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 Federacin de Charros, the organization in Mexico City that regulates the sport, the equivalent of rodeo's Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Seor 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 Quertaro 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.

This is one of the things he'd like to change about the sport, and he's trying to do it by infusing Mexican tradition with American-style ideals, particularly the ones that parade things like "Wrangler" and "Marlboro" in plain view of the lienzo grandstand. He's got a few obstacles working against him, such as stubborn, sometimes lazy attitudes that won't concede that maybe traditional ways aren't the best ways, and now, over in California, the bleating of animal-rights activists targeting some of the charreada's events, and you know if California goes, then everybody else goes, so Fred's worried. But if anyone can yell loud enough to make the charros listen, it's gonna be him.

Seor Chavez, sorry to bother you, but I was wondering if I could borrow your truck. . . .

They're gonna miss him, all right, and now he kicks back in his lienzo on a humid Tuesday night and watches his team practice under the lights for the upcoming Congreso, or national championship, near Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Most charros are born into a charro family, and the sons and daughters carry on the legacy, straight out of the high chair with the rope, practicing on the family pet or whatever. But Chavez is not like most charros. He got into it by chance, and as far as his family is concerned, it's a pretty expensive hobby, and Fred's not home a lot, and he sure must love charreria, because he's given so much to it, including his pinky finger.

But if you love a sport, you dedicate yourself to it, and the old man is out here drenched in field flies and humidity, making sure his team is in top form. For all Chavez has accomplished in ten years in charreria, a national title is the one thing that's eluded him, and he's not a guy who likes to finish second. He had one won a few years ago in Tucson, and with the celebration in progress, someone alerted officials that one of T Fred Chavez's charros was ineligible because he'd participated in the Mexican national championship. This was news to Chavez, but as director of U.S. charros, he had the final say, so with his secretary starting to weep and the crowd silent with anticipation, he apologized to his team and pronounced the points invalid. It was the hardest thing he'd ever done.

Now he watches a 16-year-old Chandler High student named Lus Ivn Avila in the arena in his charro get-up, about to execute the manganas a pie, or lassoing on foot. This is one of the events targeted by the animal-rights activists. The long end of the lienzo is closed off, and a mare bursts into and around the resulting ring, pursued by three charros on horses, while Lus, a third-generation charro, floods the space around him with lariat soap bubbles. They call it floreando, or flourishing, fly-fishing with a rope, worth a couple of points every time the pattern changes, and as the mare comes around for the telling moment, the kid dances through the loop, then back again as the horse passes, and with a sudden flick, the bubble skips and swallows the mare's front legs on the run.

A breath later, and this is why lienzos include a ring, the horse is still racing around the curve, and the kid, timing the angle just so, sashes the rope around himself and casts his body into it with flair, jerking the loop into a tiny o. And there it is. The horse goes down, foomp, onto its shoulder, a quick rollover and back up on its feet--the perfect mangana.

Did you see that? Chavez looks pleased. That's probably worth 22 points, he says.

And he thinks: We can win a championship with that.

Naturally, he drives a Ford Lariat. The license plate reads: IBYHAY. He spends a lot of time on the road between business stops in Phoenix and Yuma and Blythe, and he says the seats in a Ford truck are the only ones he can take anymore; the others aren't as cushiony, and after a few hours on the road in those things, he might as well drive straight to a hospital.

He's been peddling hay for 35 years, and he can pretty much tell, by the sound of the voice on the other end of the line, whether it's a serious customer or just a fellow broker scheming for a price check. Somebody says the going rate is $100--so what? For who? The other guys consult magazines, follow trends, but Fred Chavez, no, sir, he didn't get where he is today by being a follower, and that's why he got involved with the charros.

Not that he intended it that way--it was about 12 years ago, and he'd only been to a charreada once, at the Corona family lienzo down on Baseline Road. He'd taken Rose, and they'd hated it; someone spilled beer on him, and objects were flying all over the place. At the time, he had livestock that he leased to rodeos, and based on his few charro dealings, he was reluctant to deal with them anymore. But pretty soon, the guys were inviting Fred and Rose back for another weekend charreada, and finally, a free day came up, and they figured, what the hell, there's nothing else to do.

