News Column

PBS Documentary Follows Trail of Mexican-American Horsewomen

Oct. 5, 2012

Ramon Renteria, El Paso Times, Texas

Charras. File photo.
Charras. File photo.

Maribel Gutierrez sums up the dream in simple terms: "We'll be at the next nationals, I'm sure."

Gutierrez is the team captain of Las Azaleas, a team of dedicated first generation Mexican-American horsewomen from California who embarked on a two-year journey to represent the United States at the National Charro Championships in Mexico.

Their inspiring and heart-wrenching story is told in "Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart," a feature documentary airing Friday on PBS stations in El Paso, Las Cruces and across the United States.

Teams of young Mexican-American women, dressed in charra suits or ruffled adelita dresses, guide their galloping horses through dangerous, high speed precision ballets known as escaramuzas or skirmishes in Spanish. They compete in rodeos from California to Illinois and in rural Canutillo near El Paso.

"Charreria evolved from our great-grandparents, what they did out in the pasture," Gutierrez says in the hourlong film airing on Voces on PBS as part of Hispanic Heritage month. "It's what we are."

Rooted in colonial Mexico's cattle culture, charreria mixes equestrian skills, handcrafted tack, elegant costumes, music and food of Mexico's rich heritage into a folk tradition kept alive in the United States by young horsewomen from groups such as Las Azaleas.

Filmmakers Robin Rosenthal and Bill Yahraus follow Las Azaleas and their rigorous training as they prepare to compete in Mexico while wrestling with their own family obligations and the ever escalating concerns about violence in Mexico.

Las Azaleas, based in Riverside County in Southern California, have been described as one of the most exemplary escaramuza teams in the United States. The have competed and won championships at every level in the United States since the team was formed in 2005.

Escaramuza instructor Victor Munoz reminds the horsewomen during one excruciating practice session that competing requires perfection, high standards and hard work.

"It's not just about riding. This task is an art," Munoz says. "The competition is brutal. It's not easy (to win), but not impossible."

Sandy Torres, a former competitor who has since dedicated herself to teaching young horsewomen, points out that Las Azaleas are helping to preserve the traditional equestrian culture of La Charreria bought to the United States by their Mexican parents and grandparents.

The women depicted in the film are sisters and cousins and mothers and daughters whose passion for the sport is reinforced by having brothers, fathers, husbands, fathers and grandfathers who have competed at the championship level in charreadas.

The filmmakers suggest Las Azaleas are passing on the tradition to the next generation by enlisting daughters and sisters into the team as well as coaching a team of newcomers to the sport.

Latino Public Broadcasting produced "Riding from the Heart" as part of a series celebrating the rich cultural diversity of Latinos. Other films in the series include "Unfinished Spaces" (Oct. 12), a documentary about Cuba's National Art Schools, and "Lemon" (Oct. 19), a new documentary about acclaimed New York poet and playwright Lemon Andersen.



Source: (c)2012 the El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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