SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Chances are that if you have a Spanish last name and you originate in Texas, your earliest ancestors developed the vaquero way of life.
Indeed, their very survival depended on it. While that is true throughout our state, it is especially true in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley. So, Texans who qualify should feel much honored to claim that distinction in their genealogy.
So important to the founding of our state, the word “Vaquero” symbolizes the most important of Texas icons. Even the Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team”, have their team name’s roots in the word vaquero.
“Vaquero” is embedded in the Rio Grande Valley. Most young people are unaware that the entire South Texas region was once part of the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, and its rich vaquero traditions. Nor are they aware that key pieces in the mainstream Texas history puzzle, missing since 1848, are just now re-surfacing, such as the Tejano Monument in Austin.
Learning anew of their heritage, modern-day students will find out the reasons why their earliest roots in Texas lead to the honorable vaquero. The truth is that it was honest, hard work. The unique occupation enjoyed a dignified, respectful reputation and lifestyle in early Texas. It is for that reason that I offer the following details.
As Spanish Mexican pioneer settlers began arriving in the early 1700s from population centers in central and northern New Spain (Mexico), the towns they established in Texas remained small in size. The reason is simple.Large communities in a frontier take a very long time to develop.
For example, the first towns were able to support only a few people. One of the chief problems is that goods were difficult to transport. Large general merchandise stores typically seen in western movies were rare. Those that did exist had an extremely limited inventory. Most of the time, they were very small buildings and their shelves were usually bare.
As such, the greatest majority of citizens lived and worked cattle in ranchos peppering South Texas’ wide open spaces. That is where all the action took place. Tracing their beginnings to the Spanish porción system, they quickly overgrew that archaic method of land control. By the latter part of the 1700s, most self-respecting ranchos were also self-sustaining. Isolated from sources of food, supplies, ranch implements, furniture, etc.., the rancheros (vaqueros) had a simple credo. If they couldn’t raise it, make it, or build it; they didn’t need it.
Albeit, what is it that Texas owes to the vaquero? Most ranch lingo is in Spanish. Included are: bronc (bronco), buckaroo (vaquero), mustang (mesteño), lariat (la riata), cinch (cincho), chaps (chaparreras), ranch (rancho), and many others. Also, fields that most people normally don’t associate with vaqueros – land management, water rights, public education system, community rights of women, and law, were all initiated in early Texas by our Tejano/Tejana ancestors. In the words of Dr. Andrés Tijerina, History Professor, Austin Community College, most of what Texas is known for today was developed by the early Texas vaquero.
If there is one person who deserves to be called the first Texas vaquero, it would be Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo. He is the first person to lead a major cattle drive in Texas when he and his team of vaqueros herded several thousand head of cattle, horses, sheep, and goats to what is now San Antonio. Nearly equal in stature to that momentous birth of the cattle industry in Texas is the role of Spanish missionaries and Native American residents of the several missions of early Texas. In reality, they were the first homegrown vaqueros (cowboys and cowgirls) of Texas. They are the ones who tended and expanded the first herds driven to Texas in 1721.
After only a few years, the herds had multiplied many times over and roamed freely in the open spaces. Thus, the first roundups of cattle and the vaquero (cowboy) way of life evolved from the Spanish missions. Not only did the vast herds provide for the well-being of mission residents, but the missionaries shared their bounty with town residents who soon developed and began managing their own herds.
What about pioneer women in early Texas? They include Rosa Maria Hinojosa de Ballí. At one time, her land holdings covered over one-third of the present-day Lower Rio Grande Valley. Another unsung heroine of vaquero/vaquera life in South Texas is Ignacia Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe, a true pioneer woman of early Texas. Her story is one of faith, hope, and determination. She established “El Uribeño Ranch”, the area that grew into the San Ygnacio, Texas community. Many of her descendants still live in Zapata and Webb Counties.
Both Rosa Maria and Ignacia represent a fact that is not well known in history. That is, that much of the early success of the ranching and agriculture industries was due to the hard work and dedication of a significant number of pioneer women who either worked side-by-side their husbands or took on the responsibility to manage large ranchos themselves. They earned their own right to the title vaqueras, because they often worked cattle alongside vaqueros.
The point in covering the above history is to remind Mexican-descent Rio Grande Valley citizens that the words Tejano and Vaquero represent an idea – a way of life – not to a single individual. Being a vaquero takes great skill and intelligence. It’s one of the most dangerous occupations. At the same time, it’s one of the most rewarding and its rare history of grit and guts (courage) deserves preserving for future generations.
Additionally, Dr. Tijerina reminds us that when we visit the Tejano Monument in Austin, we need to think about Family. We must never forget that when our earliest vaquero ancestors in Texas travelled, they did so as a family. In other words, while each of the statues in the memorial is vital, the central theme of the Tejano Monument is depicted by the young couple and their two young children.
Finally, most of the Rio Grande Valley’s Mexican-descent students are descendants of this proud tradition. Thus, it is their duty to reconnect with their ancestors by reclaiming the Vaquero (cowboy) persona as their own. Far from being an offensive, stereotype term, displaying the “Vaquero” (Cowboy) cultural heritage symbol as the UTRGV mascot is a badge of honor. It’s the right thing to do for the right reasons in Tejas (Texas).
José “Joe” Antonio López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” and, “The First Texas Independence, 1813.” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.