Page 14


50TH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE Home on the Range in San Ygnacio BY MARIA EUGENIA GUERRA ril he summer of 2001year 10 of the seven-year droughton a backdrop of ranch land the color of manila folders and burlap sacks, I watched cattle trailer after cattle trailer coming off neighboring ranches to go to the sale barn for slaughter or to a single buyer putting together a larger buy for the feed lot. The size of the trailers differentiated the bigger outfits from the mom-and-pop cow-calf operators like us, who statistically are the backbone of the beef industry in America. The nano-pause of those trucks changing gears to make the rise in the road gave way to the mournful bawls of cattle hurtling along the blacktop, a chorus that likely echoed the heartbreak of the ranchers down the road who sold off herds they had spent at least a decade or two building. Each load moving past our ranch was unnerving, posing the same questionhad the time come to get out of a business that, despite the muscle and care you put into it, rarely showed a profit? Two centuries of family history are fastened to this part of the Vasquez Borrego grant and before that, we were ranchers in Mexico, settlers of Guerrero Viejo, Tamaulipas. My father’s eternal optimism kept doubts at bay, but that summer, the sequia and poor cattle prices hammered at my resolve. For as long as I can remember, the price at the market present price exceptedhas not ever been commensurate to what goes into good land stewardship and productionfeed, fuel, fences, labor, replacing a submersible pump that pulls brackish salt water from the earth, rotating stock from one pasture to the next, the daunting chore of chaparreando brush from fences and senderos, and keeping up with miles of PVC waterlines. It’s ranching at the margins, the bottom line today not too different from the ledgers my uncles kept over decades as they Sequia: drought Chaparreando: removing brush overgrowth by machete Senderos: a trail through brush Abuela & mamagrande: grandmother Corrales: corrals and pens Bisabuelos: great-grandparents Tatabuelos: great-great grandparent Monte: brush Nopalero: cactus patch Ebanos: ebony trees Querida: beloved Chamuscadoras: prickly pear burners hung on to the enterprise by the straps of their chaps. In the 18 years that I’ve lived on this ranch and have had a hand in managing it, first with my father and now with my sisters and my son, it’s only in the last two years that we sell into a market that can return what we have invested in our cattle. I was one of the girl cousins relegated at roundups to watch the work from outside the corrals while the male cousins learned branding, de-horning, and medicating, skills the uncles thought the boys would need later. Fortunately, I was paying attention, and a buckle in the family history allowed me the opportunity to manage the ranch, the only woman since my grandmother Maria Dionicia Benavides de Gutierrez to take on the day-to-day work. My abuela Maria, though she had merry moments of wry levity, was pretty much all business. The young widow made certain her children knew that the land was always a separate proposition from the cattle, one left intact and never collateralized to a bank or jeopardized by bad financial decisions. Unable to say “Mamagrande” when we were toddlers, we called her “Malande.” Inspired by an apparition of the Virgen Maria as she milked a cow in the corrales, Malande changed the name of the ranch after World War II to Santa Maria. Her vehicle of choice for ranch tours was a canvas-topped war surplus Chrysler Commando driven by one of my uncles. The story of the family rosary recited to break the severe drought of the early 1950s colors in the scope of my grandmother’s character. With her children, their spouses, her grandchildren, and a priest, my grandmother organized a walking rosary down each of the perimeter fences of the ranch so that the prayer ended where it began. My father remembered the long walk south and then east, south and east again, and then north, and finally west into the ranch compound. He remembered the deluge began when they turned north and that they slogged home through slippery red mud, children wailing, and the tears of grown men and women indistinguishable from the rivulets of cool, sweet rain on their faces. 1 n the best of times, the carrying capacity of land in Zapata County is about 25 acres to one head. In drought, it takes more acres to sustain that one cow. The attrition of matriarchs and patriarchs and the subsequent divi sion of large parcels into smaller tracts has reduced the size of ranches all over South Texas and made the already difficult proposition a little harder on less land. Sam Rodriguez, who owns the R.Y. sale barn at Rio Grande 22 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 12/3/04