And this time, it turns out all right, pretty good, in fact--nobody spills beer on him, and the lienzo staff is waiting on him like he's Anthony Quinn or something, and the charros kick up dirt and stomp around on horses for a while. It's all quite entertaining. Chavez finds himself actually starting to get into it--especially the colas and the cala de caballo, in which a charro guides the horse to a sliding stop in the ring and pilots it through a series of revolutions and miniturns to show how well-schooled it is. Then the escaramuzas--the women's flashy sidesaddle drill team--do their thing and come over and give Rose a bouquet.

Afterward, they invite Chavez over for dinner. And he's sitting there with his little shot of tequila and having a good time with the winners and all, but something seems to be missing. He's there with the champs, and he goes: "So, what'd you guys win? Who did the coleadores?"

"I did."
"Well, how much did you win?"
"Oh, nothing."
"What do you mean, nothing?"
"Just nothing."
"You do it for nothing?"

And Chavez can't understand this; he's used to doing these sorts of things with rodeo where everybody pays to enter, and if you win, you get something, and he goes: "You mean you're just running up and down this damn thing because you like it?"

"Oh, yeah, we're not supposed to take money. We can't."
And Chavez is thinking: Damn, these guys are weird. So he asks if they'd want a charreada with saddles and stuff for the winners, and 12 charros show up. Chavez puts up two saddles and doesn't charge them for the cattle, and at the end, they're, like, oh, thank you, Seor Chavez, thank you. Then Chavez starts talking about a $1,000 prize and trophies and so on, and then one day, he runs into some of the local charro elders, who tell him: We've been hearing what you want to do.

And Chavez goes, "What do you think? Good idea, no?"
"Well, no, you can't do that."
"Wait a minute. You're telling me I can't spend a thousand dollars of my own money, and I can't give you guys cattle free of charge--you're telling me I can't do that?"

"That's right. The federation doesn't allow it."
Chavez blows a gasket. Nobody tells him how to spend his money, and he doesn't belong to no stinking federation, anyway. So pretty soon, he's dangling $10,000 in prize money and charging entry fees at the Corona family lienzo down on Baseline, and people hear about it all over Mexico. And later, he sees the elders and he says, so, what do you think about it now? And they sheepishly shake their heads and say, Fred, oh, Fred--and Chavez says right back: "Shit. This is what you guys should be doing in the first place. As their leaders, you should be looking for people to donate money and be sponsors and do something to promote this sport. Something's wrong."

They say, "Fred, the tradition."
And Chavez tells them: "It has nothing to do with tradition. It has to do with money and economics and survival."

Which is very different from the way charreria is practiced in Mexico.

The Spaniards introduced horses during the conquest of the New World in the 1520s, but the native Indian ranch hands weren't allowed to ride until 1609, after the cattle population had exploded and inflated the hacienda workload. Over the years, mestizos, mixed-race children of the Spanish and Indians, were promoted to what you might call operations managers for the haciendas, which set them up to take over once independence was won from Spain.

Today, charros are part of Mexico's elite, those lucky enough to be born into land-owning families that, for more than a century, have had the horses and cattle and money and time to invest in the sport. Charros are still considered national heroes there, immortalized in art and poetry and film and song. They're an unofficial branch of the militia, allowed to carry guns--a remnant of the Mexican wars of the mid-1800s, when charros rode through battle, disabling soldiers and toppling cannons with their lariats.

Rodeo did emerge out of the Wild West shows of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and even the cattle drives, but it took what charreria had contributed after a 60-year head start. The fiestas of the mid-1800s featured bronc and bull riding, colas and roping along with horse racing and bullfights, decades before the first U.S. rodeo is supposed to have taken place in Prescott during the 1880s.

