Cattle Ranchers of the Huasteca

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Cattle Ranchers of the Huasteca

ETHNONYMS: mestizo rancheros, pequeños proprietarios, rancheros


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 rancherosespecially those descended from recent European immigrantsadd 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.

History and Cultural Relations

Cattle ranching in the Huasteca dates from the Conquestspecifically from the arrival of Nuño de Guzmán, a rival of Ferdinand Cortes. The first Spanish newcomers, who encountered a large native population along the coast and river valleys, captured numerous natives for slave labor in the West Indies and elsewhere. The rest of the indigenous population succumbed to new diseases or fled into the hills. In order to facilitate the collection of tribute, taxes, and corvée labor, the Spanish Crown later forced this dispersed native population to congregate into the remaining native towns and villages. At the same time that it recognized the boundaries of native corporate communities as delimitations of "Indian republics," the Spanish Crown granted large tracts of land left vacant to people of Spanish descent. The resulting privately owned estates specialized in extensive cattle production, and the incursion of wandering cows and horses onto the agricultural domain of native peasant communities became a source of bitter disputes. The introduction of sugarcane, locally processed in small-scale animal-powered mills called trapiches, stimulated the development of smaller rural enterprises known as ranchos. Such ranchos were located both within the boundaries of colonial cattle estates and on sections of communally owned land rented from native communities.

The fragile coexistence of cattle estates, ranchos, and native communities continued throughout the colonial era. During the early part of the nineteenth century (when Mexico became independent), the Huasteca attracted immigrants from the central-plateau region of Mexico and abroad. This influx brought about additional encroachment on Indian land as well as the subdivision of huge estates into the smaller, privately run ranchos. The newcomers introduced commercial crops (e.g., coffee and tobacco) and engaged in commerce and the production of sugar loaf (pilón or piloncillo). Almost all these entrepreneurs also established cattle ranches, resulting in the development of a ranchero culture. These rancheros gradually obtained more political control, which was consolidated during and after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917). Mestizo cattle ranchers, who already controlled many smaller counties on the fringes of the Huasteca, ousted the remaining owners of larger cattle estates (haciendas), many of whom did not even live in the region.


A unique pattern evolved during the period of frontier settlement and increasing contact between native peasants and mestizo newcomers. Newcomers originally built houses and corrals on their own land, resulting in a dispersed settlement pattern. These rancheros, however, many of whom often started off as merchants or artisans, usually kept a second house in a nearby town (pueblo ), especially if such a town served as an important market center or the administrative center (cabecera ) of a municipio. A new generation of rancheros born in the Huasteca countryside often bought town houses where they could stay when they made numerous trips on horseback to attend to business or to political affairs.

In areas with a large indigenous population, many ranchos were founded close to native communities (comunidades ). In such cases, cattle ranchers demarcated the boundaries of their ranchos by means of fences. Nevertheless, the rancho's main house might well become part of the outskirts of an expanding native settlement. This form of shared settlement was especially likely to occur if the rancho was located inside the original communal boundaries of native villages, whose poorer inhabitants ended up working for the rancheros. Such close proximity led to the virtual transformation of larger native villages into mestizo towns, as the owners of ranchos set up business and started building houses in existing native centers. In more remote areas, rancheros allowed both Spanish-speaking newcomers and native peasants to build huts and cultivate corn plots (milpas) on their privately owned land, in return for seasonal help in running the ranch. Although technically tenants or sharecroppers, such part-time rural laborers developed de facto settlements of their own within the boundaries of many larger ranchos. A ranchero's trusted employee (often a poor relative) might eventually establish his own rancho and obtain a separate land title. Overtime and part-time workers as well as poor relatives of such new, independent rancheros might in turn create additional rural settlements or hamlets (rancherías ). Such hamletssome of which could again evolve into quite large villagesdid not look that different from subordinate settlements within the communal lands under the jurisdiction of native towns. Even in the late twentieth century both mestizo and indigenous rancherías lack street plans; the houses are strung out along the side of a hill or on both sides of a stream.


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, rancherossome of whom specialize in slaughtering cattleproduce 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 cattletogether with limited dairy productionis 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.


As in many agrarian societies, landownership, politics, and kinship are closely interconnected.

Kin Groups, Descent, and Kinship Terminology. Strictly speaking, mestizo rancheros do not have corporate kinship groups. Nevertheless, their large extended families, many of whom may enter into joint business ventures, often function as political "clans." A good example is the influential Santos family, which ruled the San Luis Potosí portion of the Huasteca for several generations. As in other parts of Latin America, Spanish surnames are passed on through the male line, although both men and women obtain the paternal surname of their mother as well. Officially, all property is inherited through both the male and female lines, but the male offspring are more likely to gain access to the family estate.

As with other Spanish-speaking Mexicans, kinship terminology is of the lineal or Eskimo type (as is the case for most Speakers of European languages). People in the Huasteca, however, distinguish between close, usually first, cousins (primos hermanos ) and more distant primos. This emphasis on differing degrees of proximity is consistent with the large size of extended families and the even more extensive network of in-laws and relatives.

Ties with both distant relatives and friends or neighbors can be strengthened by the well-known Latin American institution of compadrazgo (coparenthood). This is a form of fictive kinship whereby one couple promises to help another after becoming godparents of their child or sponsoring another ritual for them. Rancheros can become compadres to other rancheros as well as to economic subordinates.

