I had the opportunity one Sunday in the middle of June to visit Guadalajara, in Mexico, for a bullfight. I spent an hour in a sticky old bus from Ajijic to the central bus station, where a sticky old taxi spent another hour delivering me to the bullring. Already I was feeling sorry for the bulls.
I arrived an hour early and chance to meet the Alguacil or Patron, astride a beautiful white stallion, who greets me like an old friend. He is an elderly dignified gentleman sporting a revolver and sombrero, with moustache to match, so I feel I have landed on the set of some Spaghetti Western.
Any second Clint Eastwood will turn up and spit at the huge dog I am trying to befriend; a large German Shepard drawing its lips back, to tell me it resents disruption from its siesta in the hot sun. Most dogs in Mexico are so abused you cannot get near them; if you pick up some food to throw, they run, for they think it’s a stone.
Dogs here are just security guards, kept on the flat rooftops of their owner’s property most of the time. Just to bark at strangers.
They get little water or food or exercise and that makes them mean, which suits the Mexicans; sometimes Gringos adopt some of the many strays which wander the streets, starving and dying in the hot sun.
It’s regularly a hundred degrees here, and nobody ever considers giving a dog water, so I am intrigued to see how bulls are treated.
It is not unknown for bulls to escape the bullring and attack spectators, but this ring is very solid. I buy a stunning canvas painting of a bullfight scene from the vendor outside, for a bargain price.
Most things, in Mexico, apart from electrical goods and electronics like cameras. Etc., are really cheap, including taxis, buses and food. Today is Sunday but I find a little stall open and buy water. Gringos do not drink tap water here. After lying in the shade for an hour I feel ready for the “Corrida de Toro”.
After paying only one hundred pesos, about a fiver in real money, I manage to get into the seats next to the barricade, which is about five feet high and houses an inner ring, with two concentric wooden barriers for participants to shelter from the bulls. I notice there are no cushions on these seats, which is a pity for they are sometimes used to throw at the performers, if displeasure is incurred.
I sit myself next to a charming lady, who is sporting bunches of blood red carnations, complete with jugs of water to keep them fresh in the one hundred degree heat. I sense she has picked a good spot, as an obvious “aficionado”, or bullfighting fan. This word has now entered the English vocabulary, to denote an ardent enthusiast.
As we wait some men, in pink jerseys, chalk two concentric circles round the perimeter in close proximity to the barricade. Like most bullrings these days the ring is half empty because of fading funds and popularity; even on good days nobody relishes sitting hours in the blazing sun, so most head for the shaded areas, which leaves lots of empty space in the sun, and this has led to many bullfights taking place in the early evening, rather than the afternoon.
Some rings like the Mexico City Plaza can seat fifty thousand, but this one only takes a few thousand and is not even half full; how they can make a profit is amazing considering the expenses: the four bulls; the cost of the truck taking them to the ring; the cost of their disposal; the hire of the ring; the pay of the matadors, picadors, horses, drummer and trumpet player, not forgetting a twenty piece brass band in full uniform, and a dozen red-jersey men, including the ‘ear-cutter.’
The proceedings were scheduled to start at five-o-clock but a delay is evident as the large truck carrying the bulls is having trouble maneuvering into a position where it can safely release the beast.
The gates are swung back and forth in efforts to position the wooden ramp safely between them and the bulls, but the truck cannot get close enough; it takes nearly twenty minutes of shunting back and forth before it is driven out and reversed properly into position. I was sure the poor bulls would already be half dead from monoxide poisoning and the constant jolting around, inside the hot metal truck.
The proceedings start with the grand entrance parade, as ‘El Patron,’ or Alguacil rides in, followed by the matadors, resplendent in heavy gold braid jackets, and skin-tight pants. Then their various assistants and Picadors, mounted on blindfolded horses, which cannot see the charging bulls, follow them.
The whole “entourage”, including El Patron who leads the grand entrance, numbers over a dozen individuals. To a tumult of applause they bow and raise hats and salutes to “El Presidente”, who is perched in what looks like a Royal Box, as the Mariachi band strikes up,
The matador’s assistants, “Banderilleros” or “Flagmen”, who supply and sometimes place the banderillas, flaunt extra large dress capes of magenta and gold to distract the bulls.
