The new generation of women competing in Mexican rodeos
Rodeo riders, known as “escaramuzas”, perform highly choreographed horse dances – some starting as young as five years old.
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A a halo of dust rises from the sandy arena as eight maidens on horseback trotted in a tight circle. They wear red dresses embroidered with flowers, and their skirts parade in streaks of color while their horses approach a few centimeters and then unfold again in perfect symmetry. Two coaches give instructions in Spanish, their voices echoing around the ring. I watch from the sideline, not knowing what impresses me more: whether these figures are executed side-saddle or that the eldest rider is only nine years old.
I am here at Escaramuza las Margaritas in Guadalajara to learn more about escaramuza charras, or the Mexican horsewomen. The Escaramuzas perform highly choreographed, ballet-like performances on horseback at charrerias, Mexican cattle and rodeo shows. Charreria is the official national sport of Mexico, and it is a huge source of cultural pride in the country. Added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016, the charreria evolved from the herding traditions that Spanish settlers developed on their large haciendas in the 16th century. Much like rodeos in the United States, the charreria has its own music, food and traditional costumes associated with the sport – historians believe it gave rise to the American rodeo scene and influenced it in the 19th century.
By the 1930s charreria evolved into something like the Mexican version of polo and was a favorite pastime of the wealthy. But over the decades, the charreria has become a more important symbol of Mexican heritage, especially for immigrants who brought the sport to the United States to preserve their heritage.
Historically, only men performed in charreria; they are known as charros. Lasso-wielding cowboys dressed to perfection in rodeo gear and sombreros, they’re dripping with machismo—skirmishes are their female counterparts. Escaramuza became an official part of the charreria in 1992, although female riders have practiced their dances on horseback in rodeos since the 1950s. Much like charros, elaborate costumes and signature fashion are essential for escaramuzas. They wear colorful Adelita-style ruffled dresses which are a tribute to the outfits worn by female soldiers during the Mexican Revolution.
There are usually 16 members in each skirmish group, but only 8 perform at a time. Escaramuza’s shows have strict rules: they must ride side-saddle and do not handle any livestock. While the charros show bravery and daring – taunting the bulls and riding the broncs – the performance of the escaramuza is all about elegance and strength.
“The skirmishes are more like a ballet on horseback. They work in sync,” says instructor Silvia Yanez Plascencia as we watch the girls practice. A former Escaramuza itself, Plascencia established Escaramuza las Margaritas in 1991 – it is the largest training school of its kind in Mexico. Today, she trains more than 80 women and girls, some of whom start learning as young as five years old. Once they are over 18, women can perform in national competitions in front of cheering audiences. Today, the eight riders training ahead of us are among his youngest students and preparing to perform in a non-competitive charreria scheduled in the same arena later today. Their parents watch from across the arena, snacks ready for the young skirmishers’ break.
She calls out to two girls who cross too closely, almost brushing against each other, the girls quickly reorient themselves to repeat the movement at the right distance. The performance is a demonstration of accuracy: riders must keep their horses an equal distance from each other at all times, working in sync with their own horses and teammates. “In competition, horses should never touch each other,” says Plascencia.
Most of the girls on the Plascencia team are between eight and nine years old, and some have family members who were charros and escaramuzas before them – a common experience for many charreria participants. But having access to horses and the time, space and financial means to practice riding requires a certain degree of privilege. The school in Plascencia is intended to introduce the sport to girls who do not come from prestigious rodeo families and who may have never ridden before.
The youngest girl on the team, who is also by far the smallest, is six-year-old Sulema. Her petite frame is slightly off her horse as he trots across the stadium, each stride causing her to bounce more and more in her saddle. Today will be her first public performance, Plascencia tells me – it’s where she will be officially inducted into the team with a little graveyard.
The older the girls get, the more serious the competition becomes and the greater the potential rewards: cash, trophies and bragging rights are on the table for the winners. Competitions are held throughout the country throughout the year, but the International Encounter of Mariachi and Charreria festival in Guadalajara holds the biggest charreria competitions every August and attracts charros and escaramuzas from all over the country. .
“Little girls do it for fun. Adults want to win,” veteran escaramuza Ana Rosa Anguiano Arias tells me through her translator (and cousin) Samantha Arias, as we sit atop the arena bleachers, waiting for the charreria to begin. At 35, with over nine years of riding experience, Ana is a dedicated rider and has competed nationally.
Getting to play escaramuza at the national level hasn’t always been possible for escaramuzas, and, Ana tells me, if it were up to just a few men, it still wouldn’t be. Some linen cloths (charro arenas) still don’t allow women. “The men here are gentlemen,” she said, gesturing around her. “But women can’t compete where they want. They can only be where they are accepted.
However, Ana does not seek to be totally on par with men in sport. She has no desire to mess with the cattle – she just wants to be accepted for the talent she already has. She likes to be a skirmish. The only thing she doesn’t like is that “it hurts in the crotch,” she laughs.
The hum of a booming loudspeaker marks the official start of the charreria: three commentators – former charros with grizzled mustaches – begin to narrate the event with all the verve and enthusiasm of a football game. Ana and Samantha direct me to the front row seats for the best view. Chunks of sand and mud are kicked up by the horses’ hooves. Vendors selling fried pork skins and shots of tequila shout above the cries of the charros that weary the steers and the thunder of the hooves. Confusing and contradictory aromas of earth, leather, horse manure and freshly fried food envelop the stadium.
At the time of the skirmish show, Ana raises her voice above the din of the crowd to guide me step by step. As each girl enters the arena, smiling and waving, the commentators excitedly introduce her by name. Little Sulema is brought to the centre, where her parents give her a new hat and a riding crop: a symbolic gesture that marks her official entry into the team.
Then, moving as one, the skirmish begins. The eight runners line up and unfurl with fanfare. Trotting and galloping past each other at such close distances, I find myself clenching my jaw, as they crisscross with perfect timing.
Halfway through the event, Samantha nudges me. “Do you know what ‘Wexicans’ are?” she asks. I shake my head. She gives me a knowing look and glances across the arena. “It’s what me and my friends call ‘Wexicans’, like ‘white Mexicans’. Rich and privileged people.
Stealthily, I peek through and see a crowd of immaculately dressed people sitting not far from where we are. A lady grabs her little white dog and wipes the dust from her face with a Kleenex. In Mexico, despite the work of institutions like Plascencia, being able to participate in the charreria is something of a status symbol.
Once the skirmish show is over, the girls join their parents in the stands. The fathers surround their daughters with their arms and the mothers cover them with kisses. Sulema settles in between her parents while some of the other girls team up with their friends, picking up their red skirts as they disappear into the crowded bleachers. Now that they are off their horses, I realize how small they really are.