One big hacienda owner would challenge another, saying, hey, my birthday's coming up, why don't you bring your best vaqueros and your best stock, and I'll provide the corrals, the food, the booze, the music, the hay; it'll be a blast. The most daring would try the paso de muerte, or pass of death, in which a charro riding bareback would leap onto a wild horse running at full speed and then ride it until it stopped. The paso is now the final event of the charreada.

At the same time, Anglo festivals featuring steer roping were popping up all over the West. The games spread to cattle drives, on which there wasn't much else to do 'cept count the stars, and by the time Buffalo Bill began his traveling exhibitions, the festivals were games played by anyone who used horses for a living, Anglo and Mexican and often both, a demographic reflected in the Wild West shows. But when Hollywood finally bought into the romantic notion of the cowboy, it left the Hispanic presence behind, and in the meantime, rodeo and charreria went their separate ways.

Rodeo is now a multimillion-dollar business, with about 800 sanctioned events taking place every year. In 1991, the average weekend pro rodeo drew more than 20,000 fans--fans ripe for the pitching, since 94 percent of surveyed PRCA spectators wear Western apparel.

Charreria, on the other hand, missed out on the money--you were either rich enough to do it or you weren't, and instead of shopping for Tony Lamas, fans of charreria would still sit in the grandstand and meticulously tally the scores. It's not a simple procedure. For starters, charreria, outlined in its present form by the Federacin de Charros, founded in 1933, is a sport obsessed with style: The uniform must be just so, and, for example, you can lose points simply for dropping your rope or getting off your horse, or earn them for spinning the lariat against the natural motion of your wrist.

The people who brought charreria to America were mostly charro wanna-bes who learned skills here and there but could never fully afford it. Even now, they scrape their pockets and count on guys like Fred Chavez for financial muscle, or they're born into Phoenix families like the Coronas or the Sosas or the Reynosos who could afford to raise horses and build lienzos.

The Phoenix scene includes Gilbert Romero, the original godfather of Phoenix charreria, who got the Mexican federation to send instructors to the States 20 years ago, when the sport began to sprout here; Fernando Rivero, the instructor sent to Phoenix who got married and never went back; Gumaro Sosa, whose son Tony earned the title of charro completo, or all-around individual champion, in the national finals at age 19; and Antonio Reynoso, whose 5-year-old grandson was filmed for Sesame Street, twirling la reata, the Spanish words that gave English "lariat."

At one time, the Phoenix-area families, along with the team sponsored by Chavez, made for four squads that competed in federation-sponsored events. But for a variety of reasons--there are dues to pay, rules to follow and lots of practice time and money involved--the others have withdrawn from the federation.

And that left T Fred Chavez as the only Arizona team among the more than 40 invited to this year's U.S. Congreso near Las Cruces.

Fred Chavez appreciated charreria's showiness--once he got into the sport. In fact, he decided he would have to have his own charro uniform. And somewhere down the line, maybe he could get people to start thinking in terms of dollars.

So he goes out to Pico Rivera, California, about nine years ago for a meeting called by the Mexican federation president, where the plan is to elect the group's first U.S. director. He goes with Felix Corona, the guy who owns the lienzo at 29th Avenue and Baseline, and the first thing that bugs him is that they're standing all the way in the back of the hall like a couple of dogs, and no one is paying them any attention.

All he can hear from the official table is the president talking about the federation's lack of money, but no one seems to be doing anything about it, so he gropes his way up there in all the chaos and gets close to the president and says, how would you like to have about five or six thousand dollars?

Huh? What? What? I got an idea for you.
And charros are scooted out of the way, and a couple of chairs are hustled in for Chavez and Corona, and Chavez has to laugh, because now they're up there at the main table and everyone is trying to figure out what's going on. He says he and Corona will put up a three-year-old quarter horse, with papers, so that the federation can raffle the thing right now, and if everyone buys two tickets, mira, that's $6,000 right there. And then Chavez says, we're gonna go to dinner now.

No, wait--don't leave--bring Seor Chavez another glass of wine, and Seor Corona another beer. . . .

