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La Charreada - Mexican Horsemanship
Article first published in Vol. 10, 1992.
By Alejandra de la Torre & Patricia Macias
Some people think there is only one way to ride a horse and one way to be a cowboy. These people might do well to remember that here on the border there's no such thing as having only one way to do anything, and that includes our rodeos. The next time you're having trouble thinking up new ways to entertain friends and family, consider going to a charreada.
A charreada is a Mexican-style rodeo that is different from other rodeos. The Mexican cowboy or cowgirl is known as a charro or charra. In an American rodeo the competitors race against the clock, so the emphasis is on speed in any given event. On the other hand, in a Mexican charreada the excellent style and skills of the rider or roper are emphasized, and only one event is timed.
Charrería (a word encompassing all aspects of the art) came to Mexico from Salamanca, Spain, in the 16th century. Interesting is the fact that when the Spaniards first settled in Mexico they were under the orders of the ruler to raise horses, but not to allow the Mexicans to ride them. By 1528 the Spaniards had very large cattle-raising estates. They soon found it necessary to employ the Mexicans as vaqueros or herdsman, and the natives soon became excellent horsemen. Small landholders, known as rancheros or ranchers, were the first genuine charros and invented charreadas.
The name charro, which means "loud or flashy," was adopted because most of the rancheros spent plenty of money adorning their horses and clothing. The Mexican charreada fast became one of the most interesting and dangerous festivals in Mexico.
Charros begin training early by practicing roping and riding tricks . A boy must be at least 12 years of age before he can take part in a charreada publicly.
The charros are very much admired and are referred to as muy hombres, or "he-man" and the charra is held in just as high regard.
Former charra Josefina de la Torre remembers once when she was a little girl in school performing in the ballet folklorico, her dance group performed at a charreada in Júarez. It is there that she had her first glimpse of the Mexican rodeo. Soon after that at the age of five, she was actually riding and performing as a charra, dressed in the spectacular outfit. For ten years she enjoyed the limelight in which performers in this spectacle find themselves.
Part of the beauty of the charreada is the costume, which both the male and the female riders wear, little changed from the ones worn in the 19th century. Though the costumes are similar, there are variations between the two.
A charro wears tightly fitted trousers that cover the riding shoes. Some are decorated with two rows of silver buttons on the outside seam. Their long sleeve shirts, called guayaberas, are made out of heavy homespun cotton, and are worn tucked in or with the long ends tied in the front or back and sometimes both. The hats are sometimes embroidered and worn with some kind of hatband, frequently one made of hand-woven horsehair.
The charro also wears a wide leather belt that has places for a pistol and cartridges. His leather shoes are tightly fitted and pointed. The costume is finished off with a sarape on the charro's right shoulder or strapped to the saddle.
Like the men, the women wear a sombrero, but instead of pants they wear long, beautiful flannel skirts trimmed with sequins. With it they wear a white embroidered shirt tucked inside the skirt and a folded rebozo over the shoulders. This costume is so representative of the Mexican heritage that Lupita Jones, Miss Universe 1991, wore it at the pageant. Charras most often perform as a precision team known as the escaramuza.
Male or female, the participants in a charreada take this rodeo very seriously. Horses keep time with live or recorded mariachi music as their riders, carrying flags, parade around the lienzo, or arena. Here on the border riders often carry that flag of the United States, Mexico, Texas and New Mexico and sometimes a flag with the picture of the Virgin Mary.
The first event in a charreada is called la cala de caballo, which means test of the horse. The rider enters the ring with his horse running at a full gallop for 60 meters. The horse is then brought to a complete stop, leaving a mark in the sand from his two back legs. The charro next turns his horse both directions and shows the judges how well his horse can back up. The charro should be able to back his horse out of the ring in a straight line.
Another event called los piales , or casting of lasso, test the charro's skill and style. Without looking at the horse, which is herded from behind, the charro must predict where the horse will be and aim his lasso for that spot. The charro, on horseback, has three chances to lasso the hind legs of the rapidly moving horse.
Manganas a pie is another rope event where a charro stands in the middle of the ring performing his rope tricks while a wild mare runs around the ring. This time the rider attempts to snag the animal by his front legs and once again, timing is a very important factor.
An event that demands expert roping skills is one called la terna which means the trial. In la terna three charros work as a team to snare a bull by its neck and hind legs and tie the legs. Each team is giving 10 minutes to accomplish this task.
A contest in which a steer or bull is tailed is called the coleadero and it is the most popular event at a charreada . A charro will ride alongside the bull, saluting the judges as he passes. Then slapping the steer, he slides his hand along the animal 's back until he gets hold of the tail. Once he has hold of the tail, the charro must wrap it around his boot and then speed up his horse to a faster pace than that of the steer or bull so he can run the bull off balance.
In this case, the harder the animal falls, the better score the charro receives. The charro is allowed 60 meters to throw the animal down, but if he manages to throw it within 30 meters, he will score higher.
The final and most dangerous event is the paso de la muerte, otherwise known as the pass of death. In the pass of the dead three charros drive a wild mare, having nothing to hold on to but the horse's mane.
Mariachis often play throughout the charreada, and after all the events have taken place, the night is usually topped off with dancing, food and more music.
When you consider the variety of entertainment that a Mexican rodeo provides, you just can't go wrong when you choose to treat your family to a day at the charreada. The Chamizal National Memorial has a lienzo and is home to several charreadas during the season. Other lienzos are off Loop 375 in Ysleta; in Sunland Park and Vado, New Mexico; and Júarez, Mexico. The 10-border charro associations invite you to sample a different kind of rodeo---come to the charreada!