Angelica Castillo hasn’t eaten lunch. It’s a humid 84 degrees outside, but she’s also stopped drinking water. “It affects me,” she says. “I’ll, like, burp it.”
The 45-year-old special-education assistant has shown up to Brownsville’s Washington Park, at the tip of South Texas, for an annual contest in which men and women vie to deliver the best grito, a traditional Mexican yell. Held at Brownsville’s Sombrero Festival (a weekend celebration launched in 1986 to complement the city’s week-long Charro Days), the grito contest is a departure from the generic attractions that blanket the strawlike grass on this recent Saturday: a corn dog stand, a kiddie carnival ride, someone dancing in a Chick-fil-A cow suit. There’s a stifling layer of cloud cover, and a slight breeze ruffles Castillo’s sparkly, floor-length golden skirt as she heads to a table in front of the main stage to sign up. In an hour, she and nineteen other participants will let loose a barrage of fierce cries, joyful yelps, and mournful wails—and, in doing so, carry a centuries-old tradition another year into the future.
The only thing that could derail Castillo, who placed second last year, is her incomplete recovery from a bout of COVID-19. “I noticed that this year, I can’t hold my breath as long as I used to,” she says. “So we’ll see how I do.”
At the sign-up table, a man in a felt cowboy hat and square glasses scrawls out a careful “Bernabe Dominguez III.” The Brownsville native, who has shown up to Sombrero Fest alone, says his family is at home—“but they told me they’re going to cheer me anyways.” Dominguez, 39, has been practicing the grito since he was a little boy. Friends at the adult day care he attends urged him to enter today’s contest. “Here, I hope it’s going to be my loudest,” he says.
A few paces away, 38-year-old Brian Strassburger holds court in a circle of friends and admirers. Clad in a long Virgin of Guadalupe poncho that obscures his fitted shorts, the tall, bearded man would not look out of place at an Austin tech worker’s bachelor party. He’s more likely to be found at San Felipe de Jesús Catholic Church in nearby Cameron Park, where he serves as a Jesuit priest. Being a community figure has its advantages: “The grito is won by audience applause,” Strassburger explains. “So I’ve invited as many people as I could to come here, hoping that they can help cheer me to victory.”
On the bleachers next to the stage, 54-year-old Celeste Chafin, a repeat contestant, is meditating on the power of a howl. “The grito is a battle cry; it’s like a life cry,” she says. She gives gritos in her car—they’ve helped her deal with becoming an empty nester—and at work. Chafin, a physical therapist assistant, once had a ninetysomething patient who had sustained a nasty head injury. “She was just ready to kind of like wither up and die,” Chafin recalls. “And I go up behind her—I’m like, ‘Aiiiieeeeee!’ And she’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ She started laughing. . . . And she picked up after that.”
As the clock ticks toward 5 p.m. and the sign-up sheet fills up, a young man with a brown cowboy hat, stud earrings, and a nervous grin hovers near the table. Leonel Lopez, an eighteen-year-old high schooler with dreams of becoming a professional chef, isn’t sure about this. But his mom is. She’s promised to buy him sneakers—Nike Dunks—if he gives the contest a try, so, finally, he takes up the pen and signs his name.
Soon a volunteer is marshaling the contestants into a line and an announcer is booming: “Ladies and gentlemen, it is time! For the world-famous Sombrero Festival grito contest!” Pulling on their uniforms—white T-shirts that say “GRITO CONTEST” and “DHR Health Brownsville”—the enlistees troop backstage.
The original grito was a battle cry. Although the Spanish noun simply means “shout” or “scream,” the grito as a cultural institution began in 1810, when the priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, of Dolores, Mexico, kicked off his country’s war of independence from Spain with a public call to arms. His impassioned cry became known as the Grito de Dolores.
Today a grito can be given as entertainment at a celebration, encouragement at a political rally, or flair in a mariachi performance. It can be a yell of joy, anger, foreboding. It can have words or lack them, but it typically spans one long breath and ends in a series of shorter cries. And in Brownsville, it has been inseparable from Charro Days since the beginning. At the first celebration, in 1938, co-organizer A. A. “Daddy” Hargrove gave a shout when opening the festivities. His signature grito, which, one reporter later wrote, “shattered the air for blocks,” became the festival’s opener throughout the next four decades. The grito, which still opens Charro Days, eventually also became the basis for a competition at Sombrero Fest. Today the winners of the men’s and women’s contests each receive $150, and the overall winner gets an extra $75. But, says Charro Days historian and native Brownsvillian Manuel Medrano, it’s not about the money.
“This yell, this grito—we’re celebrating ourselves,” he says. “It’s a way of getting the people excited, but telling them that, you know, part of that grito is the identity. It’s the history. It’s the celebration of the community.”
