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Baja California, MéxicoKicking up a cloud of dust, the caravan of pack burros and mules lurches toward the gate of the corral, trailed by a lean cowboy in a crisp white shirt whose spurs jangle in rhythm with his horse’s gait. At least three times a week, 34-year-old Eleonary “Nary” Arce Aguilar must drive down from his drought-stricken ranch to load up on critical water supplies that allow his family to stay on their ancestral land on the high mesa of Baja, México’s Sierra de San Francisco.
As the animals gulp from the trough, Nary takes a long drink from a PVC pipe that connects to a mountain spring eight miles away—a lifeline for the handful of ranches that survive in this remote pocket of the mountains. Nary spends most of an hour filling up five-gallon jugs and loading up his burros, getting a hand from his older brother, Ricardo, who manages the lower ranch. Then he swings back onto his mount and starts climbing home as the sun dips behind the ridgeline, casting the trail in shadow.
The route Nary plies is part of the old El Camino Real (The Royal Road), a backcountry artery dating back more than 300 years. The route once linked a network of Spanish missions that ran the length of the peninsula. Up tight switchbacks slippery with scree, and across rock faces polished to a patina, his progress is steady until he spots a young calf lying motionless on the shoulder of the trail. Seizing the horns, he tries to help it stand, but the calf is limp, its eyes glazed over. Nary suspects that, crazed with hunger, it ate something toxic. “There’s nothing else I can do,” he shrugs.
For all Nary’s cool, the sick calf belies a crisis that is threatening the livelihood of Baja’s last cowboys, or vaqueros. Over the past half-century, the encroachment of the modern world has progressively drawn younger generations away from an off-grid lifestyle that is getting harder to sustain due to changing economics and the intensified effects of climate change. More than a year and a half has passed since the last substantial rainfall in southern Baja. Bereft of vegetation, cattle are growing weaker and more susceptible to illness, while goats are wandering astray in search of browse. “All these forces seem to be piling up against” the vaqueros, says Trudi Angell, a guide and backcountry outfitter based in Loreto, México. “We can say that it’s a dying culture.”
It’s getting dark by the time Nary reaches the mesa. His five-year-old daughter, Guadelupe, greets him with a hug, but the workday is not over; calves issue plaintive cries for food from the stone-walled corral. Nary and his burly father, José María “Chema” Arce Aguilar, grab their machetes and do what ranchers out here have always done in desperate times: strip cactus and hack it into edible chunks.
“If we buy cow feed, we won’t eat—it’s that simple,” says Chema, a lifelong rancher and trail guide. Severe dry spells have come and gone over the years, he explains, but the strain they’re facing today is unprecedented due to higher supply costs and the loss of income from backcountry trips cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. “Our situation is critical.”
Living more than a half-day’s ride from the nearest paved road, the vaqueros of the Sierra de San Francisco maintain a hardscrabble way of life that has changed little since their ancestors arrived on the peninsula in the 18th century. Brought by Jesuit missionaries who were granted control of the frontier by the Spanish monarchy, their forebears—known as “soldiers of leather” for the deer-skin jerkins they wore—lived off the land and were tasked with guarding mission outposts throughout Baja California. El Camino Real, the overland trail that connected the missions, extended from present-day Loreto to its terminus in Sonoma, California, and helped secure the king’s authority.
When the Jesuits were expelled in 1767, vast land holdings were granted to the soldiers. They raised cattle and goats and lived off the land, largely insulated from mainland political upheavals and the advance of technology. Wresting their living from the hard terrain, beyond government control, they developed an extraordinary level of of self-sufficiency, mastering leather tanning, rope-making and cooking traditions that blend art and necessity. “They have this incredible knowledge in their bones,” says Angell. “The real vaqueros know all about the environment, the land and its history.”
Long before the U.S.-Mexico border came into force, vaqueros drove massive herds of Spanish cattle freely through the borderlands, seeding a cultural and linguistic legacy that endures to this day. The word buckaroo, for instance, is the Americanization of vaquero. The word rodeo is derived from the Spanish verb rodear (to round up). What’s more, the U.S. livestock industry is rife with techniques that originated in Mexico, from branding and saddle cinching to the use of hand-braided lariats (from the Spanish la reata) to rope cattle.
And while cowboy culture north of the border has devolved into a shell of its former self, some insist that Baja’s vaqueros still embody the rugged individualism of American legend. “[They are] the last representation of the cowboys who conquered the West,” says Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who has worked with Baja California ranchers for more than four decades. “Life is hard, endless work for them, but they are free.”
In the Valle de Santa Martha, about a seven-hour trail ride from Chema and Nary’s ranch, Ignacio “Nacho” Arce Arce lives on a small ranch one ridge over from his birthplace. As a teenager, he worked as a ranch hand and drove hundreds of cattle “as far as the eye could see” on week-long trips to the Pacific port of Guerrero Negro and Santa Rosalia, a copper mining boom town on the Sea of Cortez. Desert-raised beef was long a staple commodity in company towns and markets. But in the early 1970s, this changed abruptly with the advent of free trade zones aimed at jump-starting commerce.
What was then still called the Baja California territory was flooded with cheap goods from the mainland and abroad. The proliferation of supermarkets saw demand for local beef, cheese and other artisanal ranch products plummet. In 1973, the completion of the 1,000-mile Transpeninsular Highway, opened up the region to commercial penetration as never before. Chain stores and side roads have since created conduits for processed foods to reach far-flung ranching areas, where kidney problems, diabetes, and diabetes-related amputations are increasingly common.
