Charreada celebrates hacienda ranching traditions and sustains the roots of the modern rodeo
By Julia Robinson
Dating to the 16th Century, charreada began as a celebration, a fiesta, that marked the close of a major cattle roundup. Teams of charros, cowboys from sprawling ranches, called haciendas, competed against one another in a series of events, called suertes, modeled on the equestrian competitions of the Spanish conquistadors and everyday ranch work.
“The charro is, in a certain way, the father of the cowboy,” says Dr. Raul Gaona, himself a charro and historian on the subject. To this day, cowboys hold rodeos (the Spanish word for “roundup”), wear chaps (an abbreviation for the leather chaparreras worn by the charros to protect their legs from small shrubs called chaparros), and will dally rope around the saddle horn to keep a steer in control (from the Spanish dar la vuelta or “give it a turn”).
'The charro is, in a certain way, the father of the cowboy. Some of the things the charros still do may look awkward or inefficient, but our interest is in preserving traditions.'
“The difference is that the cowboy kept evolving,” says Gaona. By adopting modern clothing, synthetic ropes, and squeeze chutes, the cowboy made practical changes in tools and methods. “Some of the things the charros still do may look awkward or inefficient,” Gaona continues, “but our interest is in preserving traditions. Charreada has given me an identity that makes me feel complete,” he says.
For Gaona and the hundreds of thousands of charros across the United States and Mexico, the suertes, the suit, and sombrero provide a tangible link to the lives of their fathers and grandfathers.
After the dissolution of the haciendas during Mexico’s 1910 Revolution, family groups of charros formed as performers in the charreada. As the 20th Century progressed, ranch life slowly changed with the times, but the tradition of the charreada continued.
“It wasn’t a sport when my dad was doing it, it was a way of life,” says Juan Gonzalez, current President of the San Antonio Charro Association. The group, founded in 1947, is the oldest charro association north of the Rio Grande. “Charreada is one of the biggest romances of my life,” says Gonzalez.
The month of March marks the beginning of a new year of charreada competition in Central Texas. Every weekend, spring through fall, teams of charros gather at backyard arenas, called lienzos. The keyhole-shaped lienzo is 110 yards long with competition in two areas, a 66-yard-long panhandle and the round rueda, 44 yards in diameter. The nine suertes test horsemanship and roping skills. Just as in the old days of the hacienda, there are no cash prizes, just the respect of fellow competitors. “Keep the money, keep the belt buckle, we just want the bragging rights,” says Gonzalez.
These days, more than 200 official teams compete in the United States, with more than 30 across Texas in Austin, El Paso, Dallas, Houston, Del Rio, and San Antonio. Teams take turns hosting the charreada, sharing the expense of leasing livestock, or hiring a band for a dance, or baile, in the arena after the charreada is over.