Wearing a beige cowboy hat and a blue denim button-down shirt tucked into his dusty jeans, Vicente Felix huddled with several other men under a tin roof to read the numbers on the livestock scale, their voices inaudible from just a few feet away due to the clamorous mooing of the hundreds of cows clustered behind them.
A white cow stood on the scale a few feet away, seemingly paralyzed in place after being singled out from the herd, as Felix and one of his fellow ranchers negotiated its price with a pair of buyers.
After a few minutes of negotiation, the buyers agreed on a price based on the individual weights of two cows – including the white one – and loaded them onto an orange trailer attached to a large pickup truck.
“The white one is probably going to get slaughtered right away,” Felix’s companion told an onlooker, leaning against a metal rail after he helped load the second cow onto the trailer.
The buyers drove off down a gravel road with their new additions in tow, casting a cloud of dust into the air already saturated with the pungent smell of manure. The herds of cattle stomped restlessly in the crowded corrals, the cows and calves awaiting their turns at a similar fate to the two now headed down the road in the orange trailer.
It was the first sale of the afternoon on Sunday, Nov. 10, the second and final day of the “corridas” at the 1,200-hectare (3,000-acre) communal property known as the Ejido El Valle, located on the west side of the highway connecting Cananea, Sonora to the town of Bacoachi, a few miles further south.
The longtime tradition of corridas, once a requirement for all Mexican ranchers to take inventory of and manage their herds, involves gathering free-range cattle, corralling them, separating the calves from the rest of the group, and then selling cows and calves as needed. Many of those that are sold are likely to be slaughtered and consumed in the United States after crossing the border at places like Nogales.
“Right now it’s the traditional corrida for November, when they gather the calves born in the summer, and the one around March is for the calves born this winter. That way they have better control of all their cattle,” said Jesus Alfredo Ancheta Molina, commercial director of the Unión Ganadera Regional de Sonora, the state cattle-growers organization based in Hermosillo.
But with new policies allowing private ranchers to fulfill those obligations throughout the year, Ancheta Molina added that the tradition is now mainly used by the members of “ejidos.” A legacy of the land reforms that followed the Mexican Revolution, the modern-day ejido system involves communally owned agricultural properties that are specially regulated by the government to ensure each shareholder’s rights and responsibilities.
“Everything is managed altogether, sharing the same land, so each person identifies their own cattle, all those things,” Ancheta Molina said.
On Nov. 10, about 16 shareholders of the Ejido El Valle, along with several male family members, worked through the late morning as they corralled approximately 300 head of cattle into two large pens, pausing only for a quick lunch break before continuing with their duties for the rest of the day.
The work of the corridas is still taught and passed down from generation to generation at the Ejido El Valle. On this day, 28-year-old Gonzalo Felix was learning the ropes by shadowing his uncle Marcos Ortiz, a 60-year-old rancher who comes from at least three previous generations of Sonoran cowboys.
“I hadn’t been here for a corrida since 20 years ago. I have cattle here, but my dad manages everything,” said Felix, whose father is also a shareholder at the ejido.
Felix’s job at the copper mine in Cananea keeps him quite busy, he said, but he’s still drawn to the ranching tradition.
“I haven’t dipped my hands here very much, but I came to watch because it’s something that I’d like to get into,” he said.
One of the younger cowboys helping out in the corridas this year, 16-year-old Gerardo Arturo Luna Lujan, blended in with his elders as he made his way from one task to another, already familiar with the process that he began learning at age 11.
But while Luna Lujan and Ortiz were readily initiated into the corrida at a young age, it remains a male-dominated tradition in which girls and women primarily remain on the sidelines.
As the men of Ejido El Valle worked on vaccinating the cattle before moving on to branding the calves, a group of women and children sat on camping chairs and ice chests filled with food and drinks. From outside of the corrals, they watched the work unfolding before them, occasionally cracking a joke about the men’s struggles in working the cattle.
