BEECHER, Ill.– Charreria is Mexico’s oldest sport.
“It’s considered a national sport – everyone thinks it’s football, but it’s charrería,” said Vereniz Llamas.
The men who practice horse riding are known as charros, but perhaps more impressive are the women called escaramuzas. It literally means skirmish in English.
Llamas, 32, lives in Beecher, Illinois and has been horseback riding for 16 years.
“An escaramuza is a Mexican cowgirl who works in a synchronized team with eight other girls in sidesaddle, doing dangerous crosses, making quick turns and it’s almost like dancing on horses,” Llamas said.
Dating back to the 17th century, the charrería lives on in Chicago’s southern suburbs. Illinois now has 16 charro teams and nine escaramuza teams that compete at the state level in hopes of competing in Mexico’s so-called annual congreso.
Illinois is one of 14 states that can continue the tradition and officially compete in Mexico, according to the Federación Mexicana de Charrería.
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“A lot of people from Chicago, if we tell them what we are. When they see us dressed, do they ask us when we’re going to dance?” said Lamas. “We’re like no we’re not Ballet Folklorico but we ride horses and they’re like wait, is there?”
Llamas belong to Las Coronelas de Illinois. Her team trains in Manhattan at Ranchos Los Gonzalez.
Founded in 2000, the Coronelas are the second oldest Escaramuza team in Illinois.
Considered one of the stronger teams, the Coronelas became the newest state champions on August 21 at this year’s state competition hosted by Rancho El Consuelo in Beecher. The team will now compete at Congreso 2022 in Zacatecas, Mexico in October.
Alexa Curiel, 18, from Joliet has been riding for five years. Curiel has been a member of Coronelas for two years.
“We have a very strong leader, Itzel,” said Curiel. “As Escaramuza in Illinois, she (Itzel) is one of everyone’s idols because she’s competed so many times in Mexico that she’s such a phenomenal rider.”
Itzel Castañeda is the captain of the Coronelas. At 27, she has been riding since she was five.
“Being the captain is a really competitive role and a really difficult role. It’s a team made up of eight girls. It’s eight different ideas, eight different personalities, eight different schedules,” Castañeda said.
The judges fly in from Mexico. They are very meticulous and make sure every detail is right before they even ride into the arena. This includes clothes, horses, saddles and even their hair.
“Your hair needs to be like slick back bangs. And make sure you don’t have any outliers,” Curiel explains. “You should also not have unnatural hair colors like blue or green hair. It’s part of the rule book.”
But most importantly, they look at the team as a whole for their precision and accuracy.
“So if you do a 360-degree spin, they’re going to look to see if a girl is gone. If she’s too open. It’s all about precision and coordination,” Castañeda said.
Unlike charros, escaramuzas ride side saddles and wear traditional Mexican dress
Castañeda said she considers herself an athlete.
“Not everyone can just get on a side saddle and do it right,” Castañeda explained. “It requires a lot of balance.”
Riding side-saddle distinguishes an escaramuza from a charro.
The women’s saddle is called Albarda, the men’s saddle Silla. The albarda has two horns, one for the right leg to cross over and the other for the left supporting leg.
“Riding side-saddle is not easy, after a while it hurts your back and you have to look pretty while doing it,” said Castañeda
Pretty in the sense that they wear colorful and traditional Mexican dresses. Most teams, including the Coronelas, have their clothes made by a special seamstress in Mexico. The characteristic color of Las Coronelas has turned purple.
“It’s a color with a lot of life,” Curiel explained. “We wanted to get dresses that make you smile when you look at them.”
Under the dress they wear a crinoline or crinoline to keep it billowy. Underneath they must wear a calzonera, which is a kind of leggings. And very important is the rebozo, or scarf, which ties around the waist in a signature six-tie knot.
Escaramuzas perform in a male-dominated sport
Ironically, according to Castañeda, charreria is considered a “macho” sport. So much so that some charros don’t take the escaramuzas seriously.
“When we perform in the charreadas, we go right in and a lot of the men say – this is our halftime show,” Castañeda said. “We’re just like that — we’re just as important as you.”
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Castañeda believes that being an escaramuza is more of a challenge as they have to work as a team while the charros are an individual sport. “If a girl is missing it can throw us off the table,” said Castañeda.
“Accidents can happen so quickly”
Everyone agrees that being an Escaramuza is dangerous.
“It can be very tragic. There can be a cross where a girl can crash into another girl and we’re riding on the left so we don’t have those two legs to control our horses a fatal fall can happen “Llamas explained.
Traditionally, escaramuzas wear either their own handmade accessories or others with “el mal de ojo” to ward off any bad energy or danger. They also pin small sacred pendants to their clothes to protect them in the arena. Many of the pins have the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe.
“Accidents can happen so quickly and I feel like that’s where the religious part comes in,” said Curiel. “They are (accessories) like a part of me and my personal life, they are with me.”
“Usually we put on escapularios and it shows some decoration,” said 19-year-old Valeria Vargas from Romeoville. “I’m pretty religious and it’s like having God on my side.”
The team’s youngest rider is 13-year-old Candy Duran from Joliet. Duran said she has a tendency to faint during competition.
“Sometimes random thoughts run through my head, but most of the time I’m really focused and try not to get too overwhelmed,” Duran said.
For Llamas, it’s all about the adrenaline rush.
“All you really hear is the pounding of hooves on the ground. I drown out the music, make sure we’re okay,” Llamas said.
The US teams are at a big disadvantage when they compete in Mexico. You cannot bring your own horses.
“It’s a really long drive to get our horses there. They have to undergo blood tests to see if they are eligible to cross the border,” Castañeda explained. “So it’s way too risky and way too dangerous.”
Another disadvantage for the Coronelas and their Illinois counterparts is the cold winters.
“We don’t have perfect weather all year round, so we only have certain months of the year when we can train in an arena,” Castañeda said.
During the winters, they will train in an enclosed arena, but it’s much smaller, adding to the list of hurdles las Coronelas has to jump in Mexico. The teams in Mexico don’t always give the American teams a warm welcome.
“We get a lot of mixed reactions,” Llamas said. “Some girls are very surprised that we are making it this far as we have to adjust to a new horse in three days.” “And some girls think kind of snobbishly — we can’t let these girls who come from a whole different country take our places.”
The sport isn’t cheap either.
“It is very expensive. The dresses cost between $300 and $500. The custom saddles cost about $800. The sombreros are also around $800,” Castañeda said. “Horses are expensive too, all the upkeep everything behind it.”
“We’re doing our best to attract our sponsors,” said Llamas. “Our parents are our biggest supporters. A lot of us just see us as eight girls on horses, but we have a lot of people behind us.”
That is why family and tradition are very important in the team.
“I love Charreria. I grew up on the rancho. I have a special bond with it,” Duran said.
All Coronelas are children of immigrants.
“My mother, my father – they came to the American Dream. So for us to be able to perform and uphold this little Mexican tradition that we can still have here, it’s very nostalgic,” Llamas said.
“It’s amazing to feel like I’m living on the tradition that my father brought here,” Vargas said. “I’m continuing it and I hope to continue it with my future children.
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