In “Life along the Border,” educator and writer Jovita González distinctly personalizes the character of the Vaquero.
Based on her first-person interviews, it’s perhaps one of the most vivid descriptions of a unique persona, still very common in the first half of 20th Century South Texas.
“…either a mestizo or criollo, [the Vaquero] was a fiery-spirited man, wild if you please, over whom the master had no control. He disliked law and restraint, hated innovations and newcomers. The open range was his haven and as he galloped across the prairie, horse and rider appeared as one.”
(Note: The last part of the quote is why I call Vaqueros the “Cossacks of Texas”.)
Please keep in mind that when Ms. González mentions that the Vaquero disliked law, she doesn’t mean he was an anarchist. On the contrary, he was as law-abiding as they come. In his view, there was no need for dedicated lawmen on the open range. He and his fellow Vaqueros followed a code of behavior where faith, honor, and a hard day’s work were all that were needed to live from cradle to grave in quiet dignity.
At its heart, Vaquero life consisted of both strong matriarchal and patriarchal patterns where unwritten core values were dutifully practiced by everyone. Besides, due to the fact that the government didn’t (or couldn’t) provide police forces, Vaqueros themselves established their own security (compañía volante), and justice system that resembled a regular court of law.
The author goes on to say that the Vaquero was a product of the frontier, but not in the English language sense meaning a border or boundary. Rather, it represents the Spanish Mexican concept of a “Frontera,” a regional way of living in wild territory stretching for hundreds of miles in all directions.
How did South Texas Vaqueros and Vaqueras acquire their skills? The answer is that 50 years after the Spanish landing in Hispaniola, there were already working ranchos in central Mexico. It was from there that Count José de Escandón found volunteers to settle the Villas del Norte on the Lower Rio Grande. Specifically, Nuevo León and Coahuila played important roles in the development of the rancho industry, because it is from those northern states that pioneer ranchers such as Tomás Sánchez, José Vásquez Borrego, and José Antonio Zapata originate.
Sufficient to say, by the late 1700s there were dozens of large self-sustaining, self-sufficient ranchos, resembling small oases in South Texas. They were towns in every respect, offering travelers food, shelter, and human contact. If ranchos like Randado, near Hebbronville, couldn’t build it or grow it, they didn’t need it. It was here where Vaqueros received their on-the-job-training. Three others quickly come to mind: Carnestolendas, El Capitaneño, and El Uribeño.
Briefly, Carnestolendas is the name that my ancestor Blas Maria de la Garza Falcón gave to his ranch home that became Rio Grande City. El Capitaneño was established by my ancestor Capitán José M. Cuellar during the initial settlement of the area now known as Zapata and Webb Counties. El Uribeño was started by my great, great, great grandmother Ignacia Gutiérrez de Lara Uribe in 1822. El Uribeño and the Jesús Treviño homestead represent the earliest roots of today’s San Ygnacio (Zapata), Texas families. As with other large ranchos, El Uribeño had its own school.
Vaqueros had little or no formal education. However, out of necessity, they were multi-skilled individuals. They were builders, water well diggers, healers, botanists, vets, horse whisperers, etc. Most also enjoyed the arts. Playing the guitar, many were adept at composing and singing oral sagas (corridos) that chronicled life in the isolated campo.
Wisely honing his skills, the Vaquero could look forward to one day becoming a caporal (foreman); owning cattle and buying a piece of land (rancho) he could call his own. Thus, he would raise his family and hopefully send his children to boarding school. Although small in comparison to pueblos, ranchos thrived on both sides (ambos lados) of the Rio Grande; the main source of Spanish-surnamed Texans’ family trees.
Because of its basic lingo, gear, and appearance, the data base of the famous Texas cowboy image stands firmly on Vaquero boots’ footprints. (Even the word “cowboy” is an exact translation of “Vaquero”, initially pronounced “Buckaroo” by English-speakers in the U.S.) Still, conventional U.S. writers habitually downplay these links. Worse, in rare occasions when they write about it, they tend to generalize, disregarding actual details. For example, there’s no such thing as a “cowboy wrapped in white linen,” quoting a line from the song, “Streets of Laredo”.
Clearly, the words to that popular tune were written by someone who was inattentive to the fine points of pioneer life in early Texas. Plainly, the song promotes the wrong picture because “wrapped in white linen” (pantalón blanco) refers to a ranch laborer, not a cowboy (Vaquero). In fact, two institutions in U.S. folklore culture continue to perpetuate detrimental legends concerning Vaqueros — “western” movies and “shoot ‘em up” paperback novels.
Another example? In my view, movie-popularized “Cowboys and Indians” battles are illogical. It wasn’t cowboys, but land-hungry white settlers and the overly aggressive U.S. Army that brutalized Indians when taking their land. In truth, Indians (more respectfully, Native Americans) were the first cowboys and cowgirls in Texas, with likely names of Juan de Dios and Maria de la Luz. Plus, Vaqueros could shoot, but were rarely armed. Weapons and ammo then were not only expensive, but heavy and unreliable. Ranching tools and supplies were the Vaquero’s purchases of choice.
Undeniably, Vaqueros produced the Nueces-Rio Grande area cattle industry. By way of the Camino Real trail drives, they transferred their ranch concept to other parts of the U.S. Truly, they’re pillars of early Texas. Most effectively, Laredo’s Armando Hinojosa superbly expresses this idea by depicting a Vaquero family as a major element of the Tejano Monument in Austin.
Bottom Line? Vaqueros are “head and shoulders” above Hollywood-inspired myths. Yet, ever present in western films, they nearly always appear only as background props; rarely ever given positive, main cast “cowboy” roles, the image they created. Albeit, the following comforting thought should be of some consolation. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and so it is in this case. ¡Vivan las Vaqueras y los Vaqueros!