Charreria as a cultural phenomenon in the construction of western Mexico. The image that most frequently represents mexicanidad, the concept of Mexican identity, is the figure of the charro, a traditional Mexican horseman who wears a special outfit to ride on horseback, with a wide-brimmed ala ancha hat, a lasso and a pistol.
This image has spread around the world and is widely recognised as belong- ing to Mexico, despite the wide variety of cultures and ethnicities in the nation. The image of the charro acquired the status of nationalist Mexican stereotype in the second and third decades of the 20th century, when post-revolutionary Mexico rolled out every strategy in the book to consolidate and legitimise itself, to unify the nation and build a peaceful society, and ultimately to become a modern state.
The figure of the charro has been used in the process of producing a symbol for the Mexican state, to be consumed by both a national and international audience. It creates an image for tourism, for international events of all kinds, as well as for internal consumption in national holiday celebrations, and it can be used in any other social or cultural occasion where the aim is to show, instantly, an image of ‘Mexicanness’.
However, even though it is a nationalist stereotype, the charro is, above all, representative of the local people in Western Mexico, which means that the national symbol of Mexico is actually the symbol of Jalisco and the surrounding region. In other words, it is a particular stereotype that has come to represent a wide and varied macrocosm, to produce an imaginary homogeneity that is superimposed on the vast and very real diversity that exists throughout the country.
The result is the formation of an idea, still repeated today, that ‘Jalisco is Mexico’. From this base point it is evident that the charro represents the construction of a nationalist discourse built on a paradox: that of a nation defined by its relationship with one of its regions, the west.
The main distinctive characteristic of charrería (the Mexican rodeo event practised by charros) in Jalisco, and the basis for the authenticity it claims, is what could be
called its ‘certificate of origin’. In other words, there is a belief that Jalisco is the true birthplace of charrería, which links to the fact that it was also in Jalisco where the first ever group of charros in Mexico was founded: Charros de Jalisco, which formed in 1921.
This association ran without any official structure until 1939, when the president, Andrés Z. Barba, decided for pragmatic reasons to make the group an official member of the National Federation, after having resisted invitations from the National Charros Association for years. This ‘Jalisco-style’ resistance shows the position of local charros, in keeping with regional independence and a confrontational relationship with central power that can still be seen among charros today.
However, the circumstances that led to the Charros de Jalisco being officially registered in 1939 was the condition offered by the governor that the group could receive, in a concession from the State Congress, the land on which the first lienzo charro arena was built, which was baptised in the name of Miguel Aceves Galindo and which is still one of the most visited and well-known arenas to this day. Some see this anecdote as an poorly resolved matter of convenience, others see it as a defeat of the independent spirit of the Jalisco charros, and still others view it as a positive way to negotiate with the government.
At the time, the Jalisco charros held a strategically important position: they had enormous potential to resist government mandates and even more to withstand the central government, on the basis of historical changes that had seriously knocked them back. The charros were a humble group but, even so, they held political power. And what’s more, they were armed. The strength that the Cristeros and the resistance movement against land reform held in the region made it ever more urgent to start negotiations with key social figures and local politicians, as they might, once again, put societal harmony at risk.
For this reason, the symbolic act of exchanging a physical space for making the charra group official held deep significance: the national reference point for charrería was exchanged for their discipline and submission to institutional rules. On the other hand, this act of resistance to submission to institutional rule can still be seen today in a number of ways in contemporary charros. It is perhaps most prominent in the way women take part through escaramuzas, or skirmishes; women too have postponed their institutionalisation for as long as possible, on the basis that it would lead to unwanted transformations in the way they act as charras – female charros.
The fact that local charros claim Jalisco as the birthplace of charrería, and their home, is sufficiently important for charros from that state to be held in special regard. However, it’s not just that, as it would seem that several generations of charros from the state of Jalisco have fought actively to keep having ownership over this place, and to continue to deserve it.
This is reflected in the very particular process of the institutionalisation of charrería as a sport, in the debates within the world of Jalisco charros, in the debates with regulatory organisations for charrería from the centre of the Republic, in the difficulties of integrating the participation of women in the world of charros, and in the numerous family links that connect the different groups, among many other matters. It also cannot be denied that, when you get down to figures, Jalisco is the state with the highest number of charro associations, the most arenas and the teams that most often win the National Championships. It also has the best individual charros in many of the associations across Mexican states.
Charrería is a cultural phenomenon that incarnates a ranching tradition with roots in a romantic vision of the Mexican countryside; it is a social arena that works as a means to produce subjects, values and local symbols that are then projected across the nation. Both these factors have been condensed in the other side of charrería, one that is increasingly important these days: charrería as a sport. Charrería has been deemed ‘the national sport’ by presidential decree.
The sport consists of carrying out a series of suertes, or tricks, in a physical space specially designed for the sport. The tricks should be completed in a certain order and in accordance with certain well-defined competition rules. This is the stage for charros to show their skill, strength and command over the animals, as well as the quality of the livestock, in a spectacular festival called a charreada. It is said that the activities on display are ‘the same tasks carried out in the countryside, but embellished by art’ (Gallegos Franco, 1996).