SAN BARTOLO MORELOS, MEXICO — The pajareros, or birdmen, build their tercios one wooden cage at a time, tying one on top of another, until a tower of nine or 12 or 14 cages, each with a chirping bird inside, pierces the pale-blue sky. Some birdmen pretty their towers with red and pink flowers, others with pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe. They heave them onto their backs. Each tower weighs roughly 30 kilograms (66 pounds), but the pajareros don’t look weary — rather, they puff with pride, as if they were birds courting.
With songbirds and a group of mariachis warbling, the pajareros huff 4.5 kilometers (nearly 3 miles) through San Bartolo Morelos, a town northwest of Mexico City, so a priest can bless their feathered treasures. Mostly indigenous men from Mexico’s farthest corners, they carry centuries of wisdom about the mockingbirds and cardinals that they capture and sell. Matías Hernández Vázquez, a third-generation pajarero, helped organize the event. “If there is no bird singing, the house doesn’t shine. It’s not a home,” he says. “You don’t hear the bustle; you feel the sadness, the loneliness. It’s like an abandoned house.”
The pilgrimage arrives at a neighborhood called Barrio de la Calavera. By this time, the sun is strong, but the pajareros don’t mind — it’s been two pandemic years since they gathered for this blessing. They set down their tercios, forming a skyline of aviaries in a lot adorned with an altar. Today’s Mass is dedicated to San Isidro Labrador (Saint Isidore the Farmer), the patron saint of agricultural workers. The pajareros have a lot to pray for: Their profession is under threat.
Pajareros are not illegal traffickers — they need government permits to work — but many bird lovers see little difference. To them, caging birds is inherently cruel. They’ve led anti-pajarero protests and media campaigns for years, which the birdmen say trickle down into individual acts of harassment and intimidation. Now the profession faces the possibility of new rules governing the types of animals people can keep as pets. It’s unclear whether that will affect the bird trade — federal lawmakers haven’t settled on which animals will be included — but pajareros worry it could ensnare them. The Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources) did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
At stake are the livelihoods of hundreds of pajareros and pajareras, their women counterparts. “If it were a stressed bird, it would be killing itself inside the cage,” says Hernández Vázquez, 62, the president of Frente Nacional de Aves Canoras y de Ornato A.C. (National Front of Singing and Ornamental Birds A.C.). “That’s what the legislators are never going to understand: that people who know about this and work with birds have an approach and acclimate the bird to captivity. And the bird adapts, and in reciprocity to the good attention you give it, it thanks you with its song.”
For generations, pajareros have been fixtures of Mexican marketplaces, or tianguis, with other animal vendors. In Actopan, the town north of Mexico City where Hernández Vázquez lives, the tianguis brays and oinks with cattle, horses, sheep, pigs and about 80 sellers of roosters, ducks, peacocks and other birds. It’s not a particularly lucrative trade, but many pajareros lack the education that would allow them to pursue other opportunities. Most have decades of experience and deep knowledge of Mexico’s diverse avian landscape, and the business is usually a family affair, with men catching house finches and cardinals and women helping them adjust to captivity.
Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico
The birds live in cages inside pajarero homes — otherwise, a cat or dog might mistake them for dinner — and rely on their caretakers for feeding, cleaning and mending when sick. A bond often forms. During the pilgrimage, when Hernández Vázquez hands out water bottles, many pajareros give their birds the first sip. “There are cases of wildlife living 20, 25 years when their normal life expectancy is seven years,” says Armando Francisco Linares, a 25-year-old pajarero and veterinary student who grew up in Santa María Tixmadeje, a municipality northwest of Mexico City. “Why? Because the care of humans has given them the possibility of extending their lives.”
These days, that’s not a widely shared opinion. Erick Daniel Trujillo Castillo runs a branch of the Programa de Aves Urbanas (Urban Bird Program), a citizen-science initiative to encourage birdwatching, in Tlaxcala, east of Mexico City. To him, a caged bird is a mistreated bird. “That bird is used to flying, to being free,” he says. “Then imagine … someone takes it, puts it in a cage, sells it, and its whole life becomes a prison. And what is the sin of the birds?”
Scientists believe that capturing birds can affect the size of wild populations, particularly through illegal trafficking, says Blanca Roldán Clarà, a biologist at the Universidad Autónoma de Occidente in the state of Sinaloa, but habitat destruction and pollution are considered greater threats. Nevertheless, Mexican environmentalists have campaigned against the pajareros for years.
Around 2004, Cosijoopii Montero Sánchez began targeting the bird sellers in his hometown of Monterrey, in northern Mexico, near the United States border. If he spotted a pajarero, he’d make a “citizen’s arrest” and call police; if the pajarero didn’t have all his paperwork, officers often confiscated his birds. That barely made a dent in the trade — until the advent of social media.
Montero is the director of the environmental activist group Reforestación Extrema A.C. “In our social networks, people tell us, ‘Hey, there is a pajarero in such-and-such market.’ They send us the picture; they send us the location,” he says. “If we can’t go ourselves, we talk directly to the police.” However, he rarely needs his network anymore — his campaign was so successful that he hasn’t seen a pajarero in Monterrey in years.
Patricia Zavala Gutiérrez, GPJ Mexico
With the bird wars reaching the highest levels of government, pajareros fear they could become an endangered species. Roldán, the biologist, has studied the community. “This way of life is part of their identity,” she says. “When you say to a family, ‘You’re not going to do this job anymore,’ then you take away its essence, its legacy.” Hernández Vázquez is adamant his profession will endure, regardless of restrictions. “We will not stop doing our traditions; we will continue as long as God allows it.”
At the end of pilgrimage, Mass begins. The pajareros ask God for help surviving the pandemic, which emptied the streets of customers and robbed them of income, and the various efforts to shut down their trade. The priest prays for the community, then walks from tower to tower, blessing the birds with a sprinkling of holy water. Afterward, most pajareros head home, but a few linger, hoping to sell their birds to passersby.