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With Sombreros And Sidesaddles, Virginian Women Renew A Mexican Tradition

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Before their performance, three members of the Amazonas Del Dorado watch the men's roping and riding competitions.

The six horsewomen of the Castro clan are gathered in the center of the rodeo ring. They sit high on their imported sidesaddles, their ruffled skirts tucked neatly beneath them. These women are bound by blood or marriage. During the week, one works as a hairdresser, another is a nanny, two are students, and the others clean houses. But when the northern Virginia weather allows, they spend their Saturday afternoons on horseback.

They call themselves Las Amazonas del Dorado, after the family's El Dorado Ranch, and for the past six years they've dedicated themselves to the sport of escaramuza --a group riding event performed only by women at Mexican rodeos.

Escaramuza doesn't get the attention the men's roping and riding events get. The star of the Mexican rodeo has always been the cowboy, in his sombrero and embroidered suit. But it's the cowgirls who provide some of the sport's most dazzling entertainment—riding in teams and wearing colorful costumes, they perform a high-speed horse ballet. The Castro family is rediscovering that tradition in rural Virginia.

Eight years ago Isaac Castro and his family built a lienzo charro—a Mexican-style arena—on their ranch in Catlett, Virginia, so they could hold their own rodeos. "I never thought we'd be doing this in Virginia," he says. "Never." Like most of his family, Castro grew up in Mexico on a ranch outside of Guadalajara. He loved rodeo, but he says his family was too poor to take part in the formal sport. "I never got to participate until I came here," he says.

Two years later they put together the first escaramuza team in the state. They enlisted an aunt to make their uniforms: matching embroidered dresses made of cotton, so they're not too heavy.

Adriana Jimenez is 17 and the youngest woman in the group. She remembers the team's first practice. "None of us knew how to ride, none of us," she says. "I had gotten on a horse one time." They started out on traditional Western saddles, and once they'd mastered those, transitioned to sidesaddles, which, Jimenez says, are more difficult to balance on.

Choreography was another matter. Nobody, including the family friend who offered to coach, had any idea how to compose the intricate routines the women were supposed to perform. So they turned to the internet. "Everything we've learned, we've learned online," Jimenez says. They watched performances on YouTube until they got the hang of it.

On a bright, cold Saturday morning in October, the Amazonas huddle together on their horses to review choreography before their show. First they'll gallop in, then spread out and dart toward the audience—all in synchronized movements.

The announcer amps up the crowd. The Castro family is 300 strong, and friends and relatives have come from across the state for El Dorado's charreada – or rodeo. Men in cowboy hats and chaps sit on truck beds sipping tequila. Kids take turns on a tiny Shetland pony.

As Vicente Fernandez's rendition of Guadalajara blares from the speakers, the Amazonas circle the ring at a full gallop. They crisscross the arena and spin in a blur of peach fabric. They meet in the center then fan out in symmetrical arcs.

Afterward the women are beaming under their sombreros. They gather for a cheer: "Si se puede! Amazonas Del Dorado!"

"When you're on the horse and performing it gives me the chills every time," Jimenez says. "Inside you feel this great happiness and it fills me up with pride inside to be from a place so full of culture and life and color."

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