Much of what we identify as cowboy culture has Mexican roots.
Even the word “buckaroo” comes from the word vaquero. Whenever a cowboy straps on chaps (from “chaparreras,” for leather leggings), or competes in a rodeo (from “rodear”, meaning to surround) you see the true roots of vaquero tradition. As cattle branding migrated north from Mexico, then trail-driving Texans carried the techniques across the West.
That heritage is something the Briscoe Western Art Museum showcases in the heart of San Antonio, nestled on the banks of the River Walk. The term “Western art” brings to mind cowboys on the range, but the genre spans all of the stories of the American West: wildlife, Native American heritage, and of course, cowboys. Thanks to the influence of Mexican and Spanish heritage across Texas and the Southwest, the Briscoe also shares that story.
Vaquero heritage and the hardworking vaqueros of Northern Mexico are on full display at the Briscoe in its stunning exhibition, “Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo: Contemporary Photography of the Northern Mexican Cowboy”. The exhibition showcases the birthplace of the modern cowboy, detailing a legacy with profound influence on the American West. Making its United States debut in San Antonio, the exhibition features almost 60 photographs from celebrated photographer Werner Segarra, who spent more than 30 years getting to know the vaqueros and the community.
The photography exhibition showcases the people, the work and the landscape of a remote area in Sonora, Mexico. The title, “Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo”, or Cowboys of the Devil’s Cross, refers to a mountain that defines the rugged landscape where these vaqueros work and live. The images share the unique, passionate and strenuous life they lead.
“The customs and traditions of these vaqueros—and the singular, real, passionate, hard life they lead—reflect a way of life that is disappearing in the modern age” says Segarra. “The skill and artistry of their lives, the opportunity to ride with them, to be a part of their lives and share that is an honor.”
The portraits showcase home and companionship, both central to the vaquero story. Segarra’s photographs show that home is on the ranch and in the wide-open spaces of the mountainside, rather than in the basic shelters that hold few luxuries, while friendship is solidified through storytelling on porches or at the canteen, where dancing, racing, and merrymaking prevail.
Each image captures a scene so well that it’s easy to feel as if you are there, sharing a simple breakfast before a day’s work, riding in the mountains to herd cattle, praying for lost loved ones or enjoying a meal together. Segarra’s relationship with the vaqueros and his familiarity with their work and routines is evident in each image, inviting audiences to peer into their world not as a casual tourist, but as an intimate observer.
While Segarra’s images themselves are stunning, music and video deepen the exhibition experience. Norteño music by Leo Lopez created especially for the exhibition plays in the gallery, giving you a feel for music you’d hear if you were spending time with the vaqueros. Video clips further illustrating the stories captured in the photographs are woven throughout the exhibition. Captured when Segarra pulled out his phone to video some of the vaqueros, the clips let you hear the vaqueros and see the environment and people Segarra has captured so well. After one of the vaqueros takes over his phone, you even see Segarra on video.
Vaqueros de la Cruz del Diablo debuts in San Antonio after stops in Monterrey and Torreon, Mexico, and is on view now through Jan. 24, 2022. You can also enjoy a virtual tour of the Briscoe exhibition.
Cover photo courtesy Werner Segarra
An award-winning writer and communications expert who runs Tale to Tell Communications, Dawn Robinette loves to tell stories about her adopted hometown of San Antonio. You can read more of her work at Alamo City Moms, San Antonio Woman and Rio Magazine.