The crowd of several hundred people whoops as the first contestant in the women’s group—a middle-aged woman with leopard-print glasses and Mardi Gras beads—takes the stage and introduces herself: “Elizabeth Lopez. Corpus Christi, Texaaaas!” Jaunty intro music cues up, and Lopez belts out a slightly off-key, sixteen-second howl, her left arm rising with her voice until the wave of the grito crashes with a triumphant “ah-ha-hai!” “Ya vienen los changos de Gladys Porter,” quips contest host Michael Ayala—here come the monkeys from Brownsville’s Gladys Porter Zoo. Next up is Lopez’s adult daughter, Daisy, who screams so loudly, shuts her eyes so tightly, and leans so far back that she prompts Ayala to ask, “Are you okay?” Another woman follows with a grito that breaks halfway through—she starts again and ends with a self-deprecating laugh. To round out the first heat, Angelica Castillo, looking regal in her glittering skirt, steps up and releases an eerie, twelve-second wail that prompts oohs from the crowd. Smirking, she hands the mic back to Ayala.
Listen to Castillo’s grito:
Ayala lines the four women up and puts his hand over Elizabeth Lopez’s head, the signal for the audience to cheer. Polite applause. Daisy gets more noise; Ayala shakes Elizabeth’s hand and dispatches her to the back of the stage. The woman with the broken grito is out next. The cheers for Castillo trump those for Daisy, so, grinning, she moves to the side to await the next heat. Once each of the three heats in the women’s division has a winner, the finalists will compete in a second round for the women’s title.
On her turn, Celeste Chafin tilts her face skyward, as if summoning the universe’s life force, before delivering a two-part shriek that ends with “Arf! Arf! Arf!” A minute later, as she watches another woman bellow out a hefty battle cry, her face glows with delight, even though the grito will end up knocking Chafin out of contention.
Finally, the winners of the three heats face off. Castillo delivers another impressive scream. An older woman with a long braid emits a high wail that rises and falls like the whine of a dropped bomb. A serious-looking woman with a red scarf fumbles her first try. Her voice wavers a bit on the second take, and she shakes her head when she’s done, slicing her hand back and forth across her throat. Castillo gets the loudest cheers. “The winner is—” Ayala begins. “Angelica Castillo!” Castillo screams, blowing her subjects a kiss.
When it’s time for the male contestants, Bernabe Dominguez III is first up. He squeezes his eyes shut behind his glasses and delivers a six-second wail—“Aaaaaaaaaai-ai-yai!”—followed by fourteen rapid-fire yips that sound almost like sobs. His eyes reopen to see the crowd applauding.
Listen to Dominguez’s grito:
On Father Brian Strassburger’s turn, the priest throws out his arms, shimmies around in a circle, and boogies down into a squat. He pops back up to utter a respectable but somewhat short yell. “Very flexible,” Ayala booms. “I don’t know about the grito, but you are flexible.”
Father Brian’s dance and his legion of fans garner him enough cheers to tie Dominguez as heat winner. A few minutes later, Leonel Lopez, the shy teenager whose mom bribed him with sneakers, takes the mic—and freezes. He ducks his head as if he’s about to start choking. Seconds tick by. “You okay?” Ayala asks. “It’s a joke, or no?” Lopez finally manages to introduce himself—then releases a joyful scream that, together with the young man’s hat and Western shirt, evokes the whoop of a cowboy. He wins his heat.
Other contestants come and go: A man who prefaces his grito with “Por la Raza!” A white-haired gentleman with a spine like a flagpole who dedicates his yell to “all the veterans and Marine Corps people out there.” And Clayton McIntyre, who’s here from California to visit his girlfriend’s family and has never done a grito before. McIntyre, a former pop-rock bass guitarist, lets loose a seemingly endless shriek that gets lots of applause.
When the final four heat winners face off, McIntyre and Father Brian topple before Dominguez and the still-nervous Lopez. As Ayala puts his hand over Dominguez’s head, an army of strangers—men, women, and children—raise their voices. But in the end, Dominguez’s adopted fans are no match for Lopez’s family members, who have congregated right in front of the stage. Ayala extends his hand to Dominguez. It’s over.
Well, almost. Angelica Castillo emerges from the sideline for her final coup: another operatic scream that trounces Lopez’s shorter cry. Ayala chuckles. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he shouts. “[The] 2023 grito champion! One more time; let’s do it!” The music cues up, and Castillo, grinning, throws the crowd a final, triumphant grito before sweeping off the stage. “Congrats!” a stranger shouts from a folding chair. “Yeah, you were great!” says another. Murmuring thanks and dispensing nods, the new grito queen disappears into a cluster of friends and family members for hugs. It’s a quarter to six, and a cool wind plays through the rapidly dispersing audience. Slate-tinged clouds drift over the now empty stage. As the scent of approaching rain begins to pervade the atmosphere, Castillo and her husband escape the throng of well-wishers to stroll along the parched grass at the edge of the park. Briefly, they share a kiss.
Brownsville’s Grito Legends
A. A. “Daddy” Hargrove: The local businessman and civic leader who married Charro Days and the grito, Hargrove opened the festival with his signature yell from 1938 through 1976, the year of his death.
Beatrice “Chickie” Samano: Samano, who died in January at age 85, was a fixture at Charro Days for decades. According to her daughter, Samano won the grito contest at least ten years in a row before organizers nudged her to retire to make the competition more interesting.
Marisa Leal: Known as “la reina del grito” (“the queen of the grito”), Leal won ten times in a row from 1996–2015. She retired, she says, to give other contestants a chance. She’s now training her thirteen-year-old daughter, Madison, to follow in her footsteps.