Fans take to the wooden stands, trumpets blare on a recorded version of the anthem and all eyes focus on the cowboy whose horse sprints alongside a small steer that appears to be running for its life.

He is the first of about two-dozen cowboys who attempt to score points by leaning to the side of their horse and swiftly grabbing the steer's tail, forcibly twisting it around their boot and slamming the horned beast onto the dirt, all in a matter of seconds.

Steer tailing is one of the most popular events of the Mexican rodeo -- families cheer wildly at every successful knockdown -- but miles away from this bucolic ranch and rodeo stadium near the Sunol Grade, animal rights activists cringe.

In the past two months, they have launched the latest in a series of efforts, now through legislation, that seek to regulate and eventually eliminate components of this centuries-old charreada tradition that is wildly popular among hundreds of hard-core urban cowboys throughout the Bay Area who grew up on ranches in rural Mexico.

"Like a lot of us say, es un orgullo Mexicano (it's Mexican pride) to be able to take part in this," said Teresa Fernandez of Palo Alto, as her husband, Ricardo Reyes, competed in the arena below. "It's been in our culture forever."
"They want to take away our culture," complained Jesus Vazquez, 46, a San Jose resident who stood atop a tower at the Sunol ranch on a recent Sunday to judge the Mexican rodeo competition. "There's something racist about that."

Activists and lawmakers deny that.

"I'm a big fan of cultural diversity," said a leading activist, Eric Mills of Oakland, who reads Mexican literature and was an acquaintance of Cesar Chavez, "but when culture crosses the line into animal abuse, then I will be on the picket line."

Mills coordinates the nonprofit group Action for Animals, which persuaded Assemblywoman Audra Strickland, R-Westlake Village, to introduce a measure that would classify charreadas as rodeos, which
mostly means the events would require a veterinarian to be present, or on call.

Although the Mexican rodeo isn't mentioned by name in the measure, AB1614, the proposal's intention is unmistakable, Mills said, because it narrows the definition of a rodeo to include specific charreada events.

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