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Riding on Ropes and Dreams

Times Staff Writer

Ramiro Gurrola of Hawaiian Gardens is one of the best riders, or charros, in Mexican rodeo. But when the chute opened one blistering Sunday this summer, the bull he was riding inexplicably collapsed, like a boxer taking a dive.

Midway through the regional Mexican rodeo championships in Sacramento, Gurrola was in fourth place, fighting a bad streak of charro luck.

The belief in charro luck rules the world of Mexican rodeo, known as charreria. In a distinctly Mexican view of life, talent takes a back seat to destiny. A lazy bull, a slow horse or a rainstorm can defeat even the best-trained cowboy.

Charro luck had foiled Gurrola before. Three years in a row, he’d failed to advance to the charreria world championship in Mexico. Yet each loss had pushed him to practice harder.

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The next event that afternoon in Sacramento was las manganas, the most difficult in Mexican rodeo. The cowboy performs rope tricks and then tries to lasso the front legs of a galloping mare. Points are scored for elegance and creativity.

Few cowboys work harder at it than Gurrola, 25. Like a jazz musician, he spends hours a day riffing on his rope, hoping for the accidents and mistakes that lead to new tricks. He watches videos of his rivals. Lying in bed at night, he imagines new ways of making the rope dance.

“If you want to be good at charreria, you have to be good at the rope,” he says.

So as he donned his sombrero, shouldered his rope and walked into the arena, Gurrola was losing badly, but he wasn’t afraid.

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In the last few years, Southern California has emerged as a center of traditional Mexican rodeo. Leading Mexican American businessmen are sponsoring charro teams and building rodeo arenas. Three trick-roping schools have opened. The number of officially recognized charro teams has nearly doubled, to 65.

California now ranks fourth in the world in the number of sanctioned teams, behind the Mexican states of Jalisco, Hidalgo and the state of Mexico. Most of California’s riders are Mexican Americans carrying on a tradition brought here by their immigrant parents.

In 2002, the three best Mexican rodeo teams came to Los Angeles and were whipped by upstart U.S.-born charros.

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One of the best of them is Gurrola, a 1996 graduate of Artesia High School. Gurrola is a shy, lanky man who becomes a general when he climbs atop a horse. Though 6 foot 3, he is known in the world of charreria as Ramirito -- Little Ramiro -- named for his father and his grandfather, patriarch of a charro clan in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

Gurrola pursues charreria with a puritanical devotion. He avoids beer -- rare for a man drenched in rural Mexican culture. He hasn’t married because raising a family would cut into his practice time. He can’t remember a weekend when he did something unrelated to horses or charreria.

That a boy from the L.A. suburbs could grow up to be one of the charro world’s budding stars illustrates how Mexican wide swaths of Southern California have become. It also shows how poor immigrants found in the U.S. the means to realize their rodeo dreams. Here, a sport that in Mexico was the preserve of the privileged has become a measure of blue-collar immigrant success, a new twist on the American Dream.

The lesson in Gurrola’s story is that a working man’s son can grow up in Southern California to be the great Mexican cowboy his father wanted to be.

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A Son’s Dream

Gurrola’s grandfather was one of the best trick-ropers in Zacatecas. When he had to decide whether to sell a milk cow or a good charro horse, he sold the cow. His son dreamed of being a great charro too. But poverty forced him to leave his horses and head to California in 1971.

Then 17, the son found a job in construction and rented a house in Hawaiian Gardens. Ramiro Gurrola Sr. was part of the first wave of Mexican immigrants to come directly to Los Angeles, bypassing the agricultural work that had drawn earlier generations.

These newcomers were mostly from ranching states in central Mexico, where charreria is almost a religion. It is also expensive. A charro needs a good horse, feed, a saddle and a way to get himself and his horse to the rodeo. Poor rancher youths had to compete on plow horses.

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In Southern California, charreria was barely known. But the region’s economy offered what Mexico could not: money to buy good horses.

Some people viewed charreria as old-fashioned, even corny, with riders wearing old-style sombreros. But over the years, a charro subculture took root in L.A. Some devotees bought horses before they bought cars. Many seemed to work solely to support their charreria habit. They made sure their children learned ropes and horses. They took them to Mexico to show them authentic charreria.

Few were as consumed by rodeo as Ramiro Gurrola Sr. He saved $5,000 and could buy either a horse or a house. He bought the horse. By the time he bought a house, he had four horses and three children.

Over the years, the elder Gurrola put his savings into saddles, tack and stables for his horses in El Monte and Compton. “If you have a horse, the horse eats first and then you feed yourself,” he says.

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Ramiro Jr. learned his first rope trick when he was 5. At 12, he rode a bucking mare in one of the Sunday rodeos his father and his friends organized at an arena in El Monte. The horse threw him like a pillow.

Over the next few months, the boy climbed on the horse every Sunday. Each time, the bronco tossed him.

