When 27-year-old Filipe Masetti Leite decided to leave Canada and go home to his family in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, Brazil, he chose to ride horseback. He left the grounds of the Calgary Stampede on July 8, 2012 to trek 16,000 kilometres, across 12 countries.
His daily routine consists of waking up at 5 a.m. to prepare his American quarter-horses, Bruiser and Frenchie, and his mustang, Dude. He then rides for about 30 kilometres, not knowing what awaits down the road. The mission of his trips remains the same: to document stories of human kindness and strife in drug-torn Latin America.
What inspired him to do the trip was a story his father, Luis Leite, told him growing up. It was about Aimé Tschiffely, a Swiss professor who rode horseback to New York city from Buenos Aires in 1925. Later, while reading Tschiffely’s book, Tschiffely’s Ride, he came across a sentence that affirmed his plans to ride south.
“You have an inside into peoples lives that you don’t normally have as a journalist,” he recalls.
By riding in on a horse, asking for a place to stay overnight, no one suspects he’s a documentarian. “With an entire crew and a bunch of cameras, people would get uncomfortable,” he said.
Currently, the second-generation cowboy is riding through Costa Rica. So far, he’s witnessed a problematic gap between the rich and the poor in many places he’s been. “Unlike Canada, there’s a type of freedom that doesn’t exist in Latin America,” says Leite. “A construction worker can live next to a dentist or doctor and that’s not the case here.”
Hearing people’s stories, understanding their lives and sharing them with the world is one of the many reasons why Leite grew up wanting to become a journalist. “You capture a reality you can’t otherwise,” he said.
In 2006 he chose to attend Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, where he mastered storytelling and developed two international documentaries with classmates through funding provided by the university. One of the films was The Road to Dago, about women in Kenya living with HIV. The second was Gringos with Guns, about 21st-century voluntourism in Sacred Valley, Peru. Before graduating, Leite and his team were acknowledged for their work on Gringos by receiving the Ross McLean Memorial Award from Ryerson.
By telling stories that deal with voiceless individuals, journalism can be used as “a weapon into creating a more just world,” says Leite. When passing through Mexico on his trip, where things can get dangerous, he had his father temporarily join him. When they entered the city of Fresnillo, they found buildings with bullet holes in from cartels who had gone around shooting a couple of nights earlier.
“People were literally hiding under their beds while these guys were going around with AK-47s,” he says. “It’s like the wild, wild west and people don’t know what to do, they’re afraid for their lives and it’s just so sad to see.”
Looking back, Leite thinks about how fortunate he is to get his documentary made. “I didn’t have money to do it,” he says. “I tried pitching to people and they were like ‘no you’re crazy, it’s not going to work, go work for the CBC.’”
Facing rejection and feeling hopeless, Leite turned to social media for sponsorship. That’s when Nashville production company OutWildTV liked and bought the project. Afterwards, his horses were donated by Montana ranches Copper Spring Ranch and Weaver Quarter Horses. Leite received Dude as a gift from the Taos Pueblo Indigenous people in New Mexico.
Leite hopes to complete his journey in August. By then he will be in Barretos, Brazil attending the biggest rodeo in Latin America, Festa do Peão de Barretos. Organizers of the rodeo already plan to build statues of Leite’s horses.
“They’re going to have the horses there for a couple of years where people can see them and hear their stories,” he says, “because they’re the true heroes of the trip, they’re my family.”
Leite’s final stop is his hometown Espirito Santo do Pinhal, three hours away, where he hasn’t been since Christmas 2011. He’ll reunite with his parents, Claudia and Luis, and sisters, Paolla and Izabella. With plans to stay in Brazil, he’ll begin working on his documentary and a potential book sharing his journeys moments of fear, exhaustion and compassion.
“I’m very lucky that this is my life, this is my job,” he says. “People pay me to ride my horses from Canada to Brazil and it’s amazing.”