By AIDEE GUZMAN
Cowboys aren’t remnants of the Wild West. Today they herd cattle across state lines, national borders, and now even oceans. From the feedlot to the slaughterhouse and from pasture to greener pasture, a cowboy’s travels feed the food industry machine.
Your modern cowboy sits on eighteen wheels with six hundred horsepower and saddles up truck stop to truck stop. They trot along the asphalt and follow the commands of reds, greens, and yellows.
My dad, Anastacio, also known as Tacho, is a modern cowboy and has been driving cattle for over fifteen years. It’s a job he took on after working in the fields for nearly two decades—since he was a teenager—and across several states: Washington, California, and Florida. Being a cowboy suits him. Head to toe, Tacho wears denim jeans, a denim jacket with a sheep wool collar, a plaid shirt, and—of course—boots.
Tacho shares the road with other haulers who also move food to fill the shelves of supermarkets. The iconic foods that make up America’s grocery list, including cheeseburgers and apple pie, are products of European colonization. Settlers brought cattle, which were transformative, ecologically and economically. Johnny Appleseed introduced apple seeds across the frontier. When Katherine Bates wrote “amber waves of grain,” she was picturing a crop nonexistent in the Plains before settlement.
Cattle, in particular, became a major economic activity in the nineteenth century. Feeding, raising, and selling cattle necessitated moving the animals all over the country. During long drives, however, cattle would lose so much weight that they could not be sold at the final destination. So ranchers took advantage of the railroad construction boom, which was executed on the backs of Chinese immigrants. Cowboys could now herd cattle to the nearest railhead and ship them to faraway cities. Quick transportation to Chicago built that city’s reputation as the “Butcher for the World” and led to an exploitive industry exposed by Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
The construction of railroads also drove the expansion of the cattle industry, resulting in the need for additional open ranges. So ranchers expanded farther west. Cattle were herded into unsettled grasslands; trees were cut for new open pastures. The new ranches in the West coincided with the discovery of gold and the need to feed the incoming forty-niners. Since then, California has been home to nearly thirty-eight million acres of rangelands.
These days, my dad, Tacho, is responsible for moving cattle in and out of California by truck. Like magic, he herds them from California to Texas and back in one single weekend. He says, “With the drought, cows need to get out of here faster to find a greener pasture.” His logbook is carefully crafted to fit convoluted regulatory standards. He arrives before predicted, regardless of traffic. At 2 a.m., the herd has made it to Coalinga, California.
As dusk breaks after a long night and a short sleep, he finds the nearest truck stop. He peeks into the trailer to check on everyone. The cattle kick a little, manure splatters onto his jacket, he chuckles and says, “Just like grape jelly!” Then he taps the tires and checks under the hood. This routine once saved his life but damaged his face. One morning, as he crouched down to look at the front tire, it exploded. He lay unconscious with his entire face bleeding. Now, tiny pieces of black rubber from the exploded tire adorn the skin around his left eye, with more sprinkled across the rest of his face. His health insurance said removing those pieces was a cosmetic fix.
After the accident, he was back at it. One time, when I joined Tacho on a trip, his compañero told me, “That cowboy does not sleep much. And he won’t stop.” When their stops coincide, cattle haulers sometimes sit together and tell stories.
If you are lucky, you can tune into the CB radio waves that truck drivers command anytime, anyplace. You’ll hear recounting of political speeches or details on the mistress, prayers for passed comrades, singing as good as it gets, and alerts for upcoming cops and accidents. My dad looks for the Spanish CB radio channels, where he doesn’t have to translate his songs or jokes into English. The sounds of the radio and the rumble of the eighteen-wheeled horse echo in his cabin as he gallops through long nights. Even though he spends much of his time alone, he finds company in his herd, telling me, “I prefer to transport living beings more than objects, because it feels like someone’s here with me.”
To start the day, Tacho plucks his breakfast from between the cigarettes and antifreeze. He takes a big gulp of coffee and bites into his cream-filled bear claw—practically at the same time—and then he saddles up again. As he moves the herd along the asphalt, the large billboards along the drive tell him what’s for dinner. In the next fifteen miles, more than twelve hours after his last meal, he will have the option of tacos or burgers and fries.
Now, my dad, Tacho, really knows the quarter-pound burger. The tomatoes remind him of his days in the fields as a migrant farmworker. Tomatoes were the toughest crop to pick in the sweltering humidity of Florida. He left Florida for Washington as soon as he could, when the apples were ripe enough to pick. The lettuce reminds him of the two-hour bus rides from Mendota to Salinas in California, where they began early to finish before the sun went down.The patty reminds him of his fellow passengers.
Food for me also has the imprints of my dad, my mom, and my family, who have worked in the apple fields of Washington, meat-packing factories in Nebraska, and tomato-canning factories in California. Each of these jobs kept my family away from home. When my dad went from being a farmworker to being a truck driver, he went from working sunrise to sunset to working days or weeks at a time. My parents’ marriage did not survive this change. Over the years, I saw my dad less and less. However, he tried not to miss holidays, birthdays, and graduations and would park his truck in spaces meant for cars and show up with the scent of manure after a night-long journey. My dad’s sleepless cattle drives also meant that he was always available to talk during my college all-nighters. Today, he still transverses the West, and our relationship has been mainly built on conversations over the phone. I still miss him as much as I did when I was a teenager.
Picturing my dad as a modern cowboy helps me imagine him as a man of wanderlust, a hopeful traveler. This image makes me more optimistic about my dad’s life. He no longer just sleeps in truck stops and eats between the aisles of antifreeze and candy. Instead, he’s a cowboy that rides tall and proud, dreams about a better future for his family, laughs alongside other truckers at truck stops and over the CB radio, and sleeps peacefully next to his herd of cattle.
The age of the wild and free cowboy is gone. Today’s range riders like my dad dedicate their lives to America’s food industry, built on exhausting resources and people—he continues to remind me that it is “legal slavery.” The truth is that the modern cowboy is nothing but another product of the industrialized food system that employs and disrespects migrants like my dad.
Aidee Guzman is an agroecologist with deep family roots in agriculture. Her family’s experiences in agriculture—from farming in central Mexico to the apple fields of Washington to tomato canning factories in California to hauling cattle across the West—inspire her research, teaching, and writing.