(Photos and video: Janet Jarman)
Rodeo, or charrería, may be the official national sport of Mexico, but it’s long been eclipsed in popularity by sports like soccer. The Mexican rodeo, however, is getting a new infusion of life.
I visited the small town of Polotitlán in central Mexico. At dawn, I felt like I was watching a scene from a spaghetti western: eight Mexican cowboys on horseback wearing sombreros riding past still-closed restaurants and stores. The few cars out at sunrise stopped to let the cowboys pass.
As the horses got closer, though, something looked a little different: The riders weren’t cowboys, they were cowgirls, or “charras.”
21-year-old Gabriela Basurto Estrada is a local charra. She rode horses before she could walk.
“My dad put me on a horse when I was 5-months-old or something like that. I started in the competition when I was 6-years-old,” said Basurto.
She is part of a new generation of Mexican cowgirls. They haven’t had to break through barriers — this year marks the 25th anniversary of female inclusion in the Mexican rodeo.
The women may be allowed to compete alongside the men, but Basurto said there’s still a lot of machismo, or sexism.
Basurto’s mother, Sonia Estrada, said it was even harder for her generation. For many years, women were like an opening act before the real show began.
“When I started the men didn’t like it very much,” Estrada said. “They said ok, you can ride, but do it first or last, and don’t disturb us during our competition.”
Men and women still have very separate roles at the charrería. Most of the men’s events focus on brute strength, whereas the women’s events are about riding ability and controlling the horse.
It’s hard to think of anything more macho than the Mexican rodeo. In one event, a cowboy on horseback has seconds to chase down a bull running at top speed. The cowboy then yanks the bull by the tail, and the bull collapses. It’s ridiculously manly.
The women do things a bit differently. I watched a morning practice at the local lienzo, or bullring, in the town of Polotitlán.
Eight women rode side by side at full gallop in near perfect synchronicity. Two riders peeled off, then two more. Horses darted past each other, and twirled in the center of the ring: a well-choreographed ballet on horseback.
The woman’s coach José Estrada explained that women ride from point to point tracing geometric patterns. The judges then award scores for required movements.
The most difficult movement, from my perspective, was the cross. Estrada shouted out commands to the women, and moments later, the women burst to the center of the ring from all directions. It looked like they were all about to deliberately collide in a horse traffic mash-up.
Then — swoosh — the women, and horses, smoothly skirted past each other, narrowly missing one another. It was like watching the Blue Angels on horseback.
And all the while, the women were riding side saddle. (Men can straddle the horse.) During competition, the women also wear ornate, fluffy dresses and sombreros. This might not be quite the same as throwing a bull to the ground with one hand or riding a wild mare, but what the women do isn’t easy.
“I think it’s equally difficult for both the men and the women. For us, the speed, the crosses, and the twirls are very dangerous,” said 25-year-old charra Carolina Gonzales.
“You’re always riding a horse. I mean it’s an animal, you don’t know how it’s going to react, but you have to maintain control of things. So the difficulty level is high. But with practice, you can do it without fear.”
I also spoke with a team of teenage girls in town; they’re kind of like the junior varsity squad. Many started riding with the boys when they were 5-years-old.
These young girls are growing up more as equals, and haven’t been told this is a man’s sport. They said they feel respected and included by their male peers. That respect came from the top.
“Charrería should include the entire family: sons, daughters, and wives,” said Javier Basurto, the former president of the Federation of Mexican Charrería. “We are the ones who maintain our customs and traditions in Mexico. The history of Mexico was made on horseback. Charraria is a way for the countryside people to be involved in the big cities.”
Basurto’s words, and leadership, has had some impact. At the national finals in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, the women now compete in the middle of the event, no longer a sideshow or warm-up act (although some men do clearly see the women’s event as a halftime bathroom break).
Still, the women drew among the biggest roars of the day from the crowd as their horses twirled, darted and crossed the ring.
Gabriela Basurto, the daughter of the former Federation president, said women have come a long way, and that men now recognize that women don’t do simple things.
Basurto said she thinks people prefer to see a woman dressed in a beautiful, fluffy dress, more than they want to see a cowboy.
She added that the charras are actually more recognized these days by the wider public, than the cowboys. She laughed and said when she walks down the street in full costume with her father, a highly-regarded rodeo star in Mexico, people tend to focus on her, and they think her dad is a member of a mariachi band.
Times are changing.