The new documentary Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart presents a sport with historical roots in the Mexican revolution. It follows Las Azaleas, a gutsy team of women rodeo riders vying to represent the U.S. at the National Charro Championships in Mexico. Escaramuza, or “skirmish,” describes both the daredevil horseback ballets, ridden sidesaddle at top speed, and the intensity of the competition season.
“It requires a lot of dedication and a lot of teamwork,” said Las Azaleas co-captain Sandy Torres. “It’s eight girls and eight horses — all have to be in unison to compete. We have to have very precise riding and choreographed routines we put together that we’re scored on.”
Competition is a family affair, passed down from generation to generation. Torres grew up watching her grandfather, father, and brother compete in charreada [rodeos].
“That’s where you spent your weekends,” Torres said. “so it was just natural for all of us to take part in the sport. And then, you make your friends every weekend. Families are always together, so it’d just be natural for us to all ride together since we’ve pretty much grown up together. With the Azaleas, at a young age, we know what it takes to compete at that level. So it just kind of keeps going and keeps rotating with the younger generation of girls.”
Robin Rosenthal is one of the filmmakers behind the documentary, which will debut as part of the PBS series Voces on October 5. At one point in the film, the team learns it has qualified for the competition in Mexico — only to learn that it’s considered too dangerous for them to go.
“Bill [Yahraus, Rosenthal's husband and co-producer] and I were devestated,” Rosenthal said. “We thought, ‘There goes our movie.’ We always, of course, envisioned the triumphal going to Mexico and competing in Mexico as the ending of the film, so we didn’t know what we were going to do at that point. We just knew we have to film this and then we’ve got to scramble and figure out what we were going to do.”
The following year, Las Azaleas did travel to Mexico. But at a critical point in the competition, a crash prevented the team from advancing to the finals. Rosenthal was filming the riders’ families when it happened.
“I saw the look on their faces,” Rosenthal said, “and out of the corner of my eye, I saw something going on in the lienzo [arena], and then the minute it was over each of us had to dash outside. And all we wanted to do was cry along with everybody else, but once again, we had to keep shooting.”
Despite the disappointment, the outcome seems secondary. For one rider, Bianca, it’s more about the fact that she’ll no longer be riding with her mother .
“It really expresses the multi-generational characteristics of this,” Rosenthal said. “especially since the film starts out with Bianca and her mother Ronnie looking through a scrapbook from Ronnie’s mother’s time in escaramuza.”
“I think it shows the passion that the girls have at such a young age, of wanting to do good and wanting to compete,” Torres said. “Bianca was in charge of the Azaleas B team, which is the younger team, since she was probably 12 year old… The discipline and responsibility that are instilled into her on her own because of the team, at such a young age. She just turned into an all-around great competitor and has a passion for it and wants to win, and wants to do a good job for her family and for herself.”
Bill’s thoughts on Escaramuza: Riding from the Heart:
The documentary film, which will premiere on the PBS series Voces, presents the story of Las Azaleas, a team of Latino women competing in a traditional Mexican rodeo-type sport that requires precision riding and exceptional teamwork.
But wait, there’s more.
The members of Las Azaleas are connected by more than their dedication to the sport and their desire to perform well enough to earn the right to compete in Mexico. They are also connected by blood. Sisters ride side by side, as do cousins, and mothers and daughters. So while the documentary gives us the story of a determined team striving to excel, it also provides a sense of how these families work together to preserve a tradition, though maybe “work” is the wrong word.
It’s one of the great virtues of Escaramuza that it presents a story within which work and play can’t be easily separated from one another, and in which both are driven by and suffused with love.