The hard and tangled lives of our ranch hands

One leaves for Texas, another witnesses a knifing and the third has a near fatal motorcycle accident

One night a year ago, Félix, our gardener of twelve years, left without notice with his two brothers to work at high-paying construction jobs in Texas. Stew didn’t take it well and cussed Félix for his disloyalty for at least two weeks.

We then hired a series of three guys, who, just like Félix, came to us with their own stories of hardship and survival in Mexico’s rural underclass. For my part, I’ve been left wondering if my fluency in Spanish and journalistic curiosity has prevented us from keeping a healthier distance between us and the lives of people who work for us.

Shortly after Félix left we hired Lupe, a diminutive and laconic fellow from Felix’s village of Sosnabar, with a dervish-like energy and work ethic. He was desperately trying to make a good impression to replace Félix.

But a few weeks later, during Sosnabar’s two-day annual fiesta—a raucous, highly liquored, and often violent celebration—Lupe witnessed his brother run a knife across the throat of one of three brothers from La Biznaga, a village on the other side of our ranch. In Lupe’s telling, the brothers were drunk and itching for a brawl.

Late that night, Lupe, hysterical and almost unintelligible, called me to tell me something horrible had happened, and asked if he would lose his job. I don’t remember my reply.

Details of the tragic event got jumbled in the whirlpool of neighborhood gossip. Apparently Lupe, his brother and the three assailants were arrested briefly by the police who, surprisingly, showed up promptly with an ambulance and even conducted a cursory investigation. Lupe was deemed an innocent bystander, and so was his brother because he had acted in self-defense. The slashing victim was taken to the hospital where he miraculously recovered after several days in intensive care. Shootings, fights and stabbings during these fiestas are frequent and left unsolved.

Should we rehire Lupe?

My first impulse was to rehire Lupe since he was innocent, but Mexican friends warned me that was a big-hearted but foolhardy idea. Though the police may have closed the case, the knifing victim’s family likely hadn’t and would come after Lupe, his family—and even me as his employer—to exact revenge for the knifing. Lupe went into hiding and we didn’t see or hear from him for several months. I don’t know if the trio from La Biznaga ever came after Lupe or anyone else.

On the recommendation of Pascual, a chatty and effusive neighborhood chap we’ve known for three or four years, we hired Pasqual’s brother Gabriel, a handsome, bearded bodybuilder. After working for ten years in Texas, and marrying a Puerto Rican woman with whom he had three children, Gabriel had been deported. He returned with his three kids to live in a half-finished house, within sight of our ranch, that Pascual had started building. For several months the house didn’t have windows, and still has no electricity. In a curious reversal of gender roles, Gabriel now is taking care of the kids here and lives on remittances from his wife who has a good managerial job in the U.S. He was a good worker but after a couple of weeks, said he couldn’t work and babysit the kids.

Exit Gabriel, enter Ulises

Pascual then showed up with a new recommended employee, Ulises, a 26-year-old who had just returned from the U.S. after working for six months, undocumented, at a landscaping outfit in San Antonio. He had crossed the border with 16 other guys, 14 of whom were promptly arrested and deported. Ulises had returned to marry his girlfriend Jennifer, a very comely young woman, and live on his parents’ ranch in La Huerta, a town clear on the other side of San Miguel, a 45 minute or longer commute each way to work.

A picture of Ulises taken by his wife shortly after his accident.

At first, Ulises’ job performance was not stellar. He missed days, primarily because he had to take care of his elderly parents in addition to his dad’s herd of cows and sheep. Ulises and I had a couple of come-to-Jesus talks and he apparently figured a way to juggle his multiple responsibilities.

Two weeks ago we received a message that Ulises had been involved in a serious accident while coming to work. He was hit by a truck that had also knocked down a couple of electric posts, leaving a wire dangling about four feet off the ground. The wire snagged Ulises in the waist, slid up his chest and ripped off his helmet.

I’m still not sure about the details of his injuries, but I know he was left with a six-inch cut on his head, other cuts on his face, a dislocated ankle and lacerations on one side of his body when he was dragged on the pavement by the motorcycle. The Honda motorcycle he had bought new a couple of months before, caught on fire and was totaled.

A week later I spoke with Ulises and explained that regretfully, we had to hire someone in his place to do the work, and we offered him about $20,000 pesos or $1,000 dollars for sick leave, severance and the Christmas bonus he would have received for working with us for nine months. He accepted and thanked me profusely.

Today we received a heartrending WhatsApp message from his wife, begging me to keep Ulises employed because they were in desperate financial straits. I haven’t responded but will have the awful task of explaining to her that four or five weeks is too long for me to wait for Ulises to return work, but perhaps long enough for him to get mended and start looking for another job. He’s a high school graduate, a sharp guy and should be doing something more fitting than gardening.

Meanwhile, Lupe has been working here at his usually fevered pace, mowing enough grass in two days that would take a calmer human being a week.

Felix also returned from his sojourn in Texas five or six weeks ago, and has been after me to rehire him. I told him not while Ulises was doing a good job.

But now Felix will be back working for us next Monday, against the advice of some incredulous friends. Stew’s brother Knute, for one, said “you’re hiring Félix so he can fuck you over a third time?

We hope that Félix’s twelve years of experience working for us will compensate for that risk. If not, should I rehire Lupe the diminutive whirlwind? Or would that complete the circle and take me back to where I was a year ago?

