October 22, 2004
The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Peruvians Herd but Not Seen
David Kelly, Times Staff Writer

Sheep ranchers in the West rely on the rugged South Americans, who leave their families for a solitary, austere life in a demanding job.

POMEROY BASIN, Wyo. - Alejandro Sarete is up before dawn, slipping into the windswept darkness looking for wolves or coyotes prowling among his flock.

With the herd accounted for, he has breakfast in his tiny home -- a metal camper too small to stand up in with a rattling washbasin and haunch of raw lamb hanging from its side. An old stove provides heat, a lantern gives light, and a lone portrait of Peruvian singer Anita Santivanez offers the only decor.

Today Sarete will help bring thousands of sheep out of the high desert, branding and penning them up here near the town of Kemmerer in southwest Wyoming. Then the father of three, who left his children in Peru, will take another herd into the state's vast interior. It's a timeless task, a steady rotation of sheep that marks his days and structures his life.

For the last decade, ranchers across the West have come to rely almost entirely on Peruvians like Sarete to tend their sheep. The rugged South Americans have a rich herding tradition, are used to harsh weather and, more important, are willing to work for low wages in one of the nation's least known but most demanding occupations.

"In Peru, I might make $5 a day if I'm lucky," said Sarete, 38, a stoic man with a smooth face and stocky build. "I have used the money I make here to buy a tractor and a bull back home."

Sheepherders arrive on three-year visas with wages set by each state. In Wyoming, the pay is $650 a month plus food, airfare, clothes and lodging. They labor 365 days a year and are on call around the clock. Living in tents or campers, they often spend weeks alone with their grazing animals. There are no televisions or telephones, and radio reception is sketchy.

Western Range Assn., the biggest provider of foreign workers for American sheep ranchers, says 82% of its 800 herders are Peruvian, 12% are Chilean and the rest are mostly Mexican.

"We tried Mongolians, but it didn't work out. There was too much of a language barrier," said Dennis Richins, executive director of Salt Lake City-based Western Range. "Then we started bringing in Peruvians. They were used to being in the mountains and used to being around sheep."

Before the Peruvians, Basques from Spain along with Mexicans made up the majority of herders. American sheepherders, common until the 1950s, are rare.

"I think the last American I had was here for about two weeks," said Truman Julian, a fifth-generation rancher who has 10,000 sheep, one of the largest herds in Wyoming. "He thought it would be glamorous, like being a cowboy, but he soon realized it wasn't."

Sheep need careful tending because they are on the menus of so many predators, including bears, coyotes, mountain lions and wolves.

"Cows you can let out and forget about," Julian said.

As he spoke, the thump of hoof beats rose in the distance. Moments later, chaos erupted. More than 2,000 sheep charged down the parched hills, circled by barking border collies. Peruvians on horseback galloped in behind them. Herders whooped loudly, frightening and funneling the wooly mob through a narrow gate.

"These guys are the toughest of the tough," said Julian, who employs the men. "Their whole lives are dedicated to these sheep. If they left, we'd be finished."

Herders are America's solitary nomads, following their sheep and constantly looking for greener pastures. They come together at certain times of the year when flocks are sheared, branded, medically checked or shipped for slaughter. On such occasions, their tents and campers form tiny hamlets where the men pass the nights talking of home and listening to Peruvian music.

In Pomeroy Basin, a swath of sage and dun-colored hills, the animals have come to be branded and have their teeth checked for wear. Sarete and six other herders pried open each sheep's mouth, looked deep inside, then sent it on its way.

Back home, such work could be had for only a month or two each year.

"Of course I'd love to be in Peru," said Sarete, who has spent the last decade working as a herder. "It's hard to have a family there and work here. In three years, I'll go back to Peru, then come back here."

Black clouds gathered, obscuring the sun and turning noon into something approaching twilight. The workers, cold and dirty, broke for lunch and headed for a pair of campers brought in from the desert. The aging shelters measured about 14 feet long by 5 feet high and sat atop wooden wagons pulled by horses.

Four herders crammed themselves into one camper, huddling around a stove waiting for coffee to boil. "Peru looks like Wyoming, but it isn't as cold," said Michael Tacza with a slight shiver. "Wyoming is actually much colder than Peru."

The others, bundled up to their chins with two or three hats on, nodded numbly.

"If I had money I would have studied architecture," said Tacza, 21.

