Most Americans have never heard of Escaramuza, but for the Rivas family, it’s been a way of life for generations. Escaramuza is a feminine Mexican and North American equestrian art — a form of charrería — which blends rodeo, “horseback ballet” and speed.
Robin Rosenthal and Bill Yahraus wanted to tell the story of one family in Riverside, Calif., which is carrying on the sport of their Mexican ancestors in the U.S. Four years in the making, their documentary, “Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart,” features Las Azaleas — a team of first-generation Mexican American horsewomen on a two-year journey to represent California and the United States at the National Charro Championships in Mexico. It will air as part of PBS’ VOCES series on October 5.
Maribel Rivas Gutierrez, captain of award-winning team Las Azaleas, is daughter of champion charro Romualdo Rivas.
“I started to compete when I was 13, but I’ve been on a horse as young as I can remember,” says the 38-year-old, and oldest of the competing family of four sisters and two brothers. “My dad would take me everywhere. He was a big part of me doing what I loved back then and now. He still follows us around…He’s 71, and he still dresses up when he has to, sometimes he’s our locutor (announcer).”
She says what she loves most about Escaramuza is that it’s so family oriented. It also unites friends of all ages.
“We’re a small part of la charreria,” says Gutierrez about the art of Escaramuza. “We do a 12 exercise routine in no more than 10 minutes…We’re representing what our parents and grandparents did, and we’re trying to keep it alive.”
She says although she does sometimes wonder what she would have been if she wasn’t born into a family of charros, and around horses and livestock, she’s happy she was.
“My dad told me when I was 13, ‘If you do this, you’re going to do this 120 percent,’” says Gutierrez, who now is a mother of three boys and a girl. “It was something I chose to do, because I wanted to do it. I did it, and I never stopped.”
Every year, she says, her team of eight women go through the same training process.
“We have to go through a state, regional and national competition,” says Gutierrez. “Every single year we have qualified for the nationals in Mexico…You can see the difference between the competition here and there — over there it’s like the Olympics.”
Their biggest challenge to date, she says, is they haven’t been able to take each of their eight horses, because it takes a lot of money to take them.
“The most we’ve taken is six horses, and every time there’s always something that happens,” says Gutierrez. “You’re familiar with your horse, and to have to get on a horse that they lend you in Mexico, it’s impossible, but we try to keep positive.”
Her voice quickens up, and you can almost hear her smiling, when she says that this year they’re taking all eight horses to Mexico to compete at the Nacional Zacatecas 2012 on October 30.
“This is my dream,” says Gutierrez who fundraised all year with her team in order to afford to compete in Mexico. “This year we are paying $1,600 per horse.”
She says although they don’t make a lot of money through Escaramuza, the girls do it because they love it, and they save all their winnings in order to keep competing. She says they practice twice a week for about two hours. Before a competition, their instructor will come from Mexico for four days and they will have more intensive sessions.
“Every teammate either goes to college, are pursuing their masters as therapists or teachers, they work, and they have to juggle Escaramuza with school and work,” says Gutierrez. “I don’t go to school, but I juggle my kids, and I do a lot of the costume making.”
Gutierrez says she feels truly honored that her team was chosen to be followed by cameras for two years.
“They have caught the beauty of our Mexican culture, and what the female can do for future generations,” she says. “There are Mexican-American kids out there that don’t even know this exists…that don’t even realize it’s a part of them.”