The Heart of the Matter: Ranchero Culture in Baja California Sur

The Heart of the Matter: Ranchero Culture in Baja California Sur

By Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacfico.

It takes a fair degree of faith in the goodness of your fellow man to hitchhike… with a mule. But that is exactly what Trudi Angell and her daughter Olivia did as part of La Mula Mil, their 1,000 mile mule trip up the Baja Peninsula. One of their mules had taken a respite with friends along the way, and when it came time for him to rejoin the rest of the expedition – now many miles away – Trudi and Olivia just set out along the road with him. Women and mule were picked up by a rancher with a partially empty horse trailer in a matter of minutes, and safely delivered to their camp. Says Trudi, “This was indicative of the type of reception we got from ranch families throughout the entire expedition. They were above and beyond hospitable and helpful. Wonderful meals for us, care for the mules, information on trails – they were generous to a fault with all these things.”

Doña Luz and Don Cata

Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) who has worked with Baja California  rancheros for over 30 years, is not at all surprised. “The Baja ranchero culture of hospitality is directly connected to the old Bedouin custom that demanded the utmost in hospitality, requiring you to give aid and succor to anyone who asked for it for at least 3 days, even if that someone was your mortal enemy. Of course, you were free to kill him after that, but for those 3 days he was an honored guest in your home.” Bedouins?

Fermín explains. “When Padre Kino first arrived with the Jesuits in Baja California in 1683, pirates were a menace to this new territory of Spain. Padre Kino sold the Spanish king on the idea of Jesuits settling the land and using their own money and means to keep it free of pirates. In return, the Jesuits would have the right to rule without interference from a Spanish-run civil government. The king agreed and the Jesuits set about recruiting soldiers that bore little resemblance to their European counterparts. They didn’t choose people based on their fighting or weaponry skills, but rather people who knew how to raise cattle and plant crops. They didn’t choose typical soldiers looking for new world get-rich-quick schemes, but people seeking a living from the land with a focus on family. The Jesuits chose people whom they considered honorable, trustworthy and capable to protect and settle Baja California Sur.” In short, they chose the people whose descendants make it possible for women to successfully hitchhike around the peninsula with a mule. We’re getting to the Bedouins.

Miguel Martinez. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots

Fermín continued, “When the Jesuits arrived in Baja California the indigenous peoples here were hunter-gatherers, skills not suited to building a permanent society. So the Jesuits looked for people who had the ranching and farming skills that could support their missions. These people came from two main sources: 1) people from the agricultural province of Andalusia in Spain, which had been heavily settled by Moors, Arabs and Middle Easterners during the Moorish conquest of Spain in the 8th to 15th centuries, and 2) descendants of the Moors, Arabs and Jews who had been kicked out of Spain during the 15th century Christian reconquest of the country, and had settled in the new world. Not only did these “soldiers” carry the Bedouin tradition of hospitality and honor, they brought Middle Eastern foods to the Baja Peninsula that still flourish to this day including olives, grapes, lentils, date palms and alfalfa.” Teddi Montes, a member of La Mula Mil expedition, took DNA samples from rancheros throughout the trip and her preliminary results show that these middle eastern bloodlines are still found throughout the peninsula, i.e., the Bedouins – along with their hospitality – are alive and well in Baja California!

Ranchero Rule in BCS

The Jesuits ended up being entirely too successful for their own good with their BCS economic model, and they were unceremoniously kicked out of Baja in 1768. The king sent a new administrator who gave the Jesuit mission lands to the “soldiers” who had been working the land under the Jesuits. By this administrative fiat a whole new class of fairly egalitarian land ownership arrived in BCS, and a system of ranches owned and operated by people with excellent skills, a strong work ethic, and a tradition of honor flourished. This was in stark contrast to mainland Mexico, which was heavily settled by Spanish hidalgos, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th sons of wealthy marquis who could not inherit the ancestral lands back home, but who could help themselves to substantial holdings in the new world. “Work ethic” was not a phrase commonly used when speaking of the privileged hidalgos.

By the late 1800s the Baja economy had become centered around mining, with major gold, silver and copper mines flourishing in towns like Santa Rosalia

Chema. Photo by McKenzie Campbell, Living Roots

and El Triunfo. As mining prospered, so did the ranches that supplied them with food, leather goods, horses, mules, and coffee. Mainland Mexico, focused on its own affairs – including wars with the US and France – paid very little attention to Baja for the next 100 years. The result was that the BCS character cultivated by the Jesuits and strengthened by land ownership was left intact, and continued to develop almost completely independently of the rest of Mexico. While mainland Mexico society became highly stratified, Baja California remained a much more egalitarian, independent-minded place, with ranchero families a key and integral part of the peninsula’s economy.