And all those other charros are fuming over the huevos of this new guy, and Chavez and Corona spend the day hanging out with the board of directors. So the vote is the next day, and Chavez is checking out all the guys in their trajes because he plans to have one sewed for himself, and on the way to lunch, a few of the charros approach him and ask if he'd have lunch with them, and he says okay. And then some other charros join in, and then some more, and pretty soon, Chavez is surrounded by charros, and he's eyeing all the outfits for a design he likes so he can tell his tailor, when finally one of the charros says to him, Seor Chavez, we were wondering if you'd do us the honor of allowing us to put your name on the ballot.

And he says, wait a minute, I barely got into this stuff, but the next thing he knows, it's a movement. After he's been elected, he wonders: What am I going to tell my wife?

Fred Chavez's den is a museum of Western tack--bits, threads, bridles, saddles--you name it, it's in there. This saddle was made in Mexico City. This one used to belong to a general in the Mexican Army. Here's the spurs. Hear that sound? That's the way to tell a good spur. On the floor are six or seven of those huge hats weighted on one side with phone books because the brims have wilted in the Arizona heat.

Over time, you see, Chavez has achieved truly large status in both countries. He has just returned from Tijuana, where he attended a charreada named in his honor. Rose wants to frame the Tijuana poster and add it to the plaques and pictures already blanketing the walls. There is a picture of the Western film star Ben Johnson, a friend of the family; another of their daughter, Jean, all dolled up one year as queen of the Chavez charro team. She is the only family member to follow Fred into the sport.

Sons of charro families traditionally walk in papa's footsteps, but nowhere is there a picture of Freddy Jr. in one of those charro outfits, because Freddy already followed his dad once, into rodeo, and he was too set in his ways at age 23 to make the transition to charreria. He's in his mid-30s now, and he actually can't stand the whole charro scene. Chavez raised his kids American-style, and Freddy was a time-conscious monster creation of his father, unable to adjust to a world in which, for example, it would not be unusual for a charreada slated to start at noon to run hours late, or even maana.

Daughter Jean was the only member of the family around when the accident happened. It was June 1993, and Chavez was practicing the piales, the charreada event in which a charro on horseback ropes the back legs of a passing mare, bringing it to a gradual halt. He'd been practicing a while, and he should have known better once he got tired, but he was wrapping the coils of the lasso around his left hand in preparation for the throw, and he got careless. A couple of the loops overlapped. When the mare sped by and Chavez tossed the lasso with his right hand, the tangled coil sputtered in midair, caught on his right arm and tightened as the loop caught the mare's legs. He knew what would happen. He tried to follow on his horse, but couldn't react quickly enough. The coil burned down his arm and skidded on the leather half-glove he was wearing, a closing aperture on his fingers and then a hard jerk on his arm. Under the glove, his fingers twisted together like speaker wires, and what was left of his pinky was hanging by a thread.

That was the end of competition for Fred Chavez, and five months later, he retired from his post as the federation's U.S. vice president.

Still, if Fred Chavez were to follow through on the permanent vacation plans that often beckon him, his greatest regret wouldn't be a lost finger or lost championships, but the lost tradition itself. He sees it as an art form as well as a sport, a formal link between young Latinos and their rich but largely unknown heritage. It teaches them respect for their elders, and themselves.

"When I go to rodeos," he explains, "the young people will say, 'Hey, Fred; Hi, Fred.' I've never heard a kid say that at a charreada. It's 'Mr. Chavez.'

He figures that will all disappear if charros don't wake up to political realities.

On August 29, California Governor Pete Wilson signed into law the so-called "horse-tripping bill," effective January 1 and directly affecting three of the charreada's events--the piales and the manganas, done both on foot and on horseback.

Tradition will have to meet American expectations, not the other way around.

He did try, as vice president. He brought in Wrangler sponsorship and big-time prize money and a move toward Americanization. A Las Vegas arena was talking about hosting the 1995 national finals, and Coca-Cola and Skoal, they were all interested, but all that went up in a cloud of dust when Christine Lund and the California animal-rights activists came along.

