Spurring on tradition

Mexican-Americans tap into their heritage by roping, riding, and celebrating Tejano culture.

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Ramiro Reyes can feel his horse fidgeting underneath the saddle. Like Mr. Reyes, the horse is eager for action. A hand-painted sign nearby warns, "No responsables por accidentes."

Suddenly a gate clangs open onto the dusty arena, and a muscular bull charges out. The chase is on.

Reyes pulls his steed at full gallop alongside the bull, and reaches for the bull's tail. With one deft move, he wraps the tail around his leg and spurs the horse to a faster gallop. The bull tumbles end over end into a cloud of dust. The crowd cheers.

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"Excellent job, now that's a good horseman," exults Emilio Salas, a judge at this tournament of charreria, speaking into a microphone, as Mexican accordion music blares over the loudspeakers of this small arena in the scrubby ranchlands 15 miles southwest of San Antonio. The bull, shaking stars out of its head, snorts indignantly and trots out of the arena.

It's a ritual that may raise the hackles of animal-rights advocates, but it has a purpose. Tumbling and stunning a bull in this way once allowed vaqueros to rush up and brand a bull on the open range.

Today, this skill is just one of a dozen events in a sport called charreria, which is performed in out-of-the-way corners nearly every weekend across the Southwest from late March to early October.

For Latinos like Ramiro Reyes, it's a chance to rediscover their ranching roots and their cultural pride in a sport that began nearly 100 years before the arrival of the first Anglos in Texas in the 1820s.

While most Texans have never heard of it, charreria is the root of much of what people now call Texas culture, and certainly of rodeo itself.

Rodeo, of course, has evolved into a sport of multimillion-dollar cash prizes and sponsorships from multinational corporations. Charreria, by contrast, is a more homegrown affair.

Competitors, including laborers, business professionals, and recently arrived Mexican immigrants, consider this a weekend hobby, like a game of golf with the ever-present threat of rope burns. Cash prizes tend to be small, around $700 for the first-place team, $500 for second place, and so on, but by staying small, charreria has been able to retain much of its historic flavor. Even today, charreadas allow ranchers and urbanites to show off their livestock and compete for bragging rights on who's the best horseman.

The roots of Western rodeo

"In Texas history books, they either look at the Mexican charro or the Anglo cowboy; the thing they leave out is the Tejano," says Andres Tijerina, a historian at Austin Community College and author of "Tejano Empire," a book on the history of Hispanic ranching culture. "But the Tejano, the vaquero, is the person who perfected all these skills, and the one who introduced them to the Anglo Americans."

The fact is, the environment Anglo cowboys operated in was wholly created by Mexican vaqueros.

On arriving in Texas, most Anglos gave up the whips and English saddles they had used back East, in favor of the la reata (now called "lariat") and Mexican-style saddle, complete with a saddle horn and protective leather "taps" on their stirrups, to ward off thorns and cactus. Until the early 1900s, in fact, most Anglos still preferred to be called vaquero rather than the slightly demeaning "cowboy."

Tejanos even created the first singing cowboy, although their singing was nothing like Tex Ritter in those old Westerns.

According to one entranced Anglo observer, Tejanos learned to lure wild cattle out of the thorniest chaparral by sending in some of their tame cattle to mingle with the wild ones. Then the Tejanos would call their cattle for feeding time, calling out "oooooo-mah," and the wild ones would follow the tame into the open, only to be captured by a waiting vaquero. It wasn't "Happy Trails," but it worked.

Feats of horsemanship

At today's tournaments of charreria, charros still exhibit the same grit and skill that show how the West was really won. They perform the cala de caballo, directing the horse in quarter, half, and full turns, all with subtle signals from the legs. Women perform the the escaramusa, or "skirmish," while riding side-saddle at full gallop. And men practice manganas a pie, or rope tricks on foot, which include twirling a lariat from left to right, and jumping in and out of the loop, before snagging the leg of a charging bull.

