7. In the Far Southwest
IT IS A LOVELY spring evening and strangely quiet for March now that the wind has stopped blowing. When I went around back of the building a few minutes ago to throw the day's tin cans into the arroyo, I stopped under the mesquite at the south corner of the schoolroom and looked at the Baboquívari Mountains wrapped in the serene vagueness of moonlight. There is a compulsion to stare long at things that are beautiful, a yearning to remember them forever; not accepting the universal law that all must pass, but trying to immortalize the fleeting moment. Tonight's enchantment is double because tomorrow will be Friday—the gift of calendar-makers to school people.
I could sense excitement even before Arturo came to my window to say that Joe (his oldest brother, José) and Chato (his next oldest brother, Concepción) are going to the roundup in the morning, Badilla having been sent to recruit them. They will make camp for three or four weeks the other side of the Sierrita Mountains, several days at Batamote up on the divide, a day at San Juan, two days at Palo Alto, then here at Poso Nuevo the last stand of the Quarter-Circle D V Bar corrida.
We have the roundup twice a year—spring and fall at branding time. For the family here it is a great event—as certainly it is for the school—outranking all legal holidays, saint days, Christmas, and even the Tucson rodeo. The children are carried away by all the excitement. They will eat with the chuck wagon. The outfit will kill a fat cow. There will be cars of company driving up to see the cowboys and hear the news. The girls will dance in the front room with the younger vaqueros. The boys will hunker around the campfire or sprawl on the bedrolls listening to the insolent, inconsequential, profane gossip of the cowhands. And every night there will be singing until late bedtime. If there is anything
Our roundup is probably the most pretentious “works” in Southern Arizona for it covers so much territory. Tons of hay are hauled in ahead of time. The DV chuck wagon is a big truck loaded down with grub and about two dozen bedrolls. The twenty-odd cowboys, most of them regular employees of the ranch, are all Mexicans. You hear nothing but Spanish even if the big boss comes out from town. And the cattle work is done in the ancient vaquero manner, as is the horse breaking.
Last spring there was a gringo with the outfit. I was curious about the tall blond man squatting alone by the fire while the Mexicans were spending the late evening with the Aros family—singing and dancing (paseándose). On the third evening I ventured out to talk with him. He was a bank representative (sent out to take count of the cattle), a man of experience in relatively cultured environments. During our conversation he said, in a sincere and kindly way, that it was foolish to try to educate these children or encourage them to go to high school.
For the moment, as we sat listening to their songs and chatter and laughter, it appeared that he was right. They seemed completely satisfied, wanting no modern civilization with its eternal worries over finances, diets, sanitation, and economic advancement. Their ancestors have lived like this for hundreds of years. Their customs and manners are securely fixed by traditions. They know what to expect and what to prepare for; how to train their young to fit into recurring patterns. Few of them are ever restless with discontent or fear of insecurity. They accept the vaquero life of freedom and bondage.
Conceding all that, I had another viewpoint. I knew that the glamorous simple life on the range could not bear close inspection. Many of the men lounging about in a carefree manner—after twelve or fifteen hours in the saddle—were wearing the same clothes they began the roundup in. They carried no toothbrushes or antiseptic lotions. Most of them used a common towel and comb. None were making any provisions for themselves or their families beyond the daily food. Practically all of them were doomed to painful and destitute years of old age.
They had killed a cow the evening before, right in the courtyard between the corrals and the house. I covered my head with a pillow and yelled to shut out her death cries, for they cut her throat and let her die lingeringly “to make the meat more tender.” They took out
As we sat talking by the red hot coals the cowboys were singing and laughing, their songs monotonously crude, their jokes coarse and cruel. Some of them, odorously unwashed, were dancing with the patient romantic girls, their boot heels clopping on the cement floor raising a sinister gray dust.
In a way perhaps they were satisfied with their ill-paid work and immature play, accepting their destiny. But they all, even the children, looked tired and bewildered—as if sensing that their destiny was defeat. I wondered if they feared intuitively the hard road to improvement, beset, as it surely is, by unknown miseries, roughened by man's savage inhumanities.
“Teach them to read and write a little,” the bank man said, “and figure enough for their simple accounts so they won't get cheated. Then leave them alone. Somebody has got to do their work, and they like it.”
