Horses, roping and history: The story of a UO charro

In Antonio Huerta’s hands, rope becomes a living, fluid thing, spinning in blurry circles above and beneath and around him.

It’s a skill he mastered over many years, starting as child in a rural village in Mexico, where rope work was just part of daily ranch chores. But Huerta learned how to make it an art form and in the process became a charro, a word that evokes the deep connections Mexico’s people have for their past and for the land as well as for their modern culture and traditions.

Huerta, the outreach manager for the UO’s Division of Undergraduate Studies, helps keep that past alive, not only by competing in charro competitions known as charreadas, but also by helping pass the art on to new generations. That work earned him an Oregon Folklife Network Award, and he was recently among a group of award winners who were honored at the Capitol Building in Salem.

Charro means horseman, but that doesn’t do it justice. In charreria, charros compete in a dozen events that blend horse riding, cattle work and roping with a generous helping of traditional culture. Charros are the embodiment of a tradition that stretches back more than 500 years, one that helped unite the country in the years after the Mexican Revolution and still brings together people from villages and cities, the rich and the poor.

“It really evolved out of the work that indigenous Mexican people needed to do for the landowners ever since the Spaniards came to the Americas,” Huerta said. “It’s a very artful form of expression. It really brings people together.”

It’s hard to describe what charros and charreria mean to people in and from Mexico. It is closely tied to the concept of “la Mexicanidad,” a sense of identity and belonging that is deeply rooted in the people of Mexico and that few can put into words.

Huerta began to sense that connection as a boy working on his family’s small ranch in rural Jalisco state. Roping and riding were “something we always did,” but though he admired the local charros, he couldn’t afford the formal training to join them.

It wasn’t until he left home for college and later became a resident of the United States that he was able to get back on a horse and, thanks to a neighbor in San Diego, began training. After some 10 years of work, he is considered a master of the art, status that was recognized by the Folklife award.

Riki Saltzman, executive director of the UO-based Oregon Folklife Network, said the awards help ensure the continuity of traditional arts by pairing a master with an apprentice and creating a space where knowledge and skills are kept alive. That fits with the network’s precept of “rooted in the past and alive in the present.”

“Antonio has dedicated significant time not only to build his own skills as a charro but to share those skills with the public through demonstrations and with the next generation of Mexican Oregonians through mentorship,” said Emily West Hartlerode, associate director of the Oregon Folklife Network. “This is exactly the kind of investment in Oregon's future that OFN encourages and highlights around the state. Oregon is a confluence of culture, and we honor those people who take the time to excel in and pass on the cultural art forms that keep their heritage alive.”

Part of being a charro is having the right gear. That means not only a saddle, horse and rope but also the right clothing. Charros often wear outfits with hand-stitched embroidery identifying them as part of a particular team, known as associations.

Huerta is a member of Caporales de Oregon, one of five associations in the state. He often wears a green outfit with gold embroidery featuring a prominent O on the back, especially when he appears at festivals and parades around the state as part of his outreach duties.

Wearing that gear has real meaning for charros, and perhaps especially for Huerta.

“Every time I put on my regalia, I feel in a way that I’m becoming an ambassador of the sport, but more so of Mexico,” he said. “It’s a lot more than an outfit. I might as well be wrapped up in the Mexican flag.”

But it’s also a way of honoring the past. And that means the indigenous people who lived in Mexico long before the Spaniards as well as the people of Spanish descent who also are part of the nation’s history and culture.

“The sport is a blend of Spanish and Mexican indigenous influences that ultimately brought and identified both peoples as one,” Huerta said. “Charros became the physical iconic figures that symbolized the new era after the Mexican Revolution when the sport became officially recognized as the national sport of Mexico in 1933.”

Huerta said he is especially grateful to the Oregon Folklife Network for the award. It not only recognizes the years of hard work that went into mastering this traditional art but also helped him share it with a new generation.

“It’s just such an amazing opportunity to be acknowledged for something that you’re passionate about and to have the opportunity to create the space to share it with a young person,” he said.

—By Greg Bolt, Public Affairs Communications