commune's 500 goats, animals that thrive in arid climates.
"How can we live?" asks Ortiz, stretching an arm over the barren, sun- baked land that stretches as far as the eye can see. "The terrain is too dry to raise more animals. They have nothing to eat."
Ejidos are a legacy of the violent revolution of 1910 to 1917, which wrested control of the land from the wealthy few and gave it to the peasants. Now, Mexico's president wants to reverse this historic reform.
Under a radical agricultural program proposed by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the land that peasants have sweated over for decades might be sold off to big companies, either foreign or domestic, and made into productive, moneymaking enterprises.
In the last three-quarters of a century, about 250 million acres, half of Mexico's total land area, have been distributed to some 3 million farmers in Mexico's countryside.
Salinas' plan, the boldest since he took office three years ago, would abolish the obligation to dole out "land to the landless," as proclaimed in Article 27 of the 1917 constitution.
It also would allow individual ownership of the ejidos, enabling farmers to sell or rent the land or form joint ventures with private investors - practices that are widespread but disallowed under current law.
Supporters say the plan would benefit Mexico's cash-strapped economy by attracting private investment and creating jobs while developing the country's agriculture sector.
Critics say the proposal would abandon millions of rural Mexicans and resurrect the large feudal estates the revolution fought to dismantle.
"Those that criticize change basically propose that the poverty and misery of millions of campesinos continue," Salinas said in a national address on Nov. 14.
Land reform requires a constitutional amendment approved by the Congress. Many believe it will pass.
Earlier this month, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, endorsed the plan. The Senate could approve by the end of the year, observers say.
Many who resist Salinas' plan agree changes are needed. While the ejido system formed the cornerstone of the revolution, it hasn't worked.
"There were predictions that peasants would revolt, but nope, it was more like 'big deal,' " said Primitivo Rodriguez, director of the Mexico-U.S. border program for the American Friends Service Committee's national office in Philadelphia. "Many ejido farmers agreed with it."
Rodriguez, who grew up on an ejido in Michoacan and who believes in the revolutionary dream of land for the masses, acknowledges that mere possession of land neither achieved agrarian independence for Mexico nor provided a magic solution to the poverty and homelessness that plagued Mexico's rural populations.
"We always dreamed of a country as (revolutionary leader Emiliano) Zapata wanted. Now, the reforms are the reality and the dreams are dead," Rodriguez said.
Land contributed to the solution only insofar as it could be made to produce. And the average peasant farmers weren't prepared to make the land flourish. They had no seed and no tools, and no money to buy them. They didn't own the land - they could only hand it down from father to son - so they couldn't use it as collateral to get bank loans.
And while the Mexican government has had an ideological commitment to maintaining the ejidos, it has done little, said Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.
"The state has not invested in them in ways that would allow them to prosper," he said.
Historians say Salinas' plan legitimizes changes that have been taking place for decades.
Many ejido farmers already rent their plots to private farmers, who then hire them to work their own lands. Others lease their lands and move to cities, or cross the border to the United States, to find work.
"The ejido system is not really protecting the peasantry. It's a front, a sham," said Alan Knight, C.B. Smith senior professor of Mexican history at the University of Texas. "It still enables people, big companies, to acquire the land. It has not served its original purpose."
Since he took office, Salinas has eliminated subsidies, state enterprises and tariff protection.
Rural reform is Salinas' latest step in modernizing the Mexican economy and society in anticipation of commercial integration with the United States and Canada under a free-trade agreement now being negotiated.
Although some now say that the free-trade proposal with the United States might not be signed any time soon, if ever, many believe that free trade will occur naturally as Mexico builds its economy.
A massive infusion of capital is needed.
"For Mexican agriculture to become competitive, it has to have a major investment, and that investment doesn't exist within Mexico's government," said David E. Lorey, a history professor at UCLA and coordinator of its program on Mexico. "The government can't continue to subsidize the ejido to any profitable end."
Lorey believes the new reforms are the "logical conclusion" to Salinas' efforts to privatize the economy.
"It has become like the banks or telecommunications or the airlines," Lorey said. "They have to sell these things off. They can't continue to support all these losing ventures."
The 1917 constitution declared an end to big haciendas. It proclaimed that the land belonged to the people. Estates were to be carved up and distributed among the rural populace.
The idea was to improve the welfare of the rural poor and provide some agricultural self-sufficiency for the nation. But there also was a political goal: to pacify the countryside and avert other peasant revolts.
Some of the expropriated landholdings were as big and bountiful as all of Arkansas, but most of the distributed land was useless.
"The plots are too small to be productive or too dry, so there's little the people can do but subsist," said de la Garza.
Nevertheless, Mexican presidents, fearing political fallout and loss of votes, kept the program going.
In the last half-century, the slices became thinner as the better land increasingly went to commercial farmers to grow export crops.
"This has become an argument for changing the ejido system," said Lorey. ''The private sector owns the best land and is able to export to world markets. If the ejidos grew broccoli to sell to California in the winter, it would be great. But they don't."
At the time of the revolution, Mexico was largely an agrarian society; about 90 percent of the population was rural. Today, 30 percent of the population lives in the country and 70 percent lives in urban centers.
Although ejidos and private lands are split evenly in total area, about 80 percent of Mexico's agricultural production is done by the private sector.
Ortiz and the few men gathered at the communal store in Los Fierros don't know what's going to happen. For Los Fierros, as with just about everything else that has happened in the last half-century, news of the free-trade proposal and coming reforms has been lost in the dust and sweat of survival.
Even with title to the land and access to credit, the farmers still lack the precious resource that could lift them out of their misery: water.
Ortiz's house is just a few dwellings from the village elementary school, which serves grades one to three, and the community meeting house, where villagers gather in the evenings to watch their 20th-century marvel: a solar- powered color television that occasionally picks up a channel.
"It was a gift from one of the candidates running for office about three years ago," Ortiz said. "He wanted our votes."
Ortiz can't remember the candidate's name. He hasn't seen the man since he won the election.
But if the people of Los Fierros had a choice, they would have traded their votes for something they want far more than a television.
"If we had water, we could grow some crops," Ortiz said. "Beans and corn could be grown here, and maybe wheat. Instead, we have sand. We can't eat sand."