- Associated Press - Sunday, March 13, 2016

DALLAS (AP) - Francisco Santos Sr. hoisted himself onto the horse and took off through the arena after a steer. The horse caught the calf in seconds, and Santos stretched out his right hand to grab the steer’s tail. But the saddle shifted, and Santos’ left leg slipped over the horse’s back and his hand came loose from the saddle’s horn.

He lost his grip and fell. The horse galloped away and Santos lay still with his face in the dirt, his white cowboy hat on the ground beside him.

The 46-year-old Dallas man died in July in a small rodeo arena in southern Dallas County while participating in an event that’s long been part of immigrant culture across Texas. As Dallas’ Hispanic population has grown, the rodeos have seen bigger crowds and greater popularity. Though dangerous, the events are places where families gather for fun and where riders test their courage and skill on a horse.

A month after Santos’ death, 18-year-old Leandra Santoyo went to a rodeo at the same arena. She and her boyfriend had planned to see a band playing there. Instead, Santoyo decided to take part in the rodeo, so she climbed onto a horse. The animal bucked her, then fell on top of her. Santoyo died of her injuries on the way to the hospital.

Rodeos like these have operated in West Dallas and open land of southern Dallas County for decades. They attract dozens, if not hundreds, of participants and spectators. They sometimes cause traffic to back up on dark, narrow country roads of the county’s unincorporated areas. At some of the events, known as coleaderos, bands play, vendors sell tacos and organizers charge admission. Men, fueled by family tradition, swagger and, often, beer and tequila, take turns riding a horse to try to grab a steer’s tail and flip it over - usually in an atmosphere with little oversight, security or medical staff.

In the last three years, Wilmer police, who respond to emergencies in nearby unincorporated areas, have been called out numerous times to the Mars Road site where Santos and Santoyo died.

Those calls have included complaints about horses running into cars, people falling off horses and fights breaking out between participants. In one 911 recording, a caller told police that people were using saddles, whips and charging horses as weapons.

Wilmer Police Chief Victor Kemp has barred his officers from providing off-duty security at the rodeos. At some, the crowd is calm, he said. But at others, the drinking is heavy and the crowd is rowdy. At one rodeo near Wilmer, Kemp has seen horseback riders with “a beer between their legs, a cigarette in their mouth and an ear on their cellphone.”

“It’s a dangerous situation,” he told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/24PBVgR).

Dallas County Fire Marshal Robert De Los Santos sent notices of violation to two rodeo operators - one on Mars Road and another on Patrick Pike Road - after the two deaths last summer. The letters told the rodeo companies to get a business permit or shut down.

But there’s little sign that rodeo participants or organizers are changing their traditions. A video posted last month on the Facebook page of the Patrick Pike Road arena shows a man in a cowboy hat riding a bucking bronco.

On weekends in the Dallas area, there’s a strong chance that somewhere, someone is hosting a coleadero. They pop up where there’s available land and little oversight - in backyards, near horse stables and on large properties with open spaces. Events are publicized through word of mouth, social media, YouTube and on Spanish-language radio. Sometimes fliers are tacked up in feed stores.

The gatherings are loosely tied to charreria, a roping and riding tradition that’s been passed down from generation to generation and is intimately linked to Mexican culture.

But unlike charreria - a formal Mexican rodeo competition with nine events - anyone can get on a horse if they hand over cash at a coleadero.

Robert Silva, who sponsors a Dallas team that competes in charreadas across the state and in Mexico, said the unregulated coleaderos stray far from the tradition of charreria, a sport with rules about animal treatment and athlete participation.

Silva is president of the Texas chapter of the Federación Mexicana de Charreria, a Mexico City-based group that governs the sport. He worries that the wild events like those along Mars Road taint charreria’s reputation. They need oversight, he said.

“We have no authority,” Silva said. “If Texas gave us the authority, we’d shut them down.”

Silva estimates that coleaderos take place in the Dallas-Fort Worth area almost every weekend. He refuses to attend.

But some men on Silva’s charreada team participate in both the formal and all-but-unregulated events. Orlando Garcia, a 24-year-old construction worker, compares a coleadero to a game of street soccer. He can drink beer, listen to music and have fun. There’s no pressure to score points or please the judges.

The day that Francisco Santos Sr. died was chaotic, said Chris Fason, a paramedic who responded to a call at the Mars Road arena.

Two Wilmer paramedics called Fason for backup that day. He arrived in a fire engine but struggled to get to the scene because rodeo-goers’ cars clogged the two-lane road.

A crowd surrounded the ambulance, with people crying, yelling and even causing the ambulance to rock as paramedics tried to resuscitate Santos, Fason said.

Fason doesn’t remember seeing any police officers or security officials. No one stepped in to direct traffic or control the crowd of up to 600 people.

A month later, the Wilmer Fire Department answered another emergency call at the same address. This time, it was a teenage girl.

Fason responded again. He came upon a group of men holding hands in a circle around Leandra Santoyo. The young woman lay bleeding, with her boyfriend by her side.

A few men on horseback stopped traffic and urged people to create a path for the ambulance, Fason said.

