The Latino Film Fund is proud to introduce a participating project in the Latino Film Fund Fiscal Sponsorship Program to the LFF Community: The feature-film documentary project ESCARAMUZA: RIDING FROM THE HEART is currently in the final stages of production, and seeks your vital support to bring this important story to the screen.

ESCARAMUZA: RIDING FROM THE HEART is the third documentary that Filmmakers Robin Rosenthal (Producer) and Bill Yahraus (Director & Senior Lecturer at the University of Southern California (USC)) have collaborated on, after having completed A Circus Season: Travels with Tarzan for PBS, a three-part series about horseracing titled On the Muscle: Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable, as well as participating as Editor (Yahraus) & Post-Production Supervisor (Rosenthal) on a human rights documentary directed by Carla Garapedian and featuring the music of the band System of a Down titled Screamers. To date, ESCARAMUZA has received the following grants: A faculty grant from the Office of the Provost of the University of Southern California (ASHSS: Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences), the Public Media Content Fund grant from Latino Public Broadcasting, and the Living Cultures Grant from the Alliance for California Traditional Arts.

The film’s producer, Robin Rosenthal, agreed to sit down for an interview with the LFF Blog:

LFF: What is “Escaramuza?” What does the word mean in English, and please tell us a brief history of the tradition.

RR: La escaramuza is the women’s event at the charreada—the Mexican rodeo. Teams of eight women compete in synchronized, precision horse ballets, ridden sidesaddle at a full gallop in traditional adelita dresses or traje de charra, and consisting of a series of compulsory patterns like crosses, fans, braids, and spins. The word “escaramuza” means “skirmish,” which alludes to the escaramuza’s romantic association with the women riders of the Mexican Revolution, and to the bravery of the team members. Unlike the men’s events in the rodeo, which all have a basis in ranching skills, escaramuza is more an invented tradition, although the riding skills required still derive from the well-developed reining skills common to the Mexican equestrian tradition. 50 of the more than 240 Escaramuza teams governed by Federación Mexicana de Charrería regulations are “federated” in the United States—18 in California alone!

LFF: Please tell us how you came to want to tell the story of the Escaramuza in a film, and what drew you to the subject.

RR: Our interests as documentary filmmakers lean towards explorations and records of self-contained, tradition-driven, multi-generational communities that operate with shared customs and codes of behavior not well known by the general public. The seed for Escaramuza was planted while shooting our horseracing series “On the Muscle: Portrait of a Thoroughbred Racing Stable.”

We came upon two brothers from Mexico working with two year-old colts, managing the babies with the “softest” hands imaginable, so as not to harden their mouths to the bit. So later, when we were looking for another documentary topic (with horses never very far from our minds), we remembered those brothers, and also all the other superb riders of Mexican heritage who we saw getting on horses at the track.

We couldn’t erase from our minds that their proud, centuries-old way of life, which had fundamentally influenced the cowboy culture of the American West, was now mostly forgotten here in the United States—unheralded and underappreciated in every way, except by its practitioners.

Then, while researching Charrería in the U.S., we came upon a terrific series of articles in The Press-Enterprise online newspaper about the women’s side of charreada, featuring U.S. Champions Escaramuza Charra Las Azaleas, from nearby Riverside County. So we arranged to meet Las Azaleas one scorching day at their practice arena, and immediately fell in love with the young women on the team, and their beautiful Charrería culture.

LFF: What themes would you say are specifically “Latino” in the story and why?

RR: Well for starters the charreada is the national sport of Mexico, and there is even a saying that “to be charro is to be Mexican.” The charro as a romanticized figure is such an important part of Mexican identity. So the world itself, the whole tradition, is distinctly Mexican. The traditions spring from and are connected with values that also feel specifically Latino, although they are certainly not unique to Latin culture. Bravery, chivalry, valor, beauty, emphasis on family, respect for tradition—these are all values that are manifested through La Charrería. The tension between maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity, including a close identification with Mexico, and full assimilation seems to be a common experience for Latinos in the United States.

LFF: How do you feel that the Escaramuza can affect viewers and why is it important?

RR: It’s not simply the Escaramuza itself that is important as an art form, but the huge effort undertaken to participate in the sport, while still keeping all the other parts of life chugging along. To sacrifice so much to keep a cultural inheritance alive shows how vital the maintenance of cultural identity can be. What is revealed as we get to know Las Azaleas over the course of the documentary is that this practice is not something that is just left at the lienzo, but that the values it represents have an enriching influence on all areas of life, and in fact contribute strongly to each girl’s sense of self. As culture bearers, Las Azaleas have dual roles. They function as ambassadors within their own community, inspiring others to carry on these traditions. Simultaneously they introduce their culture to communities outside their own, helping to break down stereotypes by reflecting their own transitional generation not as one monolithic, unchanging entity, but as part of the adaptive and evolving cultural phenomenon of Latinos de Estados Unidos.

LFF: Do the Latina riders of the Charrearía consider themselves American? Or rather Mexicans living in the United States?

RR: We hesitate to speak for them, but we believe they consider themselves American with a strong cultural identity as Mexican—a kind of cultural “dual nationality” that is both American and Mexican.

LFF: Beyond the women riding in the film, what are some of the unique stories you’ve discovered “behind the scenes?”

RR: We see them doing these amazing, scary things on horseback, and at the same time they are daughters, sisters, mothers, students, employees—raising children, getting degrees, moving up in their careers, just like the rest of us. They have this intense dedication and passion for their sport that sometimes the people they go to school with, or work with, aren’t even aware of. It’s that something extra that lifts them up and makes them inspiring.

LFF: How does this film shed light on the true multi-cultural characteristics of the United States and its people?

RR: Las Azaleas are women whose parents are for the most part immigrants, so they are the first generation born here. They contend with all the same issues as most children of immigrants. They have the desire to make it in this country, to get an education, get a good job, participate fully in American culture. At the same time they have this very precious inheritance that really does help define who they are—this idea of being “charro.” Their cultural practice is a bit of a hog; it takes a lot of time and practice, some learned cultural proficiency, a lot of money, and a fierce dedication. It’s difficult to keep all these plates spinning at once.

LFF: Where do you hope to screen the film?

RR: We’re really looking forward to hitting the festival circuit with this one ‘cause our last documentary was a three-part series that didn’t lend itself at all to festivals.  We hope Escaramuza will strike a chord in Europe as an unexpected twist on cowboy (or should we say cowgirl) culture. Because of the grant we just received from Latino Public Broadcasting there will be public television broadcasts in the U.S. We’ll hope also for some television sales overseas. And of course we have big Community Outreach goals, with screenings at museums, colleges and universities, schools, community centers and cultural organizations. The grant we just received from The Alliance for California Traditional Arts will help ensure that Las Azaleas can be present, and speak for themselves, at as many of these community screenings as possible.

LFF: We are happy to hear that you are on your way to finishing this inspiring film. We look forward to seeing the finished product, Team Escaramuza!

Please consider supporting Latino film today by offering a donation to this film team. Any sum, no matter how small, will help them finish this film and your donation is tax-deductible. You can donate online through the team’s Fiscal Sponsorship Page or through the mail by sending payment directly to the Latino Film Fund.

DONATE to this Film TODAY! Every $1 counts.