The banderillas are long sharp darts with frilly colored décor used to penetrate the back muscles and spine of the bull. If a matador is floored, or loses his cape or sword, without which he is defenseless, these men jump to the rescue, and their main job is to distract the bull in critical moments, like when the matador has just delivered his darts and is standing without protection of flag or sword.
The Picadors are the villains of the piece and often get booed, for their job is to pierce and destroy the main back muscles, if it looks like the bull might survive, making it unable to raise its head and horns, giving the matador a distinct advantage.
Not only are their horses blindfolded but also they wear thickly quilted mattresses to protect them from the horns of the bulls, for up until the Thirties more horses than bulls were being killed. Other participants in pink jerseys arrange the release of the bulls and the tethering and towing of carcasses.
Then there is the sword-page, or “mozo de espada”, who lurks behind the barricades, sharpening the weapons and delivering the appropriate one at the correct time. There is also the ear-cutter, in red shirt and blue jeans, who slices an ear off each beast before it has a chance to die; he appears on the scene as soon as it is apparent the creature is not going to get up again, and always seemed in undue haste to perform this ritual. The ear is passed to El Patron, who gives it to the Matador who then presents it to some favored Senoritta in the audience.
Everybody now leaves the arena and three red-jersey men ready the bull for release. As we await, beers, peanuts and ices are sold; flower-lady gives out carnations to any one who will take them; I initially refuse as I thought she wanted payment, but I was quite wrong.
Finally an hour late, the band strikes up and the matador enters first, sweating in the heat from his heavy jacket, embroidered with large sequins and ornate braiding; he even sports a white dress shirt and black tie, and unbelievably, a thick black knitted cap which spreads over his ears. He is billed as ‘El Poeta’
The crowd rises in appreciation and anticipation, as he minces and parades around the arena; he is a callow youth in his teens, and seems very vulnerable. Flower lady throws him a bunch of red carnations and he stands in front with his back towards us and ceremoniously throws his woolen cap over his shoulder to the crowd. Flower lady catches the cap, and El Poeta gets his sword-man to pour a bottle of cold water down the back of his neck as we await the release of the bull.
Tension is mounting, as ‘El Presidente” drops the starting flag of a white handkerchief. A drum roll and startling trumpet blast erupt, to signal the start of the first fight.
The three pink-jersey-men stand on top of the truck and slide up the steel shutter, prodding Bull Number 1 to make his public appearance; he skitters down the wooden ramp to cheers from the crowd. After a few circuits of the ring this bull suddenly collapses before the matador has even encouraged it to charge; it is more dead than alive after its ordeal in the hot confines of the jolting truck, and heaven knows how many miles it has traveled along the bumpy Mexican roads to reach its destination.
I very much doubt if it has been given water in the tender care of the truckers who took so long to maneuvere into position. The Picadors will not be needed for this bull.
The matador waits until his black suited banderilleros revive the bull’s spirits, by teasing it with their large cloaks. This also tests the bull’s ferocity and agility. It rises to its feet and starts a charge.
The Poet positions himself slightly to its left, teasing the bull with a flourish of his crimson cape; another bright red flag, or “muleta,” merely a metre square is much smaller than the capes of his attendants, and is only deployed when the bull is ‘manageable’. It is a fallacy that red incites a bull to anger, for it has been proven they are color-blind but red is used simply to camouflage the bull’s spilt blood. The first “Ole” rings out and, before long, I find myself joining in with the enthusiasm of the crowd, savoring the artistry of the passes, or ‘faena.’
El Poeta is now given two flowery wooden ‘darts’ about a metre long; he flaunts these to the crowd and then to the bull. He is now without his sword or muleta, but the bull is exhausted and just stands there, staring at him but he taunts it and the animal charges. At the last moment he steps aside and plunges the darts into the creatures’ spine as it passes.
I had noticed a rosette branded on the bull when it was first released, and thought it was some sort of medallion; no such luck. It is a target placed there for aiming the banderillas. Two sets are delivered, so the creature now has four implanted in his spine, and is bleeding profusely.
The matador now retrieves his first sword from the barrier; changes to his ‘muleta’ and hooks it around a small sword to extend the scope of the cloth, which is already held on a small wooden strut. This doubles its acreage and makes the passes safer for the matador, that is, and easy for him to exhaust the pent-up energy of the bull.
