Inside the Lonely and Grueling Lives of Colombia's Plainspeople
After experiencing the untamed life of the llaneros, a photographer made the wild plains of Colombia her home.
It was 4 a.m. in Hato San Pablo in Casanare, Colombia, when photographer Juanita Escobar mounted a horse for the first time in her life. She fell off, but when she got back on, she stayed on … for the better part of ten years. That same day she began learning about life as a llanero—a rancher responsible for herding hundreds of cattle across vast plains—chasing cows on her horse with irregular land under her feet and too many questions burning in her mind. This is how she likes to tell stories.
Escobar was captivated by the unflinching dedication of the llaneros to their territory and their horses. The land was the foundation for their entire identity—without it, they wouldn’t have jobs, and without their jobs, they wouldn’t have culture. This interconnectedness between land and man has deep and sprawling roots in the llaneros society.
Not long after uncertain steps on the horse, Escobar adapted to the rhythm of the llaneros. “We went out early in the morning when it was still dark outside, in silence," she says. "Most of [them] would light their cigarettes. That little red light that kept moving as we moved forward … I started to fall in love with it.”
But that slow, peaceful rhythm of the morning is disrupted once the work begins. “When they collect the cattle, it’s like an explosion. Eight hundred cattle are fighting to escape the woodlands and 40 plainsmen are wildly riding so no animal can escape.” The whole ordeal lasts about 12 hours a day, and they’re at the constant mercy of the elements.
And all the while the horse is there—the literal backbone of the operation. “The plainsman and the horse are in one body. It’s impossible to talk about them separately ... [Their] entire universe and culture is based [on] that specific relationship.”
As the llaneros spread their roots across the boundless lands with their horses, the women in the community deepen them at home. Without their work, the community would crumble beneath its own feet. The bonds between men and women are seemingly invisible, but the constant tension made them real. “Women’s abilities are not measured in the savannah or in their courage for the work on the plains," Escobar says. "They step on the road differently. With the same proudness men battle the savannah against bulls or beasts, [women] perform uncountable chores. Without it there wouldn’t be cattle culture, or plains, or plainsmen.”
To Escobar, the female experience on the plains was imbued with mystery, longing, and an omniscient awareness of their relationship to the land. “She knows moments, places, roads, and depth of the plains that many times men never knew.”
And for her, it was real. She felt the same loneliness as the other women in the community and wanted to examine the other natural force that manifests itself so acutely in Casanare: romance. She describes the life of plainswomen to be lonely, filled with goodbyes and rich with desire, a feeling she tried to show in her photography. “I wanted to tell more intimate stories … more secret, darker.” She wanted to photograph the “internal and physical journey of people, influenced by their love stories, my stories, [and feelings of] loneliness, suppression, and desire.”
Her ten years on the plains have been an emotional and physical journey. During this time, Escobar planted her own roots to feel what they were feeling, to experience the land, love, and loss. “This way of telling stories makes me feel alive," she says. "It makes me feel that the earth beats. In this place I’m not only a photographer but a woman, girl, plainswoman, friend, partner … I need to experience everything and to be inside to tell the stories.”
Juanita Escobar is a Colombian photographer. Follow her on Instagram. This interview was translated from Spanish.
Mallory Benedict is an associate photo editor for National Geographic. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.