It seemed courteous to grant him his side of the discussion. But I did tell him some of the interesting things my pupils were doing to widen their experiences and enrich their lives. They might be “these Mexicans” to the bank man; to me they are individuals—my Arturo, Edward, Pili, Teddy—every one of them. And I know and share their thoughts, their pleasures, their pains, their worries. I want to help them.
Of course I can't give them jobs or money. I can't prepare them in any definite way for “this changing world.” I am not even sure what changes they will encounter. What I want to do right now is to influence their attitudes and outlooks. Perhaps, in a small group such as this, it is impossible—except in rare cases—to teach them to think for themselves. I can only hope to infect them with a taste for literature because it epitomizes all we know of human life. I want to arouse in them respect and desire for liberty, justice, and tolerance—within reason. I want them to believe in germs, sensible hygiene, reasonable ambition, fair play. These things have been done for the ancestors of the banker and me, and for most (I hope) of American citizens. They were done by education. And often by the direct influence of dedicated sympathetic individuals such as Horace Mann and, perhaps, Jane Addams.
Ysidra has just knocked on my door and asked to borrow the school clock. The alarm will ring fifteen feet from my head about three o'clock in the morning to arouse the boys who are to ride off to the “work.” Too bad I can't share their enthusiasm, for, like it or not, I shall have to endure another roundup about the last of April or first week in May. I hate the dust, the racket, the infringement of what privacy I have—since my only door opens right on their camp a few yards away—the suffering of the animals, and the brutalizing influence on my boys.
The little cowpunchers watch the branding with keen pleasure. Sometimes they are called upon to help. Branding is necessary. But in practice it is deliberate mayhem and done in the grossest cruelty. Boys in this region do not object to cruelty. They like outdoing a living creature that tries to get away. It excites their imaginations so that there is always the troublesome aftermath of games at school recesses. After the roundup the kids play rodeo. If they are ropers they have lots of fun. Every fellow who has a rope is a vaquero; the others have to be cattle. It is bound to end disastrously for the weaker ones for, as in actual cowboy practice, it's a battle of brute force with all the odds on one side. I let it go on for awhile because I know the young rascals are learning to lazar. But as soon as one of the small boys gets his feet jerked out from under him and his face skinned, I ban the game during school hours.
While we are in school this morning we hear the thundering hoofs of the cattle coming on the plain. We hear the cowboys hollering their indian war whoops. The cows are bawling as hard as they can for their little orejanos (long-eared ones).
There are about fourteen cowboys. The boss, or the mayordomo, and a helper are separating the cattle such as the calves that are not branded. You can see the horses so calmly among the sharp horns of the cattle.
This cattle belongs to a rich man whose home ranch is far over the mountains to the east of us. He has a very fine herd of Herefords. Twice a year he has a roundup on account of so much cattle. Today in the afternoon they are going to brand the little long ears. The school kids all like to see them brand. —E. H.’’ ‘‘ BREAKFAST AT THE CHUCK WAGON
Saturday and Sunday we gathered all the mares again because the boss told my father that they would come and help him drive them to Palo Alto. We got them ready Saturday and fed them. We are still feeding them as the men have not come yet.
Those two days were very windy and rainy. We all got wet. Just for nothing for I think my father is going to turn them loose again because they have been three days in the corral without enough to eat. My father is angry for this is two times he has gathered the mares, because they told him they were coming to take them and then they haven't come. And we can only help him on Saturday and Sunday because we have to go to school. —Ramón A.’’ ‘‘ THE ROUND-UP
When the Round Up truck came to Poso Nuevo I peeped through the school window and saw some of the cowboys taking our wood which I brought for our family to use and I felt bad. But when they left they left a pile of wood for us.
They are coming back again in a few days. This wasn't a real round up—only a few came this time. There are going to be lots more when they come again because they are going to gather all the cattle. This time they got only the steers. They didn't brand the calves because they were in a hurry to deliver the steers. —R. A.’’ ‘‘ CUTTING HORNS TO STEERS
The boss came from Canoa, the big ranch, and said to gather all the cattle so as to get the little steers and cut off their horns. We were eight in all that went to get steers Saturday. We brought twenty-eight that belong to the water at Buenos Aires and only eighteen for Poso Nuevo to cut their horns off.