But in an ambulance run report, his colleague wrote that driving toward the teenager “was like driving through a maze.”

The graduate of Dallas ISD’s Bryan Adams High School had just started pharmacy school. Her friends had to launch a fundraising website to pay for her funeral.

Months after Santoyo’s death, her mother, Maria de Jesus Alba, said she doesn’t know how her daughter ended up on a horse the day she died. She said the owners of the rodeo arena came to her home to talk to her husband. And the band that played the day of her daughter’s death promised the family it would perform at her funeral. It never showed up.

Santoyo’s father, Ramón, refused to speak about his daughter or her death. Nothing can be done to change it, he said.

Charreria grew out of the tradition of roundups on haciendas, estates where ranchers and farmhands rode horses and roped livestock. In the 1930s, the first charro association was formed in Mexico City, and charreria became a formal sport, Silva said. The sport was popular among the Mexican elite, earning the nickname “Mexican polo.”

But many Mexican migrants couldn’t afford the sport. Still, they adopted parts of its culture.

Upwardly mobile Mexican-Americans founded a charro association in San Antonio after World War II. Soon, associations spread to other cities where Mexican immigrants had settled.

In 1969, attorney Filemón Valdés started the Dallas Charro Association. On weekends in West Dallas, men rode horses and competed in keyhole-shaped arenas known as lienzos.

The charros, or riders, practiced nine events that make up a charreada. In one of the events, they’d rope the back leg of a horse, moving the rope so quickly that the fibers sent up smoke from the saddle horn. There were times when men lost fingers.

Valdés died in his 30s after suffering injuries in a West Dallas arena. His death mirrored that of Santos. During a practice, Valdés tried to grab a steer’s tail. When he went for one last pass, his horse tumbled, and he was killed.

Like many others, Robert Silva’s love of charreria was passed down through his family. His father, Roberto Silva, was a carpenter who became enamored of the sport after watching a West Dallas charreada. Roberto Silva didn’t learn to ride a horse until he was 39. By his 50s, he was a state champion.

At the time, Roberto asked his 13-year-old son: “Do you want to dress like a charro? And learn to ride a horse?”

Today, Silva’s accounting office is decorated with photos and trophies from charreadas and coasters with paintings of horses. He is a charro first.

Each week, Silva’s charro teams practice in his father’s backyard in Wilmer. The men might work in construction or repair air conditioners by day, but on nights and weekends they are charros. They practice in an arena behind the Silva family’s 30-acre property.

Less than a mile away is Rancho Los Leyva, where Santos and Santoyo died.

In late August, the Dallas County fire marshal’s office sent a notice of violation to Maria and Amador Dias Leyva, owners of the Mars Road property. It posted copies of the letter near the arena.

It also sent a letter to El Alasan y El Rosillo LLC, owner of a rodeo site on Patrick Pike Road. The company drew the attention of fire marshal officials when they found metal bleachers, trash and posters that advertised bull riding there.

“It has been determined that an unlawful business is being operated on this property,” the notices of violation said.

“Please obtain necessary permits to operate the rodeo business or any business on this property,” the notices said. “Until permits are obtained and permission is granted, no gatherings or business of any kind shall be conducted on the property. Cease all gatherings and activity immediately.”

The letter stated that if business activity continued, the fire marshal’s office might file criminal charges or a lien against the property, or take other legal action.

De Los Santos, the fire marshal, said he met with the two companies in September, when he explained county rules and gave the operators permit applications.

But neither property owner has applied for a business permit since, he said.

The Leyvas’ attorney did not return calls for comment.

The Dallas Morning News was not able to reach El Alasan y El Rosillo or its listed owner, Manuel Cabrera of Houston. A voicemail box for its rodeo arena was full.

To operate under county rules, the rodeo operators must meet requirements such as providing adequate parking, offering a certain number of portable toilets and designating a place for ambulances and fire trucks. If they serve alcohol, they must obtain a state-issued liquor license.

De Los Santos and his two deputy fire marshals patrol the unincorporated areas on the weekends, looking for signs that the rodeos have returned.

“If we drop it and don’t look at it, it’s just like Murphy’s Law - they are going to come back” he said.

Francisco Santos always wore a white cowboy hat like the one he had on when he fell from the horse. When he was buried, his cowboy hat was on his head.

His sister Trinidad Santos said her brother - whom she called Paco - was the family’s handyman and social organizer. He bricked the chimney at her Irving home.

As a little boy in Durango, Mexico, Santos rode horses and burros when his parents weren’t looking. He loved riding, even after his father died from a fall while working on the family ranch.

He sustained minor injuries and broken bones over the years because of horses.

Once, after he broke his hand and right shoulder, his mother refused to take him to the hospital, hoping it would deter him from riding, Trinidad Santos said.

But he shrugged it off, telling his sister, “You are going to die anyway.”

On weekends, when he wasn’t working construction, Santos would grow restless sitting on the couch. He would collect his sons and nephews and take them to a coleadero. They were watching when he took his final ride in the arena on Mars Road.

Since that day, the boys have stopped going to coleaderos.

___

Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com


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