At 74, Nacho still cuts a hale figure. Dressed in faded cowhide gaiters and shoes—all handmade himself—he still braids his own rope out of nylon and forages for firewood in the rocky heights, despite bad knees. Like many vaqueros living in this neck of the Sierras, he supplemented his diminishing ranch income by guiding pack trips to prehistoric rock art sites with UNESCO World Heritage status, but this work has dried up. Unable to afford cattle feed, his five remaining cows are rail thin, seemingly on the verge of collapse. A big part of his day is given to harvesting cholla cactus to keep them alive. At night, he prays for rain.
In the past, the wet season could be reliably expected from July through September. These days, the rains are more erratic; when they do come, the storms are often so fierce they wash away the animals. As Dario Higuera Meza, another veteran rancher and Nacho’s friend, puts it: “We’re always hoping to catch a corner of a hurricane.”
Every morning before the rooster’s call, Erlinda “Linda” Arce Arce begins her daily ritual. Over a mesquite-fueled stove, she sets a pot of hand-ground coffee to boil and starts slapping out corn tortillas as the two-meter radio crackles in the background, mostly with chatter about the weather.
After laying out a breakfast of bean burritos for the family, she strains milk curd and then presses it into a square wooden block to make cheese that the family sells to make extra money. It takes seven liters of milk to make about two pounds of cheese, and under normal circumstances, Linda produces five or six blocks a day. Deep into the drought, however, the cows’ and goats’ milk output has plunged so low she can muster only one block a day, netting about 55 pesos (less than three U.S. dollars).
Sturdy-built, with an ebony braid that falls to her waist, Linda met Nary at a wedding. They danced and “had eyes for each other,” she says, but it took four years of dedicated courtship before they married. Nary first had to ride out and ask Linda’s father for permission to court her. Then he had to return several times a year to work on the ranch and prove his worth to the family, part of a timeworn ritual. Apart for months at a stretch and without reliable phone service, the two of them would talk on the radio for hours, limiting their conversations to pleasantries since everyone in the valley could tune in. When their wedding was finally held, they celebrated with a two-day party full of feasting, drinking, and live music.
Their daughter bounds into the kitchen to mix chocolate powder into the milk she’s just milked from a cow. At ease in the saddle and handy with a lasso, Guadalupe receives school instruction five days a week from a government-appointed teacher trainee who alternates between the mesa ranch and her uncle Ricardo’s place down in the arroyo. Both families want their children to be educated, though it comes with an awareness that it may take them away from the ranch.
In 2018, Ricardo’s eldest daughter, Azucena, accompanied her father on a 20-day recua, or cargo caravan, following in her ancestors’ footsteps, an experience that opened her eyes to her heritage. “This is where I’m from, and I want to stay here,” she says, taking a moment to look up from the video game she’s playing on her cell phone. The 13-year-old plans to go away to college and perhaps study veterinary biology so she can come back and help her family on the ranch.
Ricardo, 39, never made it past elementary school. He flew in an airplane for the first time in 2015, to take part in a cultural exchange with American cowboys in Nevada, but he insists that urban life and all its excesses are not for him. “Life is so much more tranquil here,” he says. “There’s a lot of work to do but there’s less stress than in town.” In his spare time, he plays guitar and works with leather, a self-taught skill that fills him with great pride.
Under a harsh midday glare, Ricardo checks on sheets of cowhide and goatskin left to soak in a vat of palo blanco bark that reeks like rancid salami. He turns them over and stews the mulch to ensure the skins are dyed evenly. When the color is set, he and his son Esteban will slather the skins in chicken grease and hang them out to dry. The leather is then carved and hand-tooled to make teguas (riding shoes), soled with tire rubber, as well as polainas (gaiters), wallets, belts, and saddles adorned with equine motifs.
A slow, winding descent
Back on the high mesa, Nary and Chema are sweating through the afternoon grind. Wielding pitchforks, they rake cholla into small fires to burn the spines off and fling smoldering chunks to dazed cattle that crash into each other to get a bite. It takes three hours to feed them all, then Nary sets off to find more cactus for his mules and horses. This requires him to hike across the ravine to a higher mesa laden with volcanic rock split by the sun. The sky is pitch black by the time he’s done, so he hacks off a dead shaft of organ pipe cactus and sets it alight for the walk home. “Lampara de ranchero,” he exclaims. Rancher’s flashlight.
As the drought drags on, the vaqueros are locked into a war of attrition with the elements. Had they sold some steers and goats earlier, as other ranchers had done, they would have extra money for feed and less of a physical burden to bear. Instead, they are condemned to scrounge and keep their livestock alive by any means necessary. Their herd, once some 40-strong, is down to about 30, and getting thinner by the day. “The cost of everything is going up,” says Chema, shaking his head, “and the weight of our cattle is going down.” At this rate there would scarcely be any meat left to sell if they survive.
The next morning, on his thrice-weekly cattle drive down to Ricardo’s ranch, Nary checks on the ailing calf he left by the trail several days before. He tries to rouse it once more, without luck. The animal will soon be picked apart by the turkey vultures circling overhead. Less than a hundred yards farther, he finds the decomposing remains of another, larger cow.
The months ahead likely are going to be long and hard, perhaps the hardest yet. But Nary says he is living on his own terms, a free-ranger in the open country, and he has the grit and resourcefulness to endure as long as any man can. As he resumed the slow, winding descent to water, he began to whistle a song.
Balazs Gardi is a Hungarian-born photographer whose work explores man-made conditions that threaten humanity’s existence. He has covered the war in Afghanistan and the far-reaching consequences of the global water crisis. His work has been honored with the Bayeux-Calvados Award for War Correspondents and the Global Vision Award from Pictures of the Year International. To see more of his work, follow him on Instagram.
Jason Motlagh is a writer and filmmaker living in Baja, Mexico. To see more of his work, visit www.Blackbeardfilms.com