In 2012, Manuel Medrano, professor of history at The University of Texas at Brownsville and Humanities Texas board member, interviewed South Texas vaquero Juan Luis Longoria at his San Isidro ranch for the Los del Valle Oral History Project. In the interview excerpts featured below, Longoria recounts his experiences as a ranch foreman and cowboy while facing the challenge of maintaining his vaquero lifestyle in the rapidly changing modern era.
The Los del Valle Oral History Project, initiated in 1993 at The University of Texas at Brownsville, features personal interviews, photographs, film clips, and music illustrating the vibrant heritage of the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas. A video production of El Último Vaquero is available on the Los del Valle website.
I was born in a ranch up here named El Perdido. It was a family ranch—it’s been divided now, but it was a family ranch. I was born there and grew up and then moved up to the new ranch over here by the highway where Omar, my brother, lives. We grew up there and went to school in San Isidro and just went on from there.
[I] always wanted to be a cowboy, like most kids, and my grandfather was a cowboy and cattleman himself, and then my dad. My grandfather, Malecio Longoria, used to go check on his cows on horseback. When I was about six or seven years old, he used to put me on his horse, and I’d ride with him. He’d pick me up there at our house, and he’d take me out to the pasture and I’d ride with him all morning. And then he’d come over at noon from doing the riding in the morning, and he’d tell me, "At 3:30 in the afternoon, be ready because we’re going out again." I'd do it for as long as they'd let me do it. It just stayed in me.
When I grew up and went to school, I was roping during my school years in 1967, ‘68, and ’69. I’d rope for Texas Youth Rodeo Association with the school, and from there on, all I wanted to do was work on a big ranch or to keep on with my roping.
When I first started at the McAllen ranch it was hard because Mr. McAllen would get up at four o’clock in the morning everyday, and he’d [tell] me, "I want you there at 4:30." You’d be up at 4:30, and you wouldn’t come home 'til seven. It was always dark when you’d come home, sometimes with a herd of cows. You could see the horses were about to give up, too, late evenings, and they were all full of dust. When you ride on back of the herd, all that dust is flying back. Sometimes [the foreman] rides in the front, but at the McAllen ranch, the foreman rides at the back. You get your point man in the front, and the guy in charge rides in the back so [he] can see what the other guys are doing. Mr. McAllen taught me a lot of things. He said, "The reason I want you on the back is because you're in charge, and I want you to see what’s going on." So I got all the dust for years. You get used to wearing a bandana on your neck. That way you flip it over and put it on your nose. As dry as it is and riding behind two hundred head of cows, it's a lot of dust. [Mr. McAllen] taught me the right way and I learned from him. They’ve been in the cattle business for many years, and I was fortunate enough to work for him, and I never got fired.
I [was] a jack of all trades. I’d drive cattle, earmark cattle, brand cattle—I don't know how many thousands—and then windmill repair. I’d do all of that stuff. I’m not doing it any more now that I’m getting older. I got people there that do it there at the ranch. They’re almost taking over all of that. I don't have to do the welding anymore—we got some young guys there that are doing it. Windmill repairs, another man is doing it. I just take care of the cattle now. I’m fixing to retire, but that’s what I used to do. I think they got pictures of me on top of the windmill with my chaps and my spurs on. That’s what comes with the job of a ranch foreman. I know that there’s other ranches that don’t do all of these things, [where] if you're a ranch foreman you probably wore a well-ironed shirt and you're looking tip top shape. It didn't happen with me. I’m a ranch foreman, but probably the last of the vaqueros like they used to be in the old days. You had to do a little bit of everything. I know that there’s foremen in some ranches nowadays that wear their shirt and tie, but I wouldn’t call myself a foreman if I had to wear a shirt very well ironed and everything. It's not what it used to be.
I had this big old mare that I had trained, and Johnny, my son, had another mare, and another guy that worked there at the ranch, Paulo Sanchez, was helping us. I roped the cow and both of us were dragging the cow up the trailer, and she got hung on one of the horns on the side of the trailer. My horse felt it and she pulled and it broke the saddle in half. It hit me here, broke four ribs and this finger here, and I fell. I was there for a little while on the ground. Johnny comes over and he says, "What happened?" I said, "The saddle broke." I finally got up and got the horse ready again, and we loaded the cow and brought her over to the ranch. As soon as I got to the house, I took my clothes off, took a shower, and went to bed. Fifteen minutes later, I couldn’t move. It was a Saturday morning and [my wife] says, "Let’s go see the doctor now." "I got to wait 'til Monday," I said. "We won’t find a doctor." So I waited 'til Monday. Man, they gave me a scolding from hell because I broke my ribs, and they said, "What if you would have moved the wrong way and would have punctured your lungs?" They said, "We can’t do very much, just wrap you." So they wrapped me over and I got better.