All weekend long at the national championship in Las Cruces, he talks about her, referring to her mistakenly as "Christian Lund," the reporter for KABC-TV in Los Angeles, the evil Anti-Charro who has made charreria her pet issue. Along with the passage of the California law her reporting provoked, the issue hangs like a dark cloud over the festivities, because for the first time in a few years, Wrangler is not sponsoring the competition.

Lund did a series of reports last year in which she said she did not work alone, donning elaborate disguises in order to gain entry to the "renegade rodeos" spreading all over California. Using a hidden camera, she captured footage of charreadas that revealed them to be brutal spectacles championed by bloodthirsty fans who cheered as horses went down in a jumble of bones. It's on tape.

Take the manganas, in which horses are roped by their front legs as they dash around the ring. What sort of savages would pull the front legs from under a running horse in the first place? Who are these people? Watch what happens when a horse goes head over hooves at a nasty angle: This one doesn't get up. It's on tape.

Or the terna en el ruedo, in which a couple of charros rope a steer by the horns and back legs and yank it down into the dirt, where the brutal ordeal continues for seven long minutes. . . . Do you ever see cowboys doing this? Is this a tradition worth preserving?

And the piales, in which the horse is lassoed by the back legs and brought to a gradual halt. But look! You call this a gradual halt? The horses are emaciated and peeing all over themselves in fright. What sort of savages. . . .

Later, 20/20 and Hard Copy picked up the story, and the whole thing just drives Chavez nuts. To him, it was the equivalent of going to pickup basketball games in the city, filming a few cheap shots and a vicious kidney punch, then using the footage to denounce NBA basketball to an unwitting public. On 20/20, Barbara Walters called charreria "a tradition sure to inflame animal lovers everywhere," taking place in shoddy, clandestine arenas while attempts to get it out in the open had met with violence--and furrowing her brow just right--"and even death." Well, who's to say? Those who publicly support the sport say they've gotten the same threats.

"Why are the charros so protective?" the 20/20 reporter asked. "What goes on in their arenas?"

Charros and their wives who were there say Lund and her cameras were not turned away, as she claims, but welcomed, and, on top of that, much of the questionable footage appears to have been shot in Mexican lienzos, and not in California. Yes, they say, there are charreadas out there that don't follow federation rules, but there are rodeos that aren't PRCA-sanctioned, either.

Lund says she saw horse injuries ranging from dislocated hips to fractured shoulders, while others who have ventured to lienzos, like Eric Sakach of the Humane Society, give similar eyewitness accounts. Sakach says he traveled to a lienzo in Southern California at which a bull with a broken leg was put in a pen under the grandstand, where it served as an object of amusement for drunken fans above. He assumes the event was sanctioned by somebody.

The 20/20 report had a veterinarian talking about broken bones and skin gashes, the sorts of injuries that usually happen when charreria is practiced without regard to rules. The vet pointed out that many of the animals used are destined for slaughter, a fact Chavez doesn't deny has been prevalent in the past. But no matter where horses are bound, he says, rules call for animals to receive proper treatment and meet certain weight requirements, as they do in sanctioned rodeo.

The ABC-TV report also contrasted shots of rodeo taken at well-lighted professional arenas with grainy, surveillance-type video taken of charreadas at rickety, open-air grandstands in the middle of nowhere; it contrasted the confidence of a reporter armed with shocking videotape against the unpolished TV presence of a charro who very likely would present the only glimpse of a real charro most people would ever see, and look at him, will you, trying to explain himself out of that one? But what it primarily contrasted were cultures with little understanding of one another, and little desire to understand.

At the national finals in New Mexico, horses occasionally take spills that elicit brief murmurs of concern from the crowd until they get up and trot off to the corrals, but none compare to the twisted wrecks that aired on national TV and gave most people their first glimpse of the sport. Some mares refuse to run; others seem spooked, trying to scale the lienzo walls; and some do look scrawny or decidedly passive. Those on both sides of the issue can rustle up veterinarians to testify in their behalf.

