Saturday, May 12, 2012

Beyond the Medialuna: Rodeo for the Rich?

In his Cowboys of the Americas, historian Richard W. Slatta provides a thorough and lavishly illustrated account of horsemen from Canada to Cape Horn, even including the vast Pacific in the person of the Hawaiian paniolo (his overlooking the riders of Easter Island and their mounts is perhaps forgivable). One characteristic event, everywhere, was the rodeo, but it could differ dramatically from country to country.
In South America’s Southern Cone, of course, Slatta focuses on the Argentine gaucho, but he does not overlook the lesser-known Chilean huaso. Unlike the original gaucho, who was notoriously independent, the huaso was a hired hand or even a peon attached to an hacienda, but he and his colleagues could blow off steam by racing their horses, betting and drinking on Sundays. As this spontaneous rodeo grew too raucous, though, it drew the disapproval of landowners, who responded by organizing competitions that, over time, became more genteel versions of their predecessors.

Though Chilean rodeo remains popular it is now, according to Slatta, a nostalgic exercise that’s “a middle- and upper-class pastime,” not a profession as it has become in North America. The signature event is the atajada, in which a pair of jinetes (riders) guide and pin a calf or steer against the padded wall of the medialuna, the semi-circular rodeo ring. Since it’s harder to control the beast by the body than the head – the chest is best – horsemen get more points for this. They lose points if the animal strikes any unpadded part of the wall, or escapes between the horses.
Riders wear colorful ponchos, flat-brimmed sombreros known as chupallas, leather leggings, over-sized spurs, and elaborately carved wooden stirrups. According to an article in last week’s Economist, that’s part of what keeps the proles out of the spotlight. It costs up to US$2,500 to participate in an event such the annual national championships, which attracted 50,000 spectators to the heartland city of Rancagua in March.

But it’s not just the entry fees. One of Chile’s richest men, El Mercurio owner Agustín Edwards Eastman, sponsored this year’s champions. Edwards reportedly spends up to US$60,000 per month in rodeo-related expenses, including salaries for the riders and grooms, and veterinary and breeding consultants. That’s well beyond the reach of any amateur participants, even though these are ostensibly non-professional events.
That said, it’s still possible see to genuine, participatory Chilean rodeo outside the lavishly funded indulgences of the Chilean elite. Virtually every town and village in the Chilean heartland and beyond has its own medialuna, and I took the photograph above in the tiny community of Palena – with a permanent population of fewer than 2,000 – in northern Chilean Patagonia. In settlements like this, the rodeo comes closest to its historic roots.

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