Corazón Vaquero: Last of the Californio Cowboys of Baja California

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The film Corazón Vaquero: The Heart of the Cowboy, documents the rural “Californios,” raising livestock in the way of their Spanish ancestors in the Southern Baja California mountains. Facing tourism development, road building, and cultural changes, the isolated ranchos still persist with their self-sustaining, subsistence-based way of life.

Corazon Vaquero Heat of the Cowboy, Baja CaliforniaThe Endangered Rural Californios of Baja

In the remote mountains of Baja California Sur live small communities of people who have maintained their way of life for 300 years. These direct descendants of the Spanish missionary soldiers, Californios, still live the lifestyle of the California Vaquero, an extension of the Spanish Vaquero, who brought their cattle-raising traditions as well as both horses and domesticated cattle to the Americas.

About 3,000 people remain living in remote ranchos only reachable after many hours of riding mule-back into deep and rugged canyons. Their only transportation is via mules, burros, and sometimes horses. Their existence in the arid land depends on the scarce availability of water, and the cattle and goats that provide the basis of their subsistence.

Corazón Vaquero documents the hospitality of the mountain people, by western saddlemaker Garry McClintock, independent filmmaker Cody McClintock, and renowned Baja California photographer Eve Ewing, in this informative and entertaining portrait of a people living in harmony with their environment.

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Documentary Film: Corazón Vaquero: The Heart of the Cowboy –  To see the entire film, buy the DVD: Discover Baja

Almost completely self-sufficient, the people still survive by making their own products, from food to clothing, boots and shoes, to homes, to saddles, to ropes, to bits, to spurs, and everything else livestock tenders must have to accomplish their day-to-day tasks. Their carefully husbanded gardens were built from earth hauled into the rocky canyons bottoms on the backs of burros and are nurtured by ingeniously engineered water relocation projects.

Their economic system is one of neighboring, sharing, and bartering; leather-crafters trade with silver-smiths, gardeners trade with meat and cheese producers, home builders trade with animal traders. It has only been in recent times that actual money has entered the equation.

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responsible grazing, Baja California

Holistic cattle grazing practices found among the Californio cowboys of remote Baja can become an example of responsible grazing that improves the efficiency of soil nutrient cycles and water retention processes, fostering biodiversity, and reducing soil erosion. Photo from Rancho Cacachiles.

What emerges then is a people who are not largely Indian from Baja California, but descendants from mainland Mexico and foreigners, as documented by Harry Crosby in his 1981 book, Last of the Californios. Names are likened to the Jesuit past; marriages were kept within the near family since outsiders rarely approach the settlements. All children growing up in such primitive conditions learn early responsibility as a part of the survival process in a hard and desolate country. The relationship of the elderly as teachers of the ways of life to the young remains significant and important.

The mountain settlers reflect a localized, self-reliant culture not affected by television, radio, or the exterior world. They don’t suffer from traffic or noise, and isolation breeds a strong sense of personal identity and community character. In this region, families support one another in order to survive.

Unfortunately, the balance of isolation with accessibility is shifting with new roads and development, satellite television, mobile phones, and the internet, and the culture may be lost within the next decade or two.

“This economy, with many of its practices and traditions almost unchanged, persisted to a remarkable degree in 1967 when I first entered the remote areas. However, in half a dozen years, the paved road brought in the outside world and old ways quickly began to fade. Goods and produce from the mainland and tourism from the United States changed the local economy by lowering demand for more expensive local produce and by creating other needs for local labor. I was extremely fortunate to arrive before those events, to travel to many dozens of inaccessible ranches, to know their people, and to experience the last days of a culture hauntingly like that of our own American West in the nineteenth century. ” — Harry Crosby

STORY: Kumeyaay People: Traditions Survive in Baja California

The Transpeninsular Highway has brought more outsiders to their lands to witness the history and prehistory of Lower California. This contact unfortunately breaks down the independent self-image which these people maintain. Will they feel that they should compare themselves and their way of life to what the outsiders have? Will they feel they are poor and unworthy? The answer is yes, of course. So, Corazón Vaquero stands as an important testament to a way of life that is endangered.

A 2012 conference of the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) convened in Loreto, Baja California Sur, with cooperation from the good people of the small town on the Gulf of California. Thanks to Trudi Angell of Paddling South, who does trips into the remote mountains, and who introduced me to this film. 

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About Jack Eidt

Novelist, urban theorist, and environmental journalist, Jack Eidt careens down human-nature's all consuming one-way highway to its inevitable conclusion -- Wilder Utopia. He co-founded Wild Heritage Planners, based out of Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at jack (dot) eidt (at) wilderutopia (dot) com. Follow him on Twitter @WilderUtopia and @JackEidt