It's occasionally dangerous, but all very practical for ranch life.

Modern charros have even found ways to address some concerns of animal-rights activists. They use hemp rope, for instance, when roping horses or bulls, which has a tendency to break if it comes under sudden stress. This saves the roped animal from injuring itself. American charros also get points deducted if they trip a horse during roping events. Instead, they ease the rope to slow the horse.

Oddly enough, the sport of charreria is encountering a revival precisely at a time when fewer Tejanos actually make a living from ranching. With more and more Mexican-Americans integrating into modern American society, there are more complicated reasons than mere tradition - or adrenaline.

"I can't help but see it as a form of resistance," says Dr. Tijerina. "Mexican-Americans are very sensitive to the fact that Anglo- Americans see them as unwanted immigrants. Here's a way of setting the record straight. Tejanos were here first. Legitimacy: That's the one thing Mexican-Americans need to feel."

The crowds at charreadas, as the tournaments are called, tend to be overwhelmingly Latino. These are family affairs, after all. But while these events are not often well publicized, and can be devilishly hard to find, they occur nearly every weekend from late March to early October, in a rotation of Southwest cities.

Groups are loosely organized into charro associations in the various regions. The San Antonio association is the oldest in Texas, started in 1947. But there are also less-formal charreadas held by ranches near towns farther south in Texas, such as Zapata or Hebronville. No club exists in those towns, but charreadas are informal festivals often timed to coincide with religious holidays. Some observers say these informal groups have maintained more of the native Tejano flavor, while the clubs use actual rule books and dress codes borrowed from Mexico.

Anglos are welcome at charreadas, organizers will tell you, although a knowledge of Spanish is useful in understanding the announcements.

Like many competitors in Lytle, Roberto Chavira of Austin wears the uniform of the charro: wide-brimmed sombrero, with tight pants and a short jacket embroidered with needlework. A former bull rider in Western-style rodeo, Mr. Chavira says he fell in love with charreria the first time he saw a parade of Mexican charros.

"The moment I saw that, something hit me. I said, 'Wow, that's powerful,' " says Chavira, an Austin police officer who grew up in a family of migrant farm workers in west Texas. Looking out at the audience, and toward the kids practicing rope tricks, he adds, "This is family, this is religion, culture, tradition. It's a way of life."

Felipe Robledo, who owns an auto mechanic's shop in San Antonio, grew up riding horses in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, but he got involved with charreria only when he came north to settle in the US.

"This is my only sport; I don't have the height for football," he says, standing outside the arena, watching his fellow charros perform the coleada, or bull-tail-grabbing event. Asked about his favorite event, he smiles. "I ride the bulls. In American rodeo, they just have to keep riding for 8 seconds. In Mexican charreria, we've got to stay on top of the bull until he stops kicking, no matter what it takes."

Isn't that dangerous? a visitor asks. "I was five years old when I first started riding horses," he replies, without sounding arrogant. "To me, it's nothing."

Next generation of charros

In the parking lot, the next generation is working on rope tricks. The youngest in the group are four-year-old twins. The oldest is Jaime Cornejo, a 15-year-old from Austin.

Nestor Bettancourt, a 10-year-old from Austin, demonstrates the manganas a pie, or rope tricks. He twirls a lariat from one side to the other, jumps through the loops, then brings the loop over his head and twirls it horizontally around his body like a hula hoop before jumping outside of the loop.

"I love it," says Nestor, who practices at least one hour a day. "You have this feeling that you want to do it right. Every Sunday we know we're going to be here."

A few yards away, a young bull starts walking into the parking lot. He bellows angrily, and women grab young children and head for their cars.

Clearly, it's time for these young hombres to put their skills to work. Chief vaquero Jaime gives a war whoop: "Hey guys, we've got a mission!"

They all run off, throwing their lariats at the bull, who quickly retreats.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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