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Charro pride

Mexico's national pastime is now a growing sport across Texas and beyond

Nancy Flores
nflores@statesman.com
Charros compete in el paso de la muerte, or the pass of death, during a charreada at Rancho Tres Potrancas in July. In el paso de la muerte, a charro attempts to leap from his own horse onto the bare back of a loose, unbroken horse. [NICK WAGNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Heading away from the city’s bustle, ranches pepper the landscape of far Southeast Austin. Solar panel farms and toll roads have crept closer to family ranches over the decades, but there’s still a little-known world thriving behind some of these ranch gates that few get to experience.

Every now and then, Roberto Chavira, owner of Rancho Tres Potrancas, opens his gates to the public, revealing a world of tradition, heritage and culture. At 71 years old, he’s been a charro most of his life and now hosts Mexican horse riding and livestock herding competitions, or charreada events, at an arena on the ranch he’s owned since 1977.

On a hot July afternoon, families drove from Central Texas and beyond to Chavira’s private ranch for a friendly tournament featuring charro teams from around the area. Mexican regional music blasted from speakers, and families carried ice chests full of water and Gatorade up the arena’s wooden bleachers.

A vendor traveled from the Central Mexican state of Puebla to the Austin tournament to sell handcrafted spurs and other charro wares. Horses kicked clouds of dust in the air, and those looking for relief from the heat hit the rustic covered concession area for elotes and hamburgers.

Charrería, Mexico’s national pastime, spans beyond borders and has become a growing sport in the U.S., including in Texas, where more than 50 teams exist. More than a dozen teams of charros, or competitive horsemen, exist in Central Texas alone.

Although often compared to American rodeo, charreadas date back to the 16th century when Mexico was under Spanish rule and indigenous horsemen worked the hacienda lands. In 2016, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO, named charrería “an intangible cultural heritage.”

In Central Texas, it’s charros like Chavira who help keep the sport alive, but everything would have been different if he’d never spotted those four horsemen.

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Accidental charro

Days before the big tournament at Rancho Tres Potrancas, Chavira, sporting all denim and a white cowboy hat, prepared the sandy arena for one last practice before the weekendlong competition. He rode his tractor, hauling a water tank in the back, in circles around the ring, making sure the soil was just moist enough for the charros to easily maneuver inside. 

Chavira, who still rides and competes in charreadas, serves as the captain of his team Charros El Herradero, which operates under the Mexico City-based association Federación Mexicana de Charrería. With chapters in every Mexican state, the association has expanded to include chapters in 13 U.S. states from Texas to Oregon.

Over the decades, Chavira has held various leadership positions within the group, broken his back once during a competition and even garnered the association’s top honor, a Golden Spur award.

“I don’t plan on quitting soon, unless the good Lord calls me,” he says.

Chavira starts his days at 5 a.m. and spends most of his time working outside on his ranch, wandering inside only when his stomach growls before heading back out again.

“I know people younger than me who don’t get off the couch because they feel like they are too old,” he says. “I stay away from those guys.”

At charreadas, which feature nine suertes, or skill tests, Chavira competes in the cala de caballo event, which assesses his ability to command the horse as well as the horse’s training. When Chavira’s horse gallops into the ring, it heads to a chalked rectangle marked inside the arena. Chavira pulls on the reins and the horse rears back, performing a controlled slide several feet across the dirt.

“When I step onto the arena,” he says, “I feel like it’s a sanctuary for me.”

Chavira became a charro by accident. He’d been around horses, American rodeo and livestock growing up in Mineral Wells near Fort Worth, but his life changed in his 20s when he came to Austin and saw four horsemen riding in a parade. One of them carried a Mexican flag and another carried the American flag. They wore broad-rimmed hats and big bow ties. Chavira stood in awe.

“Who are they?” he thought. “What do they do? Why are they dressed that way?”

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Charros vs. mariachis

Each time Chavira puts on his charro outfit, he feels the same as he did when he first wore it decades ago: alive.

“It hasn’t changed from when I was younger,” he says. “I feel the adrenaline, I feel macho, a strong energy. I feel all those positive vibes because it’s dangerous (in the arena).”

When a young Chavira spotted the four horsemen on parade and approached them afterward, they told him they dressed that way because it was tradition, a style that hadn’t changed much for centuries and was still created by local artisans.