“I knew what to do,” he says, “but I couldn’t do it.”

After weeks of additional practice and coaching from his uncles, he mounted the bronco and stayed on. From that moment, he says, he was hooked.

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The 1990s were a time of cultural change for young Mexican Americans in Southern California. Earlier generations had been ashamed of their parents’ rural Mexican music, clothes and festivals.

But now they were a majority in many neighborhoods and schools. Though U.S.-born, the immigrants’ children unabashedly embraced what their parents had brought from Mexico. Some suburban kids became fanatics for charreria.

At Artesia High, the younger Gurrola did his homework during lunch hour so he would have afternoons free to practice riding and roping. Half a dozen times a year, he went to Mexico to compete. He explained these absences to his teachers by referring to a “family emergency” back home.

“My friends never knew about it,” he says of his rodeo obsession. “I used to tell them, but they never paid any attention.”

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At 15, at a competition in Zacatecas, he won second place in las manganas behind the legendary Andres “Nito” Aceves, who was then transforming Mexican rope style.

Gurrola became unflappable in the ring. Before events, he would slowly walk his horse in circles to calm it as he collected his thoughts. Under pressure during competition, he did not hear the crowd. He also blocked out the gang that controlled his neighborhood in Hawaiian Gardens.

By the time he graduated from high school in 1996, he was becoming one of the region’s great charros. He took a job in his uncle’s insulation factory in Azusa so he could work mornings and devote his afternoons and Sundays to charreria. He joined a charro team founded by Leonardo Lopez, an L.A. nightclub owner.

In 2002, the team went to Mexico for the National Congress of Charreria, the sport’s world championship. Gurrola finished second in las manganas out of 105 competitors. No American has ever finished higher in a single event in the Mexican championships.

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In appreciation, the crowd rained hats and gloves down on him.

“It felt good,” he says.

His performance was one of several events in 2002 that changed California charreria.

That year, Lopez began managing the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, opening a major venue to the sport.

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The rancher youths who had come to California 30 years earlier now owned businesses -- the Northgate Gonzalez and La Vallarta supermarket chains, Las Palmas Nursery, Padilla Demolition -- and could afford to sponsor charro teams. Some built their own rodeo arenas.

As a boy in Mexico, Juan De la Torre never had the money to compete. He came to California hoping to earn enough to buy a horse. He learned to build houses and became a contractor. Today, De la Torre has his own charro team and an enduring place in charro lore. A Zacatecas band recorded a ballad about him, “King of the Bull-tailers,” referring to a charro event at which he excels.

In El Monte and Pico Rivera, in Sylmar, San Fernando, and in parts of Chino, there are communities of rodeo devotees. Mira Loma (pop. 17,000) in Riverside County is inhabited mostly by immigrants from Jalisco and Zacatecas and now has six charro teams. Riders tie up their horses and sit down to eat at Enrique’s Seafood, a charro hangout.

A bidding war for the best quarter-horses erupted, doubling the prices over the last five years to as much as $15,000.

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The growing popularity of charreria, and the increased political sophistication of Mexican Americans, was evident in their response to a 2002 proposal to outlaw bull-tailing, a rodeo event in which charros pull a running bull to the ground by the tail.

Years before, the state Senate had banned horse-tripping, part of another charreria event. Charros went to Sacramento, dressed in traditional riding outfits. Their representative spoke broken English. They knew no one at the state Capitol. Only two senators voted against the ban on horse-tripping, and the practice remains illegal in California.

“We never had to defend ourselves in the past,” says Marcos Franco, director of the U.S. division of the Mexican Charro Federation. “They just ran us over.”

But when animal rights activists pushed for the ban on bull-tailing in 2002, hundreds of charro enthusiasts wrote to legislators. They hired a Sacramento lobbyist. By this time, more immigrants had become U.S. citizens and could vote; more legislators were Latino. The bill died.

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Charros believe that a ban on bull-tailing would have killed the sport in California. Instead, it was invigorated.

Magic With a Rope

Under the hot sun and his wide sombrero, Ramiro Gurrola stood in the Sacramento arena in July as the manganas event began.

As the mare circled the arena, Gurrola whipped his lasso into a spinning circle, then jumped through it.

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At just the right moment, he laid the rope out. It rolled like a hoop into the path of the charging quarter-horse and magically encircled the animal’s front legs.

Gurrola accomplished this on four of his six chances -- twice on foot and twice while mounted. None of his opponents managed it more than once.

With that, Gurrola came from behind to win the right to contend for the U.S. national Mexican rodeo championship, held today through Monday in New Cuyama, an hour’s drive south of Santa Maria. If he wins there, he’ll go to Mexico in October for the National Congress of Charreria.

He hopes to overcome the charro luck that in the last few years has kept him from competing in Mexico for Charro of the Year.

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“I feel confident, but I don’t want to say I’m going to win,” he says.

“I never say that because something always goes bad.”


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