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A visit to the traditional Mexican rodeo in San Antonio

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There's a type of rodeo happening in San Antonio that has little to do with the stereotypical scene of country music and barbecue. It's called charreada. It's a Mexican equestrian tradition that's hundreds of years old, and it's taken deep roots in the American Southwest. Texas Public Radio's Jack Morgan takes us to one.

JACK MORGAN, BYLINE: It's Sunday morning. And after last night's cloudburst, everyone scrambles to make the arena safe for horses and riders. Edmundo Rios III looks at the inches of mud and rolls his eyes.

EDMUNDO RIOS III: Terrible. We're going to go check it again right now.

MORGAN: Have you had it this bad before?

EDMUNDO RIOS III: Oh, yeah. It's not the first time. We've been through this before.

MORGAN: This is the 28-year-old's 23rd charreada. Rios knows what to do with the standing water in the sandy arena. A tractor pushes water and mud away, and they dump and burn diesel fuel to try to burn off the remaining puddles.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing, inaudible).

(APPLAUSE)

MORGAN: After hours of effort, Mexican and American national anthems are sung as the sun finally breaks through.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MORGAN: The anthems give way to mariachi tunes, and various folklorico dance groups perform on a stage for the crowd. They're dressed in colorful traditional Mexican costumes, the thick gold sash and flowing dresses that reflect sunlight as they twirl and spin.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOOFSTEPS)

MORGAN: Nearby horseback riders in ornate outfits called traje de charros, all wearing wide sombreros, slog through the mud, lessened now by sunny skies. Riders thrill the crowd with their intricate horsemanship, stepping in highly synchronized routines.

(CHEERING)

MORGAN: Two riders trot by - one holding the stars and stripes, the other the Mexican national flag. Laura Hernandez Aplin brought her husband and two kids.

LAURA HERNANDEZ APLIN: It's just gorgeous, beautiful. I love the colors. I love seeing the Mexican flag next to the United States flag. There is something special about just honoring both countries. I absolutely adore our ancestry and our history tied to that.

MORGAN: This kind of rodeo long predates those of the American West. These charreadas' roots go way back to the Mexican haciendas - the big ranches established by Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOOFSTEPS)

MORGAN: A team of eight young women circle the small arena, then turn and converge on one another in a collision course. But somehow, the thousand-pound horses and their riders miss each other by inches at the center before forming an outside circle once again.

LOREN FIERRO-MARTINEZ: We have to communicate with our horse very well, as well as communicate with our teammates very well to avoid crashing into each other.

MORGAN: Thirty-four-year-old team leader Loren Fierro-Martinez began writing when she was 11, doing barrel racing, but then she got into the side-saddle or escaramuza style of riding they do here.

FIERRO-MARTINEZ: I definitely learned better horsemanship and how to be a better rider from doing escaramuza.

MORGAN: As these women ride complicated patterns, weaving in and out from one another, they're riding side-saddle wearing dresses with ruffled petticoats. Twenty-six-year-old Yazmin Bernal has been riding with the San Antonio team since she was 9.

YAZMIN BERNAL: It was like a crash course in escaramuza..

MORGAN: Course is a bad phrase to use when it comes to this kind of riding, isn't it?

BERNAL: Yes, technically, it was more of like an anti-crash course.

MORGAN: The San Antonio Charro Association - charro means cowboy - was built in 1947. Edmundo Rios II, the team's longest-running rider, now runs the nonprofit.

EDMUNDO RIOS II: I'm going on 60 years this year - 60 years old. So I've been around 45, 50, maybe. We started off as a parade group. And little by little, we got into the charreada to all the events and everything. And right now, we are the 2023 state champs.

MORGAN: The charro teams compete all over the Southwest and even in Mexico. He says he's proud of serving the charreada tradition that goes back to the 1500s.

EDMUNDO RIOS II: It was a big party. It's family-oriented and passed down from generation to generation.

MORGAN: Rider Yazmin Bernal says this sport, which reflects the deepest traditions of Mexico, is actually a metric of American strength.

BERNAL: 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.

MORGAN: While most think soccer is the national sport of Mexico, in fact, it's charreada. And for the some 4,000 at this arena in South San Antonio, what's old is new again.

For NPR News, I'm Jack Morgan in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jack Morgan
Jack Morgan has spent 35 years in electronic media, doing both television and radio.
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