BENTON, Kan. (KAKE) - There's little more American, and especially Kansan, than the idea of cowboys riding across the prairie, herding cattle to market. 

But did you know that almost everything cowboys do, and the equipment they use to do it, originally came from Mexico and Spain?

At first glance, a recent rodeo in Benton looks like any other rodeo, at least until the Charros arrive. Then, the Hispanic roots of the rodeo become obvious.

The charros compete in what's known as a Charreada, a kind of rodeo that began in the early 1900s as a way to keep the skills of Vaqueros, Mexican cowboys, alive as the centuries turned. 

Gene Chávez, a local historian, says that the origin of the cowboy motif really comes from the Hispanic world.

"I can remember as a kid going to Mexican movies and hearing singing cowboys, and they weren't Roy Rogers and Dale Evans," he recalls. "They were people like Javier Solis."

Chávez has spent a lifetime studying how one became the other and sharing the mostly forgotten history with the world, but he's not the only person keeping the history alive.

Charro Javier Martinez says that, "Every time I get into charreada, I hear the music. I see the horses, I see the people, my blood starts boiling. I feel my skin…I just … I just feel it."

Martinez began training young for these competitions as families pass the skills down generation to generation. It's these skills vaqueros performed day to day on ranches and on the trail that helped the idea of what a cowboy is in the minds of the American public.  

"As people began to go west, and they saw what cowboys are doing, that is vaqueros, and we're doing with their horses…. All of those things that the Hispanic vaqueros were doing. It was a great show for Americans," said Chávez. 

The skills date back centuries to Columbus' second landing in the Americas, when he brought a shipment of cattle from Spain. Those cattle were raised and moved gradually wherever their Spanish empire expanded. Along the way, Charros and Vaqueros in Mexico, the Llaneros in Columbia and Venezuela, and the gauchos of Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay developed a new cattle hearding culture.

That culture spread north, even into parts of Western Kansas, ruled by Spain until Mexico broke away and then ceded to the United States at the end of the Mexican-American War. 

Jim Hoy, a retired professor from Emporia State worked this into his latest book about cowboys.

"(Cowboys) got his equipment, his spurs, espuelas… he got his spurs from the Mexican vaquero," said Hoy.
Right down to the saddle.

"Typical of the Mexican saddle is a large horn," said Hoy. "You get a horn, you can attach a rope. It's a little hard to tie a rope into English saddles."

"That is what American cowboys adapted to and learned to use in the same way that the vaqueros were using those," Chávez added.

So why did Latino cowboys disappear from our history books? Hoy says that's partially because of the very first book written about cowboys. 

"This guy in Texas had this great idea. He got old cowboys who had been on trail drives to write letters describing their adventures and so on," Hoy explained. "None from blacks, none from Mexicans."

That's because at that time most were illiterate. They didn't speak English, either. Sometimes they had both problems. Today, historians like Hoy and Chávez spread the word through museum exhibits, talks and books. And as folks like Javier Martinez continue to practice and share their Hispanic cowboy traditions in the middle of cowboy country in Kansas, it's something that Martinez says shows the Mexican tradition, values and responsibility for young people.  

If you're interested to learn more about the Hispanic roots of the modern cowboy, Gene Chávez will be hosting Nuestro Legado (Our Legacy) at the Kansas City stockyards on October 8.