“One of the highest stations you could have in life was to be a caballero,” said Chavez, a resident of New Mexico whose lineage can be traced to the Don Juan de Oñate colony, the caballero who was among the first cowboys in the U.S.
“Even the poor Mexican vaqueros were very proud and there were few things they couldn’t do from a saddle.”
Caballero is literally translated as “gentleman.” The root of the word comes from caballo—Spanish for “horse.” For every caballero there were perhaps dozens of independents—the true “drivers” of cattle: vaqueros.
Vaquero is a transliteration of the words ‘cow’ and ‘man.’ Vaca means ‘cow,'” said Chavez. “Interestingly enough, in Spanish, we call ourselves cowmen; in English, it was demoted to cowboys.
In 1821 Anglo settlers arrived in Texas and became the first English-speaking Mexican citizens in the territory. Led by Stephen F. Austin, they arrived in San Felipe de Austin, Texas, to take advantage of the vast expanse of cattle, free for the taking.
It was something the vaqueros had been doing for 223 years, since 1598, when Don Juan de Oñate, one of the four richest men in New Spain (present-day Mexico) sent an expedition across the Rio Grande River into New Mexico.
Oñate spent over a million dollars funding the expedition, and brought some 7,000 animals to the present-day United States. It eventually paid off; the first gold to come from the West was not from the Gold Rush, but rather from its wool-bearing sheep and then its long-horned livestock.
“Compare the cowboy culture to a car,” said Chavez. “If the vaqueros invented the car, the styles change a little bit, but you still have the basic chassis, four wheels, and a motor. I think it will stay very much the same.”