Sunday, March 13, 2022

End Game

Victor 'Cuba' Hernandez with his Mauser España on the Taos Plateau in January 2015.

Victor at San Antonio Mountain in 2016.
Victor ‘Cuba” Hernandez had his second heart attack and his second triple bypass last month in Pueblo. The doctors discovered a staph infection so he was on intravenous antibiotics for two weeks before the surgery could be performed. Reputedly he is fine now and living on a ranch eight miles east of Antonito, Colorado. For the first time in more than forty years he doesn’t live with the Abeytas in Mogote and will play out his days on another ranch. Victor Hernandez had herded the Abeytas sheep for more than four decades and became The Last Shepherd in my photo essay of the same name. He will be missed.

I hadn’t been in contact with the Abeytas since the lambing in March 2018. So, when Aaron Abeyta, one of the four Abeyta siblings, called to ask if I would mentor two of his students I was intrigued about a new adventure and delighted to back in the loop. Once we’d discussed the students and the prospects for a meaningful program about photography I asked about Victor and the sheep. That’s when Aaron told me about Victor’s heart attacks, surgeries, and his estrangement from the Abeytas.

Andrew Abeyta and Victor in happier days.

Three years ago, in April of 2019, Andrew Abeyta, the jefe of the Abeyta sheep operation, was delivering groceries to Victor at his camp at San Antonio Mountain. The first thing he noticed was that Victor didn’t come out of his trailer to greet him. When he didn’t see Victor, he was on high alert. Victor always walks toward you talking a mile a minute. Andrew knocked repeatedly on the trailer’s aluminum door and heard nothing. The door was locked from the inside, so he got his tool kit and removed the lock. He found Victor unresponsive on his cot.

He was able to get EMTs from La Jara to transport Victor to the small town’s hospital where he was diagnosed as having had a heart attack. Then he was medivacked to Pueblo for his first triple bypass and the beginning of the end of his life as the Abeyta’s hired hand.

I asked how Victor was after the first heart attack.

Aaron told me “He was fine. He was following his goats around. But he couldn’t herd the sheep anymore. And we couldn’t afford to provide hay for his goats, so Andrew told him he had to sell them.”

Victor refused and there were angry words between the men. The fireworks between Victor and Andrew led the old herder to leave the Abeyta Ranch. Whether he was evicted or left on his own I don’t know. I do know that Aaron and Andrew’s grandfather’s dying wish was that Victor would be “taken care of” when he could no longer herd.

Yet just a month ago when Victor had his second heart and was hospitalized, he listed Andrew Abeyta as is next of kin. And it was Andrew Abeyta got him the care he needed

At the hospital in Pueblo, they discovered that Victor had a staph infection, and he was given inter venous antibiotics for two weeks before the triple bypass could be performed. It was successful and Victor is back in the San Luis Valley but not at the Abeyta Ranch.

As we talked about Victor and his amazing life Aaron confirmed that Victor was among the thousands of criminals and mentally ill that Castro released in 1980. Victor was, in fact, one the Mariel boatpeople who landed on our shores that year. 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida in one day.

Victor had told me that he picked fruit in Florida and California before arriving in southern Colorado. Aaron told me that Victor and Juan, his fellow prisoner and companion, applied to work at the Abeyta Ranch. Aaron said he was about 8 at the time. That makes it 42 years ago or 1980. I have heard of earlier dates but 1980 tracks with Victor’s story of escaping Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift. The timing does not account for the years Cuba says he spent picking fruit in California and California before arriving in Colorado.

Aaron told me,  “First we hired Juan not Victor. Later Victor came to work for us. Juan was a real criminal. In fact, he’s in prison Santa Fe right now. It was drug related I think.”

Victor told Andrew that when he was eight, he was caught stealing bananas because he was starving. He tried to run but when they caught him, they broke both of his ankles and sent him to prison where he stayed until he was released along with 20,000 other criminals by Castro. 32 years in a Cuban hell hole from the age of 8 is hard to process at best.

Aaron prefaced that harrowing story with the disclaimer that Victor is given to hyperbole and the broad application of the facts. “He might have been 15. You never know with Victor.”

“Is he mentally competent? We know he can’t read or count.” I asked.

“Yes, he’s plenty smart. He has a fantastic memory though I know memory and intelligence aren’t the same thing,” Andrew answered.

And the smiling, simple Victor Hernandez may not be the docile creature he appears to be.

Aaron says that Victor sold him a pistol when he was about 12. The next day while they were loading bales of hay, Victor demanded it back. Aaron told him  “No. I’m keeping it. You sold it to me yesterday.” With that Victor began beating him with a 2x 4 from the bed of the truck. Aaron recalls that he was able to disarm Victor and beat him into submission. He kept the pistol.

Where reality and fiction diverge in Victor’s biography we’ll never know for sure. We do know that his life story comports with facts that we can verify. Fact or fiction his life is the stuff of high literature with dystopian sweep and wrenching tragedy. That Victor spent 40 years as the Abeyta’s man on the prairie alone with the sheep is enough of a story to fill a book.

My first encounter with Victor on the Taos Plateau in January 2011.

Since I first met them in 2011 the Abeytas have worried that Victor ‘Cuba’ Hernandez would literally be their last shepherd. It seemed that every year would be his last if for no other reason than age. He'd be 82 now according to my calculations. When he could no longer herd the sheep there would be no one in the valley willing to live in the rough for seven months with 400 bleating charges. At best they’d have import a herder from South America.

When Aaron told me that Victor had to stop herding the sheep three years ago after his first heart attack, my first question was did they find another herder.? Aaron told me that they had. I asked how they found a willing candidate and where he came from.

“We asked around and all the calls led to the same man,” Aaron told me. “He’s from Chihuahua.”

Never count the Abeytas out when it comes to tenacity and resourcefulness. When one door closes for the family another will open. It always has and always will. But it won’t be the same without Victor. His and their story has meant a lot to me. It may be the most important one that I’ve tried to tell. To know that the story will continue is a gift.


1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

Now THIS is a story, Steve, and one that needs to be developed and fleshed to its fullest! WOW. My hope is that you can do so, written with your skilled mind and words. It needs to be told from the beginning of Victor's life, with luck and Andrew Abeyta's help, to present day, along with both he and Victor's help. Thank you for the great post, Steve!