La Fiesta de los Vaqueros

When its 80th annual edition takes place Feb. 19-27 in Tucson, Ariz., La Fiesta de los Vaqueros will attract cowboys, year-round residents and “snowbirds” alike to an event that’s been a desert entertainment staple since 1925. The Tucson Rodeo’s a unique and enticing winter spectacle for a number of reasons – not the least of which is a climate where average February temperatures are in the mid-50s, but can climb into the 80s.

“I can’t tell you how much that means to us and the horses,” says 2003 world champion bareback rider Will Lowe. “After months of being cooped up at indoor rodeos, they like to be in this moderate climate and breathe the fresh air as much as we do.”

Of particular appeal is the rodeo parade, which drew a record 230,000 spectators in 2004. The parade wraps around the 40-acre rodeo grounds in South Tucson, an area of mixed cultures, where Spanish is as common as English and stores sell tortillas and pan dulce (Mexican pastry) alongside Wonder Bread and Twinkies.

To give some measure of the parade’s importance, Pima County school kids and college students get a special “rodeo holiday” to attend the event, despite having to spend President’s Day in their classrooms.

Perhaps one reason so many turn out is that this parade involves gambling. Tucsonians play a version of bingo called “Road Apple Roulette,” in which a grid of numbers is drawn in chalk on the parade route. Each of the 1,000 squares is sold for $50, and folks lining the parade road silently hope that one of the 3,280 parade horses leaves an early “gift” on his or her square.

First place in 2004 went to Larry Hodges, for a 9:20 a.m. deposit on square No. 279, for which he collected $5,000. Proceeds benefit the Tucson Lions Club Charities, so everyone wins – with the exception, perhaps, of the city street cleaners.

Even if you don’t get down a wager, the parade is a grand affair to watch. La Fiesta de los Vaqueros boasts the longest nonmotorized parade in the United States. The parade committee owns well more than 300 wagons, including one once used by Mexican Emperor Maximiliano and donated by a patron from Mexico. More than 800 people march in the parade, including 16 marching bands.

Read the rest of this feature in the November 2004 issue of Western Horseman magazine. Subscribe by calling 800-877-5278, or click on the “subscribe” link at the top left of this page.

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