Las Amazonas Del Dorado introduce the Mexican tradition of escaramuza to Virginia.
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Las Amazonas Del Dorado in Catlett.
Photos by Adam Ewing
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Riding sidesaddle and in identical Adelita dresses and tack, Las Amazonas Del Dorado enter the lienzo charro where they will perform escaramuza.
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Coach Lalo Sandoval and Marugenia Alvarez.
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Cecilia Castro and her 2-year-old daughter Daniela.
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Alan Alvarez practices rope tricks.
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Issac Castro (third from left) and the extended Castro family at their ranch in Catlett.
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The team executes el abanico, the fan, at the end of their performance.
Elbow propped on the chest-high wall of the lienzo charro, Isaac Castro calls out a request to the mariachi band assembling on the hill above—“Guadalajara!” As the ample-bellied musicians in ivory suits launch into the familiar anthem of Castro’s hometown in Mexico, Las Amazonas Del Dorado prepare their horses to enter the keyhole-shaped arena.
Riding sidesaddle, the many layers of ruffles on their identical costumes camouflaging boots and saddles, long dark hair neatly tied and trailing down their backs from beneath custom-made sombreros, Las Amazonas trot into the lienzo carrying the banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico.
Leaning against the outer arena wall watching are the women’s husbands, cousins, uncles, brothers and friends, most of the men dressed in the narrow embroidered pants and butterfly ties of Mexican horsemen, known as charros, sunglasses and sombreros shielding them from the midday sun here at Castro’s 60-acre ranch in Catlett.
They are waiting to see the team perform escaramuza. The Spanish word for “skirmish,” it is the 10th and final event of the charreada—traditional Mexican rodeo—and the only competition for women in the country’s beloved national sport. But here, unlike in Mexico and western states in the U.S. where escaramuza is popular, there are no crowds, no TV cameras—just the extended Castro clan, who were the first to bring the sport to Virginia when Las Amazonas began in 2009.
As the tempo of the music picks up and beads of sweat gather at the temples of the musicians, the riders begin a series of 10 tightly choreographed formations, charging toward each other at a short gallop, skillfully converging and diverging dozens of times in kaleidoscopic patterns. They turn and cross at high speed, using a long thin branch called a vara to tap the horse’s flank and guide it through the precise steps. Despite the pace, the riders remain poised and elegant as they fit their horses perfectly into the narrow lanes of space between them.
The roughly 10-minute performance ends with what is clearly a favorite of the charros and their families gathered here on this brisk fall day—el abanico, the fan. The horses snort and chuff as they circle the perimeter of the arena, nose to hip in perfect synchronization, while the riders salute the cheering crowd, the horns of the mariachis in the background offering a final flourish to this impressive show.
It is beautiful, but dangerous. Throughout the performance, the slightest misstep or stumble risks spectacular high-speed collision, yet the team is flawless, displaying grit and grace in equal measure. “It’s a lot of nerves, a lot of excitement,” says 33-year-old Lilia Castro of Catlett, “but it makes you feel proud of what you’re doing.”
In places like California, Texas, Colorado and Arizona hundreds of teams compete on regional and national levels to earn a few coveted spots in the National Charro Championships in Mexico each year, but Las Amazonas and one other escaramuza team (Adelitas de Virginia, also based in Catlett, established in 2015) are the only groups performing on the East Coast; the nearest state with an escaramuza team is Illinois.
“We were pioneers,” laughs 18-year-old Adriana Jimenez of Catlett.
When they began, most of the team, who range in age from 18 to 50, including several mother-daughter pairs, didn’t even know how to ride; seven years later they look as if they’ve been doing it all their lives. “We wanted to represent our culture and bring our tradition to the U.S.,” explains 24-year-old Betty Castro of Great Falls, who came to Virginia from Tequila, Mexico in 2009.
But it has required serious commitment to get here. The 11 women on the team (eight compete at a time), who are all related to the Castros in some way, are spread out over Northern Virginia, coming from as far away as Fredericksburg to practice several times a week with their coach, Lalo Sandoval, 41, a charro whose wife Cecilia Castro, 38, is a member of the team.
And without the support network the sport enjoys in the west, Las Amazonas have had to be resourceful. Betty Castro credits Sandoval, who emigrated from Tequila, Mexico, in 2001, for the team’s choreography. (For his part, Sandoval says with a wide smile on his face, the hardest part of training is getting the women to pay attention.)
And they do their best to meet the strict rules and regulations set up by the sport’s governing body, the Federación Mexicana de Charreria. In addition to precise guidelines for choreography, every piece of clothing the riders wear must be identical—down to the smallest detail like the monogrammed silver pin each of the Amazonas wears at her neck. The skirts of their Adelita dresses, named for the women fighters of the Mexican Revolution, must be tied with a rebozo, or sash, on the left and have at least one ruffle and petticoats underneath so starched that they crunch to the touch. The close-fitting blouses must be high-collared, and the sombreros, which are reinforced to make them strong like a helmet, must be uniform. The same goes for their boots and all of the other elements of the costume, as well as the horses’ tack, most of which is custom-made in Mexico. Each ensemble can cost up to $800; the women each own about 10 different costumes, and most also own their own horses.
Despite the cost and the effort, says Betty Castro, a student at George Mason University (ranch owner Isaac Castro is her uncle), “We just enjoy doing it, it’s a stress reliever.”
It was Castro, 54, the owner of a Haymarket-based construction business, who recruited the group (his wife Mariseli, 46, competes on the team). The reason for doing all of this is simple, he explains: “We don’t want to lose our traditions.
“When we bought this land nine years ago, we built the arena and the barn,” says Castro. Several times each year, on Mother’s Day and Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16), he hosts the charreada where the network of Virginia charros he has developed compete in the sport’s nine suertas—events which test cowboy skills, including reining, bull riding and team roping—ending with escaramuza. On this day, though, escaramuza is the star of the show.
After the presentation, as Las Amazonas walk their horses from the arena, the men meet them and they talk quietly for a few minutes about the performance—their pride evident in every detail, every moment, every gesture.
For Castro, who has been in Virginia for more than 25 years, and many here today, participating in the charreada in Mexico was an unattainable dream; there, it is a sport reserved for only the most affluent.
“When I was little living in Guadalajara, we were always going to see charreada and I really loved it. I attempted to be in an escaramuza group, but it was so expensive I couldn’t do it then,” says Lorena Anguiano, 37, of Woodbridge, who came to the U.S. in 2006. “This country has been the land of my dreams.”
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Nearby, carne asada cooks in a large barn open on one side to the arena, tantalizing smoke from the fire wafting out over the lienzo and the many families that keep arriving. Charros gather around the beds of gleaming trucks, pouring crystal clear tequila over ice into plastic Solo cups as the horses are groomed and put away, and preparations wrap up for the eating and dancing that will continue into the night.
Tomorrow, Las Amazonas will return to their children, classes and jobs as hairdressers and house cleaners.
“Doing this keeps us close to our roots, it gives us an understanding of where our parents came from,” explains 24-year-old Geny Alvarez of Woodbridge, a student at Northern Virginia Community College. “To know where we came from is to understand our history.”
This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.