Spurring on tradition
Mexican-Americans tap into their heritage by roping, riding, and celebrating Tejano culture.
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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.