Then mining collapsed in the 1950s, and the ranchero economy went into a tailspin. But the deathblow really came in 1975 when the Mexican government opened its previously closed economy to the outside world. Two territories were declared free ports open to foreign trade: Quintana Roo and BCS. Almost overnight the market for ranch meats, cheeses and leather goods dried up; imported goods could be bought more cheaply and easily in the cities.  Ranchero culture was in peril, and made all the more precarious by a school system that requires ranch children to leave home for 9 years and live in boarding houses in towns like Todos Santos, where they steadily lose touch with their culture. As Fermín says, “They watch a lot of TV in the boarding houses, and if their culture doesn’t appear on TV, then they assume it’s not important.” Fermín, Trudi, Olivia and others are trying very hard to change that perception.

Living Roots

In 2008 a documentary titled Corazon Vaquero – Heart of the Cowboy – won the Paso Robles Film Festival California Roots award. Created by Garry and Cody McClintock and Eve Ewing with Trudi, Fermín and others to showcase the beauty of BCS ranchero culture, the film is centered largely around a family at Rancho San Gregorio in the Sierra de la Giganta above Loreto. In the spring of 2008 a young NOLS instructor named McKenzie Campbell found herself at that same ranch. “I learned how to do leatherwork, make cheese, all kinds of things. I was completely enamored. I then did a week-long scouting trip through the Sierra de la Giganta walking ranch to ranch, and I was completely blown away by the hospitality of the people and their values. They are focused on family, their land and working hard for themselves. They don’t need a lot to be happy. They inspired me to go back to school to get the tools to aid them in the transition to the modern world, to participate in the larger market around them.”

Carlos Ignacio (Nacho) Chiapa with La Mula Mil in Todos Santos

Two years and one MBA later, McKenzie returned to BCS and founded Living Roots, a non-profit with the mission of “Helping an endangered culture adapt and thrive in the modern world.” Focusing on San Javier, the site of one of the Jesuits’ very first missions in BCS, McKenzie set about walking the delicate line between protecting ranchero values and traditions, while connecting ranchero families directly to the marketplace. “They grasped immediately that they had a brand-able concept, but they didn’t see that some of their every day items like ropes and jackets had market value, and we were able to help them see and capture some of that value.” In 2013 Living Roots helped the rancheros establish a cultural center in San Javier that connects them directly with their public. Not only does this place serve as a market for ranch products, but it’s now the base station for many young rancheros who are being trained as guides in order to lead interpretive hikes around the area.  In 2014 Living Roots and its ranchero partners also started a farmer’s and artisan’s market in Loreto that sells organic produce, fish and handicrafts. Says McKenzie, “The US and Canadian communities who live in Loreto are hungry for local produce so it’s been quite successful. It is wonderful to see it all progressing so well.”

McKenzie’s next goal for Living Roots is to start a school for young rancheros aged 15-25 where they can learn the old technologies and merge them with the new. Courses are already underway in some schools, with living legends like Dario Higuera, featured prominently in Corazon Vaquero, teaching traditional leatherwork to kids in the local schools. The most popular items to make are wallets and cell phone covers.

Into the Future

35 year-old Rogelio Rosas knows the value of learning traditional skills from his ranching elders. As a child he lived with his grandparents on the family ranch in San Dionisio in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains. Every day he would work alongside his grandfather, learning how to identify and use the 80 edible wild

Don Claudio teaching leatherwork. Photo by Eduardo Boné

plants that grow in BCS, including those with medicinal properties. By the time he was 10 he was helping his grandfather deliver babies and heal the sick throughout the area. When his grandfather died at the age of 116 (leaving 35 children fathered with 5 wives) Rogelio felt compelled to enroll at a seminary in Tijuana.  But he didn’t find the answers he expected there, so he joined up with some missionaries and spent the next 6 years traveling throughout Baja, using the healing arts learned from his grandfather to help children around the peninsula.

