littering the floor. We’re going to ride the bronco.
Located between the library and the student dining commons, the bronco statue is a new addition to the Santa Clara University campus. It was donated by SCU alumni over the summer, supposedly in order to build Bronco pride and supporting our university’s Division I athletics program (“SCU Unveils New Bronco Statue”). It has become a rallying point for the Bronco community, but not in the way that the alumni probably intended. Climbing atop the massive horse and posing for a picture has quickly become a fixture on every Santa Clara student’s bucket list. The obstacle of getting past campus safety, who zealously guard the statue with a ferocity akin to the Secret Service, makes the challenge even more appealing. Cayla, Calli, Laura, and I made a promise within a week of meeting each other that we would climb the sculpture before graduating, and we’ve found our chance.
The four of us stampede out of the Walsh dorm, down one, two, three flights of stairs and then out the door and into the night air. We are racing wildly down the sidewalk, passing Swig and careening into each other as we jump and spin under the moon’s watchful gaze. Cayla jumps into the air just as a car turns the corner, catching her silhouette mid-twirl in its headlights. For a moment, time slows: her arms are outstretched, fingers straining outwards, and her hair floats around her closed eyes in a rioting mass of curls. Time speeds up again and she lands, wobbling slightly as she hits the ground running. She grins back at me as she races forwards, shouting over her shoulder, “Now this is go broncos!”
Calli takes up the cry, and I follow, screaming, “go broncos!” into the cold night air. Go broncos is our school’s unofficial catchphrase, popularized by Ruff Riders leader and resident student celebrity Aaron Poor. It’s how the students describe fun, mischief, and shenanigans. Go broncos is the Santa Clara version of carpe diem. But we weren’t always the broncos. In 1923, our school paper The Santa Clara announced a contest for a university mascot (“School Mascot”). Hubert Flynn, S.J., a philosophy professor at the university, won out with his proposal for a bronco after attending a rodeo. “The bronco is a native western piece of dynamite,” he wrote. “Not too large, it is true, but hard as nails, and always game to the core” (“School Colors”). The Santa Clara community agreed with his statement, and adopted as mascot that autumn.
And now, nearly a century later, the bronco is such a firm fixture in our culture that I can’t imagine having any other in its place. Lost in thought, I don’t notice that the other girls have stopped until I pelt full-force into Laura’s back. We giggle and mouth sorry at each other, ignoring Calli’s quiet remonstrations for our clumsiness. Behind us, the street echoes with music and muffled voices, and I’m struck by the difference between our college campus and my quiet house in the rich suburbs of Los Altos. It’s been months since I moved into Santa Clara University, but I’m still not used to the effervescent culture that is continually present, even at this late hour. I grin, shooting a glance towards the other girls as I reminisce on the change. And then, I see why we’ve stopped.
The bronco statue rises up in front of us, and the first tendril of nervousness worms its way into my stomach. I’ve seen the statue in passing, on my way to study in the library or while rushing to Benson for a snack between classes. It wasn’t striking at the time: a horse with one foreleg raised to paw at the ground, looking dramatically over one shoulder as its tail waves in the wind. Memorable, yet forgettable in its plainness, it is easily brushed aside and forgotten, just like the dedication messages and press releases made it out to be. But now, under the stars, the horse feels fiercer. It’s no longer just a statue, paid for by bored alumni longing for the bright intensity of their college days.
In the darkness, the bronco seems alive.
Lights at the base illuminate the statue, starkly highlighting its quivering muscles and flaring nostrils. In the daytime, the horse’s eyes are blank, majestic; in the sable darkness, they are wild, following our every movement with an agitated apprehension. The horse appears as if it’s just stopped mid-gallop, as though it came to an abrupt halt and is twisting to run back the way it came. The hair stands up on the back of my neck, and I have to quell the urge to run away as well.
Here’s the thing: the bronco is a lie, in a thousand different ways. For one, there is no such thing as a wild horse in the United States. The untamed herds that roamed the land were descended from domesticated horses that went feral (“14 Fun Facts”). But more importantly, a bronco isn’t a species of horse. There is no physical attribute to affix the label, because bronco isn’t a species. It’s an attitude.
The etymology of the word both clarifies and reflects this disorientation. In Spanish, bronco means “rough” (“Bronco”), which is why the Santa Clara spirit boosters are called the Ruff Riders. American cowboys borrowed this language to describe untrained horses, or those with a tendency to throw off their riders. There is a certain irony that the men taming the West and subduing indigenous cultures would use a foreign word to describe untamed horses, and it lends Santa Clara’s Spanish-style buildings and mascot a veil of satire. In the early American west, cattle ranchers would use open range laws and allow young horses to wander freely, regardless of land ownership (“Bronco”). The horses would then be captured at maturity, and broken to the saddle until they were tame enough to ride. No longer could they be called broncos, full of reckless abandon and wild stubbornness.
Today’s rodeo uses the bronco’s innate wildness for entertainment value. The production was originally meant to showcase the skills of horse handlers, but today it’s a highly stylized event incomparable to the original. Participants attempt to hold onto a desperately bucking horse for eight seconds while being judged on the horse’s bucking, their control of the bronco, and their spurring action (“Saddle Bronc Riding”). The winner generally receives prize money. Meanwhile, the bronco is led back into a pen to await the next rider in the following showcase.
Looking up at the ten-foot tall statue tonight, I suddenly feel a spike of coldness plunge its way into my stomach. My spine prickles, and I have to face the fact that yes, we are the broncos. My friends and I represent the student body: the untrained, the wild, the coarse juveniles of society. Just look at us, running wild and uninhibited through campus in the middle of the night, dressed in tank tops and slippers despite the fact that it’s fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Cayla has not been broken by walking the regular nine to five. Laura hasn’t been constrained by the monotony by everyday adult life. But that’s why we’re here, attending Santa Clara University, because we need to be molded into exactly what the older generation wants. We need to be pliable. Useful. Broken to the saddle. The bronco statue’s eyes roll, and I suddenly understand its terror.
All sense of adventure deserts me, and I yank at Calli’s sleeve. My voice comes out breathless, panicky, and I feel as though the air has suddenly gotten thinner.
“Not tonight. Let’s not ride the bronco tonight.”
I feel three incredulous pairs of eyes rest upon me. This entire escapade had been my idea, and now I was begging to back out. Calli looks at me closely, and I know that she mistakes the foreboding in my eyes for fear of being written up by campus safety. But she nods anyways, and we leave the bronco unridden.
Yet as we go, I see another group of students approaching. They’re laughing raucously and stumbling over their own feet, and I look back at the statue with heartache. A horse that lives to be wild, forever entombed in stone, doomed to be ridden and captured each night.
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