Charreada is the beautiful San Antonio rodeo that both breaks norms and honors tradition

U.S. rodeos and Charreadas are both done on horseback. They are measures of the horses and their riders but they bear little resemblance beyond that.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioMay 7, 2024 10:30 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

There’s a kind of rodeo happening on San Antonio’s South Side that is hundreds of years in the making, has nothing to do with country music and barbecue, and everything to do with tradition. It’s called Charreada, which essentially means Mexican rodeo. Its similarity to western rodeos is only fleeting, and there are many differences.

The headquarters for this version of rodeo is back behind the Mission Marquee Plaza on Padre Lane at a place called the San Antonio Charro Association, where horsemen and women meet and ride in an arena built to accommodate this style of rodeo.

On a recent Tuesday night, a team of eight young women circled a small arena, then turned to converge on one another at the center on a collision course. But, somehow, 1,000-pound horses and their riders missed each other by inches at the center, then kept on going, forming an outside circle again.

“We have to communicate with our horse very well, as well as communicate with our teammates very well to avoid crashing into each other,” explained team leader Loren Fierro-Martinez.

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The women's team at practice discussing the next exercise.

Fierro-Martinez, 34, started riding western style when she was 11. She took several years off from riding and now is back to it. She loves the challenge.

“Since our exercises are very tight, we come very close to crashing to each other. But because we time it perfectly, we don’t crash,” she said.

Fierro-Martinez started out doing barrel racing, but then she discovered the style of riding they do at the San Antonio Charro Association.

Charro means cowboy but not the American style of cowboy.

“I definitely learned better horsemanship and how to be a better rider from doing Escaramuza,” she said.

Escaramuza means to ride side saddle. As these women ride complicated patterns, weaving in and out from one another, they’re doing so wearing a dress with ruffled petticoat, and two legs on one side of the horse.

Yazmin Bernal also rides on the team, and she also came from western style riding.

“I’ve been riding since I was six, so I have about 20 years riding,” Bernal said. “When I first joined the team, it was about a month and a half away from their first competition, and they just kind of pushed me every day until that competition.”

She was just 9 years old. “It was like a crash course in Escaramuza.”

I noted that perhaps ‘crash course’ was not the phrase to use when it comes to this kind of riding. She laughed. “Technically, it was like an anti-crash course!” she said.

They practiced because soon the stands of the arena would fill with fans watching this version of rodeo — Charreada — that long predates those of the American West. Charreada’s roots run deep, to the Mexican haciendas, the ranches of Mexico of the 1500s.

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Roberto Lopez, at 80, is the longest-running rider on the men's team.

The San Antonio Charro Association was built in 1947. Edmundo Rios II, one of its longest running riders, now runs the non-profit.

“I’m going on 60 years this year. So I’ve been around 45, 50 [years], maybe,” he said. “We started off as a parade group, and little by little we got into the Charreada to all the events. And right now we are the 2023 state champs.”

The Charro teams compete all over the Southwest and in Mexico. He said Charreadas — Mexican rodeos — started out there serving both a social and practical function.

“It was a big party. It’s family oriented and passed down from generation to generation,” Rios said.

Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

Octavio Barron Torres shows off his roping skills.

U.S. rodeos and Charreadas are both done on horseback. They are measures of the horses and their riders but they bear little resemblance beyond that. For instance, rodeo bronc riders have to stay on for only eight seconds. Not so the Charros.

“We got to stay until you stop bucking,” Rios said. “And then you get off, and your two feet have to hit the ground. If you do not hit the ground, and your knees hit the ground, it’s zero.”

You’re eliminated if you fall to the ground.

The women practiced their precision drills again on Saturday night, but not long after they put their horses away, Rios said they had a cloudburst. “We got a lot of rain. I figure, two inches,” he said.

On Sunday morning, everyone scrambled to make the arena safe for riding. His son Edmundo Rios III, 23, noted the arena conditions. “Terrible! We’re going to check it again right now.”

The people running the Charro Association have been in this situation many times over the years. “Oh yeah! This is not the first time. We’ve been through this before,” he said.

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Kimberly Cruz and teammates about to ride.

This isn’t his first rodeo. It’s his twenty-third rodeo. There’s standing water in the sandy arena, but they knew what to do. A tractor pushed water and mud away, while others dumped diesel and burned standing water away. The process continued for several hours as the cloudy morning sky slowly broke up. The sun shone through in the afternoon.

The crowds arrived, the stands filled and the ceremonies began. Mexican and U.S. national anthems were sung, along with Mariachi tunes, as various folklorico dance groups performed for the crowd in wildly colorful costumes. Finally, the horses and riders slogged through mud, lessened somewhat by the sunny skies, and riders thrilled the crowd with performances.

Laura Hernandez Aplin brought her husband and two kids.

“It’s just gorgeous, beautiful. I love the colors, I love seeing the Mexican flag next to the United States flag,” she said. “There is something special about just honoring both countries. I absolutely adore our ancestry and our history tied to that.”

Rider Yazmin Bernal thought that this sport, which reflects the deepest traditions of Mexico, is actually also a metric of U.S. greatness.

“I feel like embracing different types of cultures is a big part of what makes America great. Because we’re all different and we’re all able to coexist,” she said.

In fact, while most think soccer is the national sport of Mexico, Charreada actually is — and, at least in this arena in south San Antonio, it’s clearly number one too.

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