18 thoughts on “The hard and tangled lives of our ranch hands

  1. babsofsanmiguel

    I am so glad you hired Felix back! He was good to and for you for 12 years! I’m sorry things didn’t work out for him in the USA. If I had been on your shoes, I would not hesitate!. He will be very grateful as well.

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      1. babsofsanmiguel

        I heartily disagree. He was hoping he could make things better for his family by making more money. Going to the border is a terrifying and dangerous endeavor. I applaud him for having the courage to come back to you and ask for another chance.

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        Liked by 1 person

  2. Al, Al, Al.
    1. Listen to your Mexican friends. Listen to me. I am your Mexican friend. No, you should not rehire Lupe.
    2. You’ve more than overpaid Ulises, and you should definitely not hire him back. Listen to your Mexican friends once again.
    3. Oh, it looks like you’ve already rehired Lupe.
    4. For chrissakes, listen to your Mexican friends and to me on the matter of Felix. Listen to Stew, and listen to Knute. Oh, you’ve already gone and ignored everyone on that count, too. It’s just a matter of time before Felix fucks you over a third time.

    Oy vey.


    1. I plead guilty as charged, but with a couple of explanations. I’m basically a softie, and with the poverty that surrounds the ranch, there’s plenty of opportunity for me to feel sorry. My speaking Spanish and asking too many questions gets me in trouble, cuz I turn work conversations into confessionals.

      My late friend Carl, who had a small construction company here, kept advising expats, and particularly Americans, to treat employees as paid help and not try to “adopt” and get involved in their personal or family problems.

      Ezequiel, a Mexican guy who runs an organization to help small entrepreneurs, once told me that Mexicans are not above manipulating the generosity and concern of Americans. More than once, he said, he’s heard Mexicans say to one another “Tengo que buscarme mi propio Americano,” as needing to find an American to take advantage of. Sounds cynical but it’s probably true.

      During lunch yesterday Luz Maria, a Mexican friend, repeated what you said that Felix is going to take off again in a couple of years, because no matter what we pay him, he can make ten times that digging ditches in Texas. Felix is already hired back but I’ll ask him to give two or three weeks before he skedaddles again. Wish me luck.

      Yes we overpaid Ulises but one, I felt sorry for him, and two, I asked him to sign a formal resignation letter giving up any future claims. Wish me luck with that one too.



  3. Phil in Phoenix

    Hire all three and start a landscape business. You, being fluent in Spanish, would make a good boss and cutomeer contact. With 3 or them, at least you have two available most days. Lupe could be the lawnmower guy

    Liked by 1 person

  4. norm

    I’d stay with Felix. The light at the end of the tunnel was an oncoming train when he took his powder to the US. He gave you good service, drinks too much, that is a common issue with hired help , being smart is not as common.
    I have a contractor friend, he has similar problems with his help. He puts up with a lot of crap from the smart ones. The smart ones make him more money. I’d stay with Felix.


    1. Norm, I’m basically doing what you prescribe, primarily for practical reasons. Felix can restart and hit the ground running without a warmup period, and whatever his other faults he was always scrupulously honest (until he walked out on us, that is). Life is complicated and seldom perfect.
      Thanks for your comments. They are always welcome.


  5. Hire two of them to work separate days and let them know. That way perhaps 5heir work ethics might improve knowing their competitor is just waiting to take over their job. Fred


    1. That sounds like what some newspapers used to do in the States, which would hire two people for the same reporting or editing job and let them duke it out. It’s a survival of the fittest, but it often created a neurotic working environment.
      Thank you for your comment.


  6. Please do yourself — and Stew– a favor. Make an appointment with a labor lawyer, sit down with him for an hour’s consultation, and get yourself educated about Mexican labor law and the corresponding rights and responsibilities of the worker and his patron. It’s not enough that you’re a native speaker, well-read, and all of that.


    1. That is a most excellent idea that we will definitely follow up on. As a matter of fact, I have a card from a labor lawyer I worked with during a dark period in my life when I was executive director of the local animal shelter. Ugh. But we do have a number of questions about rights and obligations etc. People often think nothing will come in the lovefest between them and their Mexican employees until the guacamole hits the fan. Thank you for suggesting that! I’ll let you know what I find. One thing Mexican patrones have recommended is to stay away from IMSS because most employees don’t want any part of it, though I thought it was obligatory.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Barbara Lane

    I always loved Felix. If it were me I’d hire him back. I’m glad you did. You and Stew have history with him, as one does with anyone in their circle for years. And as with anyone, some of that history is good and some not-so-good. But it’s all part of the cycle…


  8. Do use “tu” or “usted” with your help? I’ve been using “tu” with Antonio and David, my electrician and plumber, but am beginning to debate the merits of this going forward with new people. I’ve noticed that Mexicans tend to address their help by “usted,” which keeps a certain distance. Given the accident-prone nature of the kinds of folks who do housework, gardening, construction, etc., this is not necessarily a bad thing.

    Since I use “tu” with all my friends (of course), it’s a little tricky for me to switch to “usted,” especially with things like imperative verb tense, which require a moment’s thought before using. But for you, that’d likely be automatic.

    As for Felix, well his only real sin was quitting precipitously, right? There are far worse sins out there. I’d give Felix big points for being honest. Honesty counts for a LOT here, and I am VERY careful about doing my best to vet the folks who work for me. As you know, there are a lot of slimy people who can take advantage of you, smiling the whole way.


    Kim G
    Roma Sur, CDMX
    Where I’m still struggling to find folks to help remodel the house.


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