Hispanic Cowboys Bring Religion to Rodeo

DENVER — Mass before the Mexican Rodeo at the National Western Stock Show reminds Resurrectionist Father Tomás Fraile of his days as a young priest in Oliva de Plasencia. That’s the Spanish farm village he left 30 years ago, at a time when Catholics seemed more pious and steeped in tradition.

Nestled beneath a busy Denver freeway, the National Western Stock Show, which closed Jan. 22, would seem in stark contrast to Father Fraile’s former village of 500 residents. But inside the stock show’s rodeo arena, it smelled like horses and cattle — just like Oliva de Plasencia. Seated around an altar placed on the arena dirt, more than 100 Mexican and American cowboys — many in formal leather cowboy suits — focused on the Eucharist. A mariachi band provided music for the Mass.

“Our faith is an everyday thing for many of us,” said Jerry Diaz, founder and organizer of the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza, a major attraction at the National Western Stock Show. “Faith is not just something we do on Sunday before a rodeo. Everything we do centers around our faith and we try to share that publicly, everywhere we go and in everything we do.”

Diaz, of San Antonio, is recognized around the world for his expert horsemanship. He’s the featured charro (cowboy) in the Mexican Rodeo — an event that travels the globe.

For most of its100 years, the National Western Stock Show has been a secular celebration of American cowboy and agricultural tradition. But Diaz and his Mexican Rodeo are unmistakably, unapologetically Catholic. Diaz believes that as Hispanics become a bigger part of culture in the western United States, so will Catholic faith and tradition.

Father Fraile believes it because he’s watching it happen.

“The Hispanic people are very religious, and their faith is so deep-rooted,” said Father Fraile, parochial vicar of the mostly Hispanic St. Cajetan Church in Denver. “They’re bringing faith and tradition with them to places like Denver, which are heavily populated with immigrants. Faith is in their blood, and it’s countering the trend that had the United States becoming more secular, like Europe.”

Public Sign

Before the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza starts, nearly everyone involved at any level — bull riders, goat ropers and rodeo clowns alike — gathers for individual blessings by a priest.

“I used to have to round people up for the blessing,” Diaz recalls of years gone by. “Today, I don’t say anything and there are 150 people gathered backstage waiting for the priest. Now it’s a tradition nobody wants to miss. Rodeo is a dangerous activity, and I think most people realize that it’s their faith that makes it possible — that faith is what gets them through challenges.”

Diaz transforms horseback riding into something like ballet. After he’s announced with great fanfare, he emerges on his horse. In the spotlight, as the crowd roars, Diaz ceremoniously crosses himself.

“I do that very publicly because I want to show the little ones that achievement requires faith,” Diaz said. “I want to reach out and inspire, and say to the crowd that what I do goes hand-in-hand with my faith.”

Father Fraile visits his native Spain every year, and said he’s amazed at how Catholic piety and tradition have quickly been lost to secularism. He has watched a similar phenomenon in the United States, but says Hispanic immigrants buck the trend.

More than half of all Catholics in the Archdiocese of Denver are Hispanic, and Father Fraile said good old-fashioned religious tradition and piety are alive and well.

That wasn’t always the case. When Father Fraile arrived at St. Cajetan 30 years ago, fewer than 1,000 Catholics attended Sunday Masses. Today, the church has regular Sunday attendance of nearly 3,500 Catholics, which Father Fraile attributes largely to immigration. Throughout Colorado, in fact, churches are expanding their facilities to accommodate growing populations of faithful Hispanics.

Luis Canela, of Vail, Colo., has been televising the Mexican Rodeo Extravaganza and dozens of other stock show events for years, as an employee of Univision Colorado. This year, Canela and his wife, Lola, decided the stock show would provide the perfect opportunity to baptize their son, Luis Alejandro Spider Canela.

“Jerry and the Mexican Rodeo are making a huge difference, positively influencing everyone they come in contact with by sharing their faith,” Canela said. “That’s why I approached Jerry about having a baptism here. I thought it would be a very special Mass and a memorable event, and I want my son to grow up a rodeo star — just like Jerry.”

Rodeo cowboy Roberto Torres, a friend of Canela, immigrated to Denver from Mexico 35 years ago on the back of a truck. Today, he’s the successful owner of Las Delicias, a restaurant chain with four locations in metro Denver.

In 35 years, Torres said, he has seen an encouraging revival in Catholic faith as immigrants from Latin America have come to Denver. Torres said events that involve substantial participation by Hispanics, such as the stock show, are no longer strictly secular.

“Most of us in the Hispanic rodeo community begin each morning and every event with prayer,” Torres said after the baptism. “Our faith isn’t something we exercise occasionally. It is involved in everything we do. It can’t be separated from any aspect of our lives.”

Diaz organized the stock show’s first Mass 12 years ago. Though most entertainment events staged for the general public strive to maintain a secular atmosphere, Diaz said he has encountered no resistance in his efforts to bring more Catholic tradition to the show. He said people simply accept the fact that with Diaz comes a deep love of Christ and the Church.

“I went to the board of directors with the idea and they immediately thought it was brilliant,” Diaz said. “I’ve had nothing but support and encouragement for this.”

Though Father Fraile has seen Catholic tradition rapidly diminish from mainstream culture in Western Europe, he doesn’t believe the growing Hispanic community in the western United States will lose its faith anytime soon.

He said, “Their faith, and their loyalty to Our Lady of Guadalupe is just so integral to who they are — such a central part of their culture and identity — that it won’t be easily lost.”

Wayne Laugesen writes

from Boulder, Colorado.