Ranchero Culture

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See also Mestizaje and Indigenous Identities

Local society in the western part of Michoacán, the tranche of territory which runs down from Lake Chapala to the Tierra Caliente, bounded by the Jalmich borderlands on the east, and the Valley of Zamora and the Meseta Tarasca on the west is constructed through categorical oppositions between ‘‘white’’ rancheros, mestizo ‘‘peons’’ and indigenous "naturales". As Esteban Barragán has argued, in the post-land reform era, ethnic distinctions correspond to social distinctions based on forms of property and dependence on the state. Mestizo land reform beneficiaries are seen (negatively) as "state-dependents" by the inhabitants of the upland ranchos, traditionally pastorally orientated hill communities owning or renting private land; ejidatarios are seen as incapable of either economic initiative or defending themselves against the depredations of power-holders. Ranchero views on private property should not be seen as having any direct affinity with a capitalist ethic: notions of self-sufficiency and freedom from domination, bound up with a cult of masculinity, can be strongly resistant to capitalism, state and private. The Jalmich rancheros also emphasize their European roots, purity of blood and whiteness of complexion. The classical stereotype of the ranchero is a cowboy, using his gun to defend his honour and treating no man as his master.

These oppositions constitute a dialectic of social distinction which fosters interiorization of stigma by the mediating group, the mestizos. Mestizos shift contextually between identification with the ranchero pole versus the indígenas, and identification with the indígenas versus national elites, which are perceived as ‘‘foreign’’ (Spanish), or even ‘‘French’’ (more foreign) in expressions of extreme antagonism. In the case of the former peones acasillados of the ex-hacienda of Guaracha, it was the hacienda itself which continued to form the core identity for a majority in the community well into the land reform period, and this has remained a problem despite the fact that the Eighties presented them with an opportunity to reinvent themselves as Cardenistas.

In some parts of the region, however, notably the sugar-growing area around Los Reyes, the core of the ejidos formed in the 1920s was provided by ranchero share-croppers rather than peones acasillados. These sugar haciendas were owned by commercial companies established by Guadalajaran capital. Their internal social relations of production were less burdensome for peones and medieros than those of both the vast Guaracha hacienda to the North and the smaller grain and cattle-producing haciendas which lay between the Guaracha and the Los Reyes valley, which coordinated their systems of labour control with Guaracha.

After the initial land reform in Los Reyes, both land and water were relatively freely available, attracting new settlers from the ranchero periphery who then became ejidatarios. With many of these people, asking questions about ‘‘the Revolution’’ produces recollections of the Cristiada. Their agrarian communities were and are socially differentiated, but their members are less psychologically burdened by the legacy of stigma generated by ranchero culture. Those who worked on the haciendas before land reform were not subjected to the kind social humiliation inflicted on hacienda dependents in the Ciénega de Chapala and its environs, and many of the new ejidatarios were newcomers from the ranchero zone. Some families continue to possess property in the upland communities today as well as ejido land.

Nevertheless, it was impossible to exorcise the ranchero ideological critique of the ejido entirely. This has produced a significant symbolic transformation, which is mapped out on local social space. The ejidatarios in the core communities of the valley see themselves as embodying a positive pole of ranchero values, and have turned the uplands into a negative pole, associated with brutishness and lack of ‘‘civilization.’’ Communities which are physically situated on the margins of the ranchero zone proper are (unjustly) ascribed ranchero cultural characteristics of the negative kind, as broncos, people who are prone to violence. Of late, the negative pole is marked by a linkage between peripheral communities and the narcos. These constructions are entirely relational. The spatially peripheral communities are indignant about their characterization in these terms, and some, at least, have responded by organizing themselves sufficiently to challenge the communities of the valley core for control of local agrarian organizations. All the actors draw on elements of the ranchero identity in projecting a positive self-image of themselves, whilst engaging in further cultural production within this encompassing value-system to combat the stigma attached to state dependence, downgrading the communities which can present themselves as more ‘‘authentic’’ bearers of ranchero identity in terms of political and social autonomy.

In the Los Reyes area, ejidatarios do experience their dependence on the (now privatized) mills as a problem, and many are fearful of the consequences of ejido reform within a capitalist framework. Yet they are also antagonistic to contemporary agrarian movements in their region, which they see as menacing their own security by inviting political repression. There are also conflicts between contemporary land claimants and members of ejidos which are run by rancher caciques with substantial amounts of private property.

As an ideological system, ranchero culture binds together very poor and relatively rich members of the upland communities beyond the ejidos. It also penetrates the social sector itself in three distinct ways: some ejidatarios are rancheros, some are not rancheros, but see themselves as more or less socially equivalent to rancheros, whilst a third group of ejidatarios see themselves as distinct from rancheros, and experience mestizaje as a socially incapacitating condition in a manner which derives from ranchero ideology. Some members of the latter group were already speculating about the possibility of the state ending agrarian reform and converting them into real proletarians at the start of the Eighties.

All these groups may express antagonism to more powerful social elites and the state. Yet the principle antagonism expressed by the wealthy ranchers under Salinas was directed at what they perceived as the indecisiveness of the regime in carrying through the abolition of the ejido. There is not, however, a single ranchero class position, and there is therefore not a uniform attitude. The devastation wrought in the upland communities by the drugs trade and the economic problems facing small pastoral producers in recent years have provoked a new wave of emigration from the highlands, and considerable resentment about the destruction of a way of life. Big cattle ranchers have come into conflict with both landless mestizo peasants and members of indigenous communities over control of land suitable for grazing and subsistence cultivation. Such land includes pasture land within the boundaries of ejidos which was sold off decades ago to private interests in illicit deals by ejidal authorities. The established ranchero-ejidatario system of social distinction based on status honour does not erase conflicts which are seen explicitly in class terms. In fact, neoliberalism is highlighting class by highlighting the issue of economic power in relation to politics. It is not simply, as everyone has always known, that those who possess wealth possess political influence, and that political connections are key to accumulating wealth in certain forms, whether it is plundering forest resources or investing ill gotten gains in avocado orchards. It is a matter of denial of a structured place in a hierarchic order: if the fate of the poor is to be left to market forces, then everything will have its owner and the poor will have nothing.

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