Note: I’m told that I’m descended from Baca’s on my mother’s side. I’ve met some of them and I’m not so sure. I’m okay with it though, as long as I can include Sweet Bert Baca. – djm, mexico new
By John Knoll | For The New Mexican
There’s no mistaking Bert Baca’s identity. He’s a cowboy.
Look for him sitting in the Santa Fe Baking Company — his daily haunt — and he’ll be wearing a black cowboy hat; boots; a scarf tied around his neck, accentuating his weathered face; and his long-rider beige duster will be draped over the back chair of his chair.
“My favorite roof is the sky,” Baca said. “I think I was born a cowboy; it’s part of my heritage. It goes way back to my great-great-great-grandfather.”
Although he grew up in Santa Fe, it was his summer vacations spent on his grandfather’s ranch near Mount Taylor, where he learned to ride and rope, that fueled his passion for the cowboy way of life.
Baca, 61, gave the white-collar world a shot — working briefly in the mortgage-loan business — after graduating from Santa Fe High in 1966, but it wasn’t to his liking.
In his early 20s, he did what many young cowboys are inclined to do: He started riding in rodeos.
“I don’t know why I wanted to rodeo, I just did,” Baca said. “For some reason, I started riding bulls. That’s just what I did.”
He said his first rodeo was in Grants. It was the first time he had ever straddled a bucking bull; steers and calves, yes, but never a bull.
“I got slam-dunked,” he said. “It seemed like I was up there forever, but I didn’t score.”
A rider has to stay up for 8 seconds to score. The score is then calculated on how fiercely the bull bucks and the rider’s style.
Back in Baca’s rodeo days, bull riders, in their culture of strong-willed independence, didn’t wear helmets. But recently, more and more riders strap on a helmet, similar to a hockey helmet, before they get up on a 1,600-pound bull.
“No, I wouldn’t wear a helmet if I was still riding,” Baca said.
“If I fell on my head, I’d be all right, because I’m hard-headed. But, you know, I’d probably wear a vest, because I had a friend who was gored by a bull and died.”
Three years after the Grants rodeo and a series of sprained ankles and wrists, Baca gave up bull riding. He wasn’t making much money — the most he ever earned for a ride was $50 — and his body ached.
But the cowboy life was in his blood and he didn’t want to give it up. He worked ranches from New Mexico to Montana “on and off” for approximately 40 years. His ranch career intersected with contract work on rodeos, where he took care of the livestock.
“I guess I’ve worked on over 200 ranches and spent about 12 years on the rodeo circuit,” the itinerant cowboy, who likes to read Tony Hillerman mystery novels, said.
He said working rodeos, feeding the livestock and sorting the bulls and horses to move in and out of the chutes is what he liked best.
“To tell the truth, I like animals better than I like people,” he said with a wry grin. “Animals are more honest.”
Although he’s retired, he periodically gives riding lessons to children.
“I won’t give lessons to adults; they have too many bad habits,” he said. “Kids have more brains and they do what you tell them. Their brains are like sponges.”
As he looks back on his life, he said, he has very few regrets.
“I liked what I was doing, or I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “And the friends I made on the circuit are priceless. They’re friends for life.”