Cattle Ranchers of the Huasteca - Orientation

Identification and Location. The Spanish conquerors who landed in Mexico in the sixteenth century introduced new domesticated animals such as horses, donkeys, and cows. The spread of these Old World species, along with the arrival of colonists and colonizers, led to the emergence of new cultural patterns throughout the Americas. One such pattern is the cowboy complex, with its ranches, frontier mentality, and a cult celebrating male valor. The type of ranching and social relations among ranch owners, cowhands, and aboriginal peoples, however, vary from region to region. This discussion focuses on the cattle ranchers who live on the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico, especially in the Huasteca region.

The Huasteca consists of parts of the Mexican states of Hidalgo, Veracruz, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí. Cattle raising is the mainstay of this predominantly rural region. There is very little industry or mining, and the only major urban centers are the port city of Tampico (in Tamaulipas) and Ciudad Valles (in San Luis Potosí). Although various agricultural activities are undertaken, the production of cattle is not only preeminent, but the one best known to outsiders. Moreover, for at least a hundred years, the cattle producers of this region, known as rancheros, have constituted a dominant group in terms of both economic power and political control. Their worldview and values reflect and help to maintain their hegemony over this geographical and cultural region where most other people, even those who do not own or necessarily work in cattle ranches, identify with or try to emulate the life-style of the rancheros.

This entire Gulf coast region is characterized by a high degree of intermingling of cultures and races, yet ethnic boundaries persist. Almost all the rancheros are mestizos (Spanish speakers of racially mixed descent). Identifying themselves as gente de razón (lit., "people with reason"), these rancheros differentiate themselves from their more agriculturally oriented indigenous (Amerindian) neighbors. Some rancheros—especially those descended from recent European immigrants—add the designation "White." Nevertheless, rancheros have almost the same customs, eating habits, and material culture as both Spanish-speaking and indigenous (Nahua and Huastec) peasants in the region.

Most of the Huasteca, which is traversed by the tributaries of several rivers, was once cut off from the rest of Mexico. Until the 1970s there were few passable roads, and travel was by foot or on horseback. The topography consists of the narrow coastal plain and the foothills and lower valleys of the Sierra Madre. This region used to be covered with lush forest. Since the time of the Conquest, however, cattle production has gradually transformed the landscape into a vast expanse of grassland used for grazing. These pastures were created as a result of the clearing of trees through slash-and-burn cultivation. Today, the remaining tree cover is heavier along the inland mountain fringe. Precipitation is distributed over two rainy seasons (one in the late spring and another in the fall), and the average level of ground moisture gradually declines as one travels from south to north. Much of the area is extremely hot and humid, especially between April and October.

Demography. The Huasteca has long been seen as a frontier, with untapped resources and few people. This image still fits reality to some extent since the overall population density is much lower than that of central Mexico. For example, the Huasteca average in 1970 was around 40 inhabitants per square kilometer, compared to over 120 for the state of Morelos. There are large internal discrepancies as well: the flatter, northwestern portion has the lowest population densities; the more mountainous southeastern rim more closely approximates the population profile of central Mexico. In the latter subregion, Spanish-speaking cattle ranchers interact with the indigenous peasant population on almost a daily basis. It is impossible to calculate exactly how many rancheros live on the Gulf coast. Based on the extrapolation of figures included in a Huasteca regional study carried out in the late 1970s, one can arrive at a very rough estimate of 30,000 rancheros (counting only heads of ranchero households), assuming that each ranchero had about fifty head of cattle. If one further assumes an average of 6 persons per household, members of ranchero households represented 10 percent of a total population of close to 2 million people at that time. This estimate does not include the many relatives of rancheros working as cowhands or engaged full time in other occupations.

Linguistic Affiliation. The mother tongue of ranchers in the Huasteca is the local version of Mexican Spanish. Depending on their degree of contact with indigenous peasants, mestizo rancheros may also be bilingual, as a result of having learned a second, native language (Nahuatl, Huasteco, Otomí, or Totonaco). Which language is used in daily intercourse depends on the context of ethnic relations, which ranges from coexistence to open conflict.

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