By Julie Etra
Burro, donkey, jackass, mule, hinny.
Starting with nomenclature, burros are the same as donkeys and are related to horses and zebras (the Equidae family). They were bred in Egypt or Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago, originating from the African continent, where they were used as beasts of burden. A jenny or hinny is the offspring of a male horse and female donkey; they are usually sterile and therefore cannot reproduce. A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, and is also sterile (sterility also applies to zebra hybrids). A male donkey is also called a “jack” or “ass” (hence the word “jackass”). A young donkey is called a “foal.” In Mexico one often hears the expression “no seas mula” or “no seas burro,” as per the COVID 19 signs posted around Huatulco (also saying ‘with all due respect to the animal), and meaning “Don’t be stubborn,” just as we say, “Don’t be a jackass” (although that implies more than stubbornness).
Although I have read that the current population of burros in Mexico is estimated to be three million, I have also read that they are in danger of extinction with only 300,000 burros left. We do, however, forget about the usefulness of this animal in Mexico, and its historic significance.
Popular belief has it that Bishop Fray Juan de Zumárraga (1468-1548), felt sympathy for the native load carriers or porters (cargadoras, or Tlamemehs or tamemes in Nahuatl), and the strenuous burdens they carried. Part of the lower social class called los macehuales, tamemes were not slaves but were trained from birth for this work, following in their parents’ footsteps. They fulfilled an important role in Aztecan society and were essential, as there were no pack animals in Mexico before the arrival of the Spaniards. They wore a wide leather strap with ixtle (agave fiber) rope that held the load carried on the back. Called a mecapal, the strap was wrapped around the forehead; some of them included wooden structures for additional support. The tamemes could carry up to 60 pounds; although travel routes and distances varied, a common trip averaged 15 miles.
Back to the burros. At the time of their importation to New Spain, burros had been domesticated in Spain for at least 3,000 years. There is evidence that four male and two female burros accompanied Columbus on his 1493 voyage, and that they disembarked either in Cuba or Hispaniola (the island made up of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). On his first voyage (1492), Columbus – with a European eye – noted that crops and domesticated animals were in short supply, and recommended that all subsequent voyages include them. Along with the burros, horses, longhorn cattle, crates of chickens, and seeds and cuttings of about 30 crops, including sugar cane. The cattle lost no time crossing the Gulf to Mexico and quickly became successful, in terms of both production and money-making. So, although oxen (technically speaking, an ox is just a big strong cow, usually male, trained to work – plowing, hauling, milling, etc.), were well-established in New Spain by perhaps 1520, they belonged to the ranchers of New Spain, not the lower classes of the conquered Aztecs.
Fray Juan apparently accomplished the Mexican importation of burros in 1533, with animals from Castile (Castilla), in northwestern Spain. The burros evidently found conditions in New Spain to be ideal, and so the donkeys went forth and multiplied throughout areas of the Spanish conquest, but particularly in Mexico and Central America, where llamas, endemic to areas of South America, were already in use as pack animals.
What makes a burro a burro? We know they have long ears and colors vary. They are usually calm and astute but can also become stubborn; they are known to be playful and affectionate. They emit a long “bray” (rebuzno in Spanish). Lifespan averages 15 to 30 years, depending on the care they receive. They are vegetarians, with a diet based on grasses, alfalfa, shrubs, vegetables and, especially hay (which can include multiple baled species including alfalfa), but are very tough and can find forage even in deserts. Reproduction varies according to sex: the male reaches sexual maturity at about three years and the female at about four years. Pregnancy varies from 11 to 14 months, typically with just one offspring. In the wild, they are solitary and don’t form groups or harems of females as do wild horses. They have a well-developed olfactory system, detecting smells up to six miles away. And unlike a llama, they can carry up to four times their own weight. Hooves help.
So, “¡No seas burro!” Wear your cubreboca, maintain social distancing, be respectful, and listen to what the experts and authorities tell you. We’ll get through this pandemic eventually.