By Kary Vannice
In 1521, Capitan Gregorio de Villalobos set sail, probably out of Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola, but there’s evidence he left from Cuba, heading for Veracruz, Mexico, with some heavy weight contraband on board – contraband that would forever change the culture and landscape of North America. Below decks he harbored six cows and one bull, at a time when cattle trading was strictly prohibited in Mexico.
Cattle, first brought to the Caribbean islands by Christopher Columbus, had not yet made their way to Mexico. Spanish stock raisers, afraid they would lose their monopoly for the supply of cattle to the Spanish settlements, had petitioned the crown to institute severe restrictions on the delivery of brood stock to Mexico. They had good reason – the vast landscapes of Mexico made for ideal grazing country.
Modern day cows come from a breed of animal that was domesticated about 10,000 years ago in Asia. This huge beast, called an auroch, was about twice the size of a cow today and originated in India, spread into China, then the Middle East, and eventually to northern Africa and finally to Europe.
When European sailors brought cattle to the Caribbean islands they were a thin-legged, wiry Moorish-Andalusian breed known as “black cattle” (ganado prieto). Turned loose and left on their own, it didn’t take long in their new lush surroundings for them to evolve into the heavy-boned, swift breed that Villalobos smuggled into Mexico.
These first cows arrived in Mexico just as Cortés and his men were completing their conquest of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. By the end of 1521, the conquistadors had all the money and power they could want, but they found the local meat supply not to their liking. Thus, Cortes himself petitioned King Charles V of Spain to lift the restriction on cattle importation.
To supply his men with the meat they desired, Cortés developed a breeding program in the high-altitude valley of Mexicalzimgo (around what is now San Mateo Mexicaltzingo, south of Toluca) and started the tradition of cattle raising in Mexico. The modern-day practice of branding is even attributed to Cortes, who it is said branded all his cattle with three crosses, the first brand recorded in North America.
Soon, missionaries also arrived on the shores of Mexico. As they established communities around their new age culture and religion, rich European landowners mounted native Indians on well-trained horses and began teaching them to handle cattle using methods originating from the Iberian Peninsula in Spain. Missions became the impetus for encouraging the local indigenous people to raise livestock, to supply a steady stream of meat to the growing population of Anglos arriving from Europe.
Native cow handlers quickly blended their local knowledge with their new skill of horsemanship and surpassed their European counterparts in both skill and precision. The wide open spaces of Northern Mexico became a major center for raising cattle. Ranching, farming and trading of livestock became the primary economic activity in that region, which we know today as Texas.
Over the next two hundred and fifty years, the cattle industry grew in Mexico, which at the time included New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas, and western Colorado. With such a vast territory and no way to contain herds to a specific tract of land, huge roundups were often held to collect cattle for sale and transport. With their expert horsemanship and roping skills, the hard-riding vaqueros and charros controlled the chaos and laid the foundation for our modern day cowboy culture.
During the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the number of wild cattle increased as ranchers on both sides turned their attention toward the war effort and no longer had time to organize the huge roundups required to regroup the scattered herds.
After the war ended, with a newly established border, the two countries developed common routes for moving large amounts of cattle between the north and south. The most famous was the Chisholm Trail, which became the path for the greatest movement of cattle ever known. This established a trade network for cattle between the two North American countries and cemented a strong ranching culture in both countries that remains to this day.
An extension of ranching culture in both the USA and Mexico is the rodeo, where charros show off their skills in horsemanship, cow handling, and bull riding. Another Spanish tradition that would not exist without the cow, and is still practiced today in some Mexican cities, is the bull fight.
While the ranching and cowboy culture remain strong in many of the states in both Mexico and the United States, the cattle industry has largely become an industrial affair. Today, industrially raised cattle account for nearly half of the cattle in each country.
In 2016, Mexico reported over 16 million head of cattle within its borders, the vast majority of which would not be considered “open range” cattle, but instead are raised in feedlots to produce meat for both Mexican and foreign markets.
In 2019 beef ranked 58th among Mexico’s top 100 exports, bringing in over a billion dollars in revenue for the country. And that amount does not take into account any of the byproducts such as tallow, rawhide, bones, horns and hooves.
The 2020 beef export numbers may be even stronger because of the pandemic. When factories in the United States were forced to shut down due to COVID-19 protocols, Mexico beef producers came to the rescue. Between January and May, Mexico’s meat export numbers were 32.6% higher than they were in 2019.
So, from its first illegal origins on the shores of Mexico 500 years ago, the humble cow has not only shaped a distinct part of Mexican culture but has also become a major economic contributor to the Mexican economy.