It also means ‘El Poeta’ can now mince around the bull, teasing it with the sword and even gently placing the tip on its head between the eyes, or on the spine, while standing face-to face with his adversary.
Poor Bull Number One is too exhausted to do anything, never mind charge. But “El Poeta” does not stick this sword into the bull.
To rapturous applause he takes a bow and struts over to his ‘Mozo de Espada’, who has been busy sharpening a proper sword, over a metre long with an encased handle. He collects it and again taunts the creature with the red flag as it charges; at each pass a chorus of ‘Oles’ erupts from the crowd.
After a series of these even the red flag incites no instinctive charge from the bull, which seems totally inert. El Poeta is totally in charge of the situation. The Mariachi band strike up and after a moment the bull is ready for another charge.
With a few flourishes of the new sword the bull is tempted to charge again, whereupon the long steel is implanted deep in its heart. This is the most dangerous time for the matadors, and the most difficult, as the target between the clavicles is only inches across; this manoeuver is called the “Estocada” and is designed to pierce the aorta of the bull.
It is well placed and the creature slumps to the ground. The crowd roars: the band strikes up; knife-man rushes up to slice off an ear; the bull rolls in the dust and Flower-Lady flings carnations to all and sundry.
El Poeta struts round, and is given the ear and a fond embrace by the Alguacil, whose job is to protect the matadors as much as conditions allow. El Poeta is sweating profusely, from fear rather than, I suspect, exertion, but tosses the ear to a hot senorita in the crowd.
I presumptuously assumed anyone could enact this whole scenario, but soon change my mind when the second bull is released. This guy comes roaring into the arena grunting and snorting and executes three quick circuits of the ring, horning the wooden enclaves on the way, before pausing to figure out where the action is.
The picadors are obviously needed to slow him down, so in trot the two horses, blanketed and blindfolded.
One sidles up to the bull, who charges his horse, lifting it completely off its front feet and making the rider kick out at the animal, whilst poising for a good shot. The picador stands in the stirrups and plunges his long staff into the bulls back, He twists it in the bull’s spine and blood oozes out to run down its flank. His comrade does the same, and not surprisingly the creature is slowed, if not mortally wounded.
The matador enters the fray; he places two darts; does his passes; the crowd roars ‘oles’, so he pauses for acclaim before placing his other darts and equips himself with the small sword.
He plays around with the dying creature affording more elaborate passes in classical style; these are known as the “Faena”, before collecting his killing sword. The creature charges a few more times, and just before all it’s strength is drained, the sword is neatly placed, in a final flourish. Bull Two drops like a stone and suddenly ear-man is in there, feverishly slicing away.
The band plays; the matador struts; hats and garments of dubious nature are hurled into the arena and the hero places them on his head, before tossing them back to the crowd, amid choruses of cheering and whistling. Flower lady exhausts the remnants of her carnations.
A short interval now ensues as people herd to queue for the ‘banos’ and lots of cervezas are served to the crowd. The sun has moved and the shade is evaporating.
After the interval a new Matador, ‘El Maestro’, replaces ‘El Poeta’ and Bull Three enters the arena.
Whether it was the wait inside the fiery truck, or the darts implanted in it’s neck to enrage him, makes bull three a formidable adversary.
The creature should have no energy left, but on release flies round the ring like a rat on steroids. On his first pass the new matador gets his darts placed, but on the second he flies through the air like a ‘human cannonball’.
El Maestro bites the dust, and needs rescuing by the banderilleros, with their very large magenta and gold capes.
He freezes, on the ground, as the men in black rush to his rescue, flashing their magenta capes in unison to confuse the bull.
The bemused matador dusts himself down and retrieves his cloth and sword.
Trouble is Bull Three doesn’t know when to quit, and proceeds to savage the cape he thinks El Maestro is hiding beneath.
Again the banderilleros try to restore peace, but Bull Three again asserts his authority, and they scuttle to safety behind the wooden barriers.
Having retrieved his cape and sword our gallant hero goes to work again, but after a few faenas, and a chorus of ‘oles’ Bull Three succeeds in tossing him right on his ass again, to roll in the dust.
The banderilleros again appear like magic, but Bull Three, now flushed with success proceeds to charge them regardless and they beat a hasty retreat.
