photo essay: charreada, california, usa, 2010

May 24, 2010

i went to the charreada today — the mexican rodeo — to see an acquaintance perform. it’s a sport much like american rodeo, albeit with some significant differences, and animal rights activists believe it is cruel to the horses and cows used in it. the charreada itself is a popular phenomenon in mexico, and draws an enthusiastic following in america, particularly latino men who have some connection to agriculture in the southwest. the sport itself is a way for latino immigrants to connect with the ‘racho’ history and with the pastimes of their fathers and grandfathers. their uniforms are rooted in pre-modern sartorial customs of the mexican cowboys, and it’s common for teams to be intergenerational. in addition to being a way for fathers to connect with their sons, it’s also away for mexicans in america to, as my friend sam put it, connect with their “mexican-ness.”

i wasn’t aware that photography was banned in the arena, but i was eventually escorted out of the facility by two security guards to return the camera to my car. since i was one of about 12 spectators in the entire arena, getting bounced felt sort of significant. according to the man who claimed to be in charge of the event, a young boy who couldn’t have been older than 10 years old spotted my camera – a small canon g9 – and reported back to him that there was a man taking pictures. “they are going to take our sport away,” said the child according to the event’s organizer.

american rodeos are the frequent target of animal rights activists, and the charreada — which draws small audiences in the united states — is no different, only they lack major sponsorship of their american or mexic0-based counterparts. moreoever, the u.s.-based charreada organization has mixed feelings about attention and exposure. organizers want to both keep the sport’s activities obscure — i witnessed activities that one could easily describe as cruel, but i feel unqualified to say one way or the other — but they also want to bring attention to the event to clear up what they believe are misconceptions about the event in the hopes of attracting more sponsors. (tecate, the mexican beer owned by heineken, is this particular arena’s only apparent sponsor.) as a “sport” featuring an event where men on horseback grab a calf by its tail and wrap the tail around the cow’s hind legs to flip it on its back (the first image up top), i find it hard to believe that charges of cruelty are based on misconceptions. it’s just an undeniable reality that something rooted in 19th century traditions will face challenges fitting into southern california society in the 21st century.

but i can also understand why the the conflict of the charreada in the u.s. is based on more than just the clash of “traditional” and “modern” values. the charreada serves a meaningful purpose to recent undocumented (or “illegal,” if you will) latino immigrants in america. for instance, my acquaintance in the charreada was born in mexico and was taken to the united states at a young age. his mother and father are dead and he lives with his sisters and aunt and uncle. this kind of broken or random family is common among undocumented latinos because of u.s. immigration policy. for those who grow up without a living or present father, a patriarchical sport and the bonds it forges among men offers obvious social benefits, and those benefits are, in a way, the result of flaws in immigration policies. in other words, if undocumented latinos didn’t feel that they were living in limbo, then they wouldn’t feel the urgency of a sport that is based on a performance of their national heritage. as a matter of fact, the charreada organizer told me two reasons why the sport should be preserved, and they have nothing to do with developing the skills of horsemanship. according to him, they are (1) the quality time shared among sons, fathers, and grandfathers, and (2) the sport’s ability to reform and discipline delinquent young men.

when i asked the man who claims to run the event if people were really trying to shut down the sport, he told me that the critics are wrong. he pointed to a horse and said, “do you see that horse over there?” he said. “that ugly horse has been with us for three years. it is trained to do this. it has no fear. and because of this sport, that horse has a life. without us, he would be dog feed or house glue.” the animals have no fear, to his eyes. who are we to say they do? who are we to say they don’t? click images to enlarge.


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