But if the sport is going to survive in America, Chavez is right: Things are going to have to change to soothe American sensibilities, and that means moving from a culture in which horses are still seen primarily as work animals to one in which so many have been transformed into pets.

Throughout the Congreso, Chavez seems obsessed with the animal-treatment issue. Every chance he gets, he calls on charro leadership for change, discipline and political awareness.

He's so distracted that he barely notices that his team is sitting in first place heading into the championship round.

The U.S. national charro finals are held on the outskirts of Las Cruces, meaning the annual meeting of the Mexican federation's board of directors is held not in a chandeliered ballroom of a grand, downtown hotel but in a truck-stop restaurant named the Golden West in Vado, New Mexico, across Interstate 10 from a lienzo built of stone.

The whole event has more the atmosphere of a backyard family barbecue than of a glitzy championship event. You can't deny you're in a different world once you hear the Mexican banda version of "The Night Chicago Died" blaring over the loudspeakers, and when an 11-year-old girl sells you a raffle ticket for a bottle of Crown Whiskey so her sidesaddle team can get new uniforms.

In Mexico, the finals take place over a two-week period; there are more than 100 teams and 50 women's sidesaddle squads, plus an old-timers' contest. The U.S. finals are scheduled to start Friday and end Sunday; 19 charro teams will compete, but some of them are driving in from northern California and Illinois, and the weather takes some unexpectedly rainy turns, so before long, events are scheduled into Monday.

Chavez sails around, shaking hands, slapping backs; he knows everybody. He's even sharing a hotel room with a guy named Adolfo, who is the federation's attorney. He greets Omar Castro, a jolly blaze of bronze against gleaming white hair, whose perennially strong team of charros is hosting this year's event. It is Castro's family that built the lienzo here behind a mountain off Interstate 10.

Chavez spends a windy morning preaching about the need to have veterinarians present at charreadas and to lease livestock only from health-conscious stock contractors. He delivers his sermon over menudo and instant coffee at a heavyweight table of men festooned in finery, embroidered pants and bright-colored kerchiefs at their necks. Those elders going for the air of authenticity sport Zapata mustaches.

Even before the ticket takers have arrived at the lienzo, the booths selling tacos and corn on the cob and cheap jewelry are open for business. A boy of about 6 or 7 practices with a rope, lassoing his mom's leg as she heads for the porta-potties, unimpressed.

The porta-potties--now there's a story, and it gives you an idea of just what Fred Chavez is up against in this whole assimilation thing. The way he remembers it, it was about six years ago, when the Castros were first building the lienzo and they hosted some big event, and a few of the women came over to Chavez to see if he would ask Omar where the bathrooms were, because they couldn't find them. There are these women there from Chicago in their high heels, and Castro points them toward the horse stalls, because, well, there aren't any bathrooms yet--what's the big deal? And Chavez is like, Jesus Christ, Omar! Are you serious? Do something! These women are already angry because they have to sit out there in the dirt, and now you want them to go pee in the stables? This is a national event! Luckily, there is a guy there with a big motor home who overhears the whole thing, so the day is saved.

This is a problem the charros often run into, this clash of societies, where mi casa es su casa but, excuse me, that's not the way we do things around here. Chavez sees it a lot. The charros won't do something or other because that's not how they do it in Mexico. As U.S. director of the charros, he tried to get insurance for them, for their horses, but they wouldn't pay $15 per year for $20,000 of coverage because that's not how they do it in Mexico. They don't need to--it's given to them. They won't buy quality hay for their horses when it's offered at a charreada because that's not how they do it in Mexico--traditionally, see, the wealthy landowner provides everything. They won't go out and get permits before they build $100,000 lienzos, they don't put in ramps for the handicapped, they don't let the women have their say--because that's not how they do it in Mexico.

You should have seen the feathers flying when Chavez announced that as U.S. director, he was bringing along his secretary and that she was going to sit on the board with him. Whenever a new president came in, they had to fight about it again. Charreria has traditionally been a male sport, and although women take part in escaramuzas, they ride sidesaddle, which goes back to the idea of keeping one's legs crossed and so on, so Chavez has fought to institute more competitive women's events. Because of his daughter Jean, who he says can do a cala right up there with the best of the men, this is one of his issues of constant contention, and you can bet they're going to miss him when he's gone.

