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To be a charro June 27, 2012
To be a charro is to be a gentleman, twice over. First, as a representative of Mexico, second, as the representative of his family. A charro is a Mexican horseman typically dressed in elaborate, traditional costume consisting of form-fitting pants, a jacket or serape, and a sombrero. For most, it’s more than a sport; it’s a way of life. The charreria tradition is poetic, polite and ornate. It exists in the name of keeping the Mexican tradition of animal husbandry alive. Charros are born into the sport. As the “head” of the charreria tradition in El Paso, Mr. Omar Castro III jokes that he went from his mother’s breast to a horse’s back. For Mr. Castro III, this is about keeping his family legacy alive.
Known as “El Rey” in charro circles, Mr. Omar Castro III is the glue that holds the charreria tradition together in West Texas, a post he inherited after the death of his father, Omar Castro Jr., two years ago. A rock wall builder by trade, Mr. Castro is all charro by heart. “We are five generations of charros, my father has been in the charreria tradition in El Paso since 1971. This is his fifth lienzo, it’s our sport, Mexicanos. It’s the only sport born in Mexico. We are Mexican by birth and we don’t deny our roots,” said Mr. Castro III. El Paso is home to fourteen charro associations that get together and compete at the local level.
Being a charro takes hard work and dedication outside of the dedication that it takes to be a good family man and provider, a truth evident in the Castro family. “I think for us it’s a way of life. Our kids know that they have to ride daily. When they come home from school, they go straight to their horse and work on charreria techniques, they care for and brush their horses and find the love for their ranch,” said Mrs. Glora Castro, wife of Omar III. Their daughter, Bianca, is currently the queen of the state of New Mexico, and their son, Omar IV, is a tried and true charro.
A lienzo, also known as a lienzo charro, has the look and feel of a bullfighting ring. It is an arena that consists of a lane that is 39 feet wide by 200 feet long, and leads into a circle that is 130 feet in diameter. To a charro, a lienzo is the equivalent of a Roman Coliseum to a Gladiator. It is where everything comes together. It is where charros spend countless hours perfecting their skill, and ultimately where they display all of their hard work, in the form of grace and finesse, at charreadas.
On a windy Sunday morning, we visited the Lienzo Charro Los Castro, located just outside of El Paso in Canutillo, Texas where the Spanish motto around the lienzo is “So that we don’t run out of horse people”. The day had a burnt sienna hue to it, partially due to the dust generated by Mother Nature, but mostly due to the light kicking of dirt from the horses as the charros practiced their horsemanship. Despite the wind and blowing dust, there was a romantic feel in the environment as ornate men in Greco embroidered charro suits and leather boots arrived by the Texas truckload with their carefully decorated horses . Dwarfed in my tiny car, we were immediately given a traditional charro salute by a little man who was no older than five years of age, and whose last name was none other than Castro.
We quickly learned that around here, everyone is a Castro and furthermore, each Castro woman is the “First Lady” of this lienzo.
With all of the music, food, and parading around, one would think that a special event was about to happen. This is just how charros do Sundays in El Paso, their prime focus being suerte practice. A charreada consists of a number of events, known as suertes. These suertes are staged in a particular order, consisting of nine for the men and one for the women, who are known as escaramuzas. The purpose of today was to practice one particular suerte, known as Colas en Lienzo. This suerte, known as steer tailing, is where the charro rides along the left side of a bull, wraps its tail around its leg, and brings the bull down as he rides past it.
Ask a charro and he’ll tell you that charreadas aren’t rodeos. For them, it is about showmanship and honor. The difference between the two is that during charreadas, participants are judged on grace and finesse, and do not compete for a cash prize. Rodeos on the other hand, are judged on speed and skill, and often compete for cash. Charreadas are charros’ opportunity to show off their hard work. “They bring out their best horse, best suit, best shoes and hat. Back in the day, the horse was what a car is today. For us, bringing out our best shiny horse is like carefully detailing our car to go on a Sunday cruise,” said Mr. Casto III.
