Photography by Jason Williams
Armando Abedoy sits on the couch in his living room flipping through an album full of yellowing photographs before he stops to pull one out.
"Believe it or not," Abedoy explains as he holds the photo up to the light, "That's me right there on the right."
The photo shows Abedoy, along with several other men, youthful faces full of pride, lined up on horseback outside of a dusty arena. They're dressed in traje de charro — embroidered jackets fastened with big crimson red silk bows, fitted pants, leather chaps, belts with arabesque designs and wide-brimmed felt hats — and ready to compete in their first charrería competition at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena.
Located less than three miles away from his home, Abedoy remembers riding horseback from his house to the Whittier Narrows parcel where the Pico Rivera Sports Arena was being constructed. "I would sit there and watch them build the arena," says the 64-year-old veteran charro. "I couldn't believe they were really building a lienzo charro for us."
Finished in 1978, the 6,000-seat facility was designed expressly for charreadas. Broken down into two sections — a manga (a long, linear part) and ruedo (a round pen) — charros in Southern California now had a proper place to demonstrate their skills and horsemanship in the nine events that make up the sport of charrería, a horsing tradition with roots in Spain's Moorish past.
Defined by a unique rating of riding, roping and attire, the team with the most points at the end wins. Escaramuzas participate in all-female competitions that feature eight riders dressed in traditional attire performing choreographed, synchronized routines, all while riding side saddle.
Charrerías was declared Mexico's national sport by the Mexican Congressional Legislature with the establishment of the Federación Mexicana de Charrería (FMCH) in 1933. By that point, the sport was already in the United States, brought to the country by Mexican immigrants from charrería's heart — the states of Jalisco and Zacatecas — who had fled their homeland after the Mexican Revolution.
The first official stateside charro association, Charros de Los Angeles was the first in the U.S. formally recognized and federated by the Federación Mexicana de Charrería in 1962. Soon after, charrería in Southern California became federated. New associations formed throughout Los Angeles County, soon followed by the rest of Southern California and beyond.
At that time Abedoy says he was in the Asociación La Zacatecana de Charros, who practiced and competed in unsanctioned events for two years before joining the Federación Mexicana de Charrería in 1973.
"These young men came here from Mexico and some of them did charrería back in their states. So when they came over they wanted to do the same thing here," says Abedoy. "It started here from people that missed their customs and traditions."
He attributes Mario Arteaga, Marcelino Rodriguez, Carlos Coronel and Alfonso Chavez Sr. of Charros La Alteña for playing a major role in influencing Pico Rivera city councilman, Frank Terrazas to approve the construction of the Pico Rivera Sports Arena. As a result, the City of Pico Rivera signed a contract with Charros La Alteña granting them primary use of the new facility with a separate agreement allowing the charro association to use the stables at nearby Bicentennial Park.
Laura Barraclough, an author and professor of American Studies at Yale University, says Terrazas and others on the Pico Rivera City Council angled to situate suburban Pico Rivera as an American center of Mexican culture. Charros, charrería and associated practices of rural Mexican ranch life were integral to this vision.
"The conceptualization of the Sports Arena from the very beginning when they started talking about this facility in the 1970s, is that they wanted to make Pico Rivera a suburb and a place that would be known even in Mexico," Barraclough says. "And their strategy worked."
For decades, the Pico Rivera Sports Arena has remained a cultural institution and cornerstone for generations of Mexican American families and the Latino community at large. As the Pico Rivera Sports Arena flourished, so did charrería.
Christina Cabral, who grew up going to the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, recalls the first time she witnessed the Escaramuzas Las Angelinas de California perform. "My dad was charreando and I was playing somewhere in the stands when all of the sudden, these women came into the arena wearing these beautiful white dresses, with red rebozos (a shawl worn around the waist)," says the 44-year-old. "I was like, 'Whoa, these girls are on horses.' Then the music started and they started galloping — it was the most amazing and beautiful thing I'd ever seen."
It was that performance that inspired Cabral to become an escaramuza herself and later start Charra Internacional de las Americas, a cultural exchange program exclusively for charras to explore and learn about equestrian disciplines from other cultures and promote the sport of escaramuza. Since founding Charra Internacional in 2017, Cabral and her students have traveled to Havana, Cuba, Santiago, Chile, Hebei and Beijing, China.
"We all have one thing in common and that's our love for horses which is heavily weaved into our culture," Cabral says.
Like Cabral, Esteban Escobedo, who works for the State of California at the Animal Health Branch of the California Department of Food and Agriculture and is also the Animal Welfare Commissioner for the Federación Mexicana de Charrería en California (Mexican Federation of Charros in California), has grown up with the Pico Rivera Sports Arena and is dedicated to preserving Mexican culture through charrería now more than ever.
On Feb 23, 2021, the Los Angeles City Council voted 15-0 to request that the city attorney craft an ordinance banning "electric prods or shocking devices, flank or bucking straps, wire tiedowns, and sharpened or fixed spurs or rowels at all rodeo or rodeo related events in the city of Los Angeles."
If the ordinance is approved, such a ban could prevent rodeos and other shows from taking place within city limits, depending on how essential the tools are in training the animals used in such events.
"If this ban passes, there's always the fear that it can become statewide, like with what happened with our manganas [which the front legs of a galloping horse are lassoed to bring it safely to the ground in a shoulder roll]," Escobedo said. In the last two decades, animal welfare activists in the United States have persuaded legislators to ban certain Mexican rodeo events. "The Pico Rivera Sports Arena is the only place that we have that is of some kind of esteem or value, where we can perform and exhibit what we do the best, charrería."
Through CARES (California Animal Response Emergency System) a state-level organization providing guidance and operational support to counties managing animal care, Escobedo is working to implement new procedures and best practices –– educating the public about charrería and animal husbandry. "I'm working with various veterinarians to start a program where we can train the charros to be like EMTs," Escobedo says.
"The Los Angeles City Council doesn't have an understanding of what we use or why we use the equipment," Escobedo says. "I'm working on changing that to ensure the existence of chareada for generations to come."
While the Pico Rivera Sports Arena is best known for its charreadas, it also became known for turning musical talent. It became one of the premier music venues for Mexican regional music in the United States. Ranchera legend Antonio Aguilar made it a home base for the decades-long traveling rodeo that featured his family. The late ranchera legend Vicente Fernandez frequented it, along with Juan Gabriel, who once described the Pico Rivera Sports Arena to the Los Angeles Times as being, "very real." "The Times said Gabriel described the Arena as a place that 'makes him feel alive to sing there, under the open sky, to humble families, and he said he'd rather sing there than in a luxurious theater.'"
In recent years, the Sports Arena has also hosted other Latino cultural events: Fiestas Patrias, a drive-through distribution with Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and a home for vendors from the Avenue 26 Family Night Market in Lincoln Heights booted out by the City of Los Angeles earlier this year.
"If we didn't have the Sports Arena I don't know where we would be," says 44-year-old Cabral. "We wouldn't be able to have the events at the scale that we do — We'd be having little backyard events and that's not preserving our culture."