Words like “elegance,” “beauty” and “ornateness” aren’t usually associated with the outfits and saddlery of American cowboy culture. But, pardner, those words clearly apply to the centuries-old equestrian culture of Mexico.
An exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum that is up through March 30 celebrates that tradition. It is titled “Arte en la Charrería: The Artisanship of Mexican Equestrian Culture.”
It was organized by International Arts and Artists, Washington, D.C., in collaboration with Marisú González German and Gabriel Cabello Martinez.
One can see the elegance of a charro’s semi-gala suit, from a brushed leather, wide-brimmed hat (sombrero) to a fitted jacket with suede applications, a rebozo-style bow tie and leather belt, pants and chaps.
A charro is a Mexican cowboy.
There’s the beauty of the brightly colorful Adelita and China Poblana dresses that the charras, or cowgirls, wear. The Adelita is a work outfit for the charra with its rounded skirt that’s part of a wide, ruffled, beribboned dress. The China Poblana dress – sequined and beaded blouse and skirt – is the most distinctive female outfit of the charrería culture.
And there’s the ornateness of a charro’s embroidered gala saddle that rests over a sarape, with its horsehair cinch, embroidered headstall embroidered with a silver ironwork bit and a sheathed machete with silver inlayed hilt, according to the exhibit text.
The embroidery on the saddle is called piteado, a technique done by hand over tanned leather and using fibers from the maguey and agave plants. The most common embroidery motifs on saddles are roses, symbolizing the Virgin of Guadalupe, snakes and eagles representing Mexico’s coat of arms and also pre-Colombian border designs, the text explains.
“What excites me about this exhibit is that it reminds us of the origins of cowboy culture in the American West, that the origins are from Mexico and all the way back to Spain and the Moors and their equestrian culture,” said Deb Slaney, the museum’s curator of history.
“This exhibit is different from anything we’ve had before. It’s colorful and unique in a very different way. The colors are a combination of very earthy and very bright.”
Slaney said that even the American rodeo can be traced to Mexico. The rodeo in Mexico is called a charreada, but it goes well beyond a rodeo’s timed roping or riding events.
“Many of the charreada events are choreographed,” added Elizabeth Becker, the museum’s curator of education.
“The word ‘elegant’ applies not only to the costumes but to the charreada events. I think a lot of the focus is on the details of the movements of the horse, the rider and the roping.”
The charreada is a festive event with its costumes, food and music. The charreada’s sports competitions originated in the Mexican colonial period of the 17th century. The art of lassoing and the riding tricks soon developed through a collaboration of ranchers, charros, horse trainers and others, according to the exhibit text.
So the charreada culture is steeped in Mexican history and remains important to Mexicans.
Slaney said that in her PowerPoint presentation on the exhibit she explains that charreria is a symbol of Mexican identity and honors not only the charros and charras but also the artisans who created the costumes, the saddlery, the rebozos and sarapes.
There are an estimated 900 equestrian societies throughout Mexico. Becker said that families who are members of these societies sponsor charreada teams and by doing so are preserving the tradition.
She said that much of what she has learned about charreria came from a talk by German and Martinez at the museum. German and Martinez, who are from Mexico, assembled the objects in the exhibit.
Similar exhibits about charrería have toured to other American museums, but Slaney said the collection in the exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum is the first time these particular objects are being displayed.