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Baja rancheros shine at the NCPG

Published: 2/5/2015
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By Maddy Butcher

Nowadays, the word is more likely associated with a gated community than an actual working farm raising livestock.
Scant are the opportunities for many to connect with the ranching way of life, which for generations formed the bedrock of society in the western U.S.
Like fishermen and lobstermen of the East, cowboys are more and more the stuff of memes and movies.  We know them as handsome, hardscrabble folks who look good on horses. They are iconic characters of few words.
As Montana poet and rancher Wallace McCrae said,  “If you’re a cowboy you should be completely inarticulate. Shuffle your feet around for a while. Say, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘No, ma’am. ‘”

But they’re still out there. And if you pulled on a pair of jeans this morning or served beef for dinner last night, consider, for a moment, the generations of men and women who’ve made those commodities such standard fare. (With tough denim and copper rivets, Levi Strauss started outfitting cowboys 160 years ago right here in Nevada and California.)

[Photos include (top to bottom) images of Elko eateries, NCPG attendees, Miss Nevada posing with a fan, painter Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro, Dario Higuera Meza braiding, Juan Gabriel Arce Arce's saddle, and the demo, palm-roofed hut. Check out entire NCPG albums at our NickerNews facebook page.]

To get to the heart of ranching culture, take a trip to Elko, Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. For the last 31 years, it defines and celebrates ranching culture with poetry, music, art and education. Thousands flock here for the five-day festival. Here, you will see ranchers, wannabe ranchers, fans, and folklorists all drinking from the same cultural watering hole. Read more here and here.

Many attendees and participants struggle to define the event, which runs five days with dozens of ticketed and free concerts, workshops, recitations, and films at a handful of locations around the town of 20,000 residents. There are scores of fringe activities, too, like art gallery parties, pub concerts, and gear shows.

“It’s an international and national celebration of ranch life in a non-nostalgic way, in a contemporary way. But with a tip of the hat to legacy and the traditions that have been celebrated here for 30 years,” said David Roche, the new executive director of the Western Folklife Center, the non-profit organization which puts on the Gathering each year.
This year, Western Folklife brought nearly a dozen men and women from Baja California Sur, Mexico: musicians, leather workers, and ranchers who live in the remote areas of the Mexican peninsula.

How remote?

Most have no power (except from solar panels, if they have them), phone or Internet.
Some make all their own gear, including saddles and clothes. They raise goats, cattle, and chickens and use both horses and mules.

The mules are generally preferred for rugged terrain and their ability to survive on less reliable forage, Dario Higuera Meza told me. “With the mules, I can go up and down on the rocks and nothing will happen to their legs. I can take a branch from a tree and give it to a mule and he’ll eat it,” he said.
The Wiegand Gallery, just off the Pioneer Bar in the Western Folklife building, exhibited an impressive display of the Baja rancheros. Its centerpiece: a typical Baja hut, complete with palm roof, wooden table and chairs. Dario and Juan Gabriel Arce Arce demonstrated their leather working skills for hours, over the course of several days.
Around the hall, videos, paintings by Carlos Cesar Diaz Castro (who’s “Don Jose y La Pancha” served as this year’s Gathering poster) and Elizabeth Moreno’s stunning project, “Close to Earth,” photos of everyday ranch life, filled out the exhibit.
A wiry, 38-year old, Arce Arce stood behind his beautifully-crafted saddle. It featured a pair of integrated cantle bags with floral designs and rawhide ties and armas – large, delicately-tooled flaps that cover the rider’s legs and Armas predate the fashion of leggings (chaps, chinks, or armitas), explained curator Fermin Reygadas-Dahl. Reygadas, a university professor in La Paz, Mexico, has conducted decades of research on life in Baja and was instrumental in coordinating the Western Folklife happening.

Nearby at the G Three Bar Theater, fellow Baja rancheros entertained a full house with traditional ranchero music with stand-up bass, guitar, and singers. Jose Maria Arce Arce led the five-piece group and played accordion. Back home, he ranches and hosts groups of tourists. Eco-tourism is a developing source of income for several of these Baja families, said Reygadas-Dahl.

Typically, the band’s music would be a key component of gatherings, especially weddings and quinceaneras (15th birthday celebrations for girls). Trudi Angell, an American living in Baja and an authority on the ranching culture there, said such parties might go on for two or three days. Angell recalled Jose Maria recently playing and singing all day, then hiking six hours to lead a tour group.

Their remote farming background and the language barrier might have separated these cowboys from the crowds that milled around them. But the rancheros told me they were relaxed and content. With their jeans, hats, long-sleeved button-downs, they blended right in.

Hard-working ranchers, apparently, have a lot in common wherever they may be.

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"Here lies the body of my good horse, The General. For years he bore me around the circuit of my practice and all that time he never made a blunder. Would that his master could say the same." - President John Tyler's epitaph for his horse