Friday, July 4, 2008

In which Little Miss Midwestern Suburbia gets nostalgic about her Western adventures

The 4th of July was Greeley's signature holiday, since it usually coincided with the last day of the Greeley Stampede, the "World's Largest Fourth of July Rodeo."

I remember once having a discussion with a UNC colleague, who said to me (with no little condescension), "There are people in this town who think the Stampede is local culture. Can you believe that?!" He was of a mind that the city symphony, such as it was, was a more worthy candidate. But any damn city can have a symphony.

The Stampede, on the other hand, could not be more local in every possible way. Being on the Stampede Committee was the ultimate indicator of insider-ness: you knew you'd made it when you were crowned with one of the custom-made cowboy hats that the committee commissioned every year.

The composition of the committee also indicated exactly where in the 20th century local politics was stuck: it was huge (and controversial) news when the first woman got on the Stampede Committee, and when the first Latino got on. And both of those events happened after I moved there in 1996.

The Stampede also embodied the beauty and the ugliness of local culture. I have to admit, I brought all my outsider prejudices to rodeo the first time I went. And they weren't helped any when a calf that couldn't get up after being roped had to be pulled out of the arena on a dray while the guy sitting next to me yelled, "It's McDonald's for you tomorrow, buddy!"

But after going once to a tiny, pro-am rodeo in Grover, a little town on the eastern plains--a rodeo where only one rider stayed on his bull for the full eight seconds, and one competitor had to be life-flighted to the hospital--I came to appreciate rodeo as a sport, and the skill required to do well at it.

And while I know it sounds corny, there is something kind of thrilling about watching a thundering herd of rodeo queens charge into the arena, flags flying. Say what you like, those girls can ride, and ride hard and fast without getting one hair out of place. One year the Stampede featured a women's rodeo, which was really fantastic; we sat next to an older woman who told us that her granddaughter was in the bullriding event, and that she had been a bullrider herself. Three generations of women bullriders in the family.

But then there's the ugly side. In order of least offensive to most offensive: the announcers' sexist jokes; the "Indian races" at the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo; and Greeley's systematic exclusion of the Latino community from the Stampede. You see, the Stampede used to include one day of Charreada, or Mexican Rodeo, a tradition that includes different events than the more "mainstream" rodeo (though using the term "mainstream" to describe whiteness in Greeley, where some 35-40% of the population is Latino, is a little misleading).

One year, the Stampede Committee simply decided not to have the Mexican Rodeo anymore. No explanation was offered, though they made the lame excuse that it wasn't profitable; however, the Committee refused to make its books public, and everyone knew that in fact, the charreada was one of the most popular and well-attended events during the whole ten-day Stampede. Eventually, the Latino community started its own annual festival around Mexican Independence Day in September, but the message had been received: your cultural heritage is separate, and we don't want any rodeo miscegenation.

It's depressing, but that was Greeley (unofficial motto: "Discriminatin' aginst Latinos ain't racism; it's patriotism!"). I served on the city museum board for several years, during the time when they'd just gotten money to build a new history museum, and it was amazing how marginalized the city's long Latino history was.

And in many cases, this marginalization was literal: all that fascinating, but incriminating information was confined to the adobe house at the living-history village. So, unless you knew where to look, you'd miss the cool story about the "Greeley Grays," a competitive minor-league baseball team formed in the "Spanish Colony" (yeah, no joke: that was the name of the segregated neighborhood Latinos were confined to in the pre-civil-rights era).

Nevertheless, I kind of miss the 4th of July in Greeley. Because it coincides with the Rodeo, you have never seen a parade with more livestock in it in your life--there are more horses and cattle than people, to be sure. And I'd rather see horses than the endless string of vintage Corvettes, all owned by one family, that makes up a ridiculous portion of the parade in my hometown.

Since, in Greeley, we lived between the Stampede arena and the staging area for the parade, we'd often see floats and horses going by en route in the morning before the parade started. One year, Tom and I were sitting in the backyard drinking our coffee when we heard a tremendous shuffling sound, and looked over the fence to see an entire herd of longhorn cattle strolling up 13th Avenue. (I guess longhorns don't "stroll," exactly, but they were moving at a leisurely, unconcerned pace, as if they walked this route every day.)

I don't think I'm going to see longhorns strolling, or whatever they do, up Simpson Street anytime soon.

1 comment:

historiann said...

Hey, Rose! Nice to have you visit over at AJL and I marched in the Stampede Parade on Friday with the Weld County Dems, and all of that livestock ahead of us on the parade route meant that we had to step lively around some big piles of poop.

Your analysis of Rodeo is spot on, everything to like about Greeley as well as everything to hate about it too (mostly the segregation.) We miss you very much, but I hear that you're both happy at WVU.