Immigrant Stories: Following his Venezuelan water buffalo dream
Intro: José Miranda’s animal spirit is the water buffalo. He has spent his life with them. Growing up, he always dreamed of taking over his parents’ water buffalo ranch on the plains of Venezuela.
When he was a child, in the 1970s, Venezuela was the richest country in South America with vast oil reserves. But, by the time he reached his teens, the price of oil began to drop and his oil-dependent country began to experience food shortages and unrest.
In 1998, José came to the United States to study animal and ranch management at Montana State University. He was 22, and Hugo Chávez had just been elected president. When he graduated, in 2001, he returned to Venezuela with his bride and their dream of raising a family and growing the ranch’s herd, but Chávez’s land reform program called for nationalizing ranches and subdividing them.
By 2005, conditions in Venezuela forced José’s parents to sell the ranch. José and his wife, their son and infant daughter were in the United States at the time. José was studying solar technology at Colorado Mountain College and his wife and children were spending time with her parents.
In 2008, José and his family returned to Venezuela.
Gallacher: Why did you go back?
Miranda: Well, Chávez was on his last legs, and I thought there was a chance for things to turn around. I went back with the intention of trying to help my country change. But it didn’t happen. Venezuela is controlled by syndicates, and they make sure whoever takes control of the government is one of their puppets. That’s how Maduro got there. All the cheating that it was possible to do for the election, they did, and Maduro was the one that ended up in power.
Before Chávez died, he endorsed Maduro. And ever since Maduro has been harvesting everything that Chavez planted. He’s totally unprepared to run the country, but he is profiting from the trafficking of the drugs from Colombia, the gold from the Amazon, and what’s left of the oil industry.
I thought things were going to change around, and they didn’t. Things got worse. We were living on our ranch, off the grid, trying to stay away from the politics and the growing violence. But, one day in 2013, the violence came to us. A gang of thieves robbed us at gunpoint.
I was tied down in front of my family, and they looted our ranch and took everything they could. Fortunately, it was just material things, and as soon as they were gone, I realized that it was time to get out of there. Three days later, I loaded my family on a plane bound for the States.
I stayed behind for about a month just closing up the business that I had, and that was it. I knew I wasn’t going back because everything was in chaos, the crime and the inflation, the shortages of food and medicine. And there are no plans to solve it. As long as people are busy standing in line for food, they are too busy to go out and protest and try to fight for anything bigger for the country.
Gallacher: It’s rich agricultural land, so it’s hard to understand that people are starving.
Miranda: Well, when the oil industry started, we thought we could get everything with oil. The countryside was basically abandoned. We used to grow coffee, cacao and cattle. Wise people were saying, “We need to plant the oil,” invest the oil revenue in food and agriculture, but no one was listening to them.
Gallacher: It must’ve been really hard for you to leave your country, your friends and family. Is your family still there?
Miranda: Yeah, some are but many have left. I have family spread all over the world just like everybody else in Venezuela. Those that were able to leave and find a job, somewhere else, did. Some stayed because they still feel a sense of responsibility to maintain their business and keep people employed. Some are too old or too afraid to leave. They’re ready to retire, and they have the few belongings that they depend on for retirement. They don’t feel like they can start all over with nothing.
Many of the young people have left. So now you have all these senior citizens without their kids and grandkids. In a lot of cases, these older seniors are refugees themselves. Years ago they fled to Venezuela to escape dictators like Franco in Spain and Pinochet in Chile.
Gallacher: They say 3 million people have left; that’s a 10th of the population. So you had to leave your land, your livestock, everything. Did you feel like you were going to die that day?
Miranda: Oh yeah, everything was on the line. I was thinking about our lives and praying that they didn’t kill us all. None of the material stuff mattered at that moment.
Gallacher: So you came back.
Miranda: I came back and started from nothing again. We had the support of people we knew in Carbondale. The kids reunited with friends that they had made five years before. So it wasn’t totally foreign for them coming back to Colorado.
Gallacher: It must have been hard to recover. Did you get depressed?
Miranda: Oh, for years, yeah. I spent at least four years grieving for what we had lost. And I was depressed about what was happening in Venezuela. Right now there are hundreds of people in prison because they disagree with the government.
Gallacher: Do you think Juan Guaidó has a chance to depose Maduro and change things in Venezuela? He’s in a very dangerous place.
Miranda: He is. But he’s not the only one. There are a number of young leaders with the integrity and desire to change Venezuela. But I’m sure Guaidó feels like he just won a tiger in the lottery.
Gallacher: Yes, a tiger without a cage. It must be hard for you to watch this from a distance.
Miranda: Well, I am more encouraged, now, than I have been in a long time. I feel like Guaidó and his people want to solve the problems in Venezuela.
Gallacher: So would you go back if things started to look better?
Miranda: You know my desire to go back and help Venezuela came back again after seeing what’s happening right now. I feel very optimistic about the changes that are taking place.
Gallacher: But you’ve got a whole new life that you’re building here. You have introduced the water buffalo to the Roaring Fork Valley.
Miranda: Yes, when I came back in 2013, I went to work on a cattle ranch, but I never stopped dreaming about building a water buffalo herd. So when Colorado reclassified the water buffalo from an exotic to a domestic species, I decided it was time.
Gallacher: These are Asian buffalo, not African?
Miranda: Yes, the African water buffalo can’t be domesticated. Their temperament is very different. This buffalo is from India and China. It gets used for work, for milk production and for meat. It wasn’t introduced in the United States until the 1970s. The milk is pure white, it’s thicker and it’s higher in calcium and vitamin A, and it makes amazing cheese. So you get more pounds of cheese per gallon of milk from a water buffalo than you do from regular cow.
Gallacher: You seem to have a special relationship with them.
Miranda: They are very special animals. They are like a cow with the brain of a horse. So when you create a bond and attachment with them it’s more profound. The water buffalo is truly interested in hanging out with you. It’s all about the way you train them. I believe in a very gentle approach to training the animal. I want them to feel comfortable around me. I want them to want to follow me. I don’t believe in trying to push them where I want them to go.
Gallacher: Are you producing cheese yet?
Miranda: Just at home, not for commercial purposes yet. I need to have more animals for that. This year I’m going to have five, next year I’ll have nine and in 2022 I’ll have 20. By then, I’ll have enough volume to create my own cheese brand. It’s a slow process.
Gallacher: But it’s not easy to move you off your dream.
Miranda: No, and the obstacles are big, you gotta stay true.
Gallacher: You’ve been moved a few times.
Miranda: Yeah, I have been knocked down a few times, but every time I fall I feel like I learn something new. Yeah, I guess this is actually my third water buffalo ranch, you could say.
Gallacher: You’re passionate and persistent.
Miranda: I just can’t let it go, you know, I need to be with these buffalo, and my attachment to them is something I enjoy greatly.
Gallacher: They have been a part of you since you were just a boy.
Miranda: Yes, and I want my kids to have the same experience. My son is 16 years old now. He grew up on the milk at my parent’s buffalo ranch, and my daughter grew up on the milk at the ranch that we started. Now I have a third child on the way that’s going to grow up on the milk of these buffaloes, here in Colorado.