"The boundaries moved": How the Spanish vaquero became the American cowboy
It's a cold morning on the banks of Los Pinos River somewhere on the Colorado/New Mexico border, only the sound of the river burbles by.
Until, suddenly, 900 sheep and a few goats appear on the mountainside.
Every year in the fall, the herd must ford this river, and every year, they put up a fight. The flock bunches at the stream edge. Finally, the sheepherder on horseback lassos one of the goats by the horns. He pulls him into the current and across. The other goats follow and then the sheep start fording in a great surge.
"Sometimes they sit there and look at the water for half an hour and then cross, no problem. Sometimes they do it by themselves, just depending on their mood," Sheep Rancher Andrew Abeyta explains. He's up here today to help his sheepherder get the flock over the river. Last year, he says their mood wasn't so good. It took them hours to cross. But hard as this work is, Andrew says he still loves it.
"Sometimes it's not an easy life," Andrew admits. "I guess the only good thing about it is it's so independent, you can come and go as you please. And you don't answer no one."
Nine generations of Andrew's family have ranched on this landscape. Andrew's brother Aaron Abeyta is an award-winning poet and family historian. He's traced the family back all the way to Juan de Oñate, the infamous conquistador who brutally destroyed the Acoma Pueblo in 1599. Aaron is pretty sure his mom's family traveled north with Oñate. Back then, much of the American West was part of Mexico.
"So many of the people that came with Oñate were not in the registers," Aaron says. "They were women and/or slaves and/or Indigenous. So they weren't even listed. I'm sure my dad's story is something similar."
Eventually, around 1854, both sides of Aaron's family came north on a missionary expedition to settle in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. That's how the community ended up building the very first church in Colorado and starting the town of Antonito.
"I think they were looking for their own identities," he says. "And think of the violence of that era, and the generations that preceded it. Think of the way that people were colonized, and the brutality of that colonization. How do you heal that? Maybe you remove yourself from it, looking for a place that's absent those things?"
Vaquero Historian Jim Hoy says such missionary stories are part of the origins of the vaquero. Hoy says they were highly skilled on horseback. Many descended from Moorish ex-slaves who brought expert Arab riding styles. Spanish vaqueros developed innovative methods to manage livestock across the vast open spaces of the Americas.
"The American cattle workers learned from the Spanish and Mexican vaqueros," Hoy says. "They got their horse and riding styles from them, they got their equipment, their saddles. The vaqueros wore a kind of extra pair of pants made out of leather, leather leggings, which they called a chaparreras. American cowboys adopted those. I mean, it's brush country down there and cactus country and you need something to protect your legs."
Lassoing techniques, rodeos, even the iconic cowboy hat, all come from the Mexican vaquero.
"Now the problem is, of course, that we've always thought of the cowboy as white. Any black on the range was a cook. Mexicans were bandits. I mean, that's just terrible stereotypes," Hoy says.
That racism even affected the Abeyta family.
In the 1990s, Aaron's parents, Alfonzo and Martha, were principal plaintiffs in a large lawsuit by Latino farmers against the U.S. Department of Agriculture for discriminatory lending practices. Alfonzo remembers trying to get a loan at the bank to buy some land.
"[The banker] said, 'Son, your people were born to be farmworkers, not farm owners.' I got out of there, I was so mad."
Alfonzo and Martha carefully documented this discrimination over decades and received a settlement.
Alfonzo has an argument he uses to counter the perception that his family doesn't belong in the U.S.
"Well, this was Mexico," Alfonzo says. "So the United States came to us, we didn't go to them. So we didn't cross the border illegally. The boundaries moved, then we became the United States."
These days, poet Aaron Abeyta is the mayor of Antonito, the town his family settled in Colorado and started a school there teaching children to speak the unique style of Heritage Spanish spoken in the area.
This story will be part of a longer series on the evolving American cowboy coming soon on The Modern West podcast.