To the charreada with stars in her eyes

articles Travel & Destinations

Wendy Devlin

“There is a sensitive filament in our beings, which responds to Mexican music….
To the sight of a horse well ridden, to the spectacle of a bull skillfully lassoed….
All of us, absolutely all of us, share the national feeling for horsemanship.”

José Alvarez del Villar

Bill, my husband, answered the phone and handed it to me with a wry smile, “It’s your friend, Antonio.” Jumping up, I took the phone in order to hear a voice say, “Wendy, this is Antonio from Burbank, California.” I thought to myself, “Oh, that guy near Hollywood, not my internet friend in Mexico.” I took hold of the phone with suspicion creeping into my mind regarding this stranger.

The man with the engaging manner on the other end of the line soon chatted away my uneasiness, beginning with, “I loved some of the ideas that you sent me by e-mail regarding “working adventures” in Mexico for the traveling crew of my MTV show, ROAD RULES. I especially liked the one that suggested the cast of young Americans work as “charros.” “Charros?” I asked as this word drew a complete blank in my mind when rolled off of a Spanish-speaking tongue. Antonio from Burbank persisted, “Si. You know, “charro, charro, like a Mexican cowboy.” “Ohhhhhh, charro! ” I uttered with a light dawning in my memory as it turned back to the month before. I had flown to Mexico with two of my young teens to a coastal resort near Manzanillo and later rode the long distance bus to Guadalajara. One of the highlights of the trip was our visit with my Mexican friend from the internet, Antonio and his lovely family.

That wintry, sunny Guadalajaran afternoon, Antonio invited us into a restaurant that featured comida campirana. (countryside food) Upon our entry into the spacious restaurant in a Guadalajaran suburb, I distinctly smelt wood smoke. At the kitchen end of the building, curved a large, low, brick, cooking hearth. Hot, red coals radiated in small oven-like spaces with grills over which delicious blends of meats and vegetables bubbled and wafted their essence. “These dishes are simmered for up to 24 hours before serving. The meat slides off of the bones, and down your throat like the most velvet of tequilas,” Antonio whispered to me in the voice that he usually reserved while exploring cathedrals and churches with us. With an adjustment of the bricks, the hearth transformed to an oven when bread was required for a meal. A motherly woman padded countless tortillas and deftly cooked them fresh for every order.

Little puffs of smoke from the glowing embers drifted their way towards a smoke hole in the ceiling. I thought to myself, that this would never pass fire inspection laws anywhere in Canada!

Food slowly, patiently cooked with love anywhere; anytime over an open fire is always delicious. Can its taste be rivaled when cooked faster over electricity or gas? Perhaps, but for me, this method is always special. Cooked this way, it transforms patiently into “soul food”. Is it the radiating nature of the heat, the company of amigos simpaticos, or the light of the twinkling stars in an infinite sky over a campfire? Whatever it is, it gets to me!

As we dined with our comida campirana simmering over a tiny version of glowing coals in a stone dish, a handsome man with a magnificent mustache approached our table. He dressed in what I imagine a charro style musician wears; a colorful poncho, with a wide-brimmed sombrero and a lovely guitar that he cradled in his powerful arms. The owner of this restaurant, himself, once a famous recording charro musician, sent him to serenade us on the house. Antonio explained that it was his business custom to bring clients and friends to this special place.

Antonio requested a song for us. The musician with the deep, poignant voice sang passionately while he strummed the elegant guitar. All surrounding listeners smiled widely with approval. Antonio requested another familiar song and joined the singing guitarist. Now two fine men with golden voices were singing in a smoky charro restaurant. I felt transported!

When asked for a request, I could only think of a son jarocho; music from Veracruz with a distinctive rhythm. I had read about this style but had never actually heard it. As the guitarist strummed the exciting rhythm, I was not disappointed! My teens insisted that I try a “vampiro”, a blood red tequila drink. It bit me in a most pleasing fashion. Followed by a cool cerveza and the intoxicating effect good company always brings, the Irish woman in me was ready to jig! The house band had begun playing lively Latin music that begged my feet to dance. When I suggested a dance, Antonio informed me that in this restaurant, the guests listened only and did not dance. So while listening to the music I slipped into my imagination. I pictured myself riding to the charreada (traditional Mexican equestrian event) clad in my finery like a china poblana (charro’s woman). Leather chapped, sun burnt charros in traditional dress riding close by my side.

Ahhhh, the charreada! The magnificent Mexican spectacle promises the excitement of a Wild West rodeo, the color of an opera, and the grace of a ballet.

I rode my highly trained but spirited horse to parade the lienzo, the specialized frying-pan-shaped amphitheater created for the charreada. With my fellow horsemen and horsewomen, we entered the amphitheater through a special gate after praying together at a near-by chapel. Our horses stood before the grandstand while a speech of welcome was offered to the guest of honor and the spectators. With team precision, we took our positions around the rim of the ring in preparation for an event that many consider Mexico’s national sport.

When people speak of a national sport, they usually mean a sport or athletic contest that is typical of a particular country. Although soccer attracts more spectators in Mexico, riding and the charreada might be called the typical national sport. The charreada reflects the spirit and traditions of Mexico: her history, her taste in dress, her love of horses and her flair for the dramatic.