I think my father is going to keep getting them. We don't get to help him very much because we come to school. We have time only on Saturday and Sunday. On those days we are a family of vaqueros. —Frank Aros’’
In writing stories about our way of living the little cowpunchers are likely to assume that everyone knows ranch work. They know it so well. In most cases it is about all they do know. Mary and Edward are exceptions.
“I don't pay much attention to horses,” he told me one day, baring his soul. He seemed to be trying to say “You see I can't be a vaquero—the only future my family can offer me. Can you do something about it?”
There is a fearful gap to bridge between isolated children such as these and the confusing, roaring, rushing, smashing, industrialized, smart-know-how world of our modern civilization. Independence costs so much effort, when it is up to the individual, so much time and endurance, that it may never seem worthwhile to many little cowpunchers. The bank representative need not worry for another half century. Personally, I pin my hopes on the next generation. My little cowpunchers' children must go out into the changing world and change with it.
There is a dusty clattering interval in the corral as mounts are roped out. I cannot see the lassoing except in snatches as I go in and out my door. The saddling up takes place in the yard. The schoolboys hang around with the greatest interest. Backs are humped, stinging ropes lash out, and salty steeds are topped off under whip and spur in a tumult of shouting, swearing, wild laughter, and facetious pranks.
It is amusing to hear the nicknames the vaqueros tie to each other. They are apt, but sometimes unkind. There are the Spanish equivalents of the everpresent Shorty and Curley—Chapo and Chino. Pancho and Chico serve for Francisco as Rich and Dick do for Richard. But our vaqueros are more personal, even cruel. Whatever is peculiar about a man becomes his label. He is called Prieto because he is dark-skinned; Mocho, because he is lame, or one-armed; Gordo, because he is fat; Jorochi, if he is inclined to be humpbacked; Zurdo, if left-handed. One of our roundup hands is called Borreguito (Lamb); another is Ojo de Liebre (Jack-Rabbit's Eye); then we have Cara de Papa (Potato-face); Coyote; Huero (Blondy); El Viche de Tubutama—because he is always going around looking for a good time—something like our Playboy. One is Zopilote (Buzzard), because
The roundup detracts from school interest and school spirit. I must share my children with the corrida excitement. Partly to offset the interruptions and get their minds back at school I tried to put them to writing stories for Little Cowpuncher about other subjects in our environment—perhaps the weather or the great outdoors round about us. They came up with stories on what the cowhands were doing for diversion, judging cattle, beans as the “salvation of the west,” and horse-racing, a festive event at roundup time. I was forced to conclude that their minds had not really been diverted from the roundup at all. Here is what they wrote: ‘‘ THE LITTLE WILD PIG
Thursday the cowboys brought a wild pig. A javalina. It was a little one. It bit one of the
cowboy's fingers with her little sharp teeth. We gave her some pumpkin to
eat. At night we put her in a pen of chicken wire and she ran away. We could
not find her.
—Víctor Aros, Third Grade
The difference between good cattle and common cattle is that good cattle have a straight back, short legs, a kind of flat face, and a bushy tail at the end. They are dark red with white faces. Their horns are different too. They don't have them long and high like the common cattle. They go down toward their faces a little.
Beans are the salvation of the west. If we didn't have beans to eat some of us would starve to death. We have been discovering that most Americans from nowdays are enjoying our best food: beans and tortillas. Beans to ranchers are the staff of life.
When we fry beans the lard has to be well burned so the beans will
taste good. Not all of the Mexicans know how to cook beans. Each family cooks
them a different way. Most of the people who live in the West eat beans. Each
day is our Thanksgiving day for beans.
There were three races. Concepción Aros won two and P. S. Hernández won the other. The first race was run by Brownie and Cottontail. Brownie started first but at half of the ground Cottontail was ahead. Two brothers rode the horses, Ramón and Chato Aros. The second race was between Alberto Leivas and Chato. Chato won that too. And then there was another race which P. S. Hernández won with Brownie. He is not a bad horse. He runs pretty fast, but he is too small.