Seven miles southeast of Austin, in the small community of Del Valle, the skyscrapers of downtown and congested suburbs of the city give way to small family farms. Asphalt black is replaced by mesquite brown and the light green of nopal cactus. The air is heavy with the smell of tilled earth and the sound of farmyard cries from the many animals roaming Roberto Chavira’s ranch - Rancho Tres Potrancas. The ranch is a focal point of the Mexican national sport of charrería as it is practiced in Central Texas among the large Mexican American community. Tres Potrancas serves as one of five ranch venues for weekly competitions, or charreadas, during the on-season for Central Texas’ Zona Centro league.
“I’ve been on this ranch since 1977,” recalls 60-year old Chavira – who is also the president of the Zona Centro association of charrería. “I’ve had many charros [riders] come through this ranch and I’m proud to be a leader for the charrería community here.” Chavira sponsors and heads the men’s El Herradero and the women’s El Rosario teams. Both teams use his ranch as their training field for weekly practices, sharing the stables and arena facilities.
Chavira is a stout man with calloused hands and a large horseshoe moustache. His gregarious personality and sense of humor have made him well-known across this region and the state of Texas in charro circles. Born in the small North Texas town of Mineral Wells, Chavira is of Mexican ancestry. In his youth, Chavira became the first charro in his immediate family. He moved to Austin and came to Rancho Tres Potrancas when he was 24. Since then, he has added stables, corrals, and a regulation charrería arena to the property.
His ranch houses dozens of horses for charros and escaramuzas [female riders] from his and other teams. Beyond the stables and arena, his lands contain wooded pasture for his Longhorn cattle and a dirt parking lot for visiting teams and spectators during competition season.
In addition, Chavira stables horses for other local teams and riders. And Rancho Tres Potrancas hosts charreadas throughout the season providing a year-round competition ground for Zona Centro association.
During these practices, riders run through the ten events, or suertes, that comprise the sport. Nine of these tests involve specific cattle and horse control skills performed by the men’s team and include reining, lassoing, and bull riding. While the women do not compete in tests of cattle control, their event – the tenth – is a team horse ride that requires all members to rein, maneuver, and simultaneously command their animals in lengthy routines.
A typical charreada at Rancho Tres Potrancas provides no shortage of commotion, clamor and crowds - both of man and beast. Tejano music blares from tinny speakers, dust billows at the pounding of hooves, and riders regale audiences as they execute each event. Behind this turbulent appearance, however, lies an exceedingly precise and disciplined sport.
There are nine events for charros. Five of these require individual team members to compete in solo competition representing their team. These events are the horse reining, untamed mare heeling, steer toppling, bull riding, and untamed mare riding. The remaining four events – team bull roping, untamed mare fore footing while standing, untamed mare fore footing while atop a horse, and the ominously named passage of death event – all call for precise collaboration among three to four riders from each team.
For the female escaramuzas, their single event is a choreographed performance consisting of complex and synchronized movements throughout the corral. The riders crisscross, form circles, and race past one another at full speed. For El Rosario’s captain, Dulce Barron, this event requires many things but is all about teamwork. “If one rider fails, all of us fail,” she states.
Throughout this hours-long series of events at a typical charreada, judges are not only adding and subtracting points based on physical motions and mastery of the animals. They are also scoring for the competitors’ decorum and appearance. With the charros’ steer toppling event for example, El Herradero rider Serrano explains that the event goes beyond simply knocking over a steer.
“First, the rider must salute those in attendance,” he explains. “He must give thanks to the men rounding up the steers and sending them through the chutes as part of this event.” For Serrano, these sorts of actions are especially important when he dons his other role as an official judge in the Zona Centro league.
Charrería is often called “Mexican rodeo” due to its outward similarities with North American bull and horse riding competitions. However, many involved in the sport are quick to refute this characterization, citing numerous differences in the Mexican tradition’s practice and history. Serrano clarifies endurance distinctions between American bull riding and charrería’s bull riding as one example. “For us, there’s none of this ‘eight-seconds’ you see in American bull riding,” states Serrano, “we ride until the bull stops bucking or you’re thrown off.”
