SALEM—"It's a Taco Bell version of a Mexican rodeo," says Matt Richards.

For the past month or so Richards, a handlebar-mustached cattleman from Independence, has traveled our state with a blimp-sized, inflatable tomato strapped to his 1946 International pickup truck to promote the Oregon State Fair now taking place in Salem.

But last Sunday he was back in more familiar territory, behind the bullpens of the dirt-floored Historic Horse Stadium smack-dab in the middle of the state fairgrounds.

Richards, who has put on previous rodeos and livestock shows for the fair, was helping organize a new event this year: the jaripeo. The fair wanted to appeal to the state's growing Latino population with a traditional Mexican rodeo. What they got was an American-style rodeo with Spanish subtitles.

Ever since the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department took over the State Fair in 2006—after years of losing money—fair officials have been looking at new ways to get people through the gates. That's why, alongside giant pigs, miniature horses, and 50 amusement park rides (including the ever-puke-worthy Zipper), these days the fair also features Guitar Hero competitions, Lego Robotics and performances by everyone from the Doodlebops to High School Musical's Vanessa Hudgens to "Weird Al" Yankovic.

After noticing an increase in Latino fairgoers in the past few years, OSF officials also decided that it was high time to add more "Latin" events to its schedule of 9,000 or so events, from bake-offs to beer tastings, taking place over 11 days in late August and early September. In an effort to attract Oregon's Latino population, roughly 400,000 strong, the 146-year-old fair even dubbed Sundays at the fair "Dia de la Familia."

"We feel most Oregonians enjoy learning about Latin culture," OSF marketing and business development manager Connie Bradley told me. It's also apparent OSF thinks people will shell out money for Latin events: In the fair's Picnic Grove area, vendors offer Latino foods and wares. And fair organizers expect next week's Dia de la Familia to be huge, with a performance by Ramon Ayala, a world-famous accordion artist they hope will pack the nearby Pavilion at $30 a ticket. But first up? The jaripeo.

It's around 6 pm on Sunday, Aug. 24, and the jaripeo is lightly attended, to put it mildly. Inside the stadium—past the mechanical bull, the "Are You Going to Heaven?" kiosk and a pair of Lebanese brothers from Portland selling chocolate-dipped "Kaba-A-Berry" on a stick—bulls and bull riders from across the state, including Shane "Tweeter" Hollingsworth, 22, and Nick Blair, 15, are adjusting their crotches and chewing tobacco. The jaripeo's "clowns," or bull-fighters, are also non-Latino Oregonians, including Portland's own Danny Zell, 24, and Grants Pass resident Matt Allison, 30, who came out of retirement for the show. "I told myself I wasn't going to do this again," says Allison. Considering himself a paid bodyguard, he says he used to make a "tight living" working the pro rodeo circuit, where he said he was "living his dream." But married with two kids and one more on the way, he says it's time to hang up his spurs.

Not a single one of the bull riders is Latino. Nor are the bulls (they're trucked in from Terrebonne).

Outside the stadium you can see long lines at everything from an Oregon Lottery Scratch-It booth to a stand that sells "roadkill" (elephant ears with raspberry jam). But inside the stadium there are fewer than 200 patrons, primarily Latinos from the Willamette Valley dressed in their Sunday best who have all paid 10 bucks a pop to sit in the dusty wooden stands. They visit with friends and family as rain starts pouring outside the stadium. Near the dirt-floored arena chutes the young cowboys literally kick up their heels, and chest-butt each other, in anticipation of the night's big rides.

A nearly empty stadium and a little rain didn't deter Pedro Veronica.

Veronica, 51, operates this jaripeo, named Veronica Rodeos, out of Soledad, Calif. A five-time grand national Mexican cowboy champ, Veronica—dressed in a T-shirt and letterman's jacket—looks like Frankie Avalon but sounds like a Mexican Monty Hall. In 2007, he staged 30 Mexican rodeos in the U.S., mostly in California and other Southwest states. Sunday's jaripeo was his 26th since January. Neither the OSF nor Veronica would discuss the financial details of the fair's jaripeo.

"It's a privilege to come to Oregon," says Veronica, who sees his jaripeo as another opportunity to get his name out to the public at large. He says that in Mexico jaripeos can last all day, packed with bull riding, clowns, and lots of music and dancing, but for this show he trimmed the rodeo down to a more tight Las Vegas revue length of an hour and a half.

Beyond the bull riding, trick riders and clowns, the event also features Veronica's "band"—the 14-member Banda Soñadoras, or "Band of Dreamers." It's made up entirely of women, highly unusual in the macho world of Mexican bandas. Their ear-blasting brand of Mexican music—sped-up tunes full of brassy tubas and trombones—can be heard buildings away. Besides Veronica, they're the only Latinos in the show.

It's billed as a bilingual event, but Veronica, who also served as the event's emcee, mainly spoke Spanish (including jokes about immigration). It seems to keep the non-Spanish-speaking cowboys and clowns on their toes throughout the rodeo.

Although there was plenty of rodeo action to watch, much of the audience seemed to be there to see the band. A group of young Latinas, including Yuly Martinez and Diana Velazquez, both 22, were more excited to talk about the accordionist Ayala's performance Sunday than to root for the bull riders.

So why weren't there any Mexican cowboys in the jaripeo?

"Some fairs require Mexican riders," shrugs Veronica, who follows the rules of the Professional Rodeo Association, including the eight-second rule for his stateside jaripeos. "The OSF couldn't afford to pay for riders to come from Mexico." It was Mr. Tomato, Richards, who put together the ragtag Oregon crew.

"As with many of our new offerings, we prefer to test the waters and gauge fairgoers' interest level before we make significant investments in an individual event," explains OSF's Bradley. "If we indeed decide to continue with this event, we hope to attract Latino riders to perform in the show."

If not, then they can just stick to proven acts, like the Kiesner Family Wild West Revue, which closed the jaripeo.

It was the first time the roving family of trick riders had performed in a Mexican rodeo—and perhaps the last. Sixteen-year-old trick roper Rider Kiesner has been offered a chance to perform in Cirque du Soleil's upcoming "Elvis" show in Las Vegas. His dad, Phillip, worries that Cirque employs too may gays. "It's not just the gays that concern me," he says. "It's the flamers."

Back to the rodeo at hand, though. For the casual observer the jaripeo may have seemed like a big flop, but fair officials like what they see so far.

"This was the first time we've organized a jaripeo, and we are pleased with the event as a whole," says Bradley. "[But] there is room to improve the event. We will continue to offer new activities and events to reach diverse audiences…. [It's] an opportunity to learn and improve with every fair."

And it sure beats another trip to Taco Bell.

According to

a recent

New York Times

story, Mexican rodeos, specifically the more rough-and-tumble


have come under fire in the states for unsafe practices and cruelty toward animals, including horse-tripping, which involves roping the front legs of a galloping mare.

GO: The Oregon State Fair takes place at the State Fair & Exposition Center, 2330 17th St. NE, Salem, 800-992-8499, The fair runs through Monday Sept. 1. 10 am-10 pm Sundays-Thursdays, and 10 am-11 pm Fridays-Saturdays. $3-$10. Ages 5 and under free. Ramon Ayala performs at 8 pm Sunday, Aug. 31. $30 (includes fair admission).