Reclaiming the Soil: Regenerative Farming in Baja California Sur
50-year old Felipe Fisher is a successful Baja California Sur farmer who still works the 1.5 hectare-ranch in San Jose Viejo that his great grandparents established in 1901. He started working with his father on the ranch when he was 15 and they, together with the 132 farmers that comprise Productores Organicos del Cabo cooperative, have built a successful business exporting organic basil and cherry tomatoes to places as far-flung as Singapore, Japan, the United States and United Arab Emirates. “But it’s not just the organic farmers who are exporting,” explains Felipe about a startling Baja reality, “Most of the fruit and vegetables that you buy in Costco, WalMart and the large grocery chains in Baja Sur actually come from Sinaloa or other parts of Mexico.”
This head-spinning fact caught the attention of Alianza Para la Seguridad Alimentaria (ASA) when it conducted an assessment of agriculture and the local food system during the pandemic. Conducted in collaboration with the International Community Foundation, the survey confirmed what Felipe and the rest of the Baja Sur farming community long knew to be true: almost all of the fruit and vegetables grown in Baja California Sur are exported, and almost all the produce we buy locally in Baja Sur is imported from Guadalajara, Tijuana and Sinaloa.
“Why is the global food system the way it is?” queries Kelsey Bearden, ASA’s Coordinator for Agroecology and Local Economy. “At one point it made economic sense to grow things here and ship them elsewhere, but the pandemic demonstrated in harsh terms that these distribution and supply chains are not as stable as was once thought. In fact, our assessment showed that Baja is extremely vulnerable from a food security perspective. We find ourselves with a rapidly growing population right when our food supply system is being vastly disrupted.”
Kelsey and her team are making haste slowly to diffuse this ticking timebomb. Their goal is to facilitate changes in the way farming has been done in Baja Sur since the 1950s, to realign a system that is reliant not only on exports, but also on imported chemicals for soil productivity. To foster change, they are building a network of support for farmers who are interested both in selling locally and improving the health of their soil to obviate the need for agrochemicals. A pilot project was conducted in La Paz municipality in 2021-2022 which revealed that not only is there a lot of interest from the farmers, but also from those whom they serve including food distributors and chefs. They are encouraged, but there are challenges.
“Baja land is as bad as it gets anywhere” observes Jan Federico William Loeffler Bird, a Mexican-American regenerative farming expert who was born and raised on the Baja peninsula, and is part of ASA’s support network for local farmers seeking change. “So much of the land here has been stripped of all nutrients by full-on chemical, industrial, monoculture farming. Our local soil needs to be rebuilt, regenerated to regain fertility. Soil fertility is the critical foundation of everything: water, biodiversity, community health and well-being.”
Jan recently completed a two-year regenerative farming pilot project on 4,000 square meters of land in Pescadero. One measure of soil fertility is the percentage of organic matter that it contains, and most of the world’s productive agricultural soils have between 3% and 6% organic matter. When the level is below 3% it is much more difficult to have good yields without using fertilizers and pesticides. Farming regeneratively for just two years between February 2020 and July 2022, Jan and his team were able to double the organic matter in the soil from 0.74% to 1.48%, a dramatic improvement. And since 50% of soil organic matter is organic carbon, it turns out that by improving the soil quality Jan’s project also sequestered 18.33 metric tons of CO2, “which is the emissions equivalent of burning 2,062 gallons of gasoline” he notes.
Community health is a key goal in regenerative farming. Dr. Andrei Aguilar is a pathologist who sees a lot of cancer among community members in Baja Sur, much of which he believes is closely tied to the widespread use of agrochemicals throughout Mexico. He wants to stop that cycle in Baja. “Here in Baja we really need to be a part of producing what we are eating” says Andrei. Andrei always loved the ranch owned and operated by his grandfather, then father, and now owns 10 hectares of it near the airport of La Paz. He and his wife Gabriela Huerta have fully embraced the regenerative farming techniques taught by Jan and other members of the ASA network. Says Gabriela, “It is amazing that we cannot find good quality, chemical-free produce in a place like La Paz. Our vision for our family and friends is a wholly self-sufficient ranch where we can grow our own food.”
