The rancheros, whether nouveau-riche peasants or descendants of families who once owned large estates, are personally involved in a variety of productive and commercial activities. Even the most prosperous rancheros tend some of their own cattle, and they can all ride horseback. Although they participate in hard physical labor on occasion, the rancheros rely on day laborers or sharecroppers to clear their land and likewise employ wage laborers for most agricultural tasks and to operate trapiches. Small stills and stores owned by the rancheros are managed by their immediate relatives.
Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Even poor rancheros rent land to landless or land-poor peasants for the slash-and-burn cultivation of maize. Such farmers (who may also work as part-time cowhands) turn over part of their harvest to the landowner. In this way, the rancheros obtain maize for their own household consumption, for animal fodder, or as a means of payment to part-time day laborers who cannot produce enough maize on their own. Such slash-and-burn cultivation of maize created most of the natural and cultivated pastures found in the Huasteca today. In more remote areas, rancheros used to drive their cattle into the fields of stubble after the maize harvest. Throughout the Huasteca, even in the late twentieth century, rancheros also make their own milpas, albeit with the "help" of day laborers. The harvested maize is dried and stored in bins or under the roof until it is ready to be ground into tortillas, just as in other parts of rural Mexico. Unlike native peasant farmers, however, rancheros—some of whom specialize in slaughtering cattle—produce their own meat (part of which is dried) and dairy products.
Although rancheros are largely self-sufficient in meat, cattle are kept mainly for commercial purposes. The finishing (fattening) of cattle is more prevalent on the lowland plain, whereas the breeding (raising) of cattle—together with limited dairy production—is concentrated in the foothills and mountain valleys. In both subregions, cattle are left in open pastures (as opposed to stables and barns), and commercial agriculture or growing oranges is a secondary source of profits. The introduction of new techniques, beginning in the 1940s, has led to greater productivity. Leading ranchers have introduced new breeds of cattle (especially the tick-resistant Cebu variety) and rotate their grazing cattle between sections of fenced-in pastures planted with special grasses. Such pastures still need occasional weeding ( chapoleo ), which is carried out by seasonal workers; however, the more specialized ranchero economy has overall become less labor intensive.
Industrial Arts. There is little specialization in industrial arts, although most rancheros used to run small-scale sugar mills (trapiches); these have only survived in native regions. Some rancheros also used to combine ranching with such crafts as shoe repair or blacksmithing. Huasteca ranchero families of Italian descent used to specialize in making the copper vats and other equipment required to convert sugar loaf (pilón) into aguardiente (a potent brandy). Wealthy rancheros, who also bought up pilón from native producers, once monopolized this activity.
Trade. The buying, selling, and transporting of both local agricultural produce and manufactured goods produced outside the region has long been an important sideline for the rancheros. Some eventually became almost full-time merchants, leaving the management of ranchos in the hands of other family members. Most rancheros began their careers in commerce working as independent mule drivers until they could hire others to take care of transportation. Ranchero merchants still bring in most of the luxury goods for sale at local marketplaces, but they tend to specialize in buying coffee and pilón produced by small indigenous enterprises. Such commercial activities are often based on the extension of informal credit; some wealthy rancheros became notorious usurers. In the late twentieth century these ranchero merchants are more likely to own and operate trucks, which, when not fully loaded, also carry passengers as standees.
Division of Labor. The rancho is characterized by the traditional sexual division of labor. Women therefore tend the cattle, and they still do most of the milking and cheese making. Some ranchero women also operate stores and small restaurants, and widows often manage entire cattle ranches on their own. School-aged children from ranchero families used to work part time side by side with ranch peons to learn all aspects of rural production, although nowadays they are more likely to attend agricultural schools. It is not unusual for poor relatives of powerful rancheros to specialize in mule driving, horse taming, or bringing cattle to distant markets. The more educated offspring of rancheros might become physicians or lawyers, yet still get involved in cattle raising as a sideline.
Land Tenure. Rancheros see their ranchos as small, privately owned rural properties. They refer to themselves as pequeños proprietarios (small property holders), although the actual amount of land under the control of a single person may vary from a dozen to well over a thousand hectares. The legal aspects of land tenure are more complicated, however. Owners of very small ranchos often do not have proper titles because they cannot afford to pay land taxes or the legal fees to obtain proper documentation. In some cases, their ranches may even be located in what are de jure communal lands associated with Nahua or Huastec villages. On the other hand, much of the legally registered private rural property in the Huasteca used to be part of much larger estates owned jointly by numerous ranchero families in a form of corporate ownership known as condueñazgo.