Rogelio found this work rewarding, but he still wasn’t finding the answers he was seeking. So at the age of 28 he moved to La Paz to study philosophy at UABCS, the first member of his family to attend college. While there, he met McKenzie and Fermín who were in the alternative tourism arena, so he added tourism to his list of degrees. By this time Rogelio’s parents, the now-legendary Don Catarino and Doña Luz, had been living at the family ranch for many years, making a very nice living with their organic produce, leather work and other traditional skills. When Doña Luz suffered a snake bite that paralyzed half her body, Rogelio returned to the ranch where he had grown up to help her. By the time he graduated with his double degree from UABCS, he could have joined the majority of his ranching peers and gone off to seek employment in a shinier part of the economy. But he found the pull of the ranch impossible to resist, and is now working with his parents to develop their ranch as a tourist destination where visitors can learn about traditional crafts like leatherworking and cheese-making, hike to see waterfalls and rock art, learn about traditional medicinal herbs, make tortillas from scratch, and enjoy the

Don Claudio and Rogelio

history and culture of the area. This is the future that he sees that will sustain not only his family’s ranch, but those of other families throughout the region.

But like Fermín, Trudi and McKenzie, Rogelio’s real passion is to preserve the heart and soul of ranchero culture.  To that end he has created a document that sets forth the principals and values of ranchero life. Working with seven other sons of ranchers who, like him, left home for a while but then returned, he is in the process of creating an association that will keep the rancheros of the Sierra de la Laguna mountains united and focused, adapting to a changing world economy as necessary to thrive, but doing so while maintaining the values and ethics of their forebears, handpicked by the Jesuits. The goal is to remain true to their Bedouin roots. You can count on their hospitality.

The Saints of Todos Santos: Equestrienne Kaia

by Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article on Hollywood horse champion Kaia Thomson is the third in our series, The Saints of Todos Santos, which profiles some of the people who help put that spark of magic into our pueblo magico.

Queens may come and go, but queen-makers are a special force to be reckoned with, and Kaia Thomson has made 14 queens…so far. In 2005 Kaia was running a 55-acre ranch with 60 horses where she had trained 12 Gymkhana champions and 14 rodeo queens, including Brandy De Jongh, Miss Rodeo America 2000.  She was at the top of her game in the horse world with students, horses in training and competing. Then she decided to move to Todos Santos. “It was my 50th birthday and I decided that I just had to move to Mexico with my horses. All my friends thought I was crazy, but I wanted to do something radical. I just had to do it.” So she did. She finished out the year on her ranch and arrived in Todos Santos in December 2005 with 3 horses and the remains of her worldly possessions. It’s now hard to imagine what the town would be like without Kaia and her incredible skills as a teacher, rider, trainer, naturalist and photographer.

Kaia Demonstrating Her Skill at a Reined Cow Horse Competition

Kaia is one of the most down-to-earth people you’re likely to meet in this life. A characteristic that is not explained by the fact that Kaia is a true Hollywood gal who grew up under the Hollywood sign, spent a lot of time on Hollywood Boulevard and had her first horseback riding lesson at the age of 4 at Sunset Ranch Hollywood Stables. She went to Hollywood High School with many (now famous) stars and worked at a tack shop where she regularly rubbed shoulders with the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Sam Shephard, Richard Farnsworth, and Juice Newton. She worked for Glen Randall who trained Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger (“he said Trigger was the smartest horse he ever met – he could recognize over 100 words and cues”)  as well as with Glen’s protégés Rex Peterson and Bobby Lovegren who trained horses for movies such as Black Beauty, Hidalgo, Zorro, and The Horse Whisperer. She ponied horses for Laz Barrera, renowned trainer of Affirmed (the last horse to win the Triple Crown) and worked alongside many champions on race days at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park and Del Mar racetracks. She rode a horse named Madrid, a grandson of Bold Ruler – Secretariat’s sire – and trained, competed and won in dressage, jumping and showmanship. She traded a saddle for a mule in the Sierra Nevada’s and competed on mules for over 16 years. She saw a Reined Cowhorse Show in Las Vegas in 1989, and soon became a regular on the National Reined Cow Horse Association circuit. She trained with Teddy Robinson, the world’s greatest Reined Cow Horse champion, and acquired the exceptional horse skills required to rein, cut and work cattle in competition. Kaia thrived on the perfect complement of sportsmanship, connection and discipline that horse competition in all its variety demanded. Then she fell in love.

