Escaramuza: Riding From the Heart

By September 27, 2012
Las Azaleas perform at a circuit competition in Coachella. (Photo by Jodi Champagne)

Las Azaleas perform at a circuit competition in Coachella. (Photo by Jodi Champagne)

Every weekend, at rodeos from Illinois to California, teams of young Mexican American women climb onto sidesaddles in elegant charra suits or ruffled adelita dresses. Weaving their horses through thrilling, high speed ballets known as escaramuzas (from the Spanish word for “skirmish”), they help to preserve the traditional equestrian culture of La Charrería brought here by their Mexican parents and grandparents.

This fascinating world opens up to viewers in Escaramuza: Riding From The Heart, an hour-long PBS documentary premiering Oct. 5 as part of Hispanic Heritage Month.

The program (directed by Robin Rosenthal and Bill Yahraus of Pony Highway Productions) follows a Southern California team, Las Azaleas, on their quest to represent California and the United States at the National Charro Championships in Mexico.

Rooted in the cattle culture of Colonial Mexico, charrería blends the equestrian skills, handcrafted tack, elegant costumes, music and food of that rich heritage into a living folk tradition. At a traditional rodeo, between the men’s riding and roping contests the female riders, or escaramuzas charras, would perform their high-speed, precision horse ballets, bending and twisting and galloping around each other in intricate,  synchronized patterns.

Before every competition, Mexican Federation of Charrería judges inspect every aspect of presentation. (Photo courtesy Pony Highway Productions)

Before every competition, Mexican Federation of Charrería judges inspect every aspect of presentation. (Photo courtesy Pony Highway Productions)

The Las Azaleas drill team is based in Riverside County and led by Sandy Torres and Maribel Gutiérrez. Since forming in 2005, they have aimed at the highest level of the sport, winning California, Regional and U.S. National Championships  on multiple occasions, and representing California and the U.S. at the National Charro Championships in Mexico.

The documentary follows Las Azaleas as they train to compete in Mexico amid growing family obligations and concerns about border violence.  For the  members of Las Azaleas, escaramuza describes not only the danger and fierceness of competition, but the tug of war between New World modernity versus the Old World traditions and their own complicated relationship with the culture they love.

Rosenthal and Yahraus tell the tale with the deft touch and eye for detail that marked their 2006 Eclipse award-winning project On the Muscle: Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable.

Charrería rider in traditional Mexican folk attire. (Photo by Jodi Champagne)

Charrería blends equestrian skills, handcrafted tack, elegant costumes, music and food. (Photo by Jodi Champagne)

The women’s ties to the sport are reinforced through brothers, husbands, fathers and grandfathers who have all competed as charreadas at the championship level.

They are presented as culture-bearers, actively passing their tradition on to the next generation by coaching up-and-comers and bringing their daughters and sisters onto the team.

For airtimes, check local listings.

For more information about the program, which was produced as part of Latino Public Broadcasting’s VOCES series, visit ponyhighway.com/emz.html.

View a clip from Escaramuza: Riding From the Heart.

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1 Comment for “Escaramuza: Riding From the Heart”

  1. We have quite a few rodeos here Colorado, and I have never seen or heard of Escaramuza Riding From the Heart. It’s amazing,, how the horse and rider keep in balanced I don’t know. can you do a flying lead change riding sidesaddle?
    I hope to see Escaramuza Riding From the Heart here in Colorado someday soon.

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