A Century-Old Tradition
Mexico is a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, groups, and traditions that express themselves in many different facets.
La Charrería, the ancient Mexican art of mainly horse handling, is an undeniable pillar of the Mexican ethos, with an individual and unrepeatable cultural pattern that can be analyzed from several viewpoints, as a way of life, as a historical legacy, as a tradition that carries on through centuries, as a living national symbol, as the art of competitive skills – as it was defined by a renown Mexican critic-, or simply as a national sport in a country full of traditions.
Our First Charros
In the sixteenth century, when the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez arrived in the lands of what is now Mexico, he brought with him sixteen horses, an event that was meticulously described by the Conquest chronicler, Bernal Diaz del Castillo. These were the first specimens that the conquistadors would later use for agricultural and cattle haciendas tasks, that proliferated during the subsequent centuries in the conquered territory, mainly in Mexico’s Central Plateau.
The Charro, the original American cowboy
Although the Spaniards forbade the natives of these lands -on the death penalty- to ride horses, the need was such in the haciendas, that between 1535 and the middle of the sixteenth century the Colonial government was required to grant the first horseback riding permits to the indigenous population. But these permits were given on the condition that they should not use either saddle or other trappings of Spanish origin, and that neither would they wear any garments the conquistadors used for riding.
This fact forced the local population to make different trappings and create an attire of their own that would satisfy their needs, this was transcendental in the creation within the Mexican territory of a riding style different from the one practiced by the Spaniards, and it signaled the birth of the Mexican charrería, the horseriding man in Mexico, the charro or Mexican cowboy. Thus began his story, leaving a trace of his presence throughout the following centuries, a presence that has always manifested itself in a refined love for his country, freedom, animals and nature.
Today’s charro is the same as the one who fought for Mexico’s freedom during the Independence movement of 1810; he is the nineteenth century chinaco who fought against the French Intervention and in our Reform Wars; he is the man who played a leading role, either as a hacienda owner or as a combatant, in the revolutionary movement of 1910. The charros have been so important in Mexican history and in the founding of Mexico’s nationality that by presidential decree they were named the “force and reserve of the Mexican Army”.
Charreria: Mexico’s National Sport
The Mexican Revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century brought with it profound social changes.
The land ownership regime changed radically, and many of the old hacienda owners were displaced from the countryside and emigrated to the large cities. In this urban milieu, they were forced to abandon many of usual rural habits and traditions, the nostalgia for an irretrievable past led them to gather periodically to relive the old charro times. These reunions led to the creation, in 1921, of the National Charro Association, the first of its kind in Mexico. The Charro groups soon multiplied throughout the country, giving rise to a sport that today -and also by a 1933 presidential decree- is considered Mexico’s national sport.
Today, thousands of charros practice this sport within an organized group which is ruled by the Mexican Charrería Federation. It includes more than 900 associations with Mexico and also in the United States of America, where charreria is also practiced in the states of California, Texas, Arizona. New Mexico and Illinois. The Federation regulates the competitions in their different levels, from friendly matches between associations to championships of greater hierarchy: state, regional and the great National Charro Championship, which is celebrated annually in different locations around the country.
La Charreria is a uniting factor among many Mexican families that, in one way or another, participate in this activity directly or indirectly. Usually, the practice of this sport starts at a very early age. Children enjoy the contact with animals, which is how they show a special attraction for those surroundings when they are small and thus, assimilating the paternal example, they become charros, mainly because their father is a charro, like their grandfather and perhaps their great-grandfather also were. This sport is a concurrent arena for a varied array of people from very different social and economic backgrounds: businessmen, farmers, professionals, students, diplomats, children, youngsters, and adults.
The Skills of The Charro
As a sport, charreria is made up by different suertes or skills, many of which originated various centuries ago. Sunday is generally the day when the Mexican lienzos, or rings, fill up with music, color, and fiesta to celebrate the famous charreadas, where hundreds of Mexicans gather together to enjoy and feel the thrill of all kinds of suertes: the cala de caballo, which serves precisely to calar, that is, to try or demonstrate the obedience or training of the horse, as well as its vigor.
Running at a full gallop, the rider abruptly stops his horse in the middle of the ring, making him stand on his hind quarters; he then makes him turn towards one side, then the other and then backwards, ending with a charro style salute; the piales en el lienzo, one of the most difficult maneuvers, lassoing the animal by his hind legs to stop him completely; the coleadero, a very well liked and spectacular suerte since a young bull has to be thrown down by pulling his tail with the hand while galloping; the jineteo de toros, in which the rider must remain astride the bull’s back until it stops rearing; and many other skills, such as the terna en el ruedo, the jineteo de yeguas, the manganas a pie y a caballo, and the daring paso de la muerte or death pass.
