For nearly 300 years, ranching people have carved out an existence in the rugged, arid environment of the sierra of the lower California (Baja) peninsula. These rancheros and vaqueros are the direct descendents of Spanish soldiers who accompanied Jesuit missionaries to the Mexican frontier. To this day, they remain relatively isolated, living on what the land provides, maintaining their unique traditions. Their horsemanship and riding equipment is still patterned after that of their Spanish ancestors. They are a living link between Spain and the American buckaroo.
This winter, several rancheros will travel from their remote mountain home and head north to Elko, Nevada—buckaroo country—to share their culture with their American counterparts at the 31st National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, January 26-31, 2015. In Elko, they will participate in school programs, performances, workshops, exhibit demonstrations, discussions and more, sharing the traditional acoustic music, ranch cuisine, local art and craftwork, traditional lore and humor of their Californio Sur roots. A folk art exhibition, The Life and Legacy of Ranching in Baja California Sur, will showcase their culture with historic and contemporary photographs and paintings, handcrafted gear, household items and videos.
“This is a unique opportunity to get to know people who are still practicing traditions that were long ago brought north and became the backbone of the horsemanship customs still practiced in California and the Great Basin,” explains David Roche, Executive Director of the Western Folklife Center, which produces the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. “We hope this cultural exchange with our neighbors to the south will help build awareness and appreciation of where many of our own traditions originated.”
When the Spanish missionaries moved north, the soldiers stayed behind and adapted to their dry mountain environment, tending cattle, sheep and goats on the rugged terrain. Today, they are still almost entirely self-sufficient. Many of their ranches cannot be reached by road. Explains Trudi Angell, one of the coordinators of the Baja program at the Gathering, “There are some pockets that are still so isolated today that people are still packing burros to go to town.”
At least seven representatives of the ranchero culture of Baja California Sur will attend the Gathering, including vaqueros, storytellers, leatherworkers, traditional cooks, musicians and dancers. The first of many performances during the week will be “An Evening in Baja,” Monday, January 26 at 7:00 pm in the G Three Bar Theater at the Western Folklife Center. The following day, members of the group will also conduct a workshop on Traditional Baja Ranch Cooking, where they will teach participants to prepare birria (traditional goat stew), dulce de camote (traditional sweet conserves made with seasonal fruit, yams or winter squash), and home-made cheese.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering has a long history of organizing cultural exchanges with communities from around the globe that work with livestock. Past exchanges have brought to Elko gauchos from Argentina, gardiens from southern France, butteri from Italy, csikos from Hungary, and herding cultures from Mongolia, Australia, the British Isles, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico.
The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is an annual celebration of the ranching and rural West. Through poetry, music and stories, ranch people express the beauty and challenges of a life deeply connected to the earth and its bounty. Every year, thousands travel to rural Elko, Nevada, in the heart of winter, to listen, learn and share. At the 31st Gathering, more than 55 poets, musicians and musical groups from the U.S., Canada, Australia and Mexico will perform on seven stages at four different venues. Tickets can be purchased online at www.westernfolklife.org, or by calling 888-880-5885.