In a signature black-and-white image by Puerto Rican photographer Werner Segarra, a lone vaquero sits astride his horse while a number of cattle streak across the frame in a blur. The image encapsulates how most people outside of Northern Mexico and the American Southwest might view the Mexican cowboy, or vaquero: as a thing stuck in time, the rest of the world whizzing by.
The image, titled El ancón de las higueras. Huachinera, 2011, is one of 60 collected for an exhibition at the Briscoe Western Art Museum opening Saturday titled Vaqueros de la Cruz Del Diablo.
Exhibition materials describe the show as Segarra’s attempt to frame “a contemporary, authentic reflection of a way of life that is on the brink of disappearing.” Videos in the exhibition document Segarra’s work photographing vaqueros in action, and prove that for the moment, the tradition is alive and well.
Being a vaquero is hard work, Segarra said, with low pay and long hours in the grueling heat of Northern Mexico’s mountainous deserts. Though many in the region represent generations of the vaquero tradition passed down through families, today’s vaqueros often discourage their kids from taking up the work, suggesting they would find a better life in the city.
This is one reason Segarra set out to document the vaqueros he has known since first encountering them as a 14-year-old high school student in Sedona, Arizona. The school sent students on 10-day jaunts out into the world to gain experiences and insights into indigenous and Mexican communities.
As a self-described young punk with purple hair, Segarra surprised his ranch-owner host by demonstrating solid skills as a horseman, and he was invited to join the group of vaqueros for what turned out to be an arduous 12-hour ride up into the mountains to check on a herd of cattle.
“I fell in love from that moment on,” Segarra said, admiring the vaqueros for their artistry at many tasks.
Given the remoteness of the relatively unpopulated region, in addition to being cowboys and ranchers vaqueros have to be veterinarians, mechanics, architects, and engineers, he explained.
“They have to be all of that, to be able to live [like] this, and none of them went to school for that — they just learned from each other,” he said. He was so drawn to the lifestyle that he began what would become a 40-year project of photographing them.
For the Briscoe exhibition, guest curator Gabriela Gamez grouped Segarra’s photographs into three thematic sections: people, work, and landscape.
The influence of noted American photographer Ansel Adams is visible in Segarra’s large-scale, highly detailed black-and-white images of the mountainous region named “the devil’s cross” for the shape of its valley and the dangers of its narrow, winding roads. Segarra also brings his experience as a fashion and architectural photographer to the vivid color portraits of vaqueros and their families, which are most often framed to include an entire room filled with the objects that tell of their region and lifestyles.
“It’s an entire room to tell you the story of that person,” he said.
Gamez’s interest in architecture first brought Segarra’s work to her attention, she said, through published volumes of his work. She then learned to appreciate the vision of the vaqueros images and their importance in documenting a Mexican tradition.
Michael Duchemin, executive director of the Briscoe, said the exhibition fulfills not just one but all four pillars of the museum’s mission: Native Americans, cowboys, Hispanic culture, and wildlife.
“It’s hitting virtually all the themes that the museum is interested in,” he said, “and it’s contemporary living culture happening right now, too.”
Two intriguing photographs tell of the feminine side of the vaquero life. In Tortillas sobaqueras en que Panchita de Chuy, Francisca Cruz Munguía. Granados, 2016, a matron makes the outsized tortillas that vaqueros make several meals out of during their long days. She resisted being photographed at first, Segarra said, but he eventually won her over in his attempt to show all important aspects of their lives.
In Las tres Marías. Huásabas, 2012, three young women in cowboy hats and leather chaps stare fixedly into the camera, as if defying surprise that they should go against the enduring male stereotype of the cowboy. These women were encouraged by their rancher father to take up the work, but for many years, young women preferred to seek marriage and a life in the city, Segarra said. Today, however, young women are bringing vaquero fashion to city life as a way of paying homage to their forebears.
“They’re really taking pride of what their parents and grandparents were,” he said. “And now I see so many women up there now, riding.”
But the older ranchers are the essence of the tradition, he said, “the guys that have worked the ranch their entire life. They were born on a ranch, and they will die on the ranch. That’s all they know. You know, they don’t consider themselves cowboys. That’s just what they do.”
Vaqueros de la Cruz Del Diablo will be on view with regular museum admission through Jan. 24. Segarra will talk with local University of Texas at San Antonio scholar John Phillip Santos on Saturday from 1 to 3 p.m. at the museum, and the artist will lead a tour of the exhibition on Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m.