“Bravo,” calls the announcer as a daring midget bullfighter named Ravanito and three other Enanito Toreros barely avoid getting horned by bucking bulls. Men wearing tejanas (Stetsons), Wrangler jeans and exotic animal-skin boots, and women dressed for a night on the town, have gathered with their families inside Staples Center to cheer on the minibullfighters.
Welcome to the jaripeo — Mexican rodeo.
The landscape of horses, cattle and rodeo outlaws inside Staples Center demonstrates the city’s ranchero roots. Tonight it’s about talking in Spanish slang, chasing down cold Coronas and feeling like you’re back home on your rancho.
“Corrale, compadre” (“Run, homey!”), the evening’s master of ceremonies urges the man from Michoacán. The guy has been picked out from the stands, along with folks representing Mexico’s other states, to compete in a Mexican party version of the triathlon. First they chug a tall glass of beer, then run off to a bottle placed in the dirt, circle around it 15 times, and try to run back — try being the key word. As each man sways off to the right, the man from Michoacán loses his hat and eats some rodeo dirt. The crowd laughs hysterically.
Once the games are over, it’s time for the main event: the music. First up on the bandstand is “El Rey del Acordeón” — Ramon Ayala, the man who made playing the accordion cool. With his group, Los Bravos del Norte, dressed in light-blue suits, or trajes,they attack their norteño exitos: “Casas de Madera,” “Tragos Amargos,” “Barajas de Oro,” “Puño de Tierra.” As Ayala squeezes his Gabanelli accordion with sniperlike precision, the couples in the crowd raise their drinks and dance the Mexican two-step in the aisles, bobbing up and down in unison.
Next comes the large, old-school Mexican singer Paquita La Del Barrio. In her white sequined dress and her prim-and-proper hairstyle, she looks like an oversize angel. The women in the audience love Paquita for her pro-woman lyrics and for her frequent use of the word inutil (“good-for-nothing”) to describe the macho men who are the subject of most of her songs. She sings her classic “Tres Veces Te Engañe” (“I Cheated on You Three Times”), which includes the line “Me estás oyendo inutil?” (“Are you listening, you good-for-nothing?”).
Intermission. Time to pick up some tacky toy horses, colorful sombreros and serapes, and, of course, more beer and shots of liquor.
The tuba blares its bass sound, signifying that it’s time for Joan Sebastian, “the King of Jaripeo.” Unlike most musical acts that perform at Staples Center (or anywhere else, for that matter), Sebastian doesn’t walk onto the stage. No, he comes galloping out on his horse like a jockey at Santa Anita. In his tejana and black sequined suit and black chaps, he rides one of his nicely groomed horses (some have French braids) around the bullring while an army of trumpets, clarinets and the rest of the banda (more than 20 musicians) jam out. Sebastian leads his horse around the ring in a distinct dance that seems at times to be more on beat than the couples in the stands.
Sebastian finally takes to the grandstand, where he sings love ballads like “Tatuajes” and plays the guitar, the harmonica, and even has time to dance with a woman from the stands. You wouldn’t have known it to see him in action, but not long ago, 54-year-old Sebastian, like Lance Armstrong, battled and overcame cancer, to get back in the saddle and continue his reign as the King of Jaripeo. From on top of his horse, he sings his classics “Soy Como Quiero Ser,” “Sangoloteadito” and “Me la Escondieron Sus Padres.”
The throngs file out with the sounds of classic rancheras and norteñas in their heads and stroll toward their pickup trucks. A group of urban cowboys come upon a black dude busking near a parking lot across the street. “Sabes la canción ‘Amorcito Mio’?” someone asks. The closest the street performer can get is Santana’s “Oye Como Va.” That’s good enough, and his guitar case starts filling up with dollar bills.