Perla Tapatía

The Velasquez family of Phoenix, Arizona, carries on the proud tradition of la escaramuza, competing as a precision women’s drill team named Perla Tapatía.

 Story and photography by KATHY McCRAINE

Perla TapatíaFormer team member Kalie Castrellon wears the ruffled Adelita costume that dates to the Mexican Revolution.

It’s mid-morning at the Sosa family’s Lienzo Los Amigos in the South Mountain area of Phoenix, and already this Saturday on Memorial Day weekend promises to be a hot one. Pickups and horse trailers file down the long dusty lane through a maze of modest stucco homes, tin sheds and horse traps.

At the end of the drive, horsemen in traditional charro attire—embroidered pants, butterfly ties and wide-brimmed sombreros—are warming up their horses in the lienzo, the keyhole-shaped arena used for charreada—Mexican rodeo. From the grandstand, mariachi music and Spanish announcements blare over the sound system.

The Arizona state finals of the Federación Mexicana de Charerría, the state’s biggest annual charro event, is about to start, but there’s scarcely an anglo or a sports writer in the crowd. Indeed, it’s unlikely that many outside the Mexican-American community in this sprawling metropolis even know the event is going on. Were it not for the U.S. license plates on the vehicles parked outside the lienzo, bumper to bumper like freeway traffic at rush hour, you would swear you were in Mexico.

Charreada, which has its roots in medieval Spain and dates to 17thcentury Mexico, is the national sport of Mexico. The word charreada refers to the rodeo itself, while charrería is the all-encompassing tradition of rodeo competition, costumes, music and social events celebrating the Mexican horseman. Today the tradition is also passed down from generation to generation in Mexican-American families who feel a deep connection to their Mexican heritage.

Barred from competing in the all-male sport, Mexican-American women began their own tradition over 60 years ago, when la escaramuza (which means skirmish) was born as a salute to the heroic women combatants of the Mexican Revolution. The escaramuza is an intricate horseback ballet, a precision team event with timed turns and intertwined crosses, all performed sidesaddle at a full gallop. The term also applies to the riders themselves.

Perla TapaíaMembers of the Perla Tapatía team include (from left) Martha Carbajal, Anna Mendez, Melissa Carbajal, Ashley Salamon and Samantha Hale.

Outside the gates of the lienzo, the Perla Tapatía escaramuza team awaits its chance to perform. Dark-eyed, their black hair pulled back and clasped in butterfly bows, they sit their sidesaddles poised and erect. They wear intricately embroidered and ruffled blue skirts over crisply starched white petticoats, embroidered, high-necked yellow blouses, and big, light colored sombreros. Each woman wears a single spur on her high-topped left boot.

They are preparing to compete in a beautifully choreographed drill in which they will fly around the arena at breathtaking speed, barely avoiding collision. Each team of eight riders will put on a performance that is unique, both elegant and dangerous, performed with grace and finesse, and above all, a salute to a proud tradition.

For the Perla Tapatía team, their participation is a long family tradition. The family’s charro team is called Tapatía, a reference to their origin in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the escaramuzas are the “pearls” of the Tapatía. The team consists mostly of members of the Gabriel Velasquez family, pioneers in both Phoenix’s charro and escaramuza heritage. Gabriel, now 78, migrated to Phoenix from Mexico, at age 22 and was instrumental in starting the local charro association in 1970.

His three daughters, Christina Velasquez, 51; Martha Velasquez Carbajal, 47; and Berta Velasquez, 44, were among the first to learn escaramuza when famous Mexican charro Fernando Rivero came up from Mexico to teach both charros and escaramuzas in 1972. The youngest of the Velasquez brothers, Michael, 42, is their trainer.

Perla TapatíaThe team presents itself to the judge and audience at the end of its performance in the 2013 state finals.

It’s not uncommon for girls to start riding in escaramuza as young as age 6, and Christina was just 10 years old when she got her start. Many women drop out when they get married and start a family, but their daughters carry on the tradition when they get old enough to ride. In fact, many mothers and daughters ride on the same team, or there may be two teams— girls and women—from the same family.

“My sisters and I all got married and got out of it for a while,” Christina says, “but I’m back now. You get out, you leave it, but it’s always in your heart. I quit when I had my kids, but as soon as there were no more Pampers to change, I was back on a horse. My sister Berta was the one who has kept it going as we went our separate ways, but she’s the one that didn’t want to do it originally.”

Berta, though the youngest of the three sisters, is the captain and clearly has a take-charge attitude.