They have come from all over the country, and now the top three scoring teams vie for the 1994 U.S. title--Los Bigotones, a perennial contender from El Paso, just a half-hour away; Los Herraderos de San Martin, from northern California; and T Fred Chavez, the team sponsored by the man of the same name, from Phoenix. Emiliano Zapata, Omar Castro's team, misses the final round by coming in fourth.

It's a three-hour show to eat nachos by, and 600 people--couples, children, entire families--pack the stone-and-dirt stands at 5 o'clock on a cloudy Sunday afternoon. Chavez's team members have spent the last hour preparing for the contest at a trailer in the parking lot--brushing their horses' tails, grooming their backs, fitting them with saddles and ankle braces. They roll their ropes in coils and put them under the hood of a truck so they'll loosen up with the heat. With only the barest of chatter amid the scuffle and ching of boot and spur, they throw on their chaps and their belts and those huge hats while a ferocious dust devil whips through the grandstand.

In other sports, you can look into your opponent's eyes and guess what he's thinking, what he's gonna do, but man against animal is more unpredictable. You can practice all you want, but in the end, there's something called charro suerte, or luck, and everybody talks about it but nobody tells Chavez, because he hates the concept. He's got too much invested to be relying on luck.

Rains have left the arena a muddy mess, and Chavez is eight rows up in the grandstand with Adolfo the Lawyer, one of the Mexican officials and Jesus Castellanos, Chavez's replacement as U.S. director. Chavez breaks out with the Azteca de Oro, and the four of them sip from empty Coca-Cola cups and plastic cups taken from the Super 8 motel.

The lienzo portion of the match--the cala, the piales and the colas--is pretty uneventful, and the gates are closed and the teams head into the ring with T Fred Chavez well ahead of the competition. Yet to come are bull riding, steer roping and bronc busting paired with the manganas before the final event, the paso de muerte. Chavez is doing his best not to be overconfident, because for all he knows, someone will spring another surprise on him and say one of the horses is ineligible or something.

By the time the steer roping begins, a light rain resumes. Lus Avila, the 16-year-old from Chandler, is out there having a hell of a time with the steer, finally roping it on the team's second try. He whirls it around slowly to a standstill at the center while a teammate, determined to make up for points lost on the first failed attempt, ropes the steer's hind legs from a reverse position for a few extra points. The two bring the steer down and lock hands in jubilation, a job well-done.

The rain is falling harder now as the teams prepare for the bronc riding and the manganas, where points can be made up or squandered in a hurry.

Lus waits near the wall in a white shirt topped with lime green at the shoulders, red kerchief at his throat, planting his boots in the dirt. Another teammate busts out of the gate on the bucking bronc, three exploding hops until the horse is subdued. Lus steps away from the wall as another horse is guided into the ring for the mangana; it's a fast, brown mare with a white streak between the eyes, flying around the circle. Lus twirls the rope around him, timing the catch for just the right moment . . . and misses on the first try. The second is better, the loop closes, Lus angles down to his left and the horse tumbles perfectly. The third go-round is successful, but a little less smooth; just the same, a cheer comes from the Phoenix contingent.

Lus' father, Jos Lus Avila, will do the manganas a caballo, which is the same thing on horseback. The first attempt is a miss, and on the second, Jos loops three legs instead of two, so he has to let the horse go. On the third try, he manages to loop the legs but can't draw up on the rope quickly enough to get a smooth yank, and the horse goes down twisting, then rises and trots away.

In the meantime, the team from northern California has fallen hopelessly behind, but Los Bigotones--which, with the Castro squad eliminated, has become the home team--is making huge strides, executing flawless manganas at every turn to the roar of the crowd. To come from so far back, thinks Chavez, that's the sign of a good team. The manganas end with T Fred Chavez ahead by 19 points heading into the final event, the paso de muerte.