Vicente Felix, 76, a first-generation shareholder still working his own cattle on the land at Ejido El Valle, explained that the process begins when ranchers request a state-issued permit which, when granted, assigns them a specific date or dates to hold a corrida.
The duration of the event, he added, is determined by the size of the property and the number of cattle that need to be rounded up.
At the neighboring Ejido Unamichi, the 28 shareholders were granted four days from Oct. 25-28 to round up approximately 1,000 cattle from a property covering more than 3,000 hectares (7,500 acres).
“We were granted permission for Nov. 9 and 10,” Vicente Felix said. “So from there, it’s about quickly gathering the cattle and selling the ones we need to sell.”
With such a brief window, the ranchers at Ejido El Valle began working in the still-dark hours of Nov. 9 to make the most of their time.
“The first step was to start at the farthest end of the land, the last hectare, and work our way to the front to sweep the cows and gather them in one place,” Luna Lujan said. “From there, we group up the cattle and put them in the corrals, and we separate them between calves and grown cows.”
He gazed at the more experienced cowboys as they led the grown cattle through a narrow passageway leading to two different pens, keeping them in line as they vaccinated each one – another essential part of the process.
The cows stomped their way through the loose dirt of the passageway and corrals, raising a cloud of dust several feet in the air that blurred the view of the cowboys as they worked.
“The most difficult part is working the cows because they’re very rebellious,” Luna Lujan said.
A few feet away, rancher Francisco Iriqui from the Ejido Unamichi stood looking at the calves’ pen, leaning forward with his arms resting on the metal rails enclosing the cattle.
Since he had already completed the corridas at his ejido, Iriqui decided to visit the neighboring ranchers to see what opportunities might arise for him.
“I saw that the gate was open, so I just came to see if there was any cow I could buy,” he said, proudly explaining how his cattle ranching efforts had generated enough income over the course of 10 years for him to build a small home in the village, buy a car and invest in more cattle.
Sonora is among the top five cattle-producing states in Mexico, according to Ancheta Molina. And at nearly 17 million heads, Mexico has the eighth-largest cattle stock in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.
A significant number of the cattle are exported to the United States.
According to data provided by the USDA, more than 1.12 million head of cattle crossed from Mexico into the United States in 2017, with monthly numbers showing a nearly two-fold jump coinciding with the start of the fall corrida season – from 83,500 in October to 150,100 in November 2017.
In 2018, the yearly total grew to 1.26 million head of cattle imported from Mexico to the United States – with 148,300 crossing in November, a nearly 40,000 increase from the previous month.
More than 212,300 cows entered the United States in 2017 through the cattle crossing in Nogales, just west of the Mariposa Port of Entry, according to the USDA. In 2018, the number was 201,840.
As of September, with the busy fall season still to come, approximately 130,640 cattle had crossed through the Nogales port in calendar year 2019.
Although the “corridas” are not as common as they used to be, Ancheta Molina said the tradition still has a significant economic impact in Sonora.
“In some areas, they hire more cowboys to complete the work, they hire additional transport, so there’s a lot of increased employment whether it’s indirectly or directly working on the ranch,” he said.
The financial boon of the season is especially important for the ejido ranchers.
“It always brings a good income to us shareholders. It’s a big economic support for the whole family,” said Ortiz, one of the shareholders at Ejido El Valle, adding that one of the keys is to sell the cattle quickly before they lose too much weight, and therefore value, inside the corrals.
Ortiz said most of the ranchers at the ejido engage in other income-generating activities throughout the year, including selling a few cows here and there if needed.
But just as significant as the economics of the corridas, Ortiz said, are the years of tradition and the beauty of the work itself.
“Years ago, you wouldn’t see a single car, just people on horseback. Now, most families have a car so they’ll come to watch, have lunch with us and it all feels like a party,” he said. “It’s easy to enjoy all of it because it’s very pretty work – riding on horseback and working in the corrals. I like every part of it.”