This Three-Day Horseback Ride Keeps Mexican Traditions Alive

Despite a dark chapter in its recent past, this small community is carrying on its colourful traditions.

I watched sleepily as the early morning light streamed through the window of my Ford Fiesta where I had spent the night in the back seat. I was on a ranch in Morelos, Mexico, about an hour south of the Texas border in the Mexican state of Coahuila, for the town’s annual “cabalgata”. During this three-day celebration, thousands of riders on horseback and hundreds more in horse-drawn waggons make the pilgrimage to Morelos where they parade through the streets, compete in rodeos, dance, and camp out, eating and drinking beer along the way.

The night before I had watched hundreds of riders trickle in to watch a rodeo held by the light of jumbo Christmas lights. Teenage boys guzzled cans of beer before lowering themselves on the backs of bulls to compete for cash prizes. An entire pig and a side of beef was butchered and cooked over the grill while the organs and innards boiled in a huge cauldron over an open fire.

The three-day event culminates at the cockfighting arena where a crowd watches form the stands. The town of Morelos is adjacent to Allende and both were affected by a massacre in 2011 where dozens if not hundreds of people were disappeared and presumed dead.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The crowd watches as each family is announced on a loudspeaker and paraded around the arena. Families wear their best clothes and ride their nicest horses at the cabalgata.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The event was joyous and exuberant; you could almost forget that this region was the scene for a horrific massacre in 2011.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A young woman at the cabalgata poses for a portrait during the festivities. All generations take part in some part of the events, some families camp while others join for daytime rides.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A group of boys rides their horses in the procession of the cabalgata.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Cristian Valdez, 24, is a tattoo artist from the neighbouring town of Allende which was the epicentre of the massacre, with dozens of homes destroyed and many residents killed.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A group of boys prepares their horses for the days' festivities.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Children play in Los Ejidos, a community farming cooperative that was the midpoint for the Cabalgata. Just an hour from the Texas border, both locals and family members who currently live in the United States return for special events like this.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A boy plays with a toy gun during a dance. Despite recent violence, locals claim that things are much safer now than in years past.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Almost all of the locals turn up to watch the procession. This cabalgata occurs annually despite the threat of violence in recent years under the Zetas drug cartel.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A young couple watches the sun set on the first night of th cabalgata.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

I was in Morelos on assignment for National Geographic Magazine to uncover the details of a gruesome massacre orchestrated by the Zeta drug cartel that occurred in the nearby town of Allende six years earlier. For security reasons, writer Ginger Thompson and I had been only been traveling and photographing during the day, which meant I had been missing the beautiful golden light each morning and evening.

But today was different. I was up and out before sunrise, walking around the encampments, documenting the riders waking up and tending to their horses. They started fires for coffee and grilled meat for breakfast tacos. A man wandered around wearing a tall stack of hats for sale, which went quickly as the sun grew stronger and the heat settled in. There were several families from Texas who come down each year to take part in the festivities, reconnecting with their Mexican roots.

A group of young men compete in a bull-riding competition, hoping to win a cash prize.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

The scene was so exuberant that I could almost forget that in 2011, dozens if not hundreds of people were disappeared from this region, most from the neighbouring town of Allende but also from Morelos and the larger border city of Piedras Negras. Numerous homes were destroyed, their burned-out remains a daily reminder of the destruction and disappearances that left residents traumatised with nowhere else to go.

Earlier in the trip, Thompson and I visited a remote ranch where most of the bodies were said to be incinerated. She had worked for months to gain the trust of widows and mothers of those who disappeared, victims of the massacre. They were rightfully wary of having a photographer follow them around in a town where the narcos and their families still yield quite a bit of power.

We had heard anecdotes about members of the Zetas drug cartel appearing at the cabalgata in Allende in 2010, just a few months before the massacre, riding giant black draft horses. These impressive horses left the crowd in awe and made a public statement about their wealth and power. But this year at the cabalgata, no one was suspicious of the camera or fearful of being photographed; no one was asking questions about what we were doing there.

As revellers arrived on horseback, a loudspeaker blared music and an announcer called out each family’s name as they entered the arena. Several wealthier families were accompanied by musicians playing their own personal soundtrack to make their grand entrance. The cartel’s wealth and influence has infiltrated every part of life in this region and it is impossible to draw a line between the ‘good guys’ and the bad as everyone clamours for prizes, status, and a better view of the horses on procession.

Boys practice lassoing near their campsite.
PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Header Image: Thousands of Mexicans take part in the "Cabalgata de Morelos", a three-day horseback ride punctuated with rodeos, music and activities. These annual rides are among the most important cultural events in this agricultural region. PHOTOGRAPH BY KIRSTEN LUCE, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

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