Charreadas : Unspoiled by Glitter, Bucking for Tradition, Mexican Rodeo Fights Critics and Carries On

Times Staff Writer

Enrique Gonzales belted down a beer, gripped his sombrero and jumped from the audience into the Ventura County Fairground’s main arena.

In minutes, the 24-year-old ranch hand from Somis was straddling a bucking bronco, his big hat flopping to the strains of mariachi music.

“Is that your charro ?,” someone asked an organizer, who shot a bewildered look at the cowboy in the ring and offered a good-natured shrug.


Welcome to the world of Mexican rodeo, where spontaneity can overwhelm structure and a local boy can leap into the fray.

Charreadas have not been spoiled by the gloss of big-time professional rodeo.

“You just never know what to expect,” said fairgrounds official Art Amelio, who booked the event that married bull and bronco riding with a performance by Mexican musicians and a honey-toned chanteuse in a strapless flamenco dress.

Two musical acts failed to show, the charros --Mexican cowboys--refused to perform in a second show because of a pay dispute, a bull escaped briefly from the ring and a fight broke out in the stands.

To be sure, larger Mexican rodeos, such as the annual competition among the state’s top charro clubs at the California Latino Fair, starting today in Pico Rivera, are more expertly choreographed.

But the local charreada can still offer an ordinary Joe his shot at glory--even if the only prizes are trophies instead of the big purses offered in mainstream professional rodeo.

“In my work, I drive a tractor,” said Baltazar Garcia, a 25-year-old Soledad broccoli picker who weathered a bucking bronco for 20 seconds Sunday. “Here, I’m a star.”

But stardom has its price.

Animal rights groups have criticized charreadas for what they say are inhumane practices, and promoters have wearied of backing them. Although the sport is increasingly popular--14 charro associations in California in 1985 have now grown to 35 or 40--the business arena is dwindling. In the past five years, Amelio has seen two Mexican rodeoproducers go out of business, hobbled by poor organization and opposition from the Humane Society of Ventura County. Such spectacles have dropped from three a year to fewer than one a year at the fairgrounds.

The animal rights group succeeded in April in thwarting a Mexican rodeo in the Somis area. Other animal rights activists sought unsuccessfully last week to stop a charreada in Santa Paula.

“They’re kind of backyard rodeos,” said Joyce George, president of the county’s Humane Society. “It’s not a high-profile thing. We as human beings tend to be a lot more careful when we know people are watching us.”

But even the two Humane Society officers patrolling Sunday’s shows had few objections. “It looks like the animals are winning today,” said Jeff Hoffman.

Absent were the two displays that animal rights activists most oppose--the manganas , where charros fell broncos by roping their two front legs, and the coleadero , where charros down charging steers by yanking their tails. In the American counterpart, cowboys wrestle steers by grabbing the animals’ horns.

Even some charreada organizers oppose the practices. “These horses get going 25 miles per hour and then get the feet ripped out from under them,” said Cotton Rosser, owner of the Flying U Rodeo in Marysville, Ca. “Horses are more sensitive to pain than most animals. It’s kind of like a person.”

Still, Sunday’s event vividly illustrated the differences between the Mexican and American versions of the sport. Where the American cowboy holds onto a bucking bronco or Brahma bull with one hand and rides only a maximum of eight seconds, charros use both hands, riding for as long as it takes the animal either to stop bucking or buck them off.

The Mexican cowboys’ costumes also underscored the difference. The charros wore the bolero jackets, floppy bow ties, sombreros and ornately decorated trousers of the mariachi singer.

The pacing of the events also differ. Instead of the rapid unfurling of acts that fans of American rodeo expect, Sunday’s event proceeded with long pauses between each ride. The mariachis picked up the slack, belting out old favorites over a sputtering public address system.

The most celebrated event of the charreada-- the paso de muerte, or pass of death, where the charro leaps from his horse onto a wild horse--wasn’t performed Sunday; the charros didn’t want to transport their steeds from their homes in Soledad for just one afternoon.

Despite the differences, American rodeo traces its roots to the charreada.

“The skills that the American cowboy performs evolved from the Mexican vaquero ,” said Pat Florence, assistant director of the Pro Rodeo Hall of Champions in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Charreadas that traveled with circus acts through the American Southwest in the 19th Century introduced the rodeo to American audiences, said sports historian Mary Lou LeCompte of the University of Texas at Austin. But American cowboys, in an attempt to bolster their professional image, sought to distance their sport from its carnival--and Mexican--roots, she said.

Americans may have tried to forget the charro but Mexico never has. The charreada is the country’s national sport, the national costume is the charro outfit and the national dance is associated with the Mexican rodeo--the Mexican Hat Dance. Today the charreada remains the favorite celebration for such Mexican national holidays as Cinco de Mayo and Mexican independence day, Sept. 16.

“This is our own thing, our folklore, our John Wayne,” said Francisco Zamora, a 43-year-old Utah-based a trick rider whose horse, “Tijuana Taxi,” danced to the Mexican Hat Dance in Sunday’s shows.

Still, liberties were taken with tradition. Some of the charros sported Levis beneath authentic chaps. One of the cowboys videotaped friends with a portable recorder. “ Recuerdos ,” he explained, “Memories.”

And Bakersfield livestock breeder Smiley Moreno, who had assembled seven bulls and six horses for the event, often sent a clown, which is foreign to the Mexican rodeo, to the rescue of downed charros.

“I like to take care of the boys,” said Moreno, 60, flashing a toothy grin.

For the charros, more than tradition was at stake. Some, like 29-year-old Soledad restaurant operator Pedro Veronica, see it as a means to dispel prejudices.

“I feel like a big ambassador for my country when I put on these clothes,” said Veronica, tugging at his chaps. “I try to kill the image of the lazy charro laying down drunk in the cactus and not doing any work.”

But such lofty aims had lost some luster by Sunday’s second show. The charros complained that promoter Rigoberto Fuentes, whose Sacramento-based company, Promociones Gran D., which also hosts dances with Latino bands, had not told them that they would be expected to perform twice.

Fuentes said that Zamora, the trick rider, was the one who had struck the deal with the charros. No, Zamora said, they were the responsibility of Fuentes.

But the hubbub never reached those who had paid $15 to attend the show.

Marta Calderon, a 38-year-old Ojai cook, hoped the event would bring her 4-year-old twins in touch with their heritage.

“I had heard about the rodeo from my parents,” said Calderon. “I’d always wanted to see it and I wanted my children to see it.”

But Monica Orozco, a teacher’s aide from Piru who attended with her husband, several in-laws and two cousins, expected less of the charreada.

“The last one we came to wasn’t very exciting,” she explained. “The bulls didn’t buck and the horses didn’t jump. We’re here for the music.”