Charrería: A Treasured Mexican Tradition
Charrería is an age old tradition replete with fierce challenges and exuberant feats of strength, skill and talent. Yet, it is laden with an elegance and discipline that celebrates a rich heritage and identity among its people. It is on one hand a dusty rodeo and on the other a colorful fiesta recognized as one of the most respected sporting events of Mexico.
When the Spanish brought horses from Europe during the 16th century, the working practices of ranchers and vaqueros were significantly altered. The horses facilitated the daily activities of farm life including handling, herding and rounding up livestock. Breaking and training horses as well as talent with a rope was a necessity and as the ranch workers mastered their vocation, they began competing against rival haciendas just to show off their skills and see who was better. This gave birth to the equestrian sport of charrería we know today.
More than just a time-honored tradition, however, charrería has great historical significance. After the Mexican Revolution displaced many from their haciendas, vaqueros began to organize associations to preserve and promote the tradition. They continued to compete against one another; except that it wasn’t enough to simply resume their sport. Charreadas would not only become a competition that re-enacted the ranch work vaqueros did, but also a demonstration of the stunning equestrian skills of revolution-era horsemen. The pomp and silver-studded regalia of the modern-day charro celebrates the military style of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution. Even in the sweltering heat, charros and charras gallantly and proudly display their impressive attire mounted on ornately stitched saddles.
Presently, at family-owned arenas or lienzos, one could find the increasingly popular charreadas taking place on any given summer afternoon. Lienzo Charro El Pedregal located in Vado, NM, is one such arena. It is owned by Daniel S. Guillen and operated by the Castro/Guillen family with the help of the charro team, Emilliano Zapata. Behind the rock quarry just off I-10 in Vado, the lienzo originated in the late 70s when Mr. Guillen wanted to provide an arena for his charro employees working at the quarry. Mr. Guillen teamed up with Omar Castro and charreadas began to take shape much like the haciendas of Old Mexico. Little by little the attendance grew and so did the arena.
Today, the lienzo is meticulously marked with precise dimensions specifically used to execute the different feats and dexterity tasks called suertes during a competition. There are nine suertes that men can participate in that consist of roping and riding events. There is also an all-female escaramuza that is thrown into the competition. This is an intricate drill team that may consist of up to eight charras who ride sidesaddle and perform a dangerous, yet delicate equestrian ballet so to speak. The choreographed performance is a risky routine of complex interweaving motions.
Like the American rodeo, all of the suertes are judged individually and then, a charro that performs well in all the charreada events can vie for the coveted title of All-Around Charro. However, unlike a rodeo, charrería is not a timed competition but rather the challenges are judged and scored based on the finesse and grace of the charro. Since proper attire is directly related to the participant’s proper representation of Mexican dignity, it receives as much attention from judges as does their performance. The training of the horse is as pivotal to their success as the charro’s style and execution. Strong family participation across generations is typical in charrería, and as a matter of fact, most long living associations are made up of entire families. This is clearly demonstrated in the Castro family. The Emilliano Zapata team has been guided by Captain Jose Castro, the first All-Around Charro in the Castro family, since the late 70s. The family team holds 16 USA national titles in charreria and is proud to have eight All-Around Charros. Five generations deep, Miguel Castro, II indicates that his grandfathers and great-grandfathers where all charros.
“This has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember,” says Miguel of the horse-based lifestyle. Miguel an All-Around Charro, age 32, is the oldest of three siblings. His brother Daniel Castro, age 31, is also an All-Around Charro and one of the Emilliano Zapata team members. Their younger sister, Thelma, 29, sought a career as a civil engineer after she retired from the long days at the lienzo. During her time there, she was either training her horse or practicing with the escaramuza. Thelma recently became a mother of a baby boy, Pablito Canales Castro, whose uncles hope to one day recruit into the charro team. Both of Miguel’s parents, Miguel Castro, Sr. and Thelma Guillen, also play a significant role at Lienzo Charro El Pedregal as coordinators and participants of the famous charreadas in Vado.
Miguel is now teaching his own children everything there is to know about the sport and the traditions. His son, Miguel Castro, III, is 9 years old and is already learning the art of the lasso or floreo de reata and competing in the charreada events with the aplomb of a seasoned charro. Miguel’s daughter, Brisa, 7, is training with dad and uncle, Daniel, in riding skills and can handle a horse beautifully for her age. Not only are they active participants in charrería, but this family is also known as highly sought-after horse trainers.
“My dad, a charro example for us, always told my brother and me that, first and foremost, we had to learn charrería because it runs in our blood. We need to identify with it to understand who we are. Then, after we have mastered it, if we wanted to do something different then we could,” explains Miguel. Most charros share that sentiment as the art of charrería is not only a cultural thing but something that is entrenched deep in their Mexican roots.