'Riding side-saddle is not easy. It hurts your back and you gotta look pretty doing it too'
BEECHER, Ill. (WLS) -- Mexico's oldest sport is charrería.
"It's considered the national sport - everyone thinks it's soccer but it's charrería," said Vereniz Llamas.
The men who practice the equestrian sport are known as charros but perhaps more impressive are the women, who are called escaramuzas. It literally translates to skirmish in English.
Llamas, 32, lives in Beecher, Illinois and has been riding for 16 years.
"An escaramuza is a Mexican cowgirl that works in a synchronized team with eight other girls on side saddle doing dangerous crosses, fast turns and it's almost a dance on horses," said Llamas.
Charrería, which dates back to the 1600s, lives on in the south suburbs of Chicago. Illinois now has 16 Charro teams and nine Escaramuza teams who compete at a state level with the hopes of going on to compete at what's known as the annual Congreso in Mexico.
Illinois is one of 14 states that continue the tradition and can officially compete in Mexico, according to the Federación Mexicana de Charrería.
"A lot of people from Chicago when we tell them what we are. If they see us dressed, they ask us when are we dancing?" Llamas said. "We're like no, we're not ballet folklorico but we ride horses and they're like wait, that exists?"
Llamas belongs to Las Coronelas de Illinois. Their team practices in Manhattan at Ranchos Los Gonzalez.
Founded in 2000, the Coronelas are the second oldest escaramuza team in Illinois.
Considered one of the stronger teams, the Coronelas became the newest state champions on Aug. 21 at this year's state competition hosted by Rancho El Consuelo in Beecher. The team is now headed to compete at the 2022 Congreso in Zacatecas, Mexico in October.
Alexa Curiel, 18, of Joliet has been riding for the past five years. Curiel has been a member of the Coronelas for the past two years.
"We have a very strong leader, Itzel," said Curiel. "As an escaramuza in Illinois, she (Itzel) is one of everyone's idols because she's competed in Mexico so many times she's such a phenomenal rider."
Itzel Castañeda is the captain of the Coronelas. At 27 years old, she's been riding since she was five.
"Being captain, it's a really competitive role and it's a really difficult role. It's a team consisting of eight girls. It's eight different ideas, eight different personalities, eight different schedules," said Castañeda.
The judges fly in from Mexico. They are very meticulous, making sure each detail is in place before they even ride into the arena. That includes attire, horses, saddles and even their hair.
"Your hair has to be in a slick-back pony. And be careful not to have fly-aways" explains Curiel. "You're also not supposed to have unnatural hair colors like blue or green hair. That's part of the rule book."
But most importantly they look at the team as a whole on their precision and accuracy.
"So if you're doing a 360 turn what they're going to look for is if one girl's off. If she's too open. It's all about precision and coordination," said Castañeda.
Castañeda said she considers herself an athlete.
"Not any person can just get on a side saddle and do it correctly, explained Castañeda. "It involves a lot of balance.""
Riding side saddle is what differentiates an escaramuza from a charro.
The woman's saddle is called the albarda - the men's is called the silla. The albarda has two horns, one for their right leg to cross over and the other for their left supporting leg.
"Riding side saddle is not easy, after a while it hurts your back and you gotta look pretty doing it too," said Castañeda
Pretty in the sense that they wear colorful and traditional Mexican dresses. Most of the teams, including the Coronelas have their dresses made by a special seamstress in Mexico. Las Coronelas signature color has become purple.
"It's a color with a lot of life," explained Curiel. "We wanted to get dresses that made you smile when you looked at them."
Under the dress they wear a crinolina or crinoline to keep it puffy. Below that they are required to wear a calzonera which is at type of legging. And very important is the rebozo or shawl which is tied around their waist in a signature six-tie knot.
Ironically, charrería is considered a "macho" sport according to Castañeda. So much so that some charros don't take the escaramuzas seriously.
"When we perform in the charreadas we go like right in the middle of it and a lot of the men are like- this is our half time show," Castañeda said. "We're just like - we're just as important as you guys."
Castañeda is of the belief that being an escaramuza is more challenging, given that they have to work as a team while the charros are an individual sport. "If one girl is missing it can throw us off in the routine," Castañeda said.
One thing everyone agrees on, is the danger involved with being an escaramuza.
"It can be very tragic. There can be a cross where a girl can crash into another girl and we ride saddle on the left side so we don't have those two legs to control our horses a fatal crash can happen," explained Llamas.
Traditionally, escaramuzas wear either their own hand-made accessories or others that feature "el mal de ojo" to ward of any bad energy or danger. They also pin little holy pendants to their dresses to protect them in the arena. Many of the pins have the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe.
"Accidents can happen so quickly and I feel like that's where the religious part comes in," said Curiel. "They're (accessories) like a part of me, and my home life, they're with me."
"We usually put escapularios on and it shows some decoration," said 19-year-old Valeria Vargas of Romeoville. "I'm pretty religious and it's like having God by my side."
The team's youngest rider is 13-year-old Candy Duran of Joliet. Duran said she tends to black out during the competition.
"Sometimes random thoughts go through my head but most of the time I'm really focused and try to not get overwhelmed a lot," said Duran.
For Llamas it's all about the adrenaline rush.
"All you really hear is the stomping of the hooves on the floor. I drown out the music, watch that we're okay," said Llamas.
The U.S. teams have a huge disadvantage when competing in Mexico. They can't bring their own horses.
"It's a really long drive to take our horses over there. They have to undergo blood tests to see if they're eligible to cross the border," explained Castañeda. "So it's way too risky and way too dangerous."
Another disadvantage for the Coronelas and their fellow Illinois teams is the cold winters.
"We don't have perfect weather year round so we only have certain months throughout the year where we can practice in an arena," said Castañeda.
During the winters they'll practice in an enclosed arena but it's much smaller adding to the list of hurdles las Coronelas jump to place in Mexico. The teams in Mexico don't always give the American teams a warm welcome.
"We get a lot of mixed reaction," said Llamas. "Some girls are very surprised that we make it that far since we have to adjust to a new horse in three days." "And some girls are kind of snobby thinking - we can't let these girls that come from a whole different country - take our spots."
The sport is not cheap either.
"It is very expensive. The dresses run from $300 to $500. The customized saddles are around $800. The sombreros are around $800 as well," said Castañeda. "Horses are expensive too, all the maintenance everything behind it."
"We do our best to get our sponsors," explained Llamas. "Our parents are our number one supporters. A lot of us just see us as eight girls on horses but there's a lot people behind us."
That's why family and tradition are key to the team.
"I got love to charrería. I've grown up in the rancho. I have a special attachment to it," said Duran.
All of the Coronelas are children of immigrants.
"My mom, my dad - they came to the American dream. So for us to be able to perform and uphold that Mexican little tradition that we can still have here - it's very nostalgic," said Llamas.
"It's amazing to feel that I'm living on the tradition that my dad brought on over here," said Vargas. "I'm continuing it on and hopefully I can continue it on with my future kids.