Más Que Rodeo: A Day at the Chilean Rodeo

“Close the damn door, portero!” yells the man beside me at the inattentive gate-watcher, seconds after belching his beer-laden breath in my face. The sun is beginning to set, but the rodeo's festivities here in Caleu, a dusty town nestled in the coastal hills west of Santiago, are far from over.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Kamille Go

This hot Sunday afternoon marks my first rodeo ever. Having grown up gringa, I thought I'd ingested enough all-American media to feel familiar with the cowboy competition. This also fed my first misconception --that the rodeo is a uniquely U.S. tradition.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Kamille Go

The rodeo is as unique to the U.S. as the cowboy. In other words, where you find a Spanish legacy, livestock and the vaqueros who herd them, you'll find the rodeo tradition. This is also embarrassingly obvious considering the term “rodeo” is derived from the Spanish word, “rodear,” meaning to round-up.

Twice a year, Caleu’s Club de Huasos holds a rodeo show that brings in almost all the local rodeo enthusiasts as well as those from neighboring regions. The huasos, or Chilean cowboys, are dressed head-to-toe in their traditional garb: a silk and wool poncho, long-sleeved button-up shirt, jeans, cowboy boots, spurs, and a straw sombrero. Wearing these heavy layers in the sweltering summer heat is itself an admirable achievement.

The three hour competition consists of about 30 to 40 “rounds” which judge the ability of horse-riders to control the cow as a partner team, with points added or subtracted according to factors too numerous to list.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Kamille Go

In one round, teams of two huasos work together to control the movements of an energetic calf. One team consisted of a father and his son, who couldn't have been older than 13, but whose youth was only revealed by the prepubescent voice he used to skillfully sequester the cow.

When the competition ends, points are tallied, winners are recognized and the crowd funnels into a canopied area where mismatched tables and chairs surround a humble dirt dance floor. Blasting from the stage is a range of music, from Cumbia, to ranchero, to la Cueca (the Chilean folk dance), while local caterers serve Chilean favorites best accompanied with a national beer.

“The club and rodeo are still as popular with the community as when I joined at 14,” says Carlos David Gonzales Villelon (54), former Club de Huasos de Caleu president (2004–2006).

The rodeo has been a mainstay in Caleu for over 80 years, recalls Villelon, whose father and grandfather were also avid huasos.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Kamille Go

“Even during the [Pinochet] dictatorship, this tradition continued. For the most part it was untouched by the horrors that mostly took place in Chile's urban centers. This tradition went on as always.”

But what makes the rodeo so special to this community? “This rodeo involves all the traditions that we value. All the folklore, food, entertainment, everything we identify ourselves with. It represents our happiness,” says Gloria Bernales Alvarado, Caleu native, rodeo announcer and event co-organizer. I would later find out that the young cowboy from the competition was her 12-year-old son.

“It's also the only community event that brings everyone from Caleu together,” Alvarado added. “People who stay at home all day, who even many residents rarely see, all come out for the rodeo. It truly unites us.”

She went on to describe how the culture and history of Chile's countryside translates into what the people value.

Santiago Chile
Photo by Kamille Go

“In rural Chile, rodeo culture is the one sport that is vital to the health of the campo community. It teaches children positive values like camaraderie and respect towards people and animals.”

Like its U.S. counterpart, Caleu's rodeo is much more than the rodeo competition. It's a family-friendly patriotic celebration, the social glue of the local community, a rustic summer block party.

As the night came to an end, the music from the rodeo continued to fill the valley, promising local light-sleepers a late morning start on their farm chores. Rubbing the dust out of my eyes I pondered the day's weirdness; weird that a traditional fiesta in the remote countryside of central Chile could feel oddly familiar. Perhaps the recipe for rodeo entertainment is fundamentally the same, no matter where you are.

Similar fixings, but with Chilean soul.

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