There is only one shot at a paso de muerte. You are on a bareback mare you have never ridden before, running alongside another and all the while urged along at high speed by three of your teammates on horseback. If you fall, you run the risk of being stomped into stable fodder. The horse can run as many as three times around the ring, but the longer you wait to make the leap, the lower your score. Once you jump, though, there's generally no turning back, and if you touch the ground, your chance is over.

The way a charro usually does it is this: You run the horse as closely and as evenly as possible next to the loose mare so you can get a decent grip on the wild horse's mane, then you kick yourself off with your shin and hope to God you land in the right place. And if you do, you've still got to stay on the horse for a few seconds to make it successful.

If the jump is completed on the first revolution, it's worth 20 points; on the second, 15 points; and on the third, ten. With its 19-point lead, all Chavez's team needs to do is score the minimum and it will seal the victory, since there would be no way the Bigotones could make up the difference.

The crowd rustles with excitement. Chavez's secretary is clutching her score pad like a rosary as Lorenzo Campos, the charro who will attempt the paso, gets ready for the run. And there they go--zooming along at full speed, and right away, he reaches for the mane . . . but for some reason, he doesn't follow through as they round the loop and come in for the second turn, and Chavez is thinking why, why didn't he jump? But, whoosh, here they come again, and Campos' mare can't figure out what he wants her to do, so she speeds up, slows down, and the wild mare gets a step away. Then, right in front of Chavez, Campos jumps, but he's too far away, and for a second, he's straddling the space between the two running horses, finally plunging to the ground. He gets up kicking dirt, shaking his head angrily.

No points, and you know what this means: T Fred Chavez could lose. All the Bigotones have to do is make the leap on the first turn.

Here comes Pepe Quiones, the Bigotones' charro, who doesn't seem to be nervous at all, and out of the gate they fly. T Fred Chavez has been kind of like the Buffalo Bills of charreria, always in the hunt for the championship but never able to grab the top prize. So Chavez is up there in the stands, out of Azteca de Oro and saying to himself, if I lose this one, that's it, I'm outta here, the hell with this second-place stuff.

But Quiones spends the whole first revolution just trying to catch up with the mare, and he can't quite seem to get a good grip on the mane. The guy should have jumped, good grip or not, but. . . . Well, who knows why he didn't go? Maybe he got scared, maybe second place was good enough, whatever. But once the first revolution went down in history, things were out of reach.

Quiones does what he can. He jumps on the second turn and goes for the extra points, staying on while the horse bucks and tugging the horse's ear on the dismount, but the whole thing is good only for 18 points--and T Fred Chavez has won by a single point.

Most of the audience is in the dark about this, because there is no electronic scoreboard. Also, many have come late for the traditional dance that follows, so it takes the official announcement to bring the applause.

The T Fred Chavez team takes a slow victory lap around the ring. It stops for a moment at the spot where Chavez sits eight rows up in the stands, and then the members take those big hats off in salute.

See you next year in San Antonio, the announcer says.

Later, there is a small awards ceremony, and they give out saddles and trophies. But because everything has been running behind and everyone has to leave on Monday, the all-around charro competition continues into the wee hours of Sunday night while the stands empty under the lights. Only the faithful stay behind.

Chavez is spent but happy, and he knows the bliss won't last long, but he's as relaxed as he's ever been, clutching a little plaque commemorating the event and smiling faintly. He hopes that the change necessary for charreria isn't too far away, like his hotel room seems to be right now: We can modify the manganas to make them more palatable, he says; we can adjust. Things don't have to be the way they are in Mexico. The federation understands. The elders are saying: Do what you have to.

He and Adolfo the Lawyer head for the truck, down the steps, through the gate, over the dirt and into the parking lot, and pretty soon, Chavez is climbing onto the truck in the darkness, feeling under the wipers, along the tires, in his big pockets, because he can't remember what he did with the keys or who borrowed them last.

His feet are killing him, and he trudges back up the steps and decides to watch the fading competition until whoever has his keys returns them. Old Fred Chavez, a tired face in the stands.


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