On a hot Saturday in May, as a blue midday sky bleeds like oil paint onto a palette of burnt orange dirt, charros take turns racing their horses down a narrow chute of a stadium in Alvarado, a small town on Interstate 35W, 50 miles southwest of Dallas. Each charro chases a steer, reaching for its tail, sending dust swirling into the air, where it mixes with ranchera blaring from a set of overdriven speakers.
The charro (not a cowboy, it’s just different) is supposed to wrap the steer’s tail around his leg and pull the animal to the ground. If this were a true charreada and not practice, he’d be judged on everything, down to the precise position of his hand. If he grips the tail wrong, he’d cost his team two points.
This is the kind of thing that Francisco Flores knows. In many ways, the sport of charrería is about details. It’s that extra flourish, the position of a hand. Charros like Flores, a compact 31-year-old in a dark knit shirt and white cowboy hat, put in decades of work to be anything but workmanlike in the ring.
Ten years ago, Flores did a paso de la muerte so beautiful that Randy Janssen remembers it like it happened yesterday. Janssen is a 66-year-old San Antonio lawyer. Though not a charro himself, he’s an aficionado of the sport. He remembers Flores making a three-foot leap from his horse to a bucking bronc, the greatest distance Janssen has ever seen. Flores, who has been the Texas state champion for 12 years and the national champion for one, knows everything, Janssen says. Nobody can do the paso like he can.
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Janssen shows how this sport can suck a person in and never let go. In 1990, his 13-year-old daughter wanted to ride in the escaramuza, or skirmish, the only women’s event in the charreada. Now he goes to at least 30 charreadas a year, many of them in Mexico, where charrería is the national sport.
Similar to the American rodeo, the charreada (you could call it the Mexican rodeo, but don’t) is governed by a 115-page rule book set by the Federación Mexicana de Charrería. Unlike in an American rodeo, charros compete as teams, rather than individuals, and earn points. The sport dates back to the days prior to the Mexican Civil War, when the haciendas would compete, and ranchers used what would become charrería’s nine events to brand and vaccinate animals. It’s not about how fast a charro can take a steer to the ground. There’s no eight-second rule. A charro rides until the bull stops bucking. Or until he falls off.
“I always say that charreada is rodeo with style,” Janssen says. “It’s just a lot more beautiful, in terms of how they work the ropes before they do anything. There’s a beauty to it that reminds me of a ballet that you don’t see in the American rodeo.”
Every two weeks, 12 of North Texas’ roughly 20 charro teams drive their trailers to Jose Piña’s lienzo, a keyhole-shaped arena in Alvarado. It’s built on a stretch of land that the 59-year-old shares with his grown sons, Fidel and Jose Jr., former charros who gave up the sport when their own kids wanted to play baseball and football instead of learning florero, or trick roping.
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Saturday is for practice, for fun, for families. There are no judges and no points. A Cardinals baseball cap is an acceptable alternative to a sombrero. Teenage girls in modern blouses gossip on horseback, and charros take phone calls in the arena. Out in the sun and the dust, with the scent of cooked beef and pork mingling with the smell of horses, time is as sticky as the heat.
As Piña, Janssen, and Flores tell it, the charreada is all warm heart—it’s not uncommon to see three generations of charros together in the ring—and cold cash. There are the horses and their vet bills and upkeep, plus saddles and spurs. There’s no money to be made, only spent. By contrast, Flores competed in American rodeo for five years, bull riding for up to $8,000 a rodeo. When he won a worldwide charreada competition in Mexico in 2001, he got a two-horse trailer, worth about $2,000.
“But it’s my tradition,” Flores says. “It’s my heritage. It’s what I do because I love this.”
It’s also every spare weekend after working jobs that pay the bills—and some risk. While Flores says he’s been lucky, he also says that just riding a horse in the arena is the most dangerous event of all.
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On Sunday, the charros, who keep tequila and Modelo tucked in their saddles, are in full costume. The state finals are coming up, and Texas has 50 or so teams to whittle down to one. The escaramuza, who also compete in the finals, arrive in a flurry of colorful skirts, teams of eight young women who ride sidesaddle and perform intricate routines. It’s a more recent addition to the charreada, with official beginnings in the early ’50s. Coty Bello Villegas, the sport’s 59-year-old grand dame, is their teacher and their judge.
Over the pounding music and the amplified voice of the announcer, Bello Villegas tells me that her father was a charro who organized Mexico’s fifth escaramuza team, back when it was called carrusel charro. He put her on a horse when she was 10 months old. “I love it,” she says. “Maybe I am crazy. Because I can’t live without charrería, because all my life—how do you say? It is my life.”
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Chalk lines are drawn, paces marked, and “La Marcha de Zacatecas” plays as the charros and escaramuza parade around the stadium. There is pride. There is a prayer. There is, Flores says, always the same mix of confidence and nerves. And then there is the cala de caballo, where a charro rides full tilt to the middle of the arena and slides to a dramatic stop to show how well his horse is trained. The dust is billowing, breathing, and it’s that color of rust, the color of blood.