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Who are the Vaqueiros de Alzada?

The Vaqueiros de Alzada (lit. 'cowherds of elevation'), or just Vaqueiros, are a pastoral nomadic people indigenous to Asturias (particularly western Asturias) and northern León in their ancestral settlements called brañas. Despite their name, Vaqueiros are not a profession, but a people and ethnic group, and one does not need to herd cattle or live in the braña to be a Vaqueiro (4).

Traditionally, the majority of Vaqueiros lived off cattle husbandry of the Asturian valley cattle breed (la vaca roxa). They generally kept around six to eight cattle, though could have as few as two or as many as twelve and wealth was determined by cattle (3). The cattle lived inside the house and they sometimes had other livestock such as sheep or goats (4).

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A significant minority of the Vaqueiros practiced arriería and trajinería, 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 (4). 

The Vaqueiros have a culture, society, and history separate from that of the neighboring non-Vaqueiro population, who they call xaldos.

Vaqueiros have a complex system of kinship and land ownership called casa, or house, which also serves as a spiritual concept (4). They also have their own music tradition called vaqueirada, which is believed to be one of the oldest forms of lyrical song in the Iberian Peninsula (8).

The Vaqueiros are said to have 'mysterious origins' but

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 and exists for the Vaqueiros in a different universe (4).

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Since the beginning of their 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 at least the 1950s (4). Vaqueiros experienced land theft, forced sedentarization, and were the subjects of pseudo-scientific racial 'studies' (2)(4)(9).

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The population of Vaqueiros today is unknown. In the 1970s, there were an estimated 6,448 Vaqueiros in the brañas of Asturias (4). 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 (10). Since the 1970s, the Vaqueiros have experienced a major decline in population due to assimilation, an aging population, and an extremely high suicide rate (4). 

The Vaqueiros are first mentioned in writing by name in 1433 CE, however the brañas' first written mention is in 790 CE (5). 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 (4)

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The major sedentarization of Vaqueiros occurred from the 1960s to 1980s, due to societal pressures, assimilation, discrimination, and poverty (4). The last brañas became sedentary in the 1980s, and although there are no entirely nomadic brañas today, there still remain individual nomadic Vaqueiro families. The sedentarized Vaqueiros that remain in Vaqueiro Territory live in brañas which have been turned into 'braña-pueblos' (braña-towns) while the alzadas have become depopulated.

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Vaqueiro culture has experienced something of 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)(11). The brañas experience exploitation by mining, industry, land-privatization, forced expropriation (imminent domain) and other environmental threats (7)(11). 

Today, Vaqueiros have no official recognition, protections, or land rights as a people.

Photos

(1) The music and dance group of Vaqueiros formed by Rogelia Gayo, 1923.

Torner. Un grupo de baile de "vaqueiros de alzada". Photograph. 1923.

(2) Three generations of Vaqueira women, year unknown.

A Vaqueira grandmother, her daughter and grandaughter in their kitchen. Photograph. Diario de Asturias, http://diariodeasturias.es/Vaqueiros/Vaqueiros.html.

(3) A Vaqueiro house in the summer braña of Las Tabiernas, 1927.

Krüger, Fritz. Hirtenhütte, Las Tabiernas. Photograph. 1927. In Muséu del Pueblu d'Asturies, Fritz Krüger: Fotografías de un trabajo de campo en Asturias (1927), 99. Gijón: Muséu del Pueblu d'Asturies, 1999.

(4) A Vaqueiro family, likely a braña in either Naraval or Navelgas parishes in Tineo, 1970-75.

Cátedra Tomás, María. Familia numerosa. Photograph. 1970-75. Muséu del Pueblu d'Asturies, Gijón, https://fondos.gijon.es/fotoweb/archives/5002-Fotogr%C3%A1ficos-A-H/Fotogr%C3%A1ficos/C%C3%A1tedra%2C%20Mar%C3%ADa/MC-013.jpg.info.

(5) A young Vaqueiru man leads two vacas xuncidas, yoked cattle. Year unknown.

(6) Vaqueiro migration to the summer brañas of Los Corros or Las Tabiernas from the winter brañas of Silvallana or Escardén, 1970-75.

Cátedra Tomás, María. Viaje al puerto. Photograph. 1970-75. Muséu del Pueblu d'Asturies, Gijón, https://fondos.gijon.es/fotoweb/archives/5002-Fotogr%C3%A1ficos-A-H/Fotogr%C3%A1ficos/C%C3%A1tedra%2C%20Mar%C3%ADa/MC-Pos-004.jpg.info.

(7) Vaqueiras Balbina Gayo and Carmén Ardura playing the payel.la in Navelgas, 1970-75.

Cátedra Tomás, María. Cantos y bailes vaqueiros de L.leiriel.la (Valdés) en la feria de Navelgas (Tinéu). Photograph. 1970-75. Muséu del Pueblu d'Asturies, Gijón, https://fondos.gijon.es/fotoweb/archives/5002-Fotogr%C3%A1ficos-A-H/Fotogr%C3%A1ficos/C%C3%A1tedra%2C%20Mar%C3%ADa/MC-131.jpg.info.

(8) Summer braña of La Falguera, 2020.

Ardura Profeta, Rachel. Summer braña of La Falguera. Photograph. 2020.

Sources 

(1) Acevedo y Huelves, Bernardo. Los vaqueiros de alzada en Asturias. Gijon: Ediciones GH, 1985.

(2) Alonso González, Pablo and David González Álvarez. "A Contemporary Archaeology of Cultural Change in Rural North-Western Spain: From Traditional Domesticity to Postmodern Individualization", International Journal of Historical Archaeology vol. 20, no. 1 (March 2016): 23-44, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10761-015-0317-2.

(3) Cátedra Tomás, María. La vida y el mundo de los vaqueiros de alzada. Madrid: Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 1989.

(4) 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.

(5) Gayo Corbella, Gonzalo. “Los Vaqueiros De Alzada De ASTURIAS.” Los Vaqueiros De Alzada De ASTURIAS. issuu, 2011.

(6) Gayo Corbella, Gonzalo. “Vaqueiros: Un Pueblo Libre.” La Nueva España. September 12, 2008. https://www.lne.es/occidente/2008/09/12/vaqueiros-pueblo-libre/674558.html.

(7) Gayo Corbella, Gonzalo and Ignacio Pulido. “Los Vaqueiros Están Abandonados a Su Suerte, Las Brañas Piden Justicia Social.” La Nueva España. August 17, 2009. https://www.lne.es/asturias/2009/08/17/vaqueiros-abandonados-suerte-branas-piden-justicia-social/796244.html.

(8) Lomax, Alan et al. Alan Lomax in Asturias: November 1952. New York City and Gijón: The Association for Cultural Equity and El Muséu del Pueblu d'Asturies, 2010.

(9) Roso de Luna, Mario, and Esteban Cortijo. El tesoro de los lagos de Somiedo : (narración ocultista). Sevilla: Renacimiento, 2006.

(10) García, Gustavo. “‘Los Buckaroos Usan Palabras Vaqueiras, Las Vacas Van Atadas Con Una 'Riata'", Dice Concha .” La Nueva España. May 20, 2018. https://www.lne.es/occidente/2018/05/20/buckaroos-palabras-vaqueiras-vacas-atadas/2289514.html.

(11) Pulido, Ignacio. “Ser Vaqueiro, Un Ejercicio De Fe.” La Nueva España. August 23, 2009. https://www.lne.es/siglo-xxi/2009/08/29/vaqueiro-ejercicio-fe/798925.html.