Revitalizing soil comes down to mimicking nature’s processes. “When left to its own devices, nature always covers soil with living plants to generate soil health” says Jan. Andrei and Gabriela, like Jan, therefore started their project with “cover crops” like sunflowers, mesquite trees and fruit-bearing trees like guayabas, bananas, and figs. (Jan also includes corn, sorghum, oats, mustard, mung beans and more). Cover crops, which are dispersed among cash crops, “contribute to soil fertility by improving soil structure with their root systems, recycling nutrients, and accumulating organic matter” says Jan. Just a few months after their cover crops were in place Andrei and Gabriela introduced other crops including lettuce, cucumbers, pumpkins and many others. A large variety of plant species helps defend against pests and diseases while improving the soil structure, which in turn improves the soil’s ability to retain water.
“The magic appears at the end when you have a pumpkin with no chemicals,” says Gabriela. “It appears when your cucumbers this year are so much better than the year before. But you have to have a vision and you have to be patient. You have to know that your goal is to be producing healthy, chemical-free food for your family and community and that it may take 2-3 years to get there. What we’re doing with Jan and the ASA is revolutionary for Baja.”
Revolutionary? Definitely. But is it profitable? “Yes, on many levels” states Jan. “The economics of regenerative farming are clear and compelling. You have greater output based on fewer inputs. Regenerative agriculture is roughly 2 to 4 times more productive than traditional agriculture, meaning that much more food can be grown per acre, and at a lower cost.” Forbes magazine agrees. In a January 2020 article, Forbes cited the results of a Ecdysis Foundation study on how regenerative systems affect yields, pests and profitability. “…farms with regenerative practices were 78% more profitable than conventional plots. This increase in profitability was the result of two main factors: input costs and end markets [as] regenerative farmers received higher premiums for their crops….But the benefits go beyond fertilizer costs. Increasing soil organic matter also increased the diversity of insects found in the soil. Insect diversity has been shown to decrease harmful pest abundance… leading to stronger crops.” Kelsey of ASA also points out that foregoing agrochemicals takes out the huge fossil fuel expenditures associated with mining, manufacturing and transporting the chemicals.
Kelsey outlines some of the challenges ahead, “It’s not just about the farmers and growing the food, it’s about where the food is going, how it gets there and how it’s prepared once it gets there. We are working hard to understand the local food system, who moves the food around, what consumer requirements are and what is the capacity of the local farmers to meet local demand.”
One of ASA’s goals is to generate and facilitate shorter and more equitable supply chains to connect local food to local buyers. ASA is exploring different models for the region, including more direct sales between farmers and buyers interested in local and regeneratively produced food, as well as models that strengthen the logistics of regional sales and distribution.
Ross Vail and his sons Logan and Diego are the owners and operators of Sueño Tropical, the first and largest organic producer in Baja Sur. Their deep experience and knowledge base is another strong link in the ASA farmer support network. “We’ve been working on a food hub concept with ASA over the last two years” notes Logan. “Here at Sueño Tropical we have the set up to pack, process, store and distribute under OSHA standards the products of local farmers using regenerative techniques.” Ross adds, “Our goal is to have enough local, regeneratively-farmed products to meet the demand of all the hotels, restaurants and grocery stores of Baja Sur so that we are truly a local farm to table economy. This will take quite an effort to achieve, but it’s a challenge we embrace.”
Felipe Fisher is totally onboard with the goals of the ASA. “While we built our business on exports, we would rather be producing and selling locally, and providing healthier produce for the people of Baja Sur. There are already several local high-end stores and restaurants interested in our products.”
