SWEET LARIAT

CHARRERIA, HACIENDA-BRED RODEO, IS THREATENED FROM WITHOUT BY ANIMAL-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS AND FROM WITHIN BY SHORTSIGHTED LEADERSHIP. FRED CHAVEZ KNOWS THAT IF THE GRAND SPORT OF MEXICAN NOBILITY IS TO SURVIVE, IT MUST CHANGE.

The steer and the guy on horseback seem to burst from the gate at exactly the same time, but if you know charreria and have trained your eye on the action, you've seen the anxious horse fidgeting in place at the door, the spring of the wooden gate, the charro quickly fingering his sombrero in salute, the pat of the steer's rump--points, points, gotta be thinking points--everything that has led up to now as the whole agitated jumble barrels up the straightaway.

They rumble through the dirt like a motorcycle with a sidecar, the horse coaxing the steer in a straight path along the arena wall while the charro leans down to his right, grabs the animal's whiplike tail and wraps it around his ankle. Go, go, the sooner the better, and the charro urges his horse forward, accelerating, swinging the steer's hindquarters around. Wait, wait, don't release the tail too soon . . .

The animal careens and loses its footing. The charro deftly releases the tail as the critter goes tumbling, maybe onto its belly, possibly a shoulder roll, hopefully an entire flip, six, ten, even 12 points--and in real competition, a judge will still be watching to make sure the charro didn't lose a stirrup or something, because style is just as important as felling the steer.

Charreria is Mexico's national sport, and right now, it is being perfected in a wooden, keyhole-shaped arena called a lienzo that Fred Chavez, a hay dealer who lives in Laveen, built eight years ago on some property he owns out in Chandler. He has just watched a member of his charros team practice the coleadores--colas for short--a contest based on 16th-century methods of grounding cattle on the open range. It's the second event in a charreada, the charreria competition.

In the United States, Chavez is to charreria as George Halas was to professional football. But he sometimes feels like he's a horse and charreria is his saddle. Being such a big shot--something Chavez never intended to become--has brought unwritten obligations. There are so many favors to do.

Listen, Fred, about that hay, can I pay you next week? Fred, old buddy--I knew I could count on you. . . .

As he stands in his lienzo, he finds himself contemplating the idea of walking away after giving so much to the sport. They'll miss him when he's gone: Old Fred Chavez out in Laveen, he used to get the cattle for us. . . . Fred Chavez, oh, yeah, he could have taken care of this for us, he had the money. . . . See, but then it'll be too late. He'll be outta here, retired, and he won't be looking back. It's a beautiful sport, sure, but he's 59 now and weary of the burden, everything pulling on him, his charro team, the federation, his hay business, his family. He finally stepped down last November after nine years as the top U.S. officer of the Federaci¢n de Charros, the organization in Mexico City that regulates the sport, the equivalent of rodeo's Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Se¤or Chavez, there's a charreada in El Paso next week, and me and the guys were wondering. . . .

He's got tired eyes, eyes like Anthony Quinn, and the big eyebrows to match, and his face is fuller than Quinn's, and then there's that teddy-bear paunch, but, hey, you stick him in his traje, his charro suit, and he looks pretty damned regal. Those wool-and-cotton pants he wears to official events--you can buy them only in Mexico, and he'll recommend a good place in Quer‚taro if you're interested. And the hat--well, you could throw a picnic under that hat, but that's standard issue for a charro. He's got a bunch of them at home in Laveen.

Charreria looks a little like rodeo, and there's a reason for that: It birthed it. The mestizos who won independence from Spain in 1821 operated big-time haciendas, and for fun, they developed contests based on everyday ranch activity, inviting each other over to party and to see who could out-vaquero the other. The rest is history, but good luck finding it, because most books on the subject still cling to the myth that rodeo, a Spanish word meaning "roundup," originated in the cattle-driving days of the 1880s or in Buffalo Bill's Wild West extravaganzas.

Now 100 teams compete yearly for the Mexican national title, and charro associations are freckled throughout the American Southwest and Midwest. And meanwhile, here is Fred Chavez, a hay seller who grew up in Yuma, a former rodeo enthusiast, doing his best to keep the sport intact as it moves into the United States, and as he ponders moving out.

A charreada has bronc busting, bull riding and steer roping, as well as a half-dozen other events that distinguish it from modern rodeo. Chavez has a pretty successful hay operation, and he spent $25,000 to build his lienzo, and forks out another $3,000 per month to maintain it--electricity, water, labor, etc., along with whatever charreadas he sends his own team to compete in.

For all of Chavez's expense and trouble, the team named T Fred Chavez (the T is for Telesforo, Chavez's first name) can go out there and outshine the competition and come back with . . . a trophy. That's right, a little monument about this big, something that, as his wife, Rose, puts it, doesn't exactly put gas in the car.

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