“The bulls were gods themselves.” A personal, and comical, journey into the dynamic world of bullfighting, a union of sport and performance art brimming with a poetic and oftentimes religious sentiment…
by: Sean Jacques
When I was a little boy growing up in the backwoods of Missouri, I found a small spear tucked inside my dad’s tool shed. About the size of a cheerleader baton, its entire length was adorned with frilly blue-and-red paper, and on one end was a two-prong blade. I didn’t know what my dad used it for or why he had it, I only knew that he had picked it up at a bullfight in Juárez, Mexico, so in my mind it was a knight’s spike or Comanche warstick or some fashionable weapon of whatever role I was playing on any given day. I would whip it in the air. Dart it at tree trunks. Jab it into ant mounds. My favorite was to sling it like a javelin across the yard. But then, as I grew closer to my teenage years, my amusements pivoted toward motorcycles, cars, and girls, and consequently, I lost track of the little spear before ever learning what it was called, or its genuine purpose.
Decades later, at the age of thirty-six, and in the throes of a premature midlife crisis, I went to a bullfight in Tijuana, Mexico. What spurred me to the bullring is still unclear, though I suppose it had something to do with following my father’s footsteps: What he did, I do. Or maybe it was simply a siren’s call for an adventurous afternoon for an untamed bachelor. I’d coerced a couple of my buddies to tag along for comradery, and by the time we stepped out of the taxi at the old Plaza de Toros on Revolution Avenue, we were thick within an obnoxious gringo frenzy, thanks to an afternoon of tequila, beers, tacos, and admittingly, a primal taste for blood.
We stumbled down the aisles of the half-packed stadium, cold cervezas in hand, plopped into our seats, and before we could fully take in the surroundings, a trumpet blared. Down below in the circle of sand, a burly black bull shot out of an open gate and it whirled around and around the ring, nostrils flaring, madly searching for a way out. Then a team of colorful-suited bullfighters strode into the ring and began flagging large pink-and-yellow capes, which inspired the horned bull to charge them. Entirely ignorant of the manners and customs of the event, my buddies and I mimicked the riotous Mexican crowd, raising our fists and voices, Ole! Ole! each time one of these brave little bullfighters twirled an escaped from the thousand pound monster. It seemed oddly comical and merry, like watching circus acrobats perform showy stunts, with the brass band blowing a bouncy tune. But soon it became bloody. Then it became gory. Much more than you might imagine. Even so, the extravaganza was so wildly captivating, I couldn’t peel my eyes away.
As advertised, the beast was ultimately put to death. Three mules were brought in to unceremoniously drag its butchered carcass out of the ring, while the sparkly-dressed killer who’d done the deed raised his arms to the cheering crowd. My two buddies were in desperate need for cathartic and bladder release, so they made haste to the bano, but I remained stationed in my seat, trying to comprehend what I was witnessing. An older American gent was sitting nearby, and I asked him if he had a light for my cigar. He obliged, and mentioned the day’s program had three matadors each going against two bulls, so there would be five more fights to come. As our friendly gringo chat ensued, I learned that he was Jerry Magee, a renowned sportswriter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, who for five decades had been reporting on all the major sporting events in Southern California, including professional tennis tournaments, championship boxing matches, and coverage of the San Diego Chargers, which had earned him a spot in The Pro Football Hall of Fame. It seemed that I’d hit the jackpot for a seat mate, and when my buddies returned with fresh beers, Jerry graciously offered us his expertise and play-by-play analysis of what we were watching.
