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Cowboys and Cattlemen Essay

The United States as a nation is ever changing. The U. S. population is growing every year, and the different types of ethnicities continue to flood into the country searching for the “American Dream. ” However, how many people actually see this dream become a reality? The answer to that is incredibly disheartening and was even harder to obtain in the earlier years of America’s history. Unless you were a white male in the late 1800s to 1900s, the American Dream was exactly that: a dream.

This failed ideal can be explored through the inequality expressed in that of race, gender, and class throughout American history, specifically during the time of cowboys and cattlemen. Additionally, such injustices can be portrayed in today’s fast food industry with the struggles of the employer to employee. Comparing and contrasting cowboys with cattlemen and managers with employees will demonstrate how such issues come into affect. In order to express the inequality faced within the workforce between cowboys and cattlemen, the background of their field of work, who did the work, and their differences need to be taken into account.

When the Conquistadors came to the Americas in the 16th century they brought their cattle and cattle-raising techniques with them. Huge land grants by the Spanish government that was part of the hacienda system, allowed large numbers of animals to roam freely over vast areas (Wikipedia)[1]. Numerous traditions developed that often related to the original location in Spain. For example, the Vaquero tradition of Northern Mexico was more organic, developed to adapt to the characteristics of the region from Spanish sources by cultural interaction between the Spanish elites and the native and mestizo peoples (Wikipedia).

As settlers from the United States moved west, they brought cattle breeds from the east coast and Europe and adapted their management to the drier lands of the west by borrowing key elements of the Spanish vaquero culture (Wikipedia). From 1865-1900, raising cattle was the most prominent job position in the western United States. The Homestead Act of 1862 attracted more settlers to come west and set up farms. This is because the Homestead Act gave someone the ability to own farmland for no cost at all; however, the only requirement needed was proof that the land had improved during the time of ownership.

Therefore, it was very easy to obtain land, but improving it was the biggest challenge. Ranching is a difficult task of raising grazing livestock such as cattle for meat. The owners of these lands known as cattlemen had to invest time in farming and raising crops such as hay and grains for feeding their animals to produce a profit. The cattle would go from the ranch to the trail, to the slaughterhouse, and eventually be distributed throughout America. But who are the people behind the scenes that raise and break the cattle or horses, and who does all the work on the ranch?

Cowboys. Cowboys were the workers on the ranch who helped maintain it. Cowboys strived toward becoming ‘men’ and they viewed the title of being a ‘man’ based upon the masculinity shown. Cowboys demonstrated their masculinity in terms of their skills on the job, their control over their working conditions, and their ability to make independent decisions. Even in their time of leisure, they still would do things to prove their masculinity such as gamble, drink, fight, and indulge in sexual pleasures with prostitutes.

In the book, Cowboys and Cattlemen by Jacqueline Moore, she explains how Anglo cowboys recognized skill regardless of color, which provided exceptional men other than whites a chance to gain respect (Moore)[2]. However, a majority of the hard work was left to the Mexican or black cowboys. That’s why many black cowboys were so skilled in the more difficult areas of work such as breaking bulls because they were forced to do it the majority of the time. Today, many industries like the fast food industry employ people considered as the lower class.

It is not common to walk into a McDonalds and see Donald Trump working the cash register. Cowboys are seen as these lower class people and it so happens people of color both in this time and today are still struggling to climb out of the lower class and into higher economic standing. Moore goes on to argue that cattlemen trusted the loyalty of their black cowboys and would often have them carry out sensitive missions, such as guarding large sums of money while on the trail (Moore). However, cowboys of color, despite their ability to gain respect with their amazing skill level, were still not able to become cattlemen themselves.

Many cowboys for that matter didn’t have much room to improve, which is why the relationships the cowboys had with one another were so strong. Many of the cowboys weren’t ashamed to show affection towards each other because these relationships were the most important in their lives. The death of a friend was always the worst tragedy. Furthermore, many of these friendships seemed to be more than superficial. People questioned them because the cowboys bunked together which created chances for sexual relationships.

To continue with their intimate relationship woes, these men had a tough time attracting the more respectable women, who usually fell for cattlemen because they were more financially stable (Moore). This lead to the cowboys’ encounters with prostitutes. Not many cowboys, for that matter, were married, and if they did get married it usually meant their career was over. To make matters worse, towns began to find ways to drive away cowboys by prohibiting guns and fining, arresting, and punishing them on the job which forced them to comply with the regulation of their public leisure.

