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Mexico's Cowboys

THE guys in wide-brimmed sombreros and trousers with silver bangles are not "The Three Amigos" of Hollywood fame. The traditional charro suit is what real Mexican cowboys have worn for decades when competing in the national sport known as La charreada.

"Every Sunday, in big towns and small villages across Mexico, you can find a charreada," says Maria Elena Franco Quiroz, director of the Museo de la Charreria in Mexico City.

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The charreada is a cross between equestrian finesse and brute bronco-busting. Indeed, the rodeos in Canada and the United States are a spinoff from charreadas.

Long before the West was won, Mexicans were breaking horses and herding cattle. The Spanish conquistadors brought horses to the New World. In 1609, it became legal for locals to ride and cow-punching and its outfits began to evolve here.

Since 1919, Mexican cowboys have competed in charreria associations or clubs. Some 18,000 participate in about 850 associations nationwide, including 30 in Mexico City.

But the charreada and the rodeo of their northern cousins have developed along different paths. Mexican charros, for example, see the American rodeo as adulterated.

"In the US, you have to stay on a wild horse for a matter of seconds. Here, you stay on the horse until it's subdued. If you fall off before, you get no points," says Ms. Franco, who began riding when she was old enough to walk.

The Mexican charreada is completely amateur and includes women in side-saddle horse riding competitions known as escaramuzas. "There's no money in this. We charros compete for the pure love of the sport," says Franco.

With their gold-thread embroidered hats, silver-buttoned suits, and dresses adorned with beads and hand-stitching, the Mexican charreada boasts more colorful costumes than are worn in US rodeos while providing a test of skills that are arguably closer to day-to-day tasks performed on the range.

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For example, in US competition, calves are chased on horseback, roped, and then the cowboy jumps down, tosses the calf on its side, and ties it up. In Mexico, the charro lassos the calf's hind legs and pulls it from its feet, never leaving the horse.

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