Due to the Castro family legacy, El Paso will play host to the Congresso Nacional de Charreria competition on August 31 through September 2, 2012. Hosting this competition is a great honor and recruiting the competition to a city works much like the Olympics. Each city that wishes to make a bid to host the competition is given the opportunity to state their case, and then it is taken to a vote to determine which lucky city will be selected. 2012 is El Paso’s year. The Congresso Nacional de Charreria is made up of fourteen member states that include Texas, Illinios and California. For the Lienzo Los Castro, this means construction. They are hard at work building additional stables to accommodate their honored guests.
Make plans to see charreria at its best when the Congresso Nacional de Charreria holds its largest annual competition each year at the Lienzo Charro Los Castro, 7530 Damian Road, Canutillo, Texas 79835.
Dive In!June 6, 2012
El Paso has tons to offer in the realm of dive bars and when we refer to dive bars, we’re not talking about a place that you’re going to walk into and feel a thick air with get out of here vibes, we’re talking about hole in the wall type places with tons of character and more importantly, characters. As the dive bars that they are, not all of them will have a full service bar. A lot of these places are beer and wine only types. On that note, take it from us: don’t order the wine, stick to beer.
There are a few cardinal set of laws to consider before you embark on this dive bar journey and rule number one is: carry cash. Some of these places don’t accept credit cards and more importantly, you don’t want to cheat yourself out of a bonus tasty treat from the slew of street food vendors that rotate through these bars. If you’re adventurous when it comes to food, and I’m not saying that strange things will walk through the door or anything like that, I’m saying that these are treats made by someone’s mom in her kitchen and she may or may not have a health permit, the odds of eating one of the best tortas, burritos or gorditas are high in these establishments and it is your duty to give it a shot. Another rule of thumb: if it’s not food or live music from a trio of musicos, don’t buy it. This is about having an experience, and do you really need that battery operated LED flashlight or a rose? (Note: the rose will undoubtedly be offered to you some time during the night by a nice man in a tuxedo top with camera in tow who may or may not ride in on a bicycle).
While there are dive bars throughout the city, when diving in El Paso, it’s best to stick to the central part of town. As the oldest, most established part of the city, central El Paso is host to beautiful casitas built in the early 1900s and some of the best architecture in the city. As such, these dives that have down home feeling that can only come from being around forever; they’ve got that broken in, greased up feeling that only comes with time and a rotating door of party people of yesteryear.
The Pershing Inn, known as the PI to insiders, is enchanting in the El Paso way; it pulls no stops and patrons love it for what it is—a good old-fashioned neighborhood bar with no signs of changing. It’s got a cool vintage feel so comforting that it makes you feel like it’s your little secret, only it so happens that the PI is everyone’s little secret.
While this bar is home to many regulars, it gladly accepts new faces. You won’t have that “NEW YORK CITY!!!” affect on the natives when you enter the PI’s red door. As the PI has regained traction with a younger crowd (and by younger we mean old kickball players that stop in to drink after a game), the PI recently opened its back yard for business and although it’s not written in stone, the bar is generally split like this: regulars and neighborhood locals in the main bar, new patrons that don’t necessarily care about the charm, in the back yard. Both demos get along famously and this unwritten formula works. If you like your bartender to be older with a raspy voice and a friendly smile, go to the front. If you prefer your bartender to be scantily clad, go to the back yard. Simple as that.
Pershing Inn, 2909 Pershing Drive. Hours: 12p to 12a M-Sun. Full bar service, credit cards accepted.
Located in the same building as the once glamorous Stagecoach Motor Hotel that was a regular stop for road tripping Americans of the 1950’s, The Chicken Coop is a homey, locals only bar run by a mother-daughter team that is known to cook up some happy hour goodies. While you won’t feel hostility when you enter the door, you’ll know right away that they know that you’ve never set foot in the place. But never fear, the surefire way to win this crowd over goes like this: Walk straight to the jukebox, look for Disc 08, Track 01 and play the tejano version of the Bowie High School fight song. Oh yes, you are officially in Bowie Bears territory and this is their bar. If all goes according to plan, the entire bar will break into a sing along and there you are, the unofficial hero of the night. Do not divert from this system. It’s a guaranteed winner. While you’re at the juke, pay heed to the homemade mixes, you can’t pay for the El Paso style oldies education that this juke holds. Sunny and the Sunliners, check. Brenton Wood, check. Mary Wells, check. There’s even an entire disc dedicated to animal songs, you are in a Chicken Coop after all. This is one of those beer and wine only joints where logic goes out the window when it comes to figuring out your pay as you drink tab. $8 for 5 beers is par for the course. Oh, and don’t bother asking for an IPA. This is Bud and Bud Light town and you’re here for the experience.