First, one should view each contest between the band of bullfighters and the bull as a three-act tragedy. The first act, Tercio de Varas (The Stage of Pikes), is when the bull is released into the ring and charges at any movement it sees, then a trio of banderilleros (assistants to the matador) step out from behind the barrier walls and maneuver the bull’s rushes by waving large capes to test its courage and assess how it naturally moves. Next, two horse-mounted picadors enter the ring, each hoisting a long pole with a four-inch knife on one end, and they stab the bull’s thick neck muscles, which will later compel it to lower its head when it attacks. The second act, Tercio de Banderillas (The Stage of Little Harpoons), involves one of the banderilleros working solo to athletically place three pairs of short spiked spears into the bull’s shoulders in order to force it into charging in a straight line. The decorative little spears are called banderillas, and because of the blade’s hooked shape, they remain stuck into the bull’s hide and hang off its back like ornaments for the rest of the battle. Lastly, La Suerte de Muleta (The Final Stage), brings out the celebrated matador — who waves a small red cape and dances a dangerous flamenco with the frustrated animal. This elegant movement of passes lasts for around ten minutes before the moment of truth arrives when the matador must profile the exhausted beast, aiming a thin sword, then rush forward and contort his body over the bull’s deadly horns in order to sink the steel blade through the bull’s muscular shoulder. A successful hit will drive the killing sword straight into the bull’s heart and lungs, which ultimately causes it to fall to its knees and snort its final breath.
I left Tijuana that day in a state of a drunken shock, and for days afterward, I couldn’t shake the images. But whenever someone asked me what it was like, it was too difficult to distill the experience to any certain description. I would say something along the lines that it resembled a sporting event, but it also gave the impression of performance art, while at the same time it felt poetic and religious. And obviously, the killing part of it was complicated to defend, especially to animal-loving vegetarians. So, like any wise scholar seeking enlightenment on a subject, I headed to the library to educate myself further. The first book I found on the shelf was a collection of bullfighting-themed art, most of which was dedicated to Pablo Picasso, who spent his lifetime dedicated to works that symbolized bullfighting’s characters, dramas, heroics, and rituals. I also came across Salvador Dalí’s surrealist painting, The Hallucinogenic Toreador, which always makes me feel like I’m peeking into a psychedelic LSD trip. Back in my more free-spirited college days, I’d seen the original at a museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I had even owned a framed print of it that hung on the walls of a least a half-dozen of my apartments before it slid out of a U-Haul on an ice-covered street in Chicago during a hasty move. Then I stumbled upon the eighteenth-century portrait master, Francisco Goya. He too dabbled in bullfight motifs, including a self-portrait depicting himself in a bullfighter’s suit. Even more interesting, I read that in 1815, at a late stage in his tortured life, Goya began a series of thirty-three etchings that would become the first visual representation of Spain’s centuries-old origins of bullfighting in the Iberian Peninsula. It was called The Tauromaquia.
Illustrated in the order of chronological history, Goya’s first drawing depicts a mountainous area where a mounted Spaniard is stabbing a long lance into the side of a rushing bull, and the next few drawings show teams of spear-holding Spaniards and sword-wielding Moors hunting on foot against these wild beasts. With the sixth etching, Goya reveals these wild hunts evolving into ceremonial practice in Spanish courtyards, as a couple of turban-headed Moor fighters are waving a large cloth at a bull while spectators gawk from behind a fence. Then the next etching, Origin of Harpoons or Banderillas, reflects another team of Moor fighters launching short harpoons into the neck of a head-tossing bull. Thus, through Goya’s artwork (and a few historical texts from which he based his works), it appears that the Moors were the first participants who implemented both the waving of capes and these little spears — banderillas — to the ritualist sport of killing bulls for a cheering crowd.
While Goya definitely provided a vivid cultural record of bullfighting, my curiosity was far from satisfied, and since I was already at the library, the best solution was to plow into bullfighting literature. As bookish highbrows will tell you, there is no higher standard, at least in America’s perception, than Ernest Hemingway’s writings on the subject. In the earlier part of the twentieth-century, Papa pounded out rich descriptions of a bullfight in The Sun Also Rises, and two of his later works, Death in the Afternoon and The Dangerous Summer, are considered the most iconic books that still enrapture bullfighting aficionados. After repeated readings of these two novels, I can’t argue that they provide plenty of scholarship; however, Hemingway wasn’t the only twentieth-century American author fixated on bullfighting, and he may not have ever been the best writer on it after all. For one, there are the seminal works of Barnaby Conrad, a distinguished American author and painter, who as a young man in the 1940s became so