The last Mexican Vaquero
Perched on his stead in the Sierra Madres mountains, Diego Madrid, 70, talks about life as a Mexican vaquero in the isolated Sonoran desert.
By Amy Willis, Rancho Los Banos, Sonora
In the barren scrubland of the north Mexican desert, Diego Madrid rides alone amid the thorned tentacles of Ocotillo cactuses, Jackrabbits and high Sierras. There is no civilisation for miles.
Spotting the recently sheathed skin of a rattle snake, the bobbing white tail of a Pronghorn Antelope or the hollowed carcass of a wild Javelina can be a matter of life or death for a cowboy trekking in the mountains; signaling the stirring of a venomous creature or a carnivore on the prowl.
At 70 years-old, Diego is one of the last real Mexican vaqueros – a livestock herder whose traditions and ways of working the cattle are considered the root of all cowboy skills in the Wild West today.
Diego, who has three sons and one daughter, has spent his life working in the foothills of the Sierra Madres and knows the 30,000 acres of desert savanna as if it was palm of his own hand.
For him, every gulley, crease or mound in the land tells a story. Whether it is a horse that isn’t from the ranch or a mountain lion that has captured a calf, he can tell what is happening by studying their tracks. “It is an important skill,” he says.
As Diego saddles up his horse, making sure the leather horn fits securely over the animal’s wither, he does so quietly. The younger cowboys around him are larking around, lassoing each other.
He slides his full suede chaps over his jeans and snaps the buckles of his spurs shut. He affixes his lasso tightly to his saddle, tying the leather tassels in a quick-release knot. His Stetson-style hat is already moulded tightly to his head.
The group has 20 calves to catch, brand and castrate in the wooden corral a couple of miles ride away, having spent much of the week driving herds of cattle from the mountain peaks, down the valleys and into the corral.
The group set off on horseback, some of the cowboys bring up the rear in a pickup truck.
Born in nearby village San Juan del Rio, Diego has spent nearly 50 years working at Rancho Los Banos in the mountains where he still works today. The ranch, one of the largest per hectare in northern Mexico, has recently opened its doors to westerners, sharing some of the traditions of the vaqueros.
A couple of miles ride down a winding dirt track, a dozen calves are huddled in a corner of the corral. As the vaqueros arrive, the animals concertina together, their eyes flitting between each man as he dismounts and gathers his lasso. One of the cowboys, wearing a baseball cap, is casually sharpening a knife as he learns against a truck while another is chatting on his mobile phone. Diego is by the wooden fence watching the calves.
Vaqueros learn their trade through knowledge passed down the generations, Diego explains through translator Manuel Valenzuela, whose family own the ranch.
As a little boy he would trail his father, Dario Madrid, helping handle the animals, weaving lasso rope, and fixing the leather pommels, cantles and fenders of the elaborate but sturdy western saddles.
“From the age of 10 I already could tame my father’s wild horses and turn them into workable horses,” he says. “As a youngster I was just a crazy guy and I would just go full speed with cowboying. My father would get very upset and say it is going to kill you son but I didn’t care, I just loved lassoing.”
A full-blown cowboy at 18, single-handedly Diego would wrestle bulls on his saddle horn, using Ironwood trees and rope to bolster the animal’s strength. Cowboys have been gored to death roping cattle – it is not for the faint of heart.
“I’ve been charged and run over by many cattle. You get injured and survive, recover and just move on,” he says, describing a time when he was dragged by the stirrups and almost snapped his back rolling under a mule. His spine was only saved after landing on sand.
Another time, Diego was trapped under his horse. “I was lassoing a cow and the cow was very strong. It pulled both me and the horse to the ground with me falling underneath. The horse kicked me so hard it almost broke my shin. I struggled to free myself but the rope was wrapped around us both. Eventually the horse moved to one side and I was able to survive.”
The calves separate into two groups as the vaqueros attempt to lasso them to the ground
A lone calf panics and charges forward, breaking away from the rest. With a quick step, the cowboys work together, spinning loops of rope in the air and then whipping them to the ground to tighten around the animal’s legs. Eventually, with rope pinned around the calf’s hocks, they bring it to its knees and roll it over.
One of the cowboys pulls a small knife from the pocket of his chaps and quickly slices at the skin on the animal’s belly. He removes the testices in just a couple of movements.
Gathering up their ropes and the remains of the snipped innards, they motion at Diego to ground the next animal. Despite his years, he brings the calf down gracefully with just a few snaps of the rope. Back in the day he was the only vaquero to nearly 100 cows, administering injections, performing castrations and filing down horns by himself. It is a skill he will never forget.
But while Diego’s memories will never fade, he is worried about the next generation of vaqueros.
“The round-ups have changed completely,” Diego says. “Back in the day myself and the other cowboys would go at midnight, ride all the way to the high Sierra, spend the night and in the morning ride and bring in the cattle. Nowadays they wait for the sun to come up,” Diego says.
“In the old days if there were no horses we’d go and catch them no questions asked. You don’t get that now.” he explains, adding that today’s cowboys rarely tame their own horses.
The result is a generation of vaqueros with a very different work ethic. Many have dropped typical vaquero traits, instead using mobile phones to plan ahead rather than reading the land and swapping stetsons for baseball caps.
As the last of the castrations are finished, the cowboys begin their journey back along the dust road to the main ranch houses.
An orange glow illuminates the sky overhead as the desert sun melts into the backdrop.
From his bay gelding, Diego looks out over the limestone nodules of the mountainside. He has worked at 10 ranches in his lifetime, but has always been drawn back to Rancho Los Banos. He has a lot of history at the ranch and everywhere he looks he sees things he has built.
Things are slowing down for him these days, but Diego insists he will keep riding out to the high Sierras and watching over the cattle until the day he dies.
Rancho Los Banos is a guest ranch in the north Mexican desert. More information about the ranch is on www.tierrachamahuaecoadventures.com including rates for stays all-year round. Roundups happen twice a year, in the spring and the Autumn. The ranch features on the Top 50 ranches website.
Reference & Photos: www.telegraph.co.uk