Mexico’s cowboys

The cowboys we see in Hollywood movies and spaghetti Westerns, galloping in the dust, killing Indians, and dueling with each other   are a very far cry from their Mexican counterparts, if only from the sartorial point of view.

A few months after I arrived in Mexico in 1975, my uncle, the Philippine ambassador, took me to a charreria, a rodeo of sorts, he explained, that I should see at least once in my life. Apparently, there are still charreria clubs like the Asociación Nacional de Charros A.C, established in June, 1921, by elite families whose haciendas were parceled off by agrarian reform after Mexico’s social revolution (1910-1914). The hacendados (hacienderos to us) and their friends who migrated to Mexico City were nostalgic for hacienda life and the equestrian activities they used to enjoy when they were lord and master of vast tracts of land, cattle herds, and tenants.

The charreria I went to be held at the outskirts of Mexico City, in a manicured sun-baked circular arena. When the procession of impeccably dressed charros and escaramuzas trotted in with such elegance, I realized that I was not about to witness a Wild West-style rodeo.  The horsemen were in their sartorial best — winged hats with gild at the brim with exquisite embroidery,  silken bows around their necks, trousers decorated with silver buttons from the waist down, sarapes draped elegantly on their shoulders. Even the saddles and horse livery was a visual feast. They were accompanied by escaramuzas, ladies dressed in billowy gowns with layered ruffles that practically covered the horses; they also had embroidered winged sombreros.

There were certain “suertes” that had to be accomplished on horseback, I was informed. The escaramuzas galloped around the arena and came to a sudden full stop with the horses standing on their hind legs.  The charros displayed their skill at lassoing (there were many styles, each with a name)  and overpowering  bulls and undomesticated bovines by pulling their tails and lassoing their limbs and necks until the animals lay prostrate on the sand.  Rough as it was, the animals were not maltreated or killed.  The most exciting “suerte” was El Paso de la Muerte where the charros galloped furiously at full speed beside a bull, one of them got hold of the tail and another   slid off the horse saddle and mounted the bull, all that in full gallop around the arena.

At that charreria, a young charro who could not have been more than 12 executed El Paso de la Muerte with a young bull. It was his birthday to his grandfather;  he wanted to prove that he was ready and able to carry on the family tradition.  One false move and the boy could have been trampled to death; I could have bitten all my fingernails in sheer anguish! But, the youth did not disappoint his grandfather; he was incredibly skillful andhad absolutely no sense of danger.

After that charerri, I begían to notice that there were charros everywhere – in paintings at museums and galleries, in Mexican movies, at the Plaza Garibaldi where mariachis dressed as charros gathered in the late afternoon.  There were special shops of bespoke charro outfits, fine leather boots, silver spurs, lassoes, sarapes, winged hats, silver buttons, anything that had to do with the charreria tradition. To think that there were no horses in Mexico before the Spaniards came to conquer! This work animal became indispensable, through the centuries, as the boundaries of haciendas had to be secured and vast tracks of land cultivated. More horses and cattle were bred while varied techniques of horse-training, lassoing, and riding evolved. The saddle design, originally Arabic and Spanish, was modified in accordance to the tasks horsemen had to perform.

Curiously,  after the Mexican social revolution, a number of cultural, social, and political values converged in the charro, thanks to cinematographers, publicists and the media, to make him the icon of Mexican male identity. Famous Mexican movie stars Jorge Negrete and Pedro Infante were the quintessential charros. Tall, olive-skinned, good-looking, sporting well-groomed moustaches, they solved the nation’s problems with ballads and patriotic songs. As the American cowboys rode roughshod towards the Pacific Ocean  to win the West, the Mexican charro romanticized the social revolution.