Discredited at work and in leisure, cowboys seemed more and more marginalized, out of step with the rest of American society” (Moore). Though cowboys of color were respected for their skill and, to an extent, racially tolerant, racism was still prevalent within society and in their work. Racism was not only existent during the era of Martin Luther King Jr. and the historic Civil Rights Movement, which was steered toward breaking color barriers in the “Solid South,” but it was seen as early as the times of “the trail” and cattle ranching. It affected the lives of the workers.

People of color and women both were victims of discrimination. Women especially had no say in the way of life of the ranch because their opinion was not taken into account. The job of a women consisted of only three things. One: raise the children, two: do all the housework such as cooking cleaning and laundry amongst other daily household chores, and three: handle financial situations such as doing the bills and buying groceries. There were cowgirls; however, their stories aren’t heard because there were very few and women’s cattle raising positions at the time were irrelevant.

Prostitutes were even more greatly degraded because of their less than condonable lifestyle. On the ranch, cowboys of color had no chance of becoming cattlemen. White Anglo cowboys had a slim chance but colored cowboys had even fewer. This is because these nonwhite races were seen as not sufficiently “evolved” to achieve true manhood. Segregation between white cowboys and nonwhite cowboys was also consistent on many ranches during this period. For example, Anglo cowboys ate with the owner while Mexicans would camp out with the herds.

Such segregation and discrimination didn’t allow women or nonwhites to move up in the social class. Cowboys in general, if born into a cowboy family, were destined to be that and that only. Freedom for cowboys is a myth. Ultimately, cowboys were simply employees and lost what independence they had in their field of work. Cattlemen on the other hand had easy living. Cattlemen usually obtained their position because their fathers before them were. In a way, it’s like they were taking on the family business. Inheritance was a huge starting point for many of the men.

However, to fully become a cattleman, emphasis on being “men” to prove themselves was stressed. This was done with a proper education, the contribution they made towards society, and getting married. Marriages usually lead to gifts or property, which was also another marker of manhood. The jobs cattlemen did were similar to that of businessmen- they did whatever they could to make a profit. Most of the successful cattlemen experimented with different types of breeding techniques and invested heavily in land. They even had other business interests outside of the cattle industry (Moore)[3].

Cattlemen looked to socialize with people in the towns around them rather than just the men on the ranch. As towns grew, so did the development of associations and entertainments that the men had known before coming to town, and socializing with men of equal status was more common (Moore). Nonwhite ranchers were nonexistent and those who were in lower classes would never be seen socializing with cattlemen unless it was on the ranch. Furthermore, the way ranchers carried themselves in public, and the economic stability they possessed allowed them to attract the more respectable women who were better suited to be housewives.

Similarly, in order to understand the workforce of the fast food industry, background information about the industry needs to be taken into account. The fast food industry goes hand in hand with the cattle industry. In Central America, nearly 40% of the land was cultivated to become pasture for cattle that would supply cheap beef to North America’s fast food industry (Myers)[4]. Furthermore, the cattle raised in Central America are raised on grass, making the beef lean and only suitable for the fast food trade (Myers).

Fast food has become in high demand because of its low prices and its convenience of location. It’s hard to miss these restaurants because driving around in a city you are guaranteed to see some of these consumer-crazed fast food chains on just about every corner. They can even be found in local retail stores, airports, and gas stations. Fast food is quicker than preparing home-cooked meals and according to the article, “Convenience, Accessibility, and the Demand for Fast Food,” fast food accounts for 35% of the total away-from-home food expenditures (Binkley, et al)[5].

Moreover, according to the same article, fast food chains have an increase in consumption when located in areas inhabited by African-Americans and Hispanics (Binkley, et al). Targeting low-income races with cheaply priced food allows this industry to continue to grow because those of low-income won’t be consistently eating at a sit down restaurant ordering a meal for twenty dollars when they can order one at McDonalds for as low as four dollars. Price, accessibility, and convenience are major factors to the success of this industry.

Similarly to the point previously made about the low socioeconomic standing of cowboys, a majority of the employees of the fast food industry are working class people. The working class is becoming only certain ethnic groups- Hispanics, African Americans, and both legal and illegal immigrants. Once immigrants enter the U. S. they are placed in the lower class regardless if they have been in the middle class in their country of origin. These people of color are hard-working employees and have families.