Other characteristics of the sport run deeper however and begin with the its roots and evolution through the last five centuries of Mexican history. Before current international boundaries were drawn, charrería grew out of the diverse physical and social landscapes of colonial Mexico as Spanish and indigenous populations interacted.
Indigenous, as well as mestizo or mixed race Spanish/Native American, populations were employed by landowning Spanish colonists to tend to livestock as cowboys, or vaqueros on vast haciendas. Modern-day charrería riders know this history well and Chavira and Serrano point to early practices by these riders as integral to today’s charrería.
“The indigenous populations were the ones who broke horses to teach them the activities of the ranch,” Chavira explains. “The team bull roping [the fifth event during a charreada] was done in open pasture,” he adds, “to round up loose cattle and brand them.”
Serrano points to another utilitarian tradition of mixed blood cowboys on the ranch as a precursor to one of charreria’s events, “the passage of death was born from the practice of an cowboy leaping onto an untamed horse in open pasture to claim it for himself.”
Additionally, cowboys routinely lassoed untamed horses, toppled loose steers, and reined their horses in controlled motions as part of ranch work. All of these activities further established foundations for today’s contest events during a charreada.
In modern times, as the sport is practiced among associations across southern and western regions of the U.S, there are notable differences to the sport as carried-out in Mexico. Riders in the U.S. are unique from their Mexican counterparts in their socio-economic status, for instance. Many who brought the sport or helped it grow in 1950s Texas were composed of primarily working class immigrant families. A larger percentage of the riders in Mexico at the time – particularly those in the Mexico City that rode for sport – were urban elites.
Jorge Necer, a long-time charro in the U.S. and historian of the sport, remarks on this dichotomy, “When I met with the Rincon Gallardo family [founding members of the Federación Mexicana de Charrería] in 1960, they were the cream of society in Mexico City, then. There were generals, high-ranking Catholic priests, and elites in charge of the country.”
“Here in Texas,” continues 80-year old Necer, “it is not the same – everything [related to charrería] here came from scratch and the community here is constantly working to build up the sport more and more.”
By 1991, the U.S. chapter of the FMC (the sport’s governing body in Mexico) was formed – the Federación Mexicana de Charrería USA. Since then, Texas has had the second highest number of teams (after California) of any of the 12 state-level associations in the country. Even today, many of these riders are of working class families and/or recent immigrants. On Rancho Tres Potrancas’ two teams, the Serrano and Barron are all first generation immigrants to the U.S. And along with Roberto Chavira and others on the teams, all are from middle class families in Austin.
Their tradition exists not only as a vestige of a former way of life but also as a vibrant and exhilarating sport that goes far beyond simple historical re-enactment. For the riders of Rancho Tres Potrancas, it is a dynamic and passionate expression of their culture and community.
“To be in this community, surrounded by people I get along with and communicate with well,” explains charro and brother of Dulce Barron, Esteban, “it’s really something special – to have family and friends here.” He explains that the sport helps him remember his youth in Mexico, “it makes me remember all those times when I was kid watching my heroes compete […] I can remember my father and brothers.”
For the patron of Tres Potrancas, Roberto Chavira, charrería’s role in his life reflects his selfless and giving nature.
Chavira witnessed the sport as a child in Mineral Wells, Texas and knew he wanted to grow up to be a charro. Now though, his dreams are no longer for himself but for his family’s future.
“I have a third generation of charrería in my family,” he says, speaking of his granddaughter Leonor of female team, El Rosario. “The seed of charrería starts in the family. I planted it and now it will go through my family from children to grandchildren.”
For the teams in the Zona Centro, charrería creates and fosters camaraderie as well. “When we enter the corral to practice, “explains Roberto Chavira, “we work as one. We’re all there to help each other and each team is a family. But when we go into a charreada, we are all a family […] we salute other teams as family members and help them just the same.”
“That friendship doesn’t just exist among your team,” he adds, “but among other teams too.”
For riders like Juan Serrano, charrería is an institution that creates bonds across generations of competitors as well. “Passing this sport on to my children is part of my heritage,” he explains, “It’s a source of pride.”
“Charrería ends up being many things at once,” says Chavira. “It’s family, friendship, faith, togetherness, the love of horses […] it’s a sport for men, women, and the whole family.”