Silver Drift, a dorsal-striped dun charmer affectionately known as Fourteen, was Kaia’s equine soul mate, the greatest horse she ever owned. She got him in 1996, and loved to gather cattle and team rope with him. “Roping on 14 was like riding on mashed potatoes with extra butter…everyone wanted me to head for them!”  They had a great partnership and he helped her train some of those rodeo queens on her ranch. “Then on a Friday the 13th in 1999, he was just playing in his paddock and broke his leg. We had to put him down. I was devastated. It almost made me quit horses altogether. To distract me, some friends took me to Catalina Island to go scuba diving, and I was completely hooked. I went all the way through instructor and about 20 specialty courses, mainly because I loved being able to engage in one of my great passions – photography – under water. This is what led me to Baja because in 2000 I came to La Paz for my birthday to go scuba diving in the Sea of Cortez – which I even did once in my birthday suit! I absolutely loved it and started coming back 2 to 3 times every year to dive. On one of these trips it was too windy to dive so a friend suggested that we check out this little town called Todos Santos. When I got here I realized that I’d seen all this lush greenness in the desert several times from the air. I loved it.”

Kaia Jumping

While it seemed like a wild decision to walk away from the incredible life that she’d built in the horse world in the U.S., Mexico was a natural fit. “Mexico is founded on ranchero culture – horses, mules, burros – all used for transport and working the ranch. Mexicans are very proud of their horse heritage. The Criollos, the local horses, can all trace their lineage back to the horses that Hernán Cortés brought to Mexico over 500 years ago and turned loose before heading back to Spain. Mexico now even has its own official breed of horse, the Española, a cross between Andalusians and quarter horses. This mixture is meant to create the ultimate caballo de charro or rodeo horses, and they’ve been pretty successful with this.”

“The horse community here has been so welcoming to me. My horse buddies and I are always invited to ride in the cabalgatas (horse parades or trail rides) and these are an enormous amount of fun. These are often 2 days and 1 night, and will have over 200 riders on horses, burros and mules. There are around 30 cabalgatas a year in the little towns around southern Baja, and the one we participate in the most ends in an extravaganza at the stadium in Todos Santos where the Escaramuza ladies put on a great show. These are young women who ride in a drill team style formation at a full gallop to emulate the women of the revolution who would put on their colorful adelitas – pretty dresses with full flowing skirts – and head out on horseback to attract the men of the enemy. When the men got into firing range the escaramuzas would sling the hidden rifles off their shoulders and aid the rest of the army with the task at hand. Lots of the local cowboys also do horse dancing and trick riding. We also get invited to a lot of the horse races on straight tracks that are held in all the different towns. After the “fancy” horses run, sometimes my students will ride one of my horses in the races – we’ve actually won 6 out of 7!”

Heri and Javier at an Internado Competition

One of the reasons the local horse community is so fond of Kaia is because of her work with the Internado, the boarding house for ranch kids who come to Todos Santos to go to school. Each year the Internado has an Annual Open House to raise funds, and Kaia trains the Internado students for 2 months to prepare them for the competition that they put on as part of the fundraiser. Past events have included simulating ranch tasks like catching a chicken, roping a cow, and “killing” a bandito with a machete, all from the back of a galloping horse (chicken/cow/bandito dummies used), as well as barrel racing and cavalry-style carousels. Throughout the rest of the year Kaia sponsors the Internado kids to come to her place once a week to go riding and work the horses with her.

The Internado students are not the only ones who benefit from Kaia’s generosity with her talents. For each edition of the town’s local magazine, El Calendario, Kaia – a “self-appointed naturalist” – donates two pages of her amazing photographs which document the wild beauty of the flora and fauna of Baja. She also usually contributes an article or two on local businesses, people of note, or natural history. “I always completely embrace wherever I am. I’ve been fewer places than some people, but I know a great deal about many aspects of those few places and I love sharing that knowledge.”

Luckily for the people of Todos Santos, residents and visitors alike, Todos Santos is one of those few places where Kaia has chosen to shine her light and share her knowledge. She has a really fun place where you can train in dressage, jumping and gymkhana. Or you can just go on a Todos Santos Eco Adventures sunset ride with Kaia, and ask her about endemic bird species…or the life spans of local cactus… or Mexican charro rodeo regulations…or whale shark feeding habits in the Sea of Cortez….or the beauty secrets of rodeo queens…or what it really feels like to be an American cowgirl living in a magic Mexican village.

Kaia with Friends in Todos Santos

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2011

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