All these maneuvers focus upon the handling and control over the animals, as the practice of this sport requires a perfect understanding between the rider and the horse, which is why the charro must show his experience, ability, physical condition, training, sporting abilities and knowledge of these animals.
A transcendental part of this very Mexican fiesta is the show of grace and feminine beauty which is offered by the so-called escaramuza charra: dressed in showy Adelita dresses and riding in the typical female style, with both legs on the same side, a group of young women come out to the ring to execute elegant equestrian exercises. Since 1953, when the first escaramuza charra was formed, women’s participation in this sport has increased, and they appear with growing success and frequency in important championships.
A Century-Old Cultural Heritage
Although today charreria is considered a sport, in many Mexican regions it is still a way of life that is passed from generation to generation. That’s why it is given such an important role in our country’s traditions, being perhaps one of its most authentic and beautiful. The charro shoulders the responsibility of being the prototype of nationalism, the symbol of a people’s identity that is expressed without reservations, without imitations.
Mexican movies from the Golden Era often included charros
His profile is that of a hardened man, whose practice of the sport demands strength and vigor, a brave character always ready for a challenge, to excel, to be a contender; but who at the same time can be infinitely sensitive to the ritual of camaraderie that is revived in every encounter with friends, sensitive to everything that surrounds this peculiar sport, since it is his art.
It is undeniable that Mexican cinema in its golden era contributed greatly to the dissemination of the figure of the Mexican charro.
However, the image portrayed there is not a faithful representation since amongst the charro community there is a kind of honor code that contemplates very special values, such as the love of your country, family ties and a sense of honor, among others. As a charro poet said: To dress as a charro is to put on Mexico’s clothes.
A female charro with the famous Adelita dress
With the passing of the centuries, charreria has accumulated an extraordinary cultural baggage that enriches it every day. The charro cannot ignore the numerous elements that universally identify him, the result of a love for a tradition preserved within the heart of the family like a treasure. Its festive and romantic character brings to mind the poetry of Luis G. IncIan, Delfin Sanchez Juarez, and so many other poets; his pupil is recreated in the beautiful lifelike canvasses of the charro-painter Don Ernesto Icaza, in his paintings he depicted charro scenes from old time Mexico; he enjoys that music which is so much ours and with such a unique flavor: and, to end the fiesta, he dismounts to dance the delightful jarabe tapatío, considered the national dance, with which victories are celebrated just as they were almost two centuries ago when they danced to commemorate the success of a battle during the Mexican War of Independence.
The Charro attire
Although the popular refrain says the charro dresses in leather, because it’s the toughest material, this cultural symbol has inspired a true art form when it comes to his apparel and the innumerable objects the charro uses to practice la charreria, which reflect both the legacy of time as well as a very special mentality.
Charro attire is almost an art form in itself
In Colonial times, for example, the charro began to adorn his garments with suede or other materials with silver buttons, which until today continue to be made with extraordinary taste by Mexican silversmiths and reminds us the baroque spirit of the man on horseback in Mexico.
The charro attire is made up of different types of garments that are classified into categories: work, semi-gala, gala and formal, depending upon the activity or event they are needed for (curiously enough, it was Emperor Maximilian who instituted the use of the formal charro suit), but all consist of trousers and a jacket (of plain cloth or suede, plain or with suede decorations or silver buttons) and a cotton shirt (the pachuqueña being the most popular).
A charro pachuqueña shirt
Their attire is complemented with hats of rice or wheat straw, or of rabbit hair artistically embroidered with silks or gold and silver thread, and decorated with small plates of silver, leather, bone or suede. Women use the Adelita dress, the charra suit or the china poblana outfit, the latter with over three hundred years of history and legend, reserved for great occasions.
The charreria artisans also make beautiful saddles using different techniques, such as those embroidered in pita -a beige fiber obtained from the maguey (cactus)-, as well as spurs and fine textiles, among which the sarapes from Guadalupe, Zacatecas, or the unique silk or cotton rebozos or shawls made in the towns of Santa Maria del Rio, in the state of San Luis Potosi, or Tenancingo, in the State of Mexico, are worthy of mention.
A charro saddle
This art-sport has transcended time and geography. A charro hat universally identifies Mexico, and the charros have proudly shown the world their tradition with numerous good will trips to many countries in the American continent and Europe. They continue to struggle today to keep their traditions alive, as a trait of Mexico’s identity, but above all, for love of their roots.
To look upon the world of charreria is to witness the persistence of a memory that treasures the past and the present of a tradition that refuses to die.
May that race of men
on horseback never perish.
or let me die first
so I’m not called upon to mourn them!