Whenever there’s a horse or two in a story, you know there’s going to be a lot of pageantry — brave knights, mighty steeds, legendary riders, all that stuff. But even with those expectations, the film Escaramuza: Riding From the Heart, premiering at the Autry on Sunday, Sept. 30 and debuting on PBS on Oct. 5, is particularly beautiful and poignant. It might be the horses. But just maybe, it’s the riders.
Escaramuza chronicles the two-year quest of Escaramuza Charra Las Azaleas, a team of young Mexican American women competing in the charreada sport of escaramuza, to represent the United States in the National Charro Championships — the Superbowl of charreada — in Mexico City.
Charreada can roughly be compared to the American rodeo, as both encompass the regular cattle ranch activities of breaking horses, roping cattle and taming bulls, but raised to the level of sport and art. There are some differences in the events, and while rodeo events are timed, charreada participants compete on finesse and grace, literally getting style points. Where young women rodeo contestants in the American West learn to compete in barrel racing, Mexican and Mexican American girls give a nod to their own very particular traditions with escaramuza,a precision team horse riding event involving timed turns and intertwined crosses at full gallop.
According to lore, escaramuza — Spanish for “skirmish” — had its beginnings with the adelitas, the camp followers of Pancho Villa’s forces during the Mexican Revolution, who would mount horses and ride toward Mexican federal cavalry troops, raising a cloud of dust in an effort to mislead them into believing the rebel army was coming from their direction. Instead, Villa would then conduct a surprise attack, often from behind the federales’ own lines.
In a salute to those courageous women, escaramuza competitors ride sidesaddle and wear colorful ruffled dresses or female, long-skirted version of the spangled charro costume often also worn by mariachi bands. Their intricate horse ballets have been an official part of charreada competitions only since 1992, but families who are involved in escaramuza feel a deep connection to their Mexican heritage.
“It’s the only thing I had in common with my Dad as a teenager growing up in Southern California,” said Sandy Torres, until recently the team’s captain. “It’s not just a sport, it’s a lifestyle. It’s the family environment of it, and the tradition that gets handed down. You are proud to be a part of it.”
Torres’s father, who trains quarterhorses for a living, is still competing in charreada in a team composed mostly of extended family that regularly goes on to the Mexican national championships. Her grandfather, who was born in Mexico, was well-known there for his charreada prowess.
“My grandfather, he was in it up until the day he passed; he had his horses, and all of my cousins were part of it growing up,” she said. “My aunt, she would just be the queen of the charro team. We have pictures of her all dressed up in her frilly dress .… For my grandfather it was all still only the guys’ sport.”
He did live to see Torres ride in escaramuza, but died before the event became an official part of the competitions.
“Back then we would ride just as an exhibition; it was not as intense of a competitive level,” she said. “I think he would be proud of us, to know what kind of competitive level we’re at today.”
The respect for tradition also shows in the handcrafted tack and saddles the women use, in the custom-made outfits they wear, and in the way they practice hour after hour to nail down precision routines. Torres said they are judged on all of it, from the grace of a turn to the embellishment on a bridle. They must be spotless and uniform, no matter what.
“We help design all of it,” she said. “We try to keep it as traditional as we can.”
Torres said that, during the time recorded in the film, Las Azaleas were actually invited to compete in Mexico two years in a row, in 2008 and 2009. But they were forced to decline the invitation the first year because of widespread fear of drug cartel violence along the U.S.-Mexico border.“When we decided not to go, the violence had really blown up and everything we were hearing was very scary,” she said. “Other teams were cancelling and that was influencing us.”
By the following year, the violence had not exactly abated, but they kept their fears in perspective and moved ahead with their plans.
“It’s still in back of your mind,” she said. “But you go to what you’re going to and you be careful and be cautious. After all, you’re in danger everywhere you go. You just hope for the best.”
Torres, who became pregnant and had a new baby girl during the film, has now stopped competing, although she still teaches escaramuza riding and continues to coach the team, which is scheduled to compete again in Mexico, this time in Zacatecas, on October 30. Her daughter Isabella is 3 years old now, and she also has the escaramuza bug, it seems.
“I gave her a choice to go to Disneyland with me or to a charreada in Pico Rivera with my Dad,” she said. “She chose Pico Rivera. You can’t really avoid it, I guess. She loves animals and being around horses.”