“I am so proud and happy about what we achieved in Pescadero” adds Jan. “Of course, there is still so much to do, but I’m super excited about this next phase. I’m building out bigger farms and expanding my regenerative farming operation to feed more of the local community.”
The change in outlook and attitude is already taking root with the next generation. Andrei and Gabriela’s daughters, now 3 and 6 years old, both fervently want to be agronomists when they grow up. Andrei and Gabriela will just be happy if their children can live in a Baja Sur community where locally grown, chemical-free produce is the norm, not the exception.
If you would like more information on how to get involved with the ASA as a farmer, buyer, or other interested party, please email the organization at or contact them via WhatsApp a +52-624-125-3283. Be a part of the change!
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.
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 American Cowboy is the quintessential symbol of what made America great: strong character, diverse skills, creative problem solving, resilient nature and beef on the table. The iconic cowboys loved their whiskey, played their harmonicas, and sported nicknames like Cactus Pete, Deadeye Jake and Kid Curry. But If you look under the buckskin a bit you’ll find that the original American cowboys likely preferred tequila, played bass fiddles, and had nicknames like El Coyote, Güero de las Canoas and Dos Santos Biel. And that’s exactly why Meg Glaser, Artistic Director of the Western Folklife Center in Elko, Nevada invited 5 Baja California Sur vaqueros (cowboys) to be the guests of honor at the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering: they are the living link between the Spanish missionary soldiers that came to Baja California 300 years ago, and the American buckaroo. Yep, as surely as the Statue of Liberty came from France, and the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner came from England, the American Cowboy came from Mexico. Juan Wayne would have been a more apt screen name for the Duke.
Don Jose y La Pancha. Painting by Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro
The Western Folklife Center (WFC) focuses on making connections with other horse and ranching cultures from around the world. They have hosted cowboys from the far-flung corners of the earth, including Mongolia, Hungary and Brazil, but nothing they had ever done prepared them for the challenge of hosting the vaqueros of Baja California Sur. Says Meg, “The BCS vaqueros live almost completely off the grid so they didn’t have passports, US visas, or even email access. It was incredibly challenging to get these men who live on roadless ranches, some of whom must ride 6 hours on mules to get to the nearest highway, from Baja to Nevada, but together with the great Baja team we did it and it was one of our most successful programs ever. Many of our buckaroos in Nevada and other parts of the west are pretty well versed on the history and the connection between the American cowboy and the Mexican vaquero, but very few of us realized that it was such a vibrant living culture. It was a real eye opener for all of us.”
Of course back in the day both Nevada and Baja were part of the Spanish California Provinces (Nevada in Alta or Upper California and present day BCS in Baja or Lower California) and cowboys and cattle – imported from Spain to satisfy the conquerors’ demand for beef – flowed freely throughout the region. In fact, the regions were so integrated culturally and linguistically that it wasn’t until the 1960s that people from Baja California were required to have a passport and visa to travel to the USA. The lingua franca of cowboys demonstrates the cultural link between the two Californias: “buckaroo” is the Americanization of the word “vaquero”, “chaps” comes from the Spanish word chaparreras, or leather leggings, “rodeo” comes from the Spanish word rodear, to surround, and “mustang” comes from the Spanish word mostrenco. The modern livestock industry in the USA continues to thrive on early Mexican techniques for handling cattle including branding, saddle cinching and using a hand-braided lariat – from the Spanish la reata – to rope cattle.
