On any given weekend through fall, a centuries-old sporting event takes place across the state. It's steeped in ritual, pageantry and tradition. Thirty-five men's teams and a dozen women's compete. Yet many Texans have never even heard its name charrería.
The special exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum could change that. "Arte en la Charrería: The Artisanship of Mexican Equestrian Culture" spotlights the showy history, art and sport of the charro (horseman) and charra (horsewoman) on both sides of the border.
Here are the eye-catching suits, fancy dresses and artfully crafted accessories and tack — saddles inlaid with silver, sombreros that act as shock absorbers, spurs with 3-inch rowels, hand-braided reatas (lariats), fringed rebozos (shawls) and patterned serapes (blankets).
And because the charro is considered the father of our cowboy and the charreada the forerunner of our rodeo, Bullock media relations and marketing director Timothy Dillon says, "We've added some pieces to drive home the Texas connection."
These include blowups of photos taken at Texas charreadas (rodeos), talks on vaquero culture, chili queens and charrería today as well as programs on charro art, vaqueros vs. cowboys and music of the charrería.
The collection — begun in the late 1800s by Gumaro González, a landowner and charro in Northern Mexico, much added to by son Robert and grandson Luis and administered by great-granddaughter Marisú González and husband, Gabriel Caballo — showcases the craft and design of Mexico's finest charrería artisans.
In the Texas Folklore Society book "Charreada: Mexican Rodeo in Texas," illustrated with San Antonio photographer Al Rendon's sepia-tone prints, F.E. Abernethy explains that the charro is to Mexico what the cowboy is to Texas, only more so.
Charrería dates back five centuries to Spain's introduction of horses and cattle to the New World. At first, the conquistadors forbade Mexican Indian ranch hands to ride horses under penalty of death. But by 1609, the horse population had grown, and indigenous people had begun to saddle up to work the cattle.
And by the 1800s, hacienda owners were hosting rodeo (round-up) celebrations, where charros vied with those from neighboring haciendas to show off their riding and roping skills.
But the Mexican revolution broke up the haciendas, and charros, faced with a vanishing lifestyle, organized to preserve it in 1921. In 1933, they created a body to govern the charro associations (teams) emerging in Mexico and later the U.S.
Today the horsemanship and roping skills of Texas charro teams from Denton to Del Rio typically can be seen weekends at charreadas held in lienzos (keyhole-shaped arenas) with food, music and family-filled bleachers.
Wearing working (faena) attire, charros ride horses and bulls, rope horses and steers, bring down a bull by its tail, and in the charreada's 10th and final competition, leap from their unbridled horse to an unbridled, unbroken galloping mare — the daring paso de la muerte, or death pass.
Unlike the American cowboy, the charro competes as a team member, not as an individual, and for honor or a trophy, not prizes or money. He cannot wear brand names or logos on his clothing or saddle.
"There are events within Mexico that offer cash and important prizes," collector Marisú González says. "But we don't like them very much because charrería was born as a way to bring the haciendas together and not as a sporting event that distorts the original spirit."
Also unlike the cowboy, the charro wins points for style and execution, not speed. He loses points for infractions, such as improper attire or tack, his sombrero falling off or not landing on his feet after a bull ride.
For years, the charreada was a strictly machismo affair. Today the escaramuza (skirmish) brings spectators to their feet as eight full-skirted and crinolined charras, riding sidesaddle, put their mounts through dazzling precision drills at a gallop.
"The escaramuza often gets more applause than the charros," Marisú González says. "But please don't tell them because they always have a little envy."
A photograph by Winifred Simon of Wimberley captures one charra's smoking abrupt stop. Simon lived all her life in Texas before learning about charrería in Texas Highways magazine in March 2010 and attending a charreada. Now she's hooked.
"It's so real," she says. "There's nothing phony about it. It's not done for any outside glory. The way they've maintained tradition is so pure. It's passed down from grandfather to son to grandson. It's a whole family-oriented lifestyle."
Not everyone is a fan. Animal welfare groups have taken a dim view of its roping events and bull tailing. And in 1994, California outlawed "horse-tripping," and eight other states, including Texas, followed.
But Rodrigo Ganao, president of San Antonio Charro Association, the oldest north of the Rio Grande, says charrería has strict rules against deliberate animal abuse. "A cowboy would not jeopardize his income by harming a horse or cow," he says. "There are more injuries to riders than to animals."
Originally, a charro's sombrero with 6-inch crown to dissipate heat and wide brim for shade was made of straw. "But when charros started competing, the straw was too flimsy," Ganao says. "Now it's sturdy felt with a stiff brim for protection. You rarely see charros with head injuries."
Just as rodeo is the state sport of Texas, charrería is the national sport of Mexico. Celebrated in poetry, art, song and cinema, the charro is a national icon with his own holiday on Sept. 14.
But being a charro isn't cheap. Depending on bloodlines, Ganao says, a horse can cost up to $10,000. Then there's the animal's care, feeding and vet bills, plus the required traditional charro clothing and tack.
"In Mexico, gala (formal) clothing with a nice hat can cost around $1,500 in U.S. money," Gabriel Caballo says. "A gala saddle, fully embroidered with pita (cactus thread) stitching and inlaid with silver, costs around $40,000."
"Most of the tack is passed down," Ganao says. "My family's been involved with charrería since 1971 and in ranching for more than four generations. Even clothes are handed down. A lot of the clothes I started to wear as a charro were my brother's."
The González collection of charro saddles is Mexico's finest. There are four increasingly ornate models: working, semi-formal, formal and grand formal, fashioned with silver, pita embroidery and leather tooling.
But the exhibit's most spectacular outfit isn't worn in competition. Legend traces the China Poblana dress —with its sparkling sequined or beaded skirt and white embroidered blouse — to a young woman named Mirrha from Asia. Brought to Puebla, Mexico, as a slave, she kept the exotic dress of her homeland, which was later adapted by native women.
The ruffled Adelita dresses seen in the escaramuza and displayed here are patterned after those worn by women in the revolution. "La Adelita" is a famous corrida (folk ballad) about a "soldadera" (female soldier). "When the revolution triumphed," Marisú González says, "charras used it as a tribute to soldaderas."
Considered a reserve of the Mexican army, charros, unlike other Mexican citizens, are entitled to bear arms. A side arm is part of their official garb, but, except in one of Rendon's stunning black-and-white photos in the exhibit, none are displayed.
"Due to the drug wars that Mexico is fighting nowadays, we don't want to carry guns," Caballo says. "We consider it extremely dangerous." But in event of a conflict, he says with blazing charro spirit, "We will defend our flag and country."
"In his dress and in his machismo, the charro represents the heroic and dramatic in Mexican history and tradition, " folklorist Abernethy writes in "Charreada." "Every Mexican is a charro or charra at heart."
'Arte en la Charrería: The Artisanship of Mexican Equestrian Culture'
When: Through June 5. 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; Noon to 6 p.m. Sundays.
Where: Bullock Texas State History Museum, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and North Congress Avenue.
Information: 936-4649, www.TheStoryofTexas.com .