Introduction to the Vaqueiros de Alzada
The Vaqueiros de Alzada (lit. 'cowherds of elevation') are a pastoral nomadic people indigenous to Asturias (particularly western Asturias) and northern León in their ancestral settlements called brañas.
Traditionally, the majority of Vaqueiros lived off cattle husbandry of the Asturian valley cattle breed (la vaca roxa). They kept around six to eight cattle which lived inside the house, and sometimes had other livestock such as sheep or goats (2). A significant minority of the Vaqueiros practiced arriería, or the transport and trade of goods by mule, between Asturias, Castile, and León.
In the summer, the Vaqueiros lived in the summer brañas, or alzadas, in the highlands of the Cantabrian Mountains. At the end of September, they migrated down to the winter brañas, further north in the hills. In mid-May, they migrated back up to the alzadas (2).
The Vaqueiros are first mentioned in writing by name in 1433 CE, however the brañas' first written mention is in 790 CE (3). It should be mentioned that the Vaqueiros are an oral people without a writing tradition and that Asturias as a whole does not have a very strong writing tradition before the arrival of the Castilian language (Spanish). The Vaqueiros also do not traditionally have a name for themselves, only for non-Vaqueiros; the name Vaqueiros (de Alzada) is an exonym.
Since the beginning of our written existence, Vaqueiros have been subject to discrimination, segregation, and racism. Vaqueiros were segregated in almost all public spaces, most notably churches and cemeteries, and this lasted up until the 1970s (2). Vaqueiros experienced land theft, forced sedentarization, and were the subjects of pseudo-scientific racial 'studies' (5).
The Vaqueiros have a culture (including, curiously, what appears to be the remnants of a pre-Christian religion(2)), society, and history separate from that of the neighboring non-Vaqueiro population, who they call xaldos.
The Vaqueiros are said to have mysterious origins but a theory that has grown more accepted over the years is that we descend from the Paesici, a pre-Roman Celtic tribe who lived on the land the Vaqueiros do today and practiced pastoral nomadism with migration patterns extremely similar to those of the Vaqueiros.
No matter our origins, it is clear that Vaqueiros have a strong ancestral and spiritual connection with the brañas and with the land and consider themselves to be native to the brañas. The brañas make up the Vaqueiro world which differs strongly from the xaldo world.
The major sedentarization of Vaqueiros occurred from the 1960s to 1980s, due to societal pressures, assimilation, discrimination, and poverty (2). The last brañas became sedentary in the 1980s, and although there are no nomadic brañas today, there still remain individual nomadic Vaqueiro families. The sedentarized Vaqueiros that remain in Vaqueiro Territory live in the winter brañas which have been turned into 'braña-pueblos' (braña-towns) while the alzadas have become depopulated.
The population of Vaqueiros is unknown. In the 1970s, there were an estimated 6,448 Vaqueiros in Asturias (2). Today, it is believed that the amount of Vaqueiros in the diaspora is five times that of the Vaqueiro population in Vaqueiro Territory and that the Vaqueiro population in Madrid, a major Vaqueiro diasporic-center, is about equal to that of the Vaqueiro population in Vaqueiro Territory (6). Since the 1970s, the Vaqueiros have experienced a major decline in population due to assimilation, an aging population, and an extremely high suicide rate (2).
Vaqueiro culture has experienced a renaissance in the past decades, however, Vaqueiros remain a vulnerable minority in their own territory. Braña-pueblos lack the infrastructure that xaldo towns do, and many Vaqueiros lack access to education, basic infrastructure, electricity, and some even drinkable water (7)(8). The brañas experience exploitation by mining, industry, land-privatization, and other environmental threats (7)(8).
Today, Vaqueiros have no official recognition, protections, or land rights as a people.
(1) Acevedo y Huelves, Bernardo. Los vaqueiros de alzada en Asturias. Gijon: Ediciones GH, 1985.
(2) Cátedra Tomás, María. This World, Other Worlds: Sickness, Suicide, Death, and the Afterlife Among the Vaqueiros De Alzada of Spain. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
(3) Gayo, Gonzalo. “Los Vaqueiros De Alzada De ASTURIAS.” Los Vaqueiros De Alzada De ASTURIAS. issuu, 2011.
(4) Gayo Corbella, Gonzalo. “Vaqueiros: Un Pueblo Libre.” La Nueva España. September 12, 2008.
(5) Roso de Luna, Mario, and Esteban Cortijo. El tesoro de los lagos de Somiedo : (narración ocultista). Sevilla: Renacimiento, 2006.
(6) García, Gustavo. “‘Los Buckaroos Usan Palabras Vaqueiras, Las Vacas Van Atadas Con Una 'Riata'", Dice Concha .” La Nueva España. May 20, 2018.
(7) Gayo Corbella, Gonzalo. “Los Vaqueiros Están Abandonados a Su Suerte, Las Brañas Piden Justicia Social.” La Nueva España. August 17, 2009.
(8) Pulido, Ignacio. “Ser Vaqueiro, Un Ejercicio De Fe.” La Nueva España. August 23, 2009.