Marriage and Family

Marriage and Domestic Unit. The level of formality of marriage ceremonies reflects the political and economic importance of the respective partners. Poorer rancheros often practice common-law marriage. Moreover, it is not unusual or considered improper for wealthy ranchero men to form consensual unions with additional women even if the man is already legally married. Such de facto polygamy results in multiple households, either in the same settlement or in different localities, but never under a single roof or even close to one another. The norm is that a man should only engage in such multiple marriages if he can afford to maintain more than one family. Mestizo rancheros may select indigenous women as second wives.

Inheritance. Technically, all legitimate children have the right to inherit land from their parents; however, although grown children often build houses and set up households on the family estate, the land is rarely divided until after the original patriarch passes away. For this reason, young couples interested in setting up their own ranchos usually have to buy land elsewhere. Given the strong intrafamily competition over eventual inheritance of large ranchos, there is often rivalry among brothers and close cousins. For men, marriage with women who come from the same class of rancheros could mean greater access to land. By the same token, it is not to the advantage of these men to have their own sisters married to men who could become additional claimants to the family estate.

Socialization. Until about the mid-1940s, children learned most of their life skills at home and at work. For boys, in particular, this included exposure to cowboy techniques, shooting, and an attitude of paternalism and racial superiority vis-à-vis the native population. At the same time, ranchero children used to interact daily with both native and mestizo workers, with whom they shared many cultural traits. Rancheros usually received at least some formal education in rural one-room schools, but with the expansion of the modern school system and opportunities to study outside of the region, a younger generation of rancheros is becoming increasingly urban and cosmopolitan in terms of values, linguistic usage, and identity. Consequently, many ranchero families have moved permanently into town and only visit their rustic homes on rare occasions, leaving the management of their properties in the hands of a manager to whom they might not even be related. This absenteeism is leading to a growing social gap between the rancheros and their ranch hands or other economic subordinates living on their ranchos.

Sociopolitical Organization

Mestizo rancheros have always maintained strong links with the national society while preserving a separate regional identity. Although formally integrated into the national system, rancheros kept effective control over the Huasteca through an informal power structure known as caciquismo (strong-boss rule). This form of organization is also associated with other regions of Mexico buttogether with the use of violence to eliminate political opponentshas been especially strong in the Huasteca. A personalistic form of politics, involving the activation of patron-client bonds by rival power holders, goes hand-in-hand with a high level of competition among leading families. Nevertheless, despite the periodic outbreaks of factional violence, the rancheros present a common front vis-à-vis outsiders, the Mexican state, and any threat to their class interests from below. Since the 1960s such social-class bonds have become institutionalized through a powerful regional cattlemen's association.

Social Control. The ranchero way of life is rapidly being incorporated into mainstream Mexican culture. Nevertheless, social control on the local level can still be exercised by means of the threat of violence. An infamous figure in the Huasteca is the gunslinger (pistolero ) who specializes in intimidation or assassination, usually at the behest of informal power holders. A high level of violence and the prevalence of cattle rustling and banditry in the past (especially in the period following the Mexican Revolution) put a premium on centralized control at both the municipal and regional level. While guaranteeing a minimum level of security for merchants and ranchers, as well as the public in general, the ranchero strong-bosses (caciques) of the Huasteca still had to use hired gunmen to implement their orders. Such caciques, even if they were working together with the government to "impose order," were prone to the abuse of authority. For example, ranchero politicians used to mobilize the peasant population into communal work parties to perform labor for the personal benefit of the cacique or to repair roads and put up buildings in mestizo centers, thus reducing the costs of local administration. More subtle forms of control were exercised through a ranchero value system that glorified machismo, strong leadership, and a disdain for more polite, urbane forms of social interaction.

Conflict. Prior to the 1970s, family vendettas were the predominant form of social conflict. Such interfamily feuding is an expression of tensions associated with difficulties in finding economically suitable marriage partners and rivalry over potential common-law partners; open confrontations were more prevalent among young, unmarried men brought up in a culture that emphasized valor and manliness (machismo). Barroom-type brawls and open gun battles over "skirts and land" were a frequent occurrence. Since about 1970, open class confrontations between rancheros and poor peasant cultivators have become more prevalent, especially in more densely populated areas. Such class conflict developed at a time of increasing economic inequalities and growing differentiation of life-styles between the ranchero elite and their economic subordinates. Ironically, violent confrontations involving land invasions by angry peasants (or cowboys) started to occur at a time when town-based rancheros were becoming more educated and "civilized." In this situation, old-style pistoleros again had an opportunity to make a living by fighting on both sides.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Almost all Huasteca rancheros are nominally Roman Catholic, although some are quite anticlerical while others are devout. There is no tradition of some sons becoming priests, however, so there are few ranchero priests (compared to many ranchero teachers or doctors). In terms of personal beliefs and practices, especially those concerning healing, traditional rancheros have a lot in common with the rest of the population. For example, rancheros are just as likely to consult native healers. Some rancheros also participate in the same religious ceremonies as mestizo and Nahua or Huastec peasants. Mestizo rancheros also celebrate the Huastec version of the Day of the Dead, as do other people from the region.

Arts. Male rancheros in the Huasteca developed their own country-music tradition, consisting of improvisational vocal singing (sones ) accompanied by a violin and a four-string and a five-string guitar. Verses sung with a high falsetto were ripe with sarcasm, satire, and humor. Several musical groups (trios ) whose members came from ranchero families achieved national and even international fame. This music was played at all dances held in ranchos and rancherías throughout the Huasteca until about the mid-1970s. With the invasion of new, externally created styles of music and ballroom-style dancing, the traditional huapango dances fell into decline, to be performed for occasional folklore or school displays. This decline of ranchero-style music is another indication of the rapid ebbing of ranchero hegemony.

See alsoNahua of the Huasteca


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