“A lot of people get charros confused with mariachis,” Chavira says. Charros aren’t singers or musicians, but mariachi outfits are inspired by the charro look and borrow from charro formalwear. At charreadas, charros wear a lighter version of the outfit to compete in events that are full of ritual and ceremony. Unlike American rodeo, according to Chavira, charreadas focus on a team concept, winning as a team by point accumulation.

The horsemen told Chavira that participating in parades served to educate the youth and public, but they invited him out to a ranch so he could see where the real fun took place. Chavira soon became a founding member of Austin’s first charro team, the Capitalinos, under the now-defunct Austin Charros Association.

Rise of the escaramuza

Noisemakers rattled and fans hollered at Rancho Tres Potrancas when the time came for the escaramuza — the only all-female event within the charrería.

Under the blazing Texas sun, the eight-person team rode sidesaddle into the arena and performed highly choreographed routines at full speed, all while wearing traditional full dresses over petticoats. Adelitas, the female soldiers who fought in the Mexican Revolution, inspired the outfits now worn by charras. At the tournament, the El Rosario female team exuded the same fierceness and grace as those 19th-century women.

“It’s a sacrifice (to be on a team),” says 55-year-old Balbina Martínez. “But it’s full of satisfaction.”

Just as charro teams have grown in Texas, so have the female teams. Today, the state boasts more than 20 all-female teams.

For Patricia Tello, 36, riding horses has been a lifelong passion. She rode and competed in her Mexican home state of San Luis Potosí and now, as part of the El Rosario team, also helps recruit and guide other charras to connect women to their heritage.

“We’re a family,” says 19-year-old charra Leslie Muñoz, who began participating in escaramuzas at age 11. “I have a lot of fun being with friends who share a passion.”

Chavira says the family spirit of the sport helped maintain his own family’s unity. All three of his now-adult daughters rode in escaramuzas, and now his niece carries the tradition.

“We always traveled together,” he says. “My wife supported us 100%, and she’d take care of their dresses. We tried to make it fun for our daughters, too.”

Charrería isn’t easy or cheap, though. Horses must be trained, fed and maintained, which can become costly. Multiple practices a week and a regular competition travel schedule must be balanced with work, school and family. Physically, the sport can take its toll.

“But I feel like I’m one with the horse each time I ride,” Martínez says in Spanish. “I want to preserve traditions for a new generation so that this doesn’t end.”

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Riding with heart

From the top of the bleachers at Rancho Tres Potrancas, you can see the downtown Austin skyline, which seems a world away from the July weekend tournament where fans erupted with chants and threw hats, boots, baseball caps and even flip-flops into the arena in delight after a charro managed to successfully rope a wild mare by its front legs three consecutive times.

“A la bio, a la bao, a la bim bom ba, Arturo, Arturo, ra, ra, ra!” fans chanted, cheering on the triumphant charro, who picked up the offerings tossed into the arena and returned the items to their owners in exchange for congratulatory hugs.

“There’s been a lot of people to come through, including a lot of wannabes, but you’ve got to have it in your heart or else you’re just passing through,” Chavira says. “Those are few and far between — the ones who have it in their hearts and stay with it.”

Despite the sport’s intensity and demands, Chavira sees charrería continuing to expand in Texas. “A lot of people ask, do I have to be Mexican? But I never close my doors to anyone. You want to be a charro? Come on. You might be the one.”

'Everything comes to an end'

At 71, Chavira knows that one day he won’t be able to get on his horse. “That’s the day I’ll stop riding,” he says with a sigh. He's sure that once he stops riding, his time on earth will be limited.

“I’m an active person,” he says. “I can’t be in no hospital bed or in the house in a recliner letting everyone else do things for me. I don’t know how to deal with that. But I do know that everything has an end.”

His daughters. His wife of 43 years. His charro life. All that keeps him moving forward. His teammates keep him youthful, and his fans keep him motivated. He still gets nervous each time he competes.

Chavira takes a deep breath before each competition. “You kinda shut everything out and concentrate on what you gotta do,” he says. “You get nervous because you don’t want to let your team down.”

After all these years, he says he doesn’t know what it’d be like not to feel nervous. Being a charro, he says, has taught him that he’s strong in his heart, body and mind.

“Everything comes to an end,” he says. “And my day will come. But right now, I’m not ready.”

Want to be a charro or charra?

For more information about becoming a charro, call 512-917-6351.

To learn about participating in escaramuzas, call 512-838-1860.