Rough Events at Mexican Rodeos in U.S. Criticized

By PATRICIA LEIGH BROWN | New York Times | 12 June 2008

TURLOCK, Calif. — It always begins at noon in a dusty arena, with brisk salutes on the brims of glittering sombreros and mustachioed horsemen in three-piece suits.

Let others have their golf and their swimming holes. Here in the Central Valley of California, and in Winnemucca, Nev., and Joliet, Ill., a growing number of middle-class Mexican-Americans spend lazy summer afternoons at the charreada — part rodeo, part fiesta and one of Mexico’s most revered sporting events, dating to the 17th century.

“We don’t live and then go to the charreada,” said Marcos Franco, a 51-year-old flooring contractor from Tracy, Calif., who is the United States representative for the Federación Mexicana de Charrería. “We live for the charreada.”

At family-owned arenas, where the scent of carnitas hangs in the air and preschool charros, or riders, practice their roping tricks beneath almond trees, the tradition is flourishing, with 200 official teams in 12 states — including 40 all-female precision riding teams, the escaramuzas charras, whose intricate maneuvers at full gallop resemble equestrian ballet.

But now the charreada, which is strictly amateur, is facing its biggest challenge. After criticism from animal rights and anti-rodeo activists, eight states over the last decade have cracked down on several events, most notably horse tripping, a centuries-old tradition that involves roping and snaring the front legs of a running mare and that can cause serious injury. As a result, no charros in the federation practice horse tripping.

In a law that takes effect next month, Nebraska is also banning steer tailing, in which a charro grabs a steer’s tail, wraps it beneath his stirrup and flips the animal to the ground. The legislation grew out of abuses uncovered by the Omaha Humane Society at an unsanctioned arena, in which some horses had rope burns and torn tendons and were severely emaciated.

For those who spend their weekends on the dusty rails, these new laws seem to be singling out their culture unfairly. They argue that other sports involving potential injury to animals, like dressage, polo and thoroughbred racing, continue relatively uninterrupted, despite the recent high-profile deaths of the thoroughbreds Eight Belles and Barbaro.

“I sometimes feel like we’re the witches in Massachusetts,” said Mr. Franco, whose federation sets the rules and regulations for the charreadas.

For many of the riders, the sense of history is everything.

“You get really emotional, because everyone is looking at you representing Mexican tradition,” said Elizabeth Solis, a sophomore at San Joaquin Delta College who practices with her escaramuza charra team twice a week (the results are posted in Spanish at “It’s different than going shopping at Nordstrom’s, going to the movies and being constantly broke, like my friends.”

Whereas American rodeo riders emphasize speed, charros are primarily judged on their finesse and flourishes with the rope. The horse plays the central role, symbolized by the grand finale, the paso de la muerte (“pass of death”), in which a charro leaps from the bare back of his galloping steed onto a wild mare.

Both events spotlight bronc riding, bull riding and team roping, with a noticeable difference in style. Rodeos in the United States do not have riders in elaborate three-piece suits in the sweltering heat, or women riding sidesaddle in Gunsmoke crinolines. American rodeo regulations also do not decree the amount of starch required for women’s petticoats (and forget mascara). Many charros are middle-aged men who struggle to hitch a richly embroidered leather belt around their paunches.

The charreadas are mostly home-grown, paid for through the charros’ out-of-the-ring salaries as contractors, welders, night grocery store managers and janitors. The sport does not come cheap: a sombrero alone can cost $200 to $2,500.

Collectively, the charreadas stand in marked contrast to the sport’s elite past: during the 1930s, it was promoted as Mexican polo by wealthy urbanites displaced from their haciendas in the Mexican Revolution. The pageantry is an elaborate re-enactment of roundups on vast colonial estates, and the dazzling equine skills of revolution-era horsemen in mountain forests established the charro as asymbol of Mexico.

The Chicano movement of the 1970s fostered charro pride, but its rise has also coincided with the rapid growth of the animal rights movement.

“I’m a big fan of cultural diversity,” said Eric Mills, an anti-rodeo activist and coordinator of Action for Animals in Oakland, who worked with Nebraska legislators on the new bill. “At least until it crosses the line into animal mistreatment.”

Unlike professional rodeos in the United States, with their Dodge and Coors advertisements, lucrative purses and millions of television viewers for the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas, charreadas are entirely in Spanish and unadvertised to the general public.

“While U.S. rodeo has become more like N.F.L. football, the charreada is a cultural practice,” said Richard W . Slatta, a professor of history at North Carolina State University who has written extensively on rodeo.

Professor Slatta noted that American rodeo had adapted to changing attitudes toward animal cruelty. In the early 20th century, states began to outlaw steer roping because charging steers frequently broke their necks. (Calves weigh less.) More recently, professional associations hired lobbyists and veterinarians to monitor injuries, hoping to stave off anti-rodeo legislation.

While registered arenas, or lienzos, adhere to a thick set of guidelines, with sanctions and judges, there has been a growing problem with unofficial arenas in California and Nevada. Mr. Franco said the “clandestine” lienzos were hurting the charro movement.

José Duran came to the United States at 16 in 1978, working as a construction laborer and attending high school at night to learn English. He is now a supervisor for a construction company, and in the midst of completing an arena of his own in nearby Patterson. Its walls are decorated with Aztec designs that his wife, Luzalena, adapted from a charro suit.

Growing up in Mexico, Mr. Duran tended to his grandfather’s livestock. “Roping was just work,” he recalled, looking over a family scrapbook. “But you’d hear Mexican songs about the charro, the horses, so you dream. You picture something.”

The lienzo is an idea he has nurtured since boyhood. He sees it as a university of sorts, where young people will apprentice with charros from Mexico and preserve the tradition.

But the yearning for the charro life can strike non-Mexicans, too. Larry Holmes, a 54-year-old African-American police officer in San Jose, has a Pancho Villa-like moustache and a tell-tale rope in his squad car. “That’s my part-time job,” Mr. Holmes said of policing. “My full-time job is being a charro.”

Mr. Holmes was inspired to become a charro by a 6-year-old Mexican-American neighbor in suburban Hayward. He recently rode in the Cinco de Mayo parade, in full charro regalia. His fellow police officers yelled: “Hey, Holmes! You’re in the wrong parade!”

It did not faze him.

“Being a charro is not about how you dress,” he said. “It’s about your heart.”

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