Como se dice: (like it’s said) there is a bit of the charro in every Mexican.

The charreada tradition has grown with Mexico herself. Some roots go back to the Spanish colonial period, to the alardes, or militia types of reunions instituted right after the Conquest. Although these assemblies were for the purpose of impressing the Indians with Spain’s military power, the horsemen who gathered together used the opportunity to enjoy themselves and to display their riding skills.

Other equestrian games, imported from Spain and popular during the colonial period contributed to the charreada contests. The most colorful and exciting games were called cañas (cane or javelin). It was derived from the Arabian light-cavalry exercise called el jerida. Two teams of four to ten riders would stage a mock battle, throwing light bamboo canes or javelins at one another. The riders exhibited every trick of horsemanship they knew to evade the javelins thrown by the opposition or to catch the javelins in midair and hurl them back. Money and effort was expended in turning these games into brilliant fiestas. Elaborate grandstands were constructed and decorated with silks and banners imported from the Orient.

The game called sortijas or tournament of rings was derived from the medieval tournaments of the knights. Instead of knights, who battled each other with lances and battle-axes, the colonial riders used light lances to snare rings made of colored ribbons that were hung overhead along a racecourse. To add a romantic touch to the game, each ribbon ring was a certain color and represented a particular girl in the town. Competition for the rings representing the most beautiful girls was intense, because the girl was expected to shower favors upon the winner. A rider could be disqualified or penalized for various faults—foreshadowing the strict rules governing today’s charreadas.

The most important influence on its form and style was the work of the ranch, especially the routines of branding and roundups. During the annual roundups on Mexican ranches, countless years before there was a ranch in Texas or California, men rode in from long distances to help with the branding. After the work was completed, the horsemen celebrated. There was food, dancing, music and above all, competitions in which riders displayed their skills at roping, riding wild horses and throwing bulls by the tail.

These celebrations became an important part of the living tempo on large haciendas. They acted as a safety valve relieving the tensions and the monotony of an existence that offered little in the way of entertainment. The charreadas even fascinated men hardly cut out to be cowboys. His Eminence Don Pelasio de Labastida, an eighteenth century bishop of Mexico City set a scandalous example of such indulgence in earthly pleasures. This vigorous man often slipped away from his episcopal duties and went to nearby Cuernavaca. There he flung aside his clerical robes and dignity to tail wild bulls and lasso mares. Nor was he the only clergyman to take part in charreadas. In 1700, the Archbishop of Michoacán issued a stern proclamation forbidding the clergy to throw bulls and to ride bucking horses at ranch fiestas. Too many of them were risking their necks.

By the beginning of the twentieth century almost all the events you see in a modern-day charreada had been developed. Sons of hacienda owners and ranchers gradually joined with upper-middle-class city dwellers. Engineers, lawyers and doctors etc. banded together with modern ranchers to preserve old charro traditions. Once the charreada moved into the city, it became an exacting, rugged sport that demanded constant training and practice on the part of its participants.

So here surrounded by friendship, music and wood smoke, I imagined myself garbed like a china poblana. The origin of this traditional costume is related to an interesting legend. The most popular version states that during the late seventeenth century some English pirates captured a Chinese ship in the Pacific and part of the booty taken was a lovely Mongol princess named Mina. She was sold into slavery and eventually became the property of Don Miguel Sosa, a Mexican living in Puebla. Don Miguel, being kindly and pious, had Mina baptized and educated. Although he showered her with jewels and finery, none of this impressed the girl. She had become such a good Christian that she gave everything to the poor and was content to wear a simple skirt of red flannel, a plain white blouse, and a native rebozo, or shawl. This outfit became the riding and fiesta costume of the charros’ women. The word china, now seldom used, once meant servant girl; poblana is the nickname of people living in Puebla.

As my reverie ended, I continued speaking with my new friend Antonio in Burbank. He told me his TV production crew would cross the border at Tijuana, travel down the Baja peninsula, and take the ferry to the mainland. The adventure road trip crossed Mexico to the eastside at Veracruz and journeyed on through the Yucatan, Belize and finally Costa Rica. All this in 7 1/2 weeks! However at a later date, the TV show’s producers moved the locations over to the east-coast of Mexico.

I asked him if he was a fluent Spanish speaker and whether he had driven in Mexico before. He laughed and said that he was from South America and had driven in Mexico several times. However none of his youthful cast had ever driven in Mexico and had no idea about the magnitude of the cultural differences that they would face. We talked at length about my ideas and his ideas before agreeing to reconnect via e-mail in the near future. Picking my brain, he called it.

As I hung up the phone from Burbank Antonio, I reflected how easy it is to be inspired by a friend. How wonderful an ability to gaze up at the stars together! Even if this time, they were Hollywood stars!

Now I felt the deepest of urges to go to my garden and dig up some dirt. Ground myself again. Then, go and light myself a fire under the darkening sky and gaze above at the stars. Those same stars that shine high above Mexico.

Published or Updated on: December 1, 1998 by Wendy Devlin © 1998

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Published or Updated on: January 1, 2007 by Wendy Devlin © 2008

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