However, they still earn only minimum wage after years of experience. Typically, these ast-food jobs are oriented to be temporary positions for teenagers who are looking to make some extra cash before going to college. But it has become a social norm that it’s the job position of those who are living off a paycheck-to-paycheck basis, struggling to make ends meet. Jennifer Talwar’s book, Fast Food Fast Track: Immigrants, Big Business, and the American Dream, states, “the fast food restaurant offered me a way to understand how different ethnic groups relate to each other in their attempt to survive but also improve their circumstances at the bottom of the American urban economy” (Talwar). 6] Like the cowboys, workers in fast food become separated from the owners and higher-class society so they turn to the relationships of one another.

However, unlike the cowboys who were unable to become cattlemen, employees of color in the fast food industry can become even owners of a McDonald’s or Burger King for example. According to Talwar, Phil Hagans an African American man started out as a burger flipper and later became an owner of four McDonald’s restaurants in Houston, as he was able to climb the hierarchies (Talwar). [7]

Just because there is marginal room for improvement of a worker’s position in this area of work doesn’t mean there is an absence of inequality. The fast food industry is a business built on the ideal of low prices resulting it in having to keep labor and other operating costs to a minimum. According to the book, Labour Relations in the Global Fast-Food Industry, Royle and Towers explain that low wages, minimal benefits, tight staffing, and efforts to intensify labor are predictable due to competition environment (Royle and Towers). 8]

This allows employers to have control and does not allow workers to have a say in changing working conditions. Such factors are not subject to change and the issue of unionizing poses no threat to the fast food business. This is because “major fast-food companies…are employed by franchisees, many of whom own only a few restaurants or just one,” like Phil Hagans (Royle and Towers). This fragments the workers not only physically but also to the extent that they are under different management. Unionization is also unable to arise due to the role technology plays in standardizing the work of fast-food crews.

These new machines basically tell the employee when to proceed on to the next step of the routine of preparing a burger or fries, resulting in a minimization for the need of skilled workers. Furthermore, having an education is not needed to work for fast food places such as McDonalds because these jobs don’t require higher-level skills. However, “while fast-food work is generally treated unskilled, it is not easy to perform well” and it “can be hard and exhausting work, especially during busy periods” (Royle and Towers). 9] Mangers have complete control over their workers, starting with the scheduling of the workers’ hours. It is also a way to keep employment costs down and can be used as a disciplinary system. For example, managers can call in employees on their days off and have them work late hours. Cattlemen of the ranch had different tactics for maintaining control but the outcome was the same. Unionization is further challenged in the fast food industry because many unskilled workers are young teens that only see this type of work as a temporary position.

According to Royle and Towers, only one third of those employed by the industry actually try to turn it into a career (Royle and Towers). Cowboys needed to have specific skill sets such as riding horses, being able to round herds up the trail, and manage the farmland. Teens and those who work the oven and fryers don’t need to have a specific skill set because each skill is specialized. It can be juxtaposed to an assembly line where a worker will perform one task all day that requires low input of labor.

Therefore, the value of work from cowboys compared to employees of the fast food industry is diminishing. As seen with managers and employees of the cattle industry of the past and fast food industry of today, the hierarchies of the workforce are evident and haven’t been drastically modified. On the ranch, a cowboy (especially one of color) couldn’t become a cattlemen. In the fast-food industry a burger flipper can become an owner of his own franchise but, unless its handed down like a ranch from cattlemen to cattlemen, its an outrageous number of years to climb in rank.

The hierarchy in a typical fast-food restaurant is as follows, from lowest job to highest: crewmember, crew trainer, manager trainee, second and first assistant manager, associate and general manger, store supervisor, and finally owner. By the time a worker reaches the top they’ll have white hair and be ready for retirement. Climbing the different levels isn’t promising. That’s how owners of big industries want it. The higher class will continue to improve and gain wealth while the lower class will struggle to fight for a higher economic standing for the majority of their lives.

Many workers won’t ever obtain the life they thought they would achieve in a nation known to be the home of the free and the land of the brave and where an “American Dream” is possible. The United States needs to adapt to make lives easier for its people by giving health care, increasing minimum wage, and actually listening to the voices of the people who inhibit this great country. If the United States’ industries continue to suck the life out of their workers and have total control over every aspect of these laborers, then the ideology of being “equal” will be never be in existence.


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