The men smiled as they considered the vast gulf between designing buildings and herding sheep.

"I'd like to be a veterinarian," said 40-year-old Genaro Bilches.

Bonito Bruno, 35, thought a moment.

"I'd like to play the saxophone," he said.

Everyone laughed.

Many herders come from the village of Huancayo in central Peru. They speak Spanish and Quechua, an indigenous language. The ranchers also speak Spanish.

On rare occasions when they are given a day off, the workers may take a bus to Salt Lake City to mingle with other Peruvians, some of whom were herders before fleeing their employers to work illegally in the city.

Herders deserting their posts was become a problem. Julian, who employs 19 Peruvians, lost four men this year and reported them to immigration authorities. They haven't been found.

"We pay for their clothes, shoes, food, air tickets, workman's compensation -- and then some jump on us," he said. "I lost five at one time three years ago."

Nationwide, Texas produces the most sheep, followed by California and Wyoming, according to industry officials. Ranchers say labor problems, drought, predators and foreign competition keep them awake at night.

"If you can make a penny on something in this business, you do it," Julian said.

In summer, sheep are grazed in the mountains; in winter, they are brought to the desert. Ranchers also travel with the herds, sometimes staying with them three or four months a year. Julian, 59, often sleeps in a tepee among his sheep.

He says it's a hard life, but one offering a kind of independence increasingly scarce in modern society. And for him, it keeps alive something ancient.

"The Bible talks a lot about sheep, the flock, the Good Shepherd," he said. "The Catholic Mass is built around the 23rd Psalm -- 'The Lord Is My Shepherd.' It may sound strange, but that really gets me in the heart. I feel as if I am preserving an important way of life."

Herders agree it's a tough life, but view it with less sentiment.

"We eat and work, eat and work," said Alfredo Hernandez, 45. "I have four children. I get letters from them and see them once every three years."

Peruvians have been the targets of mistreatment, according to officials. Some weren't paid what was promised, others were left alone for months or forced to do work unrelated to herding.

"In Utah, we have heard of people who come to be sheepherders and end up working in rock quarries," said Marita Landaveri, Peru's consul general in Denver. "Sometimes ranchers are delayed in bringing them food and water. Many times they are charged for food."

State inspectors check out living conditions each year. Western Range Assn., which imports workers, said if they received complaints they contacted the employer. If they got two complaints, they would not send the rancher any more workers and would kick him out of the association.

Fred Roberts runs 8,000 sheep from his ranch in Cokeville, Wyo., and has five Peruvian herders. He's selective when it comes to hiring.

"I want folks who have not been exposed to the U.S.," he said. "I want to show them how sheepherding is done here."

Roberts and his men were in the midst of bringing thousands of sheep out of the mountains near Alpine, about 150 miles north of Kemmerer. The plan was to march the females aboard trucks heading for El Centro, Calif., where they would graze for the winter.

Roberts jumped and hooted around the sheep, scaring the animals into line. The Peruvians closed in behind, holding long pieces of tarp that pushed the sheep forward.

But the sheep wanted no part of it. Some made flying leaps over the fence and ran off; others spun around, causing bottlenecks on the gangway leading into the truck.

"It's kind of a strange deal," said Roberts, 54. "You work and work to keep them alive, and then you fatten them up and try to make them dead."

After getting one group aboard, another appeared on the mountainside.

Nestor Rojas sat calmly atop his horse, awaiting the signal to bring the sheep down.

Rojas, 56, has been here for two years and lives in a white canvas tent beside three others near a clear, frigid creek. Hunks of lamb and mutton, some attracting flies, dangled from nearby pine trees.

He won't eat the meat.

"It doesn't seem clean to me."

Then he laughed.

"I haven't been clean for two months!"

Rojas said the wind had occasionally blown his tent away. Inside, it was spartan, with two cots, a box of cornflakes, a stove and a floor of grass. He said when supplies were delayed, they melted snow for water.

"The $650 a month is very little here, but in Peru it's a lot," said Francis Rojas, Nestor's brother.

Asked why Americans didn't want their job, the men rolled their eyes.

"Americans won't work in a place like this," said Francis Rojas, 52. "They want showers, they want to be clean. Do you think Americans will bathe in the river?"

As echoes of bleating sheep and yelping dogs bounced across the valley, Rojas offered a weary smile.

"Maybe it's hard, but it's our life," he said. "It's the way life is."