A halo of dust rises from the sandy arena as eight young girls on horseback trot in a tight circle. They’re wearing red dresses embroidered with flowers, and their skirts flash by in streaks of color as their horses come within inches of each other and then fan out again in perfect symmetry. Two coaches call out instructions in Spanish, their voices echoing across the ring. I watch from the sidelines, unsure what impresses me more: that these tricks are performed side-saddle—or that the eldest of the riders is only nine years old.
I’m here at Escaramuza las Margaritas in Guadalajara to learn more about escaramuza charras, or Mexico’s female equestrians. Escaramuzas execute highly choreographed, ballet-like performances on horseback at charrerias, Mexican livestock and rodeo shows. Charreria is the official national sport of Mexico, and it is an immense source of cultural pride in the country. Added to UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016, charreria evolved from the ranching traditions that Spanish colonists developed on their large haciendas during the 16th century. Much like rodeos in the United States, charreria has its own unique music, food, and traditional costume associated with the sport—historians believe that it gave rise to and influenced the American rodeo scene during the 19th century.
By the 1930s, charreria evolved into something like Mexico’s version of polo and was a favorite hobby of the wealthy. But over the decades, charreria has become a larger symbol of Mexican heritage, particularly for immigrants who brought the sport to the States to preserve their heritage.
Historically, only men performed in charreria; they are known as charros. Lasso-wielding cowboys dressed to the nines in rodeo-wear and sombreros, they drip machismo—escaramuzas are their female counterparts. Escaramuza became an official part of charreria in 1992, though women riders have been practicing their horseback dances in rodeos since the ’50s. Just as with the charros, elaborate costumes and signature fashion are essential for the escaramuzas. They wear colorful Adelita-style, ruffled dresses that are an homage to the outfits worn by women soldiers during the Mexican Revolution.
There are usually 16 members in each escaramuza group, but only 8 perform at a time. Escaramuza performances have some strict rules: They must ride side-saddle and they do not handle any livestock. While charros display valiance and boldness—taunting bulls and riding bucking broncs—the escaramuza performance is about elegance and strength.
“Escaramuzas are more like a ballet on horses. They work in synchronization,” instructor Silvia Yanez Plascencia says as we watch the girls practice. A former escaramuza herself, Plascencia established Escaramuza las Margaritas in 1991—it’s the largest training school of its kind in Mexico. Today, she trains more than 80 women and girls, some of whom start learning as early as five years old. Once they are over 18, the women are able to perform in national competitions in front of roaring audiences. Today, the eight riders practicing in front of us are some of her youngest students, and they are preparing to perform in a noncompetitive charreria scheduled for the same arena later today. Their parents watch from the other end of the arena, snacks ready for when the young escaramuzas take a break.
She calls out to two girls who pass by one another too closely, almost grazing each other—the girls quickly reorient themselves to redo the move at the correct distance. The performance is a demonstration of exactitude: Riders must keep their horses equal distances apart at all times, working in sync with both their own steeds and their teammates. “In the competition, the horses must never touch each other,” Plascencia explains.
Most of the girls on Plascencia’s team are between eight to nine years old, and some have family members who were charros and escaramuzas before them—a common experience for many charreria participants. But having access to horses and the time, space, and financial means needed to practice riding requires a certain degree of privilege. Plascencia’s school is meant to introduce the sport to girls who don’t come from prestigious rodeo families and who may have never even ridden a horse before.
The youngest girl on the team, who is also by far the tiniest, is six-year-old Sulema. Her petite frame sits slightly off-kilter on her horse as it trots across the stadium, each stride bouncing her ever more off her saddle. Today will be her first public performance, Plascencia tells me—it’s where she will be officially inducted into the team with a small cemeremy.
The older the girls get, the more serious the competition becomes and the bigger the potential rewards: Money, trophies, and bragging rights are on the table for winners. Competitions take place nationwide year-round, but the International Encounter of Mariachi and Charreria Festival in Guadalajara holds the biggest charreria competitions every August and attracts charros and escaramuzas from the entire country.
“The little girls do it for fun. The adults want to win,” veteran escaramuza Ana Rosa Anguiano Arias tells me through her translator (and cousin) Samantha Arias, as we sit at the top of the stands at the arena, waiting for the charreria to begin. At 35, with more than nine years of riding experience, Ana is a dedicated rider and has competed nationally.
Getting to perform escaramuza on a national level wasn’t always possible for escaramuzas, and, Ana tells me, if it were up to some men, it still wouldn’t be. Some lienzos (charro arenas) still don’t allow women. “The men here are gentlemen,” she says, gesturing around her. “But women can’t compete wherever they want. They can only be where they’re accepted.”
However, Ana is not looking to be totally equal with men in the sport. She has no desire whatsoever to perform with livestock—she simply wants to be accepted for the skill she is already doing. She likes being an escaramuza. The only thing she doesn’t like is that “it hurts the crotch,” which she says with a laugh.
The buzz of a blaring loudspeaker marks the official start of the charreria: Three commentators—former charros with graying mustaches—begin to narrate the event with all the verve and gusto of a soccer match. Ana and Samantha steer me to the front row seats for the best view. Chunks of sand and mud are kicked up by the horses’ hooves. Vendors selling fried pig skins and shots of tequila cry out over the whoops of charros lassoing steers and the thunder of hooves. Confusing and conflicting aromas of dirt, leather, horse manure, and freshly fried food envelop the stadium.
When it’s time for the escaramuza performance, Ana raises her voice over the din of the crowd to walk me through every step. As each girl enters the arena, smiling and waving, the commentators enthusiastically introduce her by name. Little Sulema is brought to the center, where her parents present her with a new hat and riding crop: a symbolic gesture that marks her official entrance onto the team.
Then, moving as one, the escaramuza begins. The eight riders line up and spread out with a flourish. Trotting and cantering past one another at such close distances, I find myself clenching my jaw, as they crisscross with perfect timing.
Partway through the event, Samantha nudges me. “Do you know what ‘Wexicans’ are?” she asks. I shake my head. She gives me a knowing look and throws a glance across the arena. “That’s what me and my friends call ‘Wexicans,’ like ‘White Mexicans.’ Rich and privileged people.”
Furtively, I steal a look across and see a crowd of impeccably dressed people seated not too far from where we are. One lady grabs her white lapdog and wipes dust from its face with a Kleenex. In Mexico, despite the work of institutions like Plascencia’s, being able to participate in charreria is something of a status symbol.
Once the escaramuza performance is over, the girls join their parents in the stands. Fathers wrap their arms around daughters and mothers shower them in kisses. Sulema settles between her parents while some of the other girls pair off with their friends, gathering up their red skirts as they disappear into the crowded stands. Now that they’ve dismounted from their horses, it strikes me how very small they really are.