But as life went on I had several other problems. [I've] been through a lot of stuff, but I’m still here. I don’t know if it was because I was a cowboy or maybe it’s my physical well-being. I went through open-heart surgery, I went through a broken foot, I got nine pins and a plate on a horse in a roping accident. I got hung from the stirrup and the horse jerked my foot and broke it in four places and that hurt. I had open-heart surgery, and after my surgery the doctor says, "I don’t want you doing anything." Six months later, I’m on top of that horse again. I thought I was going to be here forever. A year and a half later I wound up with colon cancer, and the doctor says "I don’t want you to even touch a saddle for a year." Six months later, my wife is after me not to touch the horse or the saddle, and I’m on top of the horse again. I’m still doing it. I feel great.
[My wife is] very supportive, having to be there to take care of [me] and the late hours. We got married very young. The late hours, not being able to be with the kids when they had a school program—that becomes a problem. She was very supportive. She drove a bus for about eighteen years just so that she could get the kids to school. She saw them all through junior high and high school and she drove a bus. As soon as she sent them all to college or out of school, she went to college herself and became a nurse. It was really hard for her to be married to somebody like me.
I had some problems with my wife because she’d say, "Why do you have to work from 5:30 in the morning and you don’t come back 'til seven?" Well because if I worked all day gathering cattle and then I can’t get to the ranch by five, why am I going to let them go? I worked all day to catch them. Those are the things that she had to put up with.
I’m not against education. I would have loved for me to have proceeded on an education farther than high school. I could probably get out of my job and retire. I could’ve been an ag teacher, [had] something to fall back on. I had my father and my grandfather to educate me on the way of ranching and cowboying. I learned from them, I learned from other foremen. They were cowboys as well [and] would teach me everything that they did back then as cowboys. Tom Lane and the McAllen ranch [were] very famous for cowboying like we’re talking now. Abelino Garza was a cowboy and foreman for the McAllen ranch before I took over, and [these] were guys that learned by their own experiences.
Tom Lane and Abelino Garza were catching some bulls for the McAllens way back then. They were telling me the story of how they would catch all these wild bulls, [and] they couldn’t catch them because they were so wild. So he tells me, "Guess what we did? We roped this young bull, but we couldn’t catch the rest of the cattle because they were so wild." I said, "Well, I don’t know what you did." He said, "We killed that young calf and we scattered [its] blood all over an open piece of country on that pasture. Then the following morning, we stayed at a distance and we surrounded the place [where] we had killed that calf. When cattle smell blood, especially bulls, they will start [making noise], you know that sound they make. When we heard the [sound], we came in." And each one of them got a bull. They roped them the old fashioned way, rope them and tie them. He said, "That was the way we gathered cattle because they were so wild."
At the McAllen ranch, we're having a lot of changes. Out of fifteen cowboys or sixteen that I had at the ranch back then, now we’re down to about three—it’s me and two other guys. The way of gathering cattle now is honking them up. You use the truck and you honk or use a siren, and we get them trained [to] come to the bag of feed. You see cowboys now running around with a bag of feed in the back of a truck, that’s a cowboy for you. You gather cattle with the siren or honking them up. We honk up whatever we can and we pen them up. Whatever’s left over then, we might go try to drive them in like we used to on horseback. It's been a great change for me.
At first you got on the horse and you’re gone in the brush [where] nobody will find you, working cattle… they don’t have the chance to tell you, "We want you to do this now, leave that and go to this place and do this." We used to use those two-way radios, [but] they’re not using two-way radios no more. They’re using a phone. That’s a big change for somebody like me. [You used] to go out there in the morning from 5:30 in the morning, and you wouldn’t see anybody or hear anybody 'til 7:30 in the afternoon. Now it's changed so much for the young people. Nowadays they start working at seven, and it doesn’t matter if the horse has to eat at five o’clock. They get up at seven, they feed the horses or the cattle at seven, and if they're ready by the time you need [them], fine. If [the horses] didn’t eat, they’re going to go without breakfast. Those things don’t agree with the way I’ve been raised.
I've gone through things where you can gather cattle on the traps and you don't have to go out there on the horse and drive them in, but I've also been through things like when there's a lot of water outside [and] you've got to drive [the cattle]. You've got to get the horse out there. You've got to get some cowboys that know how to do those things. And the best cowboy is the one that was raised there because they know the country and the land. But a lot of these ranches hire outside people. They call it ‘day's work.’ You hire a bunch of cowboys or wannabe cowboys, but the problem is that they don’t know the land, so that creates problems for the rancher.
My kids were raised there at the ranch. They can probably tell you where a certain tree is, where the cow passes are. They can tell you those things because they were raised right there and they were always working. But some of these new guys don't know where they're supposed to go on a horse to be able to stop a bunch of cows because they weren't raised there.
This younger generation [doesn't] want to get up early and feed a horse. I usually feed my horse before I have breakfast myself. That’s the way I’ve done it, but it is a vanishing breed. It’s not going to be the same again.
I’m going to turn sixty-two, but I consider myself older than most people. I [would] like to be remembered as a cowboy, a good cowboy and loyal to my job.