BEECHER, Ill. — Mexico’s oldest sport is charrería.
“It’s considered the national sport – everyone thinks it’s football but it’s charrería,” said Vereniz Llamas.
The men who practice equestrian sport are known as charros but perhaps more impressive are the women, called escaramuzas. It literally translates to skirmish in English.
Llamas, 32, lives in Beecher, Illinois and has been riding horses for 16 years.
“An escaramuza is a Mexican cowgirl who works in a synchronized team with eight other girls in the side saddle doing dangerous crossovers, fast turns and it’s almost dancing on horses,” Llamas said.
Charrería, who dates back to the 1600s, lives in the southern suburbs of Chicago. Illinois now has 16 Charro teams and nine Escaramuza teams competing at the state level in hopes of competing in what is called the annual Congreso in Mexico.
Illinois is one of 14 states that carry on the tradition and can officially compete in Mexico, according to the Federación Mexicana de Charrería.
RELATED: Chicago’s Little Village Xochitl-Quetzal Aztec Dance Group Continues a 500+ Year Tradition
“A lot of people in Chicago when we tell them what we are. If they see us dressed up, they ask us when are we dancing?” said the lamas. “We’re like no, we’re not folk ballets but we ride horses and they’re like wait, does that exist?”
The llamas belong to Las Coronelas of Illinois. Their team trains in Manhattan at Ranchos Los Gonzalez.
Founded in 2000, the Coronelas are the second oldest skirmish team in Illinois.
Considered one of the strongest teams, the Coronelas became the new state champions on August 21 at this year’s state meet hosted by Rancho El Consuelo in Beecher. The team now heads to compete at Congress 2022 in Zacatecas, Mexico in October.
Alexa Curiel, 18, of Joliet has been riding for five years. Curiel has been a member of the Coronelas for two years.
“We have a very strong leader, Itzel,” Curiel said. “As a skirmisher in Illinois, she (Itzel) is one of everyone’s idols because she’s competed in Mexico so many times that she’s such a phenomenal rider.”
Itzel Castañeda is the Coronelas captain. At 27, she has been riding since the age of 5.
“Being captain is a really competitive role and it’s a really tough role. It’s a team of eight girls. It’s eight different ideas, eight different personalities, eight different schedules,” Castañeda said.
The judges come from Mexico. They are very meticulous, making sure every detail is in place even before entering the arena. This includes clothes, horses, saddles and even their hair.
“Your hair should be a smooth pony. And be careful not to have flyaways,” explains Curiel. “You’re also not supposed to have unnatural hair colors like blue or green hair. It’s part of the rule book.”
But most importantly, they watch the team as a whole on its precision and accuracy.
“So if you’re doing a 360 degree turn, what they’re going to look for is if a girl is missing. If she’s too open. It’s all about precision and coordination,” Castañeda said.
Unlike the charros, the escaramuzas ride in the side saddle wearing traditional Mexican dresses
Castañeda said she considers herself an athlete.
“Not everyone can just get into a side saddle and do it right,” Castañeda explained. “It involves a lot of balance.”
The riding saddle is what differentiates an escaramuza from a charro.
The woman’s saddle is called the albarda – the men’s is called the silla. The albarda has two horns, one for its right leg to cross over and the other for its left supporting leg.
“Getting in the side saddle is not easy, after a while it hurts your back and you have to look pretty doing it too,” Castañeda said.
Pretty in the sense that they wear colorful and traditional Mexican dresses. Most teams, including the Coronelas, have their dresses made by a special seamstress in Mexico. The signature color of Las Coronelas has turned purple.
“It’s a color with a lot of life,” Curiel explained. “We wanted dresses that would make you smile when you looked at them.”
Under the dress they wear a crinoline or crinoline to keep it puffy. Underneath they are required to wear a calzonera which is a type of leggings. And very important is the rebozo or shawl that is tied around their waist in a six-tie knot.
The Escaramuzas perform in the male-dominated sport
Ironically, charrería is considered a “macho” sport according to Castañeda. So much so that some charros don’t take skirmishes seriously.
“When we play in the charreadas, we go like right in the middle and a lot of men are like – it’s our halftime show,” Castañeda said. “We’re just like – we’re just as important as you guys.”
SEE ALSO: Latinx, Latino, Hispanic: defining a community in several terms with different meanings
Castañeda thinks that being a escaramuza is more difficult, given that they have to work as a team whereas charros is an individual sport. “If a girl is missing, it can throw us off course,” Castañeda said.
“Accidents can happen so fast”
One thing everyone agrees on is the danger of being a skirmish.
“It can be very tragic. There can be a cross where a girl can crash into another girl and we saddle up on the left side so we don’t have those two legs to control our horses. An accident fatal can happen,” Llamas explained. .
Traditionally, escaramuzas wear either their own handmade accessories or others that feature “the evil of the ojoto ward off any bad energy or danger. They also pin small sacred pendants to their robes 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,” Curiel said. “They’re (props) like a part of me, and my home life, they’re with me.”
“We usually put on escapularios and it shows a certain decoration,” said Valeria Vargas, 19, of Romeoville. “I’m quite religious and it’s like having God by my side.”
The youngest rider on the team is 13-year-old Candy Duran of Joliet. Duran said she had a tendency to pass out during competition.
“Sometimes random thoughts run through my head, but most of the time I’m really focused and trying not to get too overwhelmed,” Duran said.
For llamas, it’s all about the adrenaline rush.
“All you really hear is the stomping of hooves on the ground. I’m drowning out the music, look it’s okay,” Llamas said.
American teams have a huge disadvantage when competing in Mexico. They cannot bring their own horses.
“It’s a very long journey to get our horses there. They have to have blood tests to see if they’re eligible to cross the border,” Castañeda explained. “So it’s way too risky and way too dangerous.”
Another downside for the Coronelas and their Illinois colleagues 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 the Coronelas jump to place in Mexico. Mexican teams don’t always welcome American teams.
“We get a lot of mixed reactions,” Llamas said. “Some girls are very surprised that we have come to this because we have to adapt to a new horse in three days.” “And some girls are a bit of a snob thinking – we can’t let these girls who come from a whole different country – take our places.”
Sport doesn’t come cheap either.
“It’s very expensive. Dresses range from $300 to $500. Custom saddles are around $800. Sombreros are also around $800,” Castañeda said. “Horses are expensive too, all the upkeep behind it all.”
“We are doing our best to find our sponsors,” Llamas explained. “Our parents are our main supporters. Many of us see us as eight girls on horseback, but there are a lot of people behind us.”
That’s why family and tradition are the key to the team.
“I love charrería. I grew up on the rancho. I have a special attachment to it,” Duran said.
All Coronelas are children of immigrants.
“My mom, my dad — they came to the American dream. So for us to be able to play and keep 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 by the tradition that my dad brought here,” Vargas said. “I continue and I hope to be able to continue with my future children.