Perla Tapatía

Perla TapatíaClockwise from top: Former team members Elaina and Alicia Campos perform at the 2013 Arizona state finals. // Martha Carbajal rides her horse, Maximus. Escaramuza horses may be any breed, but above all they must be agile enough to make intricate turns at top speed. // Karina Martinez, pictured here in 2009, salutes the judge and the audience at the start of the team’s performance. Now 22, Karina not only competes on the Perla Tapatía team, she’s also the current national reina (queen), who will represent the United States at the 2014 Federación Mexicana de Charrería World Finals in Mexico.

“I loved to ride,” she says, “but I wanted to ride racehorses or do barrel racing. I hated having to wear a dress. Then I got married, and my husband told me I couldn’t ride anymore.

“He’s my ex-husband now,” she adds with a smile.

While team members come and go over the years, current members also include Martha’s daughters, Martha Carbajal, 21, and Melissa Carbajal, 17; plus relatives and close friends Samantha Hale, 18; Karina Martinez, 22; Ashley Salamon, 26; and Anna Mendez, 23.

Origins of Escaramuza

To understand the beginnings of escaramuza, you must first look at the origins of charrería. Like U.S. rodeo, the tradition has its roots in the stock handling techniques of the early vaqueros of Mexico. Unlike rodeo, style and finesse are the dominant criteria in the events, rather than time and speed.

Life in colonial Mexico revolved around the haciendas, huge Spanish land grants which operated almost like small towns, with the owner, or hacendado, overseeing many vaqueros and other workers. These haciendas held semiannual roundups, which became the center of their social life, when neighbors would get together to work the cattle and throw huge fiestas with competition amongst the vaqueros.

Unlike charreada, the escaramuza is a relatively new concept. It was introduced to charreada as exhibition in the early 1950s and didn’t become an official competition until 1989, when the Federacíon Mexicana formalized the rules and sanctioned it as a charreada event. Both charro and escaramuza teams in the United States are governed by the Mexican Federación. Today there are escaramuza teams in Arizona, California, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oregon, Kansas, Nevada, Utah and Illinois. The champion team in each state is eligible to compete in the world finals in Mexico.

For the past year, Christina has been the delegada, or women’s delegate, to the Federación for the state of Arizona, calling state meetings, meeting with the U.S. coordinator, getting judges, most of whom come from Mexico, and making sure the necessary credentials and paperwork go to the Mexican Federación.

According to Arizona State University Professor Emerita and folklorist Kathleen Mullen Sands, who wrote the definitive book on charreada, Charrería Mexicana: An Equestrian Folk Tradition, escaramuza was named in remembrance of the women who rode as couriers during the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Historically the aristocracy of the colonial period mandated that women ride only sidesaddle and in decorous costumes, and that tradition has been handed down to the escaramuza.

Riders wear the colorful, ruffled Adelita costume, named for one of the most famous heroines of the Mexican Revolution. Adelita was a legendary horsewoman said to have been a courier and companion to Pancho Villa early in his career as a general.

The dress rules in competition are strict, mandating that every piece of clothing and equipment on a team match, from the dresses down to identical headstalls, spurs and earrings. All equipment, custom saddles, boots and sombreros must come from Mexico. The bits must be charro bits made in Mexico. Only the dresses are custom-made in the United States.

“It’s not like we can just walk into Walmart and buy everything,” Berta says. “The judge checks every detail before competition. The skirts must have at least one ruffle at the bottom, with a sash tied on the left, and blouses are high-collared. Nothing metallic is allowed. The petticoat must have one ruffle and be starched until it’s crunchy to touch. We have to wear white bloomers underneath, no jeans, no pockets, and nothing sleeveless.”

Perla TapatíaThe escaramuza teams line up in front of the grandstand at the end of the desfile, or grand entry.

Each competition performance is made up of several scored exercises that must be completed in eight minutes. The patterns have descriptive names like cruces (crosses), flores (flowers), giros (spins), escaleras (stairs), and abanicos ( fans). Each performance also includes puntas, individual runs at a full gallop from the back of the alley with a sliding stop in front of the grandstand.

Teams are scored on dress, tack, smoothness and precision. The entire performance is set to mariachi music that often references the historical importance of escaramuzas in the Revolution of 1910.

An Enduring Culture

“There’s a reason charreada and escaramuza are vital sports in the U.S.,” Sands says. “It’s something anthropologists identify as a major marker of Mexican identity. Over time, when people immigrate to this country, they give up much of their identity in order to integrate into the culture, so this is essentially a place where they take a stand and say, ‘We’re going to demonstrate what a beautiful culture we have.’ Families are determined to pass the tradition on to their children, and they get these kids in the saddle when they’re 2 years old. It’s a way of holding on to their roots.”

Many of these families have been in Phoenix for generations, most settling in the area between Baseline Road and South Mountain. Twenty years ago Baseline Road was flanked by fields of cotton, alfalfa and citrus orchards, but today strip malls and housing have replaced most of the agricultural land.

