By Danny Neill
The women of Mexico were the first cowgirls in the new world. As young girls growing up on ranches in the fifteen and sixteen hundreds, they learned to ride horses but would only ride sidesaddle as it was not ladylike to ride astride.
Clothing worn by the native women in rural Mexico was known as China Poblana. The legend was often told to young women about a pirate who captured a junk, a Chinese boat, on which a Chinese princess was sailing to South America. Along the way, she was sold to a Mexican Merchant who freed her on arriving to Mexico and had her baptized Catarina de San Juan. She was so charitable and generous that she became known as La China and thereafter, that's what her colorful outfits were called.
Before the movement for independence, the women would dress up at village festivals and parade down the village streets, walking. Costumes that honored La China became such a forceful symbol that women from all classes wore the outfit even though the Spanish colonial viceroys banned them from wearing it during the War of Independence in 1810.
But the movement caused many men on the haciendas to go off and fight. Therefore the women had to help fill the gap and become skilled riders and ranch managers. Later during the Mexican Revolution the women who began fighting beside the men became known as Las Soldaderas. These women helped others become stronger in developing their own style of clothing.
After the Mexican Revolution the Charra and China Poblana women came to the Charreria, also known as rodeo, and made their presence known. The men did not want them to participate as they thought it took away from their manhood. The men just wanted them to ride around and look pretty. The Charra never gave up and were eventually allowed to show off their skill in all Charreria events.
But it was Charlotte, Empress of Mexico in the 1860s, who most encouraged the women of Mexico to dress up and ride their horses. She challenged the tradition and asked why the men should have all the fun, thus helping start the Charra tradition. Today they are known as "Charras" and have blended the traditions and costumes of both Charro and China Poblana.
These young women have to save their money for years in order to buy their outfits, which can include not only the clothing but possibly a saddle, headstall, spurs, sombrero and a horse. Unlike American Rodeos, they do not get paid but instead do it for the honor of all women in Mexico!
Danny Neill specializes in Mexican artifacts. He has become an expert in the history of Mexico, its people, and how they were influenced by the Spanish, then influenced America. He lives in Oceana, CA with his lovely wife Dena Neill.