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Riding on Ropes and Dreams

Southern California is home to some of the top competitors in Mexican charreria, or rodeo. Its popularity is a measure of immigrant success.

September 04, 2004|Sam Quinones | Times Staff Writer

Ramiro Gurrola of Hawaiian Gardens is one of the best riders, or charros, in Mexican rodeo. But when the chute opened one blistering Sunday this summer, the bull he was riding inexplicably collapsed, like a boxer taking a dive.

Midway through the regional Mexican rodeo championships in Sacramento, Gurrola was in fourth place, fighting a bad streak of charro luck.

The belief in charro luck rules the world of Mexican rodeo, known as charreria. In a distinctly Mexican view of life, talent takes a back seat to destiny. A lazy bull, a slow horse or a rainstorm can defeat even the best-trained cowboy.

Charro luck had foiled Gurrola before. Three years in a row, he'd failed to advance to the charreria world championship in Mexico. Yet each loss had pushed him to practice harder.

The next event that afternoon in Sacramento was las manganas, the most difficult in Mexican rodeo. The cowboy performs rope tricks and then tries to lasso the front legs of a galloping mare. Points are scored for elegance and creativity.

Few cowboys work harder at it than Gurrola, 25. Like a jazz musician, he spends hours a day riffing on his rope, hoping for the accidents and mistakes that lead to new tricks. He watches videos of his rivals. Lying in bed at night, he imagines new ways of making the rope dance.

"If you want to be good at charreria, you have to be good at the rope," he says.

So as he donned his sombrero, shouldered his rope and walked into the arena, Gurrola was losing badly, but he wasn't afraid.

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In the last few years, Southern California has emerged as a center of traditional Mexican rodeo. Leading Mexican American businessmen are sponsoring charro teams and building rodeo arenas. Three trick-roping schools have opened. The number of officially recognized charro teams has nearly doubled, to 65.

California now ranks fourth in the world in the number of sanctioned teams, behind the Mexican states of Jalisco, Hidalgo and the state of Mexico. Most of California's riders are Mexican Americans carrying on a tradition brought here by their immigrant parents.

In 2002, the three best Mexican rodeo teams came to Los Angeles and were whipped by upstart U.S.-born charros.

One of the best of them is Gurrola, a 1996 graduate of Artesia High School. Gurrola is a shy, lanky man who becomes a general when he climbs atop a horse. Though 6 foot 3, he is known in the world of charreria as Ramirito -- Little Ramiro -- named for his father and his grandfather, patriarch of a charro clan in the Mexican state of Zacatecas.

Gurrola pursues charreria with a puritanical devotion. He avoids beer -- rare for a man drenched in rural Mexican culture. He hasn't married because raising a family would cut into his practice time. He can't remember a weekend when he did something unrelated to horses or charreria.

That a boy from the L.A. suburbs could grow up to be one of the charro world's budding stars illustrates how Mexican wide swaths of Southern California have become. It also shows how poor immigrants found in the U.S. the means to realize their rodeo dreams. Here, a sport that in Mexico was the preserve of the privileged has become a measure of blue-collar immigrant success, a new twist on the American Dream.

The lesson in Gurrola's story is that a working man's son can grow up in Southern California to be the great Mexican cowboy his father wanted to be.

A Son's Dream

Gurrola's grandfather was one of the best trick-ropers in Zacatecas. When he had to decide whether to sell a milk cow or a good charro horse, he sold the cow. His son dreamed of being a great charro too. But poverty forced him to leave his horses and head to California in 1971.

Then 17, the son found a job in construction and rented a house in Hawaiian Gardens. Ramiro Gurrola Sr. was part of the first wave of Mexican immigrants to come directly to Los Angeles, bypassing the agricultural work that had drawn earlier generations.

These newcomers were mostly from ranching states in central Mexico, where charreria is almost a religion. It is also expensive. A charro needs a good horse, feed, a saddle and a way to get himself and his horse to the rodeo. Poor rancher youths had to compete on plow horses.

In Southern California, charreria was barely known. But the region's economy offered what Mexico could not: money to buy good horses.

Some people viewed charreria as old-fashioned, even corny, with riders wearing old-style sombreros. But over the years, a charro subculture took root in L.A. Some devotees bought horses before they bought cars. Many seemed to work solely to support their charreria habit. They made sure their children learned ropes and horses. They took them to Mexico to show them authentic charreria.

Few were as consumed by rodeo as Ramiro Gurrola Sr. He saved $5,000 and could buy either a horse or a house. He bought the horse. By the time he bought a house, he had four horses and three children.

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