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Mexican-style Texas rodeo puts heritage first

In festive El Paso event, pageantry trumps competition

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Rosie Tobar had never been to Fort Worth's rodeo until this year, when her young children could see cowboys wearing sombreros and hear the announcer's booming voice in Spanish.

She wanted her family to see the Mexican rodeo she had heard about from aging relatives: riders on bucking broncos holding on with both hands, the air filled with live mariachi music.

The 106th Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, a famed event that runs through Feb. 3, has added a Mexican flavor this year, allowing families like the Tobars to see a form of rodeo that dates more than three centuries.

"Sometimes you get so involved in your own life that you forget your heritage, especially the kids," said Tobar, whose family got to see a traditional Mexican rodeo at "Exhibicion Charra Mexicana Y Concierto" last week. "I think this is great to see events celebrating the Hispanic culture in a new way."

Mexico's rich history of rodeo, in which pageantry trumps competition, dates back to the 17th century. But some say the culture has faded from modern-day rodeo events, where American cowboys seem to be motivated more by prize money than carrying on the art of traditional riding.

"A lot of people have lost the foundation of it and don't know how much Mexico was part of rodeo," said acclaimed trick rider Gerardo "Jerry" Diaz, who produced the Mexican rodeo in Fort Worth. "I do this to show beautiful, intricate moves with horsemanship and bring a little bit of heritage with it."

Through the years the Hispanic culture has had a growing influence on the Fort Worth stock show and rodeo, rich in its own traditions since it started in 1896.

This year's Mexican rodeo was part of the stock show's 19th annual "Fiesta Nite at the Rodeo," a rodeo performance, dinner and dance, sponsored by the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

"It's all about who we are, because Latinos are here to stay," said Denise Botello, the group's economic development manager. "It's a wonderful way that people can learn more about the Mexican culture."

The stock show and rodeo started a week earlier than usual this year to accommodate additional livestock show entries and exhibits. The show has become increasingly popular in recent years, with about 800,000 people attending each year.

With an extra week added to the show, organizers decided to let Diaz perform for two nights. That gave him a chance, for the first time, to present his full, 90-minute production with nearly 70 performers.

"It's a colorful festival in the style of Old Mexico," said Diaz, a fourth-generation charro, or Mexican-style cowboy. "There are people and families who are hungry for this."

Crowds cheered as bareback riders tried to stay on bucking horses and bulls. The bilingual announcers explained that the event was about form and poise rather than length of time on the animal.

In another event called "paso de la muerta" — or pass of death — a rider jumped from one fast-moving horse to another.

A champion women's sidesaddle riding team, Las Potrancas del Valle, or Fillies of the Valley, wore dresses with ruffled petticoats while steering galloping horses in various formations.

But the main attraction was Diaz himself. He guided his horse through intricate footwork, including forward and backward high-stepping, prancing while moving sideways, and an elegant bow with one knee resting on the dirt floor.

"This was great, and it teaches those not in this nationality about Mexican rodeos," said DeeAnn Torres, who attended one of the shows. "I think it'll help in the understanding between cultures."