Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, July 5th, 2010. Mexico’s crucial front-line in a war against domestic terrorism cheered today, not for the defeat of another greedy gang, but for a heartfelt victory of pride in cultural tradition at a particularly poignant time in Mexican history. Armed with little more than positive attitudes and leather “vaquero” clothing unchanged for centuries, over a hundred riders set off on horseback from this teeming northern city on a mission of good will, intent on vanquishing long stretches of the unforgiving desert with camaraderie, and an endurance beyond most imaginations.
This is the 15th annnual “Cabalgata Villista,” an epic horse trek started in 1996 by José Socorro Salcido Gómez, in memory of Mexican revolutionary general Pancho Villa, and the inspired nationalism he still brings to people today. Undaunted by blistering summer temperatures, the cavalcade wends its way southward through mesquite and chaparral, fording rivers and skirting brush, averaging 35-40 kilometers a day along paths known to very few. Pedro Pallares, guide and horseman extraordinaire, leads the march, astride a most patient mule he occasionally stands up on. The Mexican flag has pride of place, flying high at the front of a column three-abreast, as does Chicho Martinez, playing the part of Villa, sitting ramrod straight in the saddle hour after dusty hour.
Accompanied by a rag-tag army of horse trailers, dented pickups and powerful utility vehicles, suppport teams drive ahead along concrete roads shimmering in the heat, making their way slowly down through the crunch of gravel into towns too small to be on many maps, like El Charco, first stop after Chihuahua City. Tracks that lead nowhere are soon found out, and binoculars turn out to be useful tools. Water is rare, and in long stretches nonexistent. Camping every night, riders and their families pick up new participants (“jinetes”) along the way. One rises at dawn, military style, complete with bugle reveille. With each day, the cavalcade grows in size, bolstered by fresh horses and and a patriotic spirit. There is a palpable sense of community, with plenty of children riding, some masterfully, families all tenting together, and the work of saddlery and equine care shared by all.
Towns turn out their best, too - at almost every overnight stop, there is a “fiesta,” which no nationality throws as well as Mexico. The beer is cold, and tequila flows freely during the day as well as at night. In Satevo, a town of some size situated by a pretty river, everyone decamped right in the “zocalo,” the main square in town, shaded by trees with thick green foliage, and made truly complete by a recently restored colonial church gleaming minimalist white against Chihuahua’s startling blue desert sky.
On an arduous journey like this, when shade is an exception, a “sombrero” is required, and the sheer variety of these is fascinating, from the light, woven straw of a cowboy-style hat, to the massive three-foot curled brim of some of the Jalisco riders. Clothes are utilitarian, and necessarily so, with fine dust permeating everything, but bandanna colors abound, and protective leather chaps, boots and gauntlets sport gorgeous embossed designs and the individuality of their owners.
From El Faro, the trail leads down into a valley and then through cool hills, where mesquite’s proximity to water makes their sweet bean-like fruit appropriate for picking as one sways by. The only stop during the day is the dry riverbed crossing at the hamlet of El Velduque. With stony sand banks under the shade of tamarisk trees, it is a half-hour water stop for the horses only, some of whom, free from their saddles, wriggle about on their backs in the riverbed, tired but excited to be scratching at last. The difficulty of pulling off a cultural commemoration like this in the middle ofJuly is not to be underestimated – at this stop, one of the horses, seen to be oddly walking backward, died shortly thereafter of a heart attack, exhaustion the likely cause.
After a twelve-hour ride through some of the driest territory yet, and a brief attack by a swarm of Africanized bees, the procession is welcomed by the biggest party of all in Valle de Zaragoza, where the muddy waters of the Rio Conchos support farming for miles around. At the gates of the town, new “jinetes” awaited, curious onlookers lined the turn-off, and schoolchildren manned a charming hand-painted float swathed in flags and bandoliers, topped off by a life-size cardboard General Villa and accompanied the town’s beauty queen, radiant in a white dress.
Vehicles of every kind jam the fairgrounds by the river, and in the cool of late afternoon, a contentment sets in – the bands play, kids build sandcastles at the shore, and everyone settles down to the cabalgata’s well-deserved main feast, grilled river fish, chile con carne, tortillas, and ice –cold Tecate in cans by the thousand. Couples ride about two-on-a-horse, and everyone is here, because this is the place to be.
While it might seem counterintuitive to have a 577 kilometer march like this in the middle of summer, there is a historical reason for it, as the procession ends in the mountain landscape of Hidalgo de Parral on June 20th, the date General Villa was murdered in the town he loved. That this journalist’s hosts decided against documenting the reenactment says a lot – that there’s been enough killing in the news, for instance. For the positive spirit it takes to show this kind of pride in one’s heritage, and for the enthusiastic young men and women who’ll carry on the tradition of the “cabalgata,” there will never enough respect to go around.
Jay Dunn, July 20th, 2010
Hidalgo de Parral, Mexico
Photographs commissioned by the Chihuahua Department of Tourism.
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