Rancho Seco sits on a hill in a landscape of green, dotted with small white pueblos on the distant slopes. It has the look and layout of the traditional Mexican hacienda you’ve seen in films: white adobe walls, red tile roofs, a one-story rectangular building enclosing a courtyard edged by a covered walkway from which various rooms can be accessed.
Mounted on the walls are the huge heads of Rancho Seco bulls that have distinguished themselves in the ring, each with a plaque showing his name and dates. The most famous was Pajarito, who jumped over the barrera and into the stands, landing in the laps of some of the spectators. (Amazingly, no one was hurt.)
The entrance to the house is through an immense medieval-looking wooden door where Don Sergio Hernandez greets us. We’re welcomed into his den, with its huge cluttered desk, crammed bookshelves, framed bullfight posters from floor to ceiling, a wall-mounted TV, and overall the reek of stale cigar smoke.
Don Sergio is tall, wears jeans, a plaid shirt, a sleeveless fleece vest and a baseball cap. His teeth clamp a cigar. His eyes are dark and shrewd; he reminds me of Paul Schofield in his later years. In his casual, universal garb, he looks distinguished; you get an inkling of power and money, but it’s subtle. This is a sophisticated man, a man at home in the world—anywhere from Brazil to Minneapolis to Orkney.
He speaks fluent, heavily accented English and his manner is warm, not effusive. He is encantado to meet me, and when he takes my hand I half expect he’s going to kiss it, but he doesn’t. I realize I’m somehow falling into a quasi-deferential manner.
That’s the effect he has.
Don Sergio loves to talk about everything with limitless curiosity and extraordinary knowledge—about politics, art, sport, literature, history, and his beloved bulls and the fiesta brava. He has strong opinions, but he isn’t a bore. He also listens.
“I was born here at Rancho Seco,” he says, “and when I was five, my parents decided that we were going to move to Mexico City so that I could go to school. I remember looking out of the back window as we drove away and crying. I still cry when I have to leave the ranch!”and he grins.
The family kept the ranch and still live in Mexico City, but they come here for most weekends and holidays. The place is rustic rather than manicured or luxurious. The white walls aren’t pristine, and in the rain the courtyard looks forlorn. The grass needs cutting, the fruit trees need to be pruned, and the geraniums deadheaded. In addition to being a weekend refuge from the city, this is a business, and the business is the raising of fighting bulls for the bullrings of Mexico. Rancho Seco bulls have great status in the world of the corrida.
These animals bear little resemblance to domestic cattle: their long and ancient bloodlines go back to Spain and beyond. They are bred for their aggressive qualities, their willingness to charge and to fight. Their bravura is the quality so sought in the taurine world, so admired by aficionados, the quality on which the reputation of the breeder depends. A good bull is highly regarded by taurinos (fans) from Madrid to Monterrey. An outstandingly brave animal will receive an “indulto”, or pardon after a fight —a rare event but not unheard of — in which he is ceremonially honored by being returned to the corrals, to be sent back “home” to live out his life in voluptuous ease as a seed bull, roaming the pastures of a ranch such as Rancho Seco.
The next morning at 8 o’clock I go with Sergio and two of his ranch hands to feed the animals their daily ration of high-protein, high-calorie, high-fiber food. There are 750 animals on 3,000 acres of land. We climb into a 4×4 pickup truck and drive out into the campo. Recent constant rain has created deep, dangerous ruts and muddy puddles, and Sergio negotiates them skillfully, unlit cigar in his mouth. We pass an abandoned red truck that has gone off the road and is leaning at a horrible angle.
The bulls are segregated into small groups according to age; cows and calves are separated, too. Each group has its own gated pasture and is brought its supply of food and water, every single day of the year, no matter the weather or the conditions. Each time we stop, the two vaqueros jump out, each carrying a huge bag of food on his shoulder. They fill the troughs, jump back in and we drive on to the next pasture. Sergio carries a clipboard with a spreadsheet listing by group and number every one of these animals, and at each stop he makes a few notes. The animals regard us placidly; they’re seemingly timid and sometimes back away as we approach. They want us to leave so that they can eat. They are harmless when they’re in a herd; only dangerous when separated.
This daily routine takes two hours, and when we return to the ranch, we too are hungry. Breakfast is served by two silent women who glide silently in and out of the enormous kitchen with plate after plate of splendid food: eggs with chorizo, fresh fruit, toasted rolls spread with black beans and cheese, yogurt, tortillas, chilis, coffee and jamaica, made from dried hibiscus flowers.
It’s a tranquil place, Dry Ranch, run with unhurried efficiency, and I can understand why Don Sergio feels sad when he leaves.
And at its center is the herd, the animals, which are treated with care for their every need, every day of the year. Not a bad life, until the time when, for a hand-picked few, will come the moment of truth, el momento de verdad, when they face a human in an ancient dance to demonstrate potentially their nobility.
But more of that another time.
[Bullfighting photo courtesy of bullfightingmaza.blogspot.com]
Retired high school English teacher Brenda Tipps joined OLLI-USF in 2007. Brenda has been a longtime member of the Great Books discussion group, has taught many courses for OLLI including Readers Theater, poetry and drama. In Fall 18 she co-taught Three Dramas from Three Centuries.