Filmmaker and scholar Olga Nájera-Ramírez reflects on how and why the charreada in the United States differs from the charreada in Mexico.
The charreada has been a part of Mexican culture since at least the colonial period when most of the southwestern United States still belonged to Mexico. At that time, cattle ranching—an industry requiring extensive lands for grazing—extended throughout the Greater Mexican region, especially its northern frontier (Arnade 1961, Brand 1969, Chevalier 1972, Le Compte 1986). Cattle ranching required workers skilled in riding and roping techniques to manage cattle over large tracts of land. Herraderos (branding events) and rodeos (roundups) were held periodically to sort, count and brand cattle (Bishko 1952:509; Myers 1969:26; Chevalier 1972:111). Featuring displays of equestrian skills and fancy roping, these two events anticipated the contemporary charreada.
As a cultural practice that predates and transcends the US-Mexico border, the charreada symbolically links Mexicanos on both sides of the border as one people. Nonetheless, the charreada is positioned differently in each nation state. Heralded as a unique Mexican tradition, the charreada became formally institutionalized in Mexico during the post-revolutionary period of the late 1920s and 30s. Moreover, this prestigious state-sanctioned sport, the charreada has been dubbed "the Mexican polo," because it is largely, though not exclusively, practiced and controlled by the elite of Mexico.
In the United States, the charreada does not enjoy the same privileged status and is supported by a predominantly subordinate working class population. In fact, the official charreada did not emerge until the early 1970s. Prior to the 1970s, jaripeos, consisting primarily of bull and bronc riding contests, were essentially the only form of Mexican rodeo practiced in the United States. But during the Chicano Movement of the early 1970s, Chicanos searching for ways to revitalize their Mexican heritage invited members of the Federación Nacional de Charros in Mexico to help them establish the charreada in the U.S. Since then, the charreada has grown considerably and is currently practiced throughout most of the United States.
Today, the charreada has become fairly standardized on both sides of the border. Typically held on Sundays, charreadas begin around noon opening with a desfile (parade) featuring all participants, a salute to the Mexican flag, and the playing of the Marcha de Zacatecas which charros consider as Mexico's second national anthem. Throughout the formal event, a banda (a brass and percussive ensemble) or mariachi (a regional folk ensemble) provides musical entertainment.
The formal competition consists of nine suertes or riding and roping competitive events for men. The nine suertes include: (1) cala or a reining competition displaying horse control; (2) piales en el lienzo or roping a running horse by the hind legs while on horseback; (3) colas or bull tailing; (4) jinete de novillos or bull riding; (5) jinete de yeguas or wild mare riding; (6) terna or team bull roping; (7) manganas a pie or roping the front legs of a horse while on foot; (8) manganas a caballo or roping the front legs of a horse from horseback; and (9) paso de muerte or jumping from a bareback running horse to a running wild mare. Since 1992, the escaramuza, a female precision riding team that displays horse riding skills through the execution of choreographed patterns in the arena, has become formally instituted as an official competitive event.
In addition to the formal events, the charreada usually features a number of other activities that ensure wider participation. Outside the arena, the smells of Mexican delicacies such as carnitas (pork meat), barbacoa (Mexican-style barbecue), elotes (corn on the cob), and menudo (tripe stew), as well as the ubiquitous popcorn, soft drinks, and beer, attract people to the concession stands. Amid the constant flow of people circulating between the arena and the food stands, conjuntos norteńos (an accordion based ensemble from the border region) offer their services for impromptu serenades and dances. As soon as the competitive events come to an end, performing artists may provide a one or two hour show, often followed by an open-air dance concert.
As a sport, the charreada is essentially the same on both sides of the border. But as Elsa Lopez Jimenez, a free-lance writer for several charro magazines in Baja California and director of an escaramuza team, astutely notes:
In the United States charrería is lived more intensely due to the nostalgia for the homeland. And I tip my hats off to the charros of the United States because they are in a different country, struggling against adversity but they nonetheless are coming out ahead and their struggle will not be in vain.
Since the establishment of the U.S.-Mexico border, and in violation of the Treaty of Guadalupe, Mexicanos have encountered great adversity in their efforts to preserve their cultural identity and language in the United States. Indeed, the "English Only" movement, the ongoing anti-immigration sentiment, and, the recent ban on affirmative action, provide recent examples of the adverse conditions which continually threaten Mexican cultural identity in the United States. As a result, efforts to promote Mexican culture and Spanish language have been relegated to the domestic arena. Literally and metaphorically, then, the lienzo charro (rodeo arena) has become an arena in which participants attempt to recuperate their history and heritage.
Reflecting on the special significance of the charreada for Mexicans living in the United States, charro Henry Franco observes:
In the United States, in my opinion, it's far more important because you are surrounded with all kinds of other sports and the Mexican has to find himself in that niche, in that certain area where he belongs, the area where he can feel proud. An area where he's going to enjoy the food, the music, the folklore, the atmosphere, the language and the feeling of saying or eating or doing anything he feels because everybody is enjoying the same thing. And we’d like to continue to make them feel that even though they're born in the United States, they have a background to be damn proud of. Become a good citizen, but don't forget your roots. That's part of the training.
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