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July 26, 2014

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Henderson rodeo: ‘A little piece of Mexico, here’

Rodeo provides residents with link to native culture and history

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Steve Marcus

A bull rider tries to hang on Saturday at the weekly Mexican rodeo near the shuttered Roadhouse casino on Boulder Highway in Henderson. Attractions include a band and food and other vendors.

Hispanic Cultural Events Rodeo

Mexican cowboys wait for the next bull rider during a Hispanic Cultural Events Rodeo at rodeo grounds by the vacant Roadhouse Casino on Boulder Highway near Sunset Road in Henderson Sept. 26, 2009. The rodeo was the first of what is to be a weekly rodeo held from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. each Saturday through Oct. 17. Launch slideshow »

Rodeo location

About 90 minutes before the sun set Saturday, a man in a black cowboy hat moseyed to the center of a dusty corral next to a long-shuttered casino along Henderson’s stretch of Boulder Highway.

He planted his can of Tecate beer firmly in the sand at his feet, and in rapid, breathless Spanish announced: “Our riders are mounting up for the path that leads either to fame or directly to the hospital.”

Saturday was hot, with a triple-digit high about 10 degrees more than what’s normal for this time of year. But as the first bull rider came out of the chute for what is to be a weekly Mexican rodeo, he had a sunbaked crowd of hundreds cheering him.

Most of the bulls failed to live up to the announcer’s dramatic intro, bucking only a few times before settling into a trot around the ring. But if anyone in the stands was disappointed, it didn’t show. Celebrating a bit of Mexican culture was the real reason they were there. Any bull riding was simply a bonus.

A live band played, a row of food vendors peddled authentic wares and a dance capped off the night.

“This is very important to me, to maintain my heritage,” said the event’s organizer, Alfonso Rodriguez, who has lived in the U.S. for 40 years but was born in Mexico. “I’m proud to be an American citizen. But I can do this, too, and I’m proud to do this. (Mexicans) have good things, like any other culture.”

Contrary to popular belief, the rodeo owes less to U.S. cowboys than it does to Mexican vaqueros and charros. It’s a tradition that predates the mid-18th-century American West by a few centuries.

For many at the old Roadhouse site Saturday evening, the Mexican rodeo is a reminder of the culture they left when they came to the U.S. For children who were born here, it serves as a way of connecting with the heritage they might not otherwise know.

For Rodriguez, it’s a labor of love. On top of his full-time job as a hotel bellman, he invests about 20 hours a week maintaining the grounds and planning each rodeo. Permits, insurance and rent cost him about $2,000 every time he puts one on.

It’s a lot of work, and “lately, there’s some times that I want to quit,” he said. “But I feel sorry for these people, because there’s no place else to go for something like this.”

Antonio Morales used to be a bull rider in his native Mexico, but now settles for helping prepare the animals and getting this rodeo’s riders ready.

He surveyed the rodeo grounds Saturday evening and said the event meant “everything for me ... It’s a little piece of Mexico, here.”

From 2000 to 2007, the number of Hispanics living in Henderson grew from 19,000 to 29,000, according to Census Bureau estimates, expanding their share of the population from 10.7 percent to 12.3 percent. In comparison, Hispanics made up about 28 percent of the population of Clark County overall in 2008.

In one previous acknowledgment of the growth in Henderson’s Hispanic population, during municipal elections this year various local groups put together a Henderson candidates forum that focused on diversity.

Click to enlarge photo

Egma de Morelia during a Hispanic Cultural Events Rodeo at rodeo grounds by the vacant Roadhouse Casino on Boulder Highway near Sunset Road in Henderson Sept. 26, 2009. The rodeo was the first of what is to be a weekly rodeo held from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. each Saturday through Oct. 17.

In his justification letter to the city for the permit he obtained July 30, Rodriguez wrote that his event would broaden the city’s cultural offerings.

But despite Rodriguez’s best efforts to create a break from the grind of daily life, the rodeo still bore the marks of the recession. At about 5 p.m., shortly before the rodeo was to begin, Morales pointed out that a couple of years ago, when Rodriguez first staged preliminary versions of the event, the place was packed.

This weekend’s attendance, about 500 people, left the stands about half empty.

Morales said migrant workers have been hit particularly hard by the recession. Many, he said, have returned to Mexico with their hopes dashed.

“You come here with all these dreams, and to not achieve them because there’s no work or for whatever other reason, you get discouraged,” he said.

Nora Vega, whose husband is a bull rider, brought her two young daughters to the rodeo to help them understand their parents’ native culture. Vega also has friends and neighbors who came to the rodeo’s earlier incarnations, but they have since returned to Mexico. The sadness caused by their absence strengthens her desire to keep close ties with the friends and family she has left here.

“Being here like this makes me feel like I’m back in Mexico,” she said.

In addition to providing an authentic cultural experience, Rodriguez said, he hopes the rodeos will serve to provide a positive image of Hispanic immigrants.

“We have to appreciate that we are in this country,” he said. “I tell people that they should behave and show people that we came to this country to work. We have opportunities here that we wouldn’t have there. I wouldn’t be able to do this there.”