The banderilleros have found discretion to be the better part of valour, so El Maestro has now to dispatch this unruly beast without their assistance, but with more faenas, and much ‘ole-ing’ the sword is finally placed, but with a prancing jerk the Bull Three again flings the sword, and the matador to the ground. The men in black rescue him again, and he retreats to the barrier, to wash the blood from his face and shirt, and await the rescue of his sword.
He has lost his red rag, and I wonder if the expression, “Losing your Rag” has some foundation here. The banderilleros keep the bull busy until he returns to the fray.
After another valiant attempt, the long sword is finally placed, but Bull Three is still up for the fight and keeps charging before finally collapsing against the barrier, covering it with blood. It finally looks like the end, for knife-man is hovering, but Bull Three draws his forelegs under him and slowly staggers to his feet, amid gasps from the crowd.
Flower-Lady screams out… “Toro …Toro” which one or two in the crowd pick up. The men in black appear and the now swordless matador looks on bemused. Even a horseless picador has now joined the fray, for the bull complete with three darts and a long implanted sword is struggling to its feet drawing itself up again on its forelegs, standing to face the five aggressors who now surround him in the classical ‘Mexican stand-off.’
Someone yells to El Presidente in the royal box calling for an “Indulto”, or pardon, but everyone knows it’s too late for Bull Three; the crowd starts chanting “Toro, Toro, Toro”, much to the chagrin of the players in the ring. After a momentary ‘eyeball to eyeball’ Bull Three drops dead to a rousing chorus of applause from the crowd but there is no question as to where their sympathies now lie.
As knife-man goes to work the players skulk off but there is no strutting for the matador. No flowers or hats enter the ring. A plea for a “Vuella” or Lap of Honour is issued to “El Presidente” so Bull Three is tied to a pick-up and dragged round the ring for a lap of honour, to rousing acclaim. El Patron enters the ring to present the ear and a hug to his matador.
In Mexico City Plaza, in front of fifty thousand spectators a bull named ‘Zalamero’ was granted an ‘Indulto,’ survived and went on to sire a hundred calves. His owner, Hose Fernandez, is currently getting the bull cloned, in Canada. Matadors beware !
Apparently fighting bulls are bred from a specific breed, descended from wild Spanish cattle, which in Roman times were used in the Coliseum. They are bred to be aggressive, acquiring strength and agility from their father and ferocity from their mother.
There is a short interval and the band strikes up to raise morale as a new matador enters the ring. Bull Four is very shy, or very smart, and won’t leave his crate, and no amount of coaxing or prodding will change his mind.
After five minutes one of the picadors climbs onto the side of the gate and, inching his way along the top, shakes his long cape at the bull, to no avail. There are three pink-jerseys on top of the truck banging the sides, and poking Bull Four with God knows what, so he eventually minces slowly down the ramp. It is with caution that he now trots round the ring but on spotting someone charges up to the wooden enclave, but is clever enough to resist wasting energy in butting the wooden barrier, like his predecessor.
A few faenas later, Bull Four is sufficiently slowed for the matador to commence his initial passes. Darts are placed; the ‘estocada’ is well placed and Bull Four is back in play. This bull is a smart bull; he catches the Matador just right and bowls him over; nobody expects this sort of thing twice in the same day, so three ‘assistants surround Bull Four who now appears more composed than his aggressors.
He now eyeballs the three men, inches away, daring them to advance, by just standing his ground. Now blessed with renewed courage at their retreat Bull Four surges to life. He suddenly charges and sends everybody scuttling to the shelter of the barrio.
It is time for the picadors to dampen his spirits, and they are dispatched immediately, but the crowd now side with the Bulls once more, as the picadors do their business but one of their horses nearly unseats its rider as the bull charges and the picador seeks revenge with vicious trusts of his lance, which is designed to penetrate only a few inches, but obviously does the job.
A fanfare of trumpets, but as Bull Four does a nimble pass, the long sword is neatly placed, and it is all over.
The Fiesta Brava is finished … Matadors-two … Bulls-two. The crowd is tired, buses and taxis are waiting and bloodlust is sated; the intelligentsia claim this ritual of “Pan y Toros”, …bread and bulls, is designed to keep the populace content in their oppression. I tend to agree; the trouble is these people are so nice… they should not be stigmatized for an archaic but ignorant tradition.
Radical Rooney ©