El Paso has a long-lived love for all things baseball and located across the street from our first baseball venue, Washington Park, the Park Inn is a baseball-themed hole in the wall that grandpas love to frequent. The Park Inn also happens to be the holy grail of street food vendors. If a lady with a tray full of tortas comes through the door, buy one and dig in.
If a man walks in with a big red cooler on his shoulder and offers you a burrito or a gordita, do it. Again, we’re in beer and wine territory here and if you thought the pickings were slim at the Chicken Coop, the 32oz mugs of Natty Light at the Park Inn, will not cease to amaze. Here’s the deal, we all know that the best way to drink Natural Light is super ice cold, and a 32oz mug of Natty Light means you drink fast before you can’t stand it anymore. This bar is probably 20ft x 16ft and somehow they manage to get it all in. Old school bar with stools, tables with chairs, pool table in the middle, jukebox, TV and a live musical trio to play songs on demand—for a fee, of course. Unassuming and warm, the Park Inn feels like your granddad’s sweater.
Bowie Feathers is a no frills rock and roll bar. You know the kind-flat black paint, scruffy bearded big guy at the door, bartenders with tattoos, and a stair case. I mention the stair case because it’s the only way in (unwritten protocol for rock and roll dives throughout the country).
Like other rock and roll bars, it’s kind of hidden and once you’re in the doors you’re home. There are a few marked differences that are not signature to most rock and roll bars. For one, the bathrooms are spotless and while the décor is minimal, you can tell that a lot of thought went into it. Huge stencil art portraits of musicians on plywood such as Ian Mackaye, Bjork and Buddy Holly adorn the walls and frenetic brass tube chandeliers hang from the ceilings. This is a place that can accommodate beer snobs, whiskey drinkers and Miller Light lovers all at the same time. While it’s a rock and roll bar with a carefully curated playlist that any music lover will appreciate, it’s still the kind of place where you can have a conversation with friends. This is the kind of bar that doesn’t require its patrons to be music snobs or mustached hipsters—there’s no secret handshake at the door. It should be noted that Bowie Feathers is an upstairs bar located in the historic Alhambra Theatre, El Paso’s first air-conditioned theater that came to be during the golden age of cinema. The main building currently serves as Bowie Feathers’ sister and live music venue, Tricky Falls. While Tricky Falls is only open when there’s a live show, Bowie Feathers is open six days a week.
You’d be doing yourself a disservice if you came to El Paso and didn’t make a stop at The Tap. The Tap is an El Paso mainstay that sports the best sign in lights in all of downtown. Home to the most diverse crowd in this town—recently released prisoners from the nearby county jail, politicians and judges, touring bands and a general mixture of melee loving hipsters and hippie midwives, The Tap fits all of us like a glove. Black and red with mirrors and portraits of Aztec princesses in distress on the walls, The Tap is also home to the best nachos in town. Here’s the lowdown on how this works. The Tap is two businesses rolled into one, so your tab for your food is going to be separate from the tab for your drinks. This also means that should you choose to try the nachos (they have a full menu, but don’t bother with it, go straight to the nachos) you will have two waitresses tending to you. While they’re not entirely rude, you don’t want to ask your bar maid for something food related, it annoys them and there’s no point in aggravating the lady that will be serving up your drinks. Now on to nachos: There are several variations and if you’re a meat eater, it’s best to order half and half nachos. That is, half [shredded] beef and half chicken. It’s also important that you specify that you’d like chile, tomato and onion (or chile, tomate y cebolla—the ultimate Mexican trilogy) on your nachos. This is important because sometimes they see a non local and assume that you can’t handle the heat—for the record, they’re not that hot and besides, you can always pick the jalapeno off. Vegetarians need not fear, order the nachos with beans and trilogy and your experience will be just as good. Kitchen closes at 10p, sometimes earlier. Bottom line: go to The Tap.