Chema with his guitar in the Sierras.Photo courtesy of Saddling South
But now there is most definitely a border, and crossing it was a tremendous experience for the whole team. Says vaquero Jose Maria Arce Arce, who goes by Chema, “Just imagine. I had to ride a mule for several hours out of the Sierras as part of the journey to the airport, then suddenly I was on a huge airplane and we flew over my ranch – I recognized it immediately and was amazed to see it from the air. This trip was my first time on an airplane and my first time in such a nice hotel. Imagine a horse that is accustomed to poor grazing areas then he’s put in a green pasture. That is what it felt like to me.” Trudi Angell has been Chema’s friend and business associate in the Sierra San Francisco since 2005, and she was the main organizer of the trip. The vaqueros nicknamed her “La Caponera” or “the bell-mare” of the trip: the one to follow. She sat next to Chema’s cousin, Bonifacio, or “Boni” on the first flight. “His eyes lit up like a kid as he turned around at lift-off and practically shouted “ ‘Chinga! The cars all look like ants!’ Forty minutes later when we flew over the Sierra San Francisco, Chema and Ricardo (Chema’s son who’s known as Teté) were pressed to the window pane and were practically beside themselves when they saw their ranch from the sky. It was a wonderful experience.”
Chema, Teté and Boni are Los Regionales de la Sierra, a musical group that plays traditional ranchero music from the northwest of Mexico, much of it resonant of eras long gone by. Chema plays accordion and guitar, Boni plays bajo sextoand accordion, and Tetéplays the northern ranchero bass fiddle. In Elko they performed often at schools, juvenile facilities and the Western Folklife Center itself, and were accompanied by singers Damiana and Duna Conde, daughters of the renowned Baja California Sur musician, comedian and political satirist Raul Conde. The crowds and other musicians simply couldn’t get enough of the group, and they were feted everywhere they went. Even Sourdough Slim, an acclaimed western singer who regularly plays the Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall Folk Festival circuit invited the vaqueros to jam with him at the historic Pioneer Bar one evening. Observes Meg, “They were a smash sensation.”
Carlos’ stand up paintings of Boni, Chema and Tete. Part of the BCS exhibit.
The great reception to their musical skills wasmatched only by the tremendous enthusiasm for their skills as ranchers and craftsmen. Chema, Dario Higuera Meza and the other vaqueros met with American cowboys and shared information on ranching lifestyles, including working and breeding donkeys and horses. Says Chema of his American counterparts, “They are the same people that I am. I completely identified with them… the only difference is in the way they dance!” Dario, who is one of the few artisans left in BCS who knows how to create traditional ranch crafts using the old Baja California methods (he received an honorary degree from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur in recognition of his unparalleled skills and contribution to BCS culture), gave daily demonstrations on horsehair rope making and leather braiding, and in particular bonded with several native American families over different methods of tanning and spinning rope. They were so enthralled with Dario they invited him to a Navajo festival. Chema’s nephew, Juan Gabriel Arce Arce – nicknamed Biel – gave daily demonstrations on leatherworking and other traditional ranch skills. Biel consistently wins the top prize at state-wide leatherworking contests.A traditionally tanned leather trunk that he made with ornately woven edges and beautiful hand tooling was purchased by a Basque ranching family from Elko for US$5,000.
McKenzie Campbell, one of the people responsible for getting the vaqueros to Elko, is the founder of Living Roots, a non-profit which helps BCS ranch families capitalize on their skills. At the request of the WFC gift shop, she made sure that the group brought many leatherwork pieces made by Teté, Dario, Biel and other ranchers, includingpolainas (leather gators), miniature vaquero saddles, belts and teguas (riding shoes). McKenzie also brought other BCS ranchero crafts including embroidered purses and bags, as well as tepetes, rag rugs that women make with scraps of cloth. It allsold like hot cakes in the gift shop.
The vaqueros are direct descendants of soldiers imported by the Jesuit missionaries in the 1700s. Recruited as part of a deal with the king of Spain that gave the Jesuits administrative autonomy in Baja California in return for protecting the territory from pirates, these “soldiers” were in fact largely people from Moorish Spain who had the excellent ranching and agricultural skills the Jesuits needed to develop their missions. They became known as the “soldiers of leather” to distinguish them from fighting “soldiers of metal”. When the Jesuits were subsequently kicked out of Baja, the “soldiers of leather” who worked the missions were given the lands by administrative fiat and from that point on Baja ranchero culture flourished. Largely forgotten by the rest of Mexico for several
Fermin Building the Rancho Exhibit
generations and isolated by geography, the architecture, ranch tools, farm implements and cookware of BCS ranches remains to this day very similar to that developed by their Spanish forbears 300 years ago. “The BCS rancheros are a piece of the past that has survived until today” says Fermín Reygadas, a professor of Alternative Tourism at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur who has worked with Baja Californiarancheros for over 30 years.