Get off the beaten path, though, and you find clusters of residential compounds that are not unlike the hacienda system of old Mexico. Several generations of charro families often build their homes around the family lienzo. Or, in the case of the Velasquez family, most family members live within blocks of the parents’ home and lienzo. The largest of the lienzos is the Corona Ranch, which offers charreadas and also a wide variety of commercial events, from Mexican-style dances to weddings and fiestas, complete with mariachi bands, dancing, and food, all catering to the Mexican-American community.

There is one major difference between charreada in Mexico and in the United States, Sands says.

Charreada as it was done on haciendas in the beginning was very elitist,” she says. “It eventually moved to the city, but it is definitely the very wealthy who compete in Mexico today. In the U.S. it’s totally egalitarian.”

The Perla Tapatía team experienced this division firsthand when they competed in the world finals in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 2008.

“In Mexico the girls all have caballerangos, men who saddle and take care of their horses,” Christina says. “They just drive up in their Mercedes and jump on. We had to groom and saddle our own horses, walk them five blocks to give them baths, and feed them ourselves. The girls down there just step off, hand their horses over, and go back to watch the rest of the rodeo. We’re lucky to get back to watch the last event.”

Berta adds, “Our dad always taught us, you tend to your horses first, feed them before you even think about eating, and then you can do whatever you want. And that’s how it’s always been.”

Putting It All Together

Most Saturdays or Sundays you’ll find the Perla Tapatía team, as well as the family’s charro team, practicing at the Velasquez lienzo. It’s a family affair, with Gabriel Velasquez, Jr., brother of the three oldest girls, flipping carne asada on the grill, and neighbors showing up to visit. Gabriel is the newly elected vice president of the Federación Mexicana de Charrería, which is the highest office in the United States.

One of his priorities as vice president is working to dispel the misconception many people in the United States have about charreada being unnecessarily rough on the stock. In reality, the oldtime Mexican charro events like the manganas, roping a wild mare by the front feet and flipping her, have been discontinued. Today they rope the front feet but release as soon as the loop tightens. U.S. performance rules are much more stringent than those in Mexico; this guarantees the safety of all the livestock, and ensures that both mounts and rough stock are treated humanely.

Perla TapatíaLEFT: The escaramuzas’ sidesaddles are custommade in Mexico. The Perla Tapatía team had orthopedic seats added to save their backs from the strain of riding in the sidesaddle position. RIGHT: Michael Velasquez began training escaramuzas and their horses in the 1970s. Today he trains Perla Tapatía and several teams in Arizona, Colorado, and Juarez, Mexico.

When he’s not training other teams in Colorado or Juarez, Mexico, Michael is on hand to put the team through its paces. He got his initial training from a friend who coaches in Juarez, then learned by trial and error. Today, Michael not only trains the escaramuzas, he also choreographs their performance and even designs the costumes they wear.

“I got into teaching girls to ride so that Berta could keep the team going after my two older sisters got married,” he says.

Michael also competes in two charro events, the cola (bull tailing) and cala (reining). He feels his experience in the cala helps him train both the escaramuzas and their horses. Escaramuza horses can be any breed, but above all they must be agile.

“To do the turns, crosses, slowdowns and spins, they have to be able to move and be light on their feet,” he says. “And they have to actually like it. Not all horses have that agility and mindset.”

In training the horses, Michael, a big bear of a man with thick, black caterpillar eyebrows, rides astride. “They haven’t made a sidesaddle big enough for me yet,” he says, laughing.

When starting a new pattern, he has the girls practice on foot until they are thoroughly familiar with it. Then they walk and trot the horses through the pattern before galloping. He likes to practice only once a week in order to keep the horses fresh. He also uses video to evaluate and correct problems.

“It’s pretty much a domino effect,” he says. “If one girl doesn’t come in right, the others can’t square up, and it just doesn’t work.”

Obviously, riding sidesaddle requires a unique set of techniques for training and controlling the horse. The escaramuzas spur with their left boot, rein with their left hand, and carry a vara in their right hand. The vara, which is a long, slender branch, is used to tap the horse or the stirrup on the right side in place of the spur. It’s also carried for balance. Michael prefers varas made from the membrillo (quince) trees that grow in El Paso, due to the wood’s flexibility. He cuts the branches himself when he’s there.

Whatever Michael is doing must be working, because Perla Tapatía has won the Arizona state championship four times in the past eight years, won the regional finals twice, and placed in the top three for the U.S. national finals several times. With the younger girls in the family beginning to participate, they’re not likely to give it up anytime soon.

“For us as a family, I don’t see us doing anything else,” Michael says. “Our lives revolve around this sport, both charreada and escaramuza. Sometimes we think maybe we should take a break from it. Then we think, what else would we do?”


Kathy McCraine is a rancher, writer and photographer based in Prescott, Arizona. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.