Ay ay Aaay! Mexican Charreria-Traditional Rodeo
by Tara A. Spears
Snorting animals plus dashing men equals an adrenaline rush called Charreria, one of the most practiced sports in Mexico. From the more laid-back informal events in the rural areas to the extravagant professional charrerias held in larger cities, rodeos are delightful entertainment. The charreria is a celebration in itself: spiffy cowboy outfits, mariachi music, huge animals, intermission entertainment of folkloric dance, plus tequila, beer, and excitement. The atmosphere is family friendly and really Mexican.
Charrería is not only sport and culture, it is a tradition that has endured over five centuries through skill, attitude, and traditions that proudly show off the ranching expertise of the vaqueros (cowboys). This sport can best be described as living history, an art form drawn from the demands of a working life, as well as preserving the traditions of colonial Mexico. Charreria displays the bravery and quality of both animals and charros.
Charrería began on large haciendas or ranches around 1600, among ranchers who struggled with the land and the cattle. Expert Indio and mestizo ranch hands used and developed techniques during daily chores on the ranches, such as roping and riding, that also became a source of a little after-hours fun and good-natured competition. “This was a way of bridging between the elite landowners and the peons that worked for them,” a professional rider, Miguel Najera-Ramirez said. “That was sort of the beauty of the charreada, because it is a family-oriented activity and it brought together workers and landowners, it was sort of this unifying activity and that was part of its power.”
From its birth in the arid central Mexican states of Hidalgo and Puebla, charreria spread like wildfire across New Spain, gaining special popularity in the northern territories – now part of the U.S. – and the western Mexican state of Jalisco. For a long time, the practice of these rough skills was the exclusive domain of ranchers, but as time went by, the skill and competition intensified and evolved into “suertes” (tricks) that could be evaluated.
As a result of the Mexican Revolution, the huge estates were divided and many people moved to the cities. In the twentieth century, fearing the demise of their traditions, dedicated charros united and formed associations in order to preserve and promote their activities. This marks the beginning of Charrería as a regulated sport. The Federación Mexicana de Charros was founded in Mexico City in 1933 to govern the different charro associations that emerged. In this same year, President Abelardo L. Rodríguez gave Charrería the title of the National Sport in Mexico.
Author’s note: Before you judge these events from a modern perspective, i.e. cruelty to animals, one must remember the historic roots of the man vs. beast competitions; remember that the Mexican Charro deeply respects all the animals used in the display of riding and roping prowess. The animals themselves are graded for their bravery and ability to thwart the charros. In addition, it is a great source of pride to breed animals that are used in the charrerias. At the one breeding ranch I visited, the Charreria bulls were treated like kings- the best food, veterinarian care, housing, and transportation to the rings.
Charreria Events Defined:
While I’ve enjoyed every Charreria I’ve attended, once I learned what the different categories of competition entail, it makes it more thrilling to know what the charros are being graded on and trying to accomplish. Unlike the national charrerias on the professional circuit, the smaller Jaltemba Bay rodeos do not always contain all of the events, probably because of the smaller number of participants. There is a prescribed order of up to nine events that always begins with a mounted parade of the charros and escaramuzas (women sidesaddle riders) with the flag.
The arenas where charreadas are performed are called lienzos. At first glance you might think it is a bull ring because it’s built in a rounded shape with seating bleachers going from ringside up. Typically there are two distinct areas that comprise the lienzos: The first part is sixty-six yards long (60 meters) and thirteen yards (12m) wide, and it feeds into the main area. (This attached straightaway is used to race the horses into the bigger area.) The main round-shaped area measures forty-four yards (40m) in diameter, and this is where the action takes place.
The individual charros will complete the suertes in a particular order. Typically, a group of charros from a specific town will form a team to amass points. Each team must complete the suertes in the same order taking turns with the other teams. The points that are granted in each suerte depend on the technique of the individual or the team, and on the animal’s performance. A good charreada score ranges from 250 to 300 points. For professional charrerias there are three judges who will announce over the microphone the results of each suerte’s performance. As with any sport there are clearly defined rules for earning points and participating. For example, each charro can participate in three suertes at the most. Some events are individual; other events require teams of up to five riders. The hundreds of rules of the charreria cover all areas from animals to skills: such as “Spurring forms must be moderate and not cause the animals to bleed; It’s obligatory for whatever cowboy, competitor or not, to carry oneself with dignity and gallantry, and in complete national dress…”
When you go, be sure to note the magnificent and talented horses that are the stars of each event. Most of the horses will be Azteca or Andalusian breed because the charro requires a flashy horse that is not too tall but of a suitable height for colea- the taking down of a bull by its tail, and a horse that is quick enough to keep up with the cow while being strong and balanced. The horse must be calm enough for roping, yet be agile and quick for reining. The Mexican national horse is bred to be a perfect mount for the charro.
The Competitive Events: Suertes (The events are listed in the order of occurrence.)
Cala de caballo: The charro demonstrates his ability to control his horse at gallop, slide stop, spin on its hind legs as well as backing. Amazing reining and communication between horse and rider.
Piales en el lienzo: The mounted charro must lasso the back leg of a cow. They are not trying to hurt it, but only to slow it down until stopping it completely.
Typically after the colas and before the jineteo events appear the women riders- the escaramuza. This is my favorite for pageantry. Costumed women in teams of eight perform this event by riding in precise and daring maneuvers while riding sidesaddle with musical accompaniment. Young women, the Adelitas or charras, form mounted drill teams of 8 called escaramuzas (the skirmish). An escaramuza performs high-speed precision patterns riding sidesaddle while demonstrating bravery, equestrian skills, teamwork, and femininity.
Jineteo de toro: (Bull Riding) The rider must stay on the back of a bucking bull as long as he can.
Terna en el Ruedo:: Between three charros, two successful lassos must be made: one loop around the head or horns and another around the hind leg of the running cow so that he remains under control.
Manganas a pie: The charro rider must lasso the foreleg of a horse while the charro is dismounted. Note: horse tripping is banned from this event and any charro who attempts it is fined or suspended.
Manganas a caballo: This roping event is done from the saddle and consists of lassoing only the front legs of the animal while it runs at full speed until it is stopped.
El paso de la muerte: (The jump of death): The rider must race bareback using only the mane as his horse runs parallel to another horse that has left the shoot, catches up with it, and the rider passes from one horse to the other. He must stay on the second horse until it stops bucking. Very exciting and dangerous feat!
Seeing a live performance of a Charreria is a memorable experience, so be sure to bring a camera to record the stunning action. Fortunately, the key months for holding charrerias are from September through May, making it easily assessable for seasonal residents and visitors.