Fermín, who counts ranchers as some of his best friends in Baja, envisioned and happily executed the task of recreating a typical ranch dwelling with an hoja (palm-frond) roof and palo d’arco walls for the exhibit at the WFC. Working with La Paz artist Carlos César Diaz Castro in Elko a full month before the vaqueros arrived, Fermíncreated a truly astounding exhibit which everyone agrees captures the heart and soul of BCS ranchero life. Says Trudi, “The BCS exhibit was left up for 8 months and a woman from the WFC sent me a special note to say that the local folks from Elko came again and again to see the exhibit, bringing visiting friends and family. They had never seen this type of reaction to an exhibit before.”
Carlos Painting Tete. Photo by Karla Fernanda Amao
The whole project got started when Rick Knight, a professor from Colorado State University and board member of the WFC, went on a mule trip with Trudi’scompany,Saddling South, in the Sierras. Chema was their guide at the Sierra San Francisco rock art sites, and he and his family entertained the group around the campfire at night. Rick informed Meg Glaser of the incredible experience he had had and in 2012 Meg came down to see it for herself. She knew right away she had to get the vaqueros to Elko.Three years later – which included intensive months of effort by Trudi in the quest for Mexican passports and US visas for 5 people who live almost completely outside the system (letters to the US Consulate from Nevada Senator Harry Reid, the BCS State Board of Tourism, the Western Folklife Center and several others all had to be obtained) – the group was in Elko. The connections made between people and cultures moved them all. Says Chema, “The best part is that we went so far and met people we had become friends with at the caves in the Sierras.” Says Meg, “The best part is that the social connections extend far beyond Elko and many people have already gone to Baja Sur to visit the Sierras and learn more about the vaquero culture.” Says Fermín, “The best part was watching the vaqueros bond with the US ranchers discussing knots and ropes, sharing ideas and experiences. It really showed how connected we all are.”For his part, Dario, who is not one of the musicians, had so much fun that he wrote a song about the whole experience.
Elko Group Portrait Back Row, Left to Right: Karla Fernanda Amao (Carlos’s wife), Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro, Dune Conde, Fermin Reygadas Dahl, McKenzie Campbell, Chema (Jose Maria Arce Arce), Damiana Conde, Ricardo Arce Arce (Tete), Juan Gabrial Arce Arce (Biel), Bonifacio Arce Arce (Boni). Seated Front Row: Trudi Angell, Dario Higuera Meza, Teodora Montes Botham, Meg Glaser. Photo courtesy of Western Folklife Center.
Concludes Chema, “I never had a childhood because I’ve worked since I was a little boy. I now feel very proud that people know me and our life here at the ranch, both through the movie Corazon Vaquero and our trip to Elko. We represented the Baja California vaqueros to the cowboys of the US, and they really respect all the things we can do. It was a beautiful experience. But I’m still the same humble
Chema and his grandaughter Azu. Photo courtesy of Saddling South
rancher I have always been and I haven’t changed my way of life. All of my grandchildren are becoming ranchers and I’m very pleased about that.” Fermín calls the vaqueros of BCS “an oasis of common sense humans.” Maybe Chema’s grandkids will be the next generation of Cowboy Ambassadors, connecting US cowboys to their living roots in Baja California Sur. Could there be another ride for the bell-mare? Possibly. Trudi says her first thought when she woke up after the trip to Elko was, “We have to take this show on the road!”