Iowa's newest escaramuza team honors Mexican culture, embraces change
Story by Kassidy Arena. Video by Lucius Pham.
On a windy day on the east side of Des Moines, eight horseback riders call out to one another in a homemade arena. The mud is thick and sticks to their boots and horseshoes.
A young woman hops off her white horse named Julio. Her boots sink into the mud as she walks toward the center of the arena, raising her voice against the wind. She points to where the riders should be, shouting instructions in Spanish and English. Her name is Alejandra Piña. She's the captain of her team of escaramuza charras.
Charrería is considered the national sport of Mexico. It’s typically dominated by men, or charros, in a series of events. Escaramuza charra is the only official event for females. There can be more than eight riders on a team, but that's the most common. And they compete side saddle.
Piña’s family has a rich history in the sport. Her father's side is full of charros from "back in the day." They have showcased at the Iowa Horse Fair for several years.
In January, Piña and a group of young women came together to form a team called Escaramuza Charra Quetzalli. They all picked Piña as the leader. Their coach, Alexandra Casas, is based out of California. She connects with the team by traveling to Iowa and Facetime/video.
"It's kind of tough, because I knew it was gonna be a hard job. And it was gonna be a lot of work. And the coach is even said it like 'You have the worst job. You have shot yourself in the foot because if something happens, it's gonna go on you,'" Piña explained.
The 27-year-old said being an escaramuza is like a second, unpaid, job.
“It makes it worth it showing that the girls, we're gonna make history, we have a passion, and that we're all working towards it together," she said.
Escaramuza charra has some pretty serious judging–right down to the bloomers the competitors wear underneath their traditional Mexican dresses. The teams spend thousands of dollars to comply with regulations.
“Our rulebook the reglamento is updated every year. And it gets more strict every year. Versus the men… the men’s very, very lax," Piña said. "We go back to the Mexican machismo, not even in Mexico, but in all Hispanic households, most of them. But slowly, I think with the new generations are coming in, it's growing.”
A few months ago, Iowa became a member of the Federación Mexicana de Charrería. The Federación lists 15 other U.S. states in its delegation. Piña said she wants to make history as an Iowa team by becoming the first to compete in the national competition in Mexico.
But there’s another way Quetzalli has made history. There are seven young women, including Piña, all of Mexican heritage. But the eighth escaramuza breaks the pattern. That’s 14-year-old Tyler de Leon.
“I'm a gay, brown man who's in a woman's only, very traditional sport that literally represents a rich Spanish tradition. And some people don't like that," de Leon said. "It's scary to go out and be like, ‘We don't care what you say.’ And where we're opening up this community.”
Although they might not accept you, accept yourself...In the end, you're gonna rise so much higher than them.
de Leon paused. Tears started to form around his red-rimmed brown eyes. "Although they might not accept you, accept yourself. You need to push through that because they don't matter," he paused again, nodding to himself. "In the end, you're gonna rise so much higher than them."
de Leon’s mother Anna Garcia is a horse lover and trainer. She acts as an informal coach for the team. As she watched her son practice during a rainy day in their indoor arena in Winterset, she admitted she’s terrified de Leon has to break barriers without any roadmaps.
“He is like, indomitable in the face of adversity. He's who I want to be when I grow up, really and truly, because, I mean, there's all these terrifying things in his day-to-day life that he just deals with, with a smile on his face, and love in his heart," Garcia said.
Escaramuza caught de Leon’s attention after he watched a documentary about the sport.
“And I was like, I want a heritage. I want a community. I'm Filipino, but we don't have a community like that," de Leon said. "So I was always just so taken aback by how strong the community was and how much they sacrifice, how much hard work they put into it. And I was like, I want to do something like that.”
He spoke to his mom about it and she brought up the recently formed Quetzalli team. de Leon already had equestrian experience in multiple different styles, so he when he went to watch a practice, Quetzalli's coach asked if he wanted to ride with them, resulting in a successful tryout.
In her home in Des Moines, teammate Wendy Murillo said she hopes the sport will evolve. She doesn’t know why it has to be divided when the real goal should just be to get escaramuza charra out there for people to know about. Murillo said she feels like the charro side is more well known in society, both the U.S. and Mexico, than the escaramuza side.
“I feel like to everyone on the team, it’s just not a sport. It's more than that. You're, in a way, like a role model to other people. You're very brave if you're in the sport," she said.
The team will compete Memorial Day weekend in Chicago. Team captain Piña said she’s going to look at it as a ‘practice run’ so they can figure out what they need to work on for future competitions.