Tortillas, cactuses, and transhumance in the Mixteca Alta, Oaxaca, Mexico

Greta Semplici explores how pastoralists in parts of Mexico are maintaining traditional mobile ways of life, despite changes to their environment and wider society. Today, they are also being enlisted as allies in conservation because of their close relationships with wildlife and the landscape. This piece draws on work carried out in collaboration with Pablo Manzano.

The song Cielito Lindo plays in the air while Victoria prepares the tortillas, corn wraps, for the dogs: two for each dog, one in the morning and one in the evening. They eat with us and we eat the same food. A cut-out piece of a Coca-Cola can, serving as an antenna for a small radio, shifts in the breeze, and the music changes. “Do you like music?” Victoria asks me to the rhythm of La Llorona, while she prepares the tortillas for our breakfast.

Victoria is 40 years old. She used to live in the city, and has children, now grown up, who remained there. But Victoria always dreamed con el campo. “I have always imagined living in the mountains. Here there is fresh air, we eat healthily, we breathe healthily, we stay healthy, far from the pollution of the town.

Some years ago, Victoria met Leonel. At the risk of sounding banal, her dream came true.

Leonel comes from the cerros, the hills of the Mixteca Alta in Oaxaca state, Mexico, where they now live together. Their home is in the municipality of Tepelmeme, the largest in the state. The Mixteca region, profiled as selva baja (dry tropical forest) and matorral (shrublands), is located northwest of the city of Oaxaca.

Leonel’s parents still live at the foot of the mountains, where a permanent river slithers sinuously among thorny vegetation and tall trees. Once part of a small village, today they are the only ones left, planting maize, frijoles (beans), and pumpkins with the help of a mule and a donkey. The construction of a road in 1994 brought change, and most people migrated to the growing pueblos (settlements) popping up along the road.

Nowadays, the largest form of employment is in the construction sector through remittances from those who migrated to the US. They send back money to build houses that look like North American villas, most of which remain unfinished when the money runs out. A cemetery of American dreams is hidden amongst the cactus of the Mixteca.  

Otherwise, the youth work in businesses, of which the comida (food) is the largest one, especially for the famous barbacoa, and the mole de caderas, for which there is a local Sunday tourist trade in search of “meat that tastes like meat” with the aroma of the wild oregano that grows in the fields.

Leonel resists the lure of the pueblo, and has stayed to keep the family goats, together with Victoria. Various animals display different cuts on the ears to signal the different owners from the extended family: a stepbrother, a brother-in-law, a nephew, and Leonel and Victoria.

Life at the majada caballo

It is early morning, the sun has not reached us yet with its warm rays, and I am still shivering after a cold night spent on the petote, a mat weaved with palm leaves, in the single room of the small majada (hut) where Victoria and Leonel are based for the season.

Made of sheet metal and wooden boards, the majada, called majada caballo (“probably because once there were many horses”, suggests Leonel), is one of two homes that the couple move between, like other pastoralists in the area.

They arrived here at the end of July, in anticipation of a rainy season that never really came. “A little rain fell, but then it stopped… until September we stayed with no rain.” This has been a dry year. It’s now the first day of October: “the first day of the dry season – now we will have to wait until next year for the new rain”. In their other location, Los Sobinos, where they move for the summer, the grass was starting to turn gold and the water in the river was getting lower and lower.

They also moved to the majada caballo because it is kidding season. Here the vegetation is gentler, less thorny, with more open fields and more shade for the kids to play and run after their mothers. Another reason for coming here is the expected sales of livestock. It is the season of La Matanza, a local festival when thousands of goats will be fattened, sold and slaughtered. Soon it will also be Christmas, when more sales are anticipated.

People from the nearby villages come directly to Victoria and Leonel’s kraal and ask for one or two animals. We are not far from the road, and our dreams at night are punctuated by the sound of lorries and large vehicles. People can reach the majada caballo in 15-20 minutes’ walk from the road: “it is easier for those who are not used to long walks”.

Come spring, they will borrow Leonel’s father’s donkey, load up their belongings, and move down the mountain, where the permanent river assures some water for their livestock and the tall trees provide vital leaves. At Los Sobinos there is no permanent shelter. They move with a lona (canvas), a large cloth set up as a tent, which they live in until the new rainy season. The movement between fixed points allows to maintain a sense of home.

Victoria prefers it down the mountain, where water is closer to their camp and the noise of the road is fainter. But these points are not to be understood as permanent. In the grazing days I spent with them, we encountered many marks of previous habitations. Some wooden poles, stones for a brazier and a griddle and maybe some utensils are spread out and hidden in the undergrowth, taking on new life and, as living creatures, returning to a state of freedom from human control.

After breakfast, the goats wait impatiently to leave the kraal and begin their day of grazing and moving. Victoria and Leonel guide their animals up and down the hills, following different routes every day, adjusted on the go, to reach different water points and maintain a varied diet of pasture, shrubs, and leaves for the animals. They move through grazing itineraries that are always becoming. The observation of the pasture is continuous.

Generally positioned between the slopes of the mountain, with a wider vantage point to watch their animals, Victoria and Leonel discuss and debate the state of the pasture; the behaviour of their goats; the tracks of wild animals, especially coyotes, whose presence has been increasing.

Conservation and pastoralism

Victoria and Leonel’s work in the territory, though, is much larger than they would claim credit for. They maintain a presence over a landscape that is armed with thorny vegetation that threatens to repossess the land. Machete in hand, they clear paths and keep the space habitable for humans, livestock and wild animals too. They are the first agents of conservation of the reserve of Tehuacán.

The National Commission of Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) is beginning to understand this. Primarily concerned with protecting wild animals and plant life, organisations like CONANP have come into conflicts with herders living in the reserve. Thought to pose a risk to golden eagle nests, or presumed to be contributing to soil degradation, the herders of the reserve have often been encouraged to leave the mountains, or to switch to semi-intensive livestock rearing with stables, feeders and water troughs.

But now a new approach to conservation is now being promoted inside the offices of CONANP in the reserve of Tehuacán. They hope to turn the herders into allies in protecting the local fauna and flora. To help with this, water troughs are being constructed around the mountains, intended for wild animals, but also usable by herders and their livestock. A solar panel project was piloted in the municipality of Tepelemene, where Victoria and Leonel live. On every hut in the mountains, which until two years ago had no electricity, a solar panel was installed to allow a little light at night, to charge mobile phones, or to power kitchen appliances and a TV, if they have one.

Leonel and Victoria’s income is not constant. Their daily work is to stay with the goats: “this is our responsibility”, they tell me, and their primary subsistence comes from selling their goats. But they also depend on help from their extended family. “We help each other.” They support each other with some food or money to buy clothes, because “aquí todo se acaba” – everything is settled in the end. They also help each other to take time off and rest. When Victoria and Leonel want to relax and leave the goats for a few days or weeks, a family member takes over or they help them hire a herder who, for a little pay and some food, will take care of their animals. “It is important to leave for some time, and know the world out there”, says Leonel.

Indeed, “here we can forget the world”. After a day of herding, we are watching the goats climb up the hills and slowly return home.

It is sunset, and a magnificent light plays on the cactuses. Leonel opens up to me, and tells me that he loves it here because they are far from the evil world, where there is violence and wars. He loves the peace, the silence and the tranquillity.

We lock the goats in the kraal, while the dogs patrol the area for coyotes. We eat frijoles and tortillas, and after a shot of aguardiente to warm up the cold night, I fall asleep to the sound of vehicle engines running tirelessly along the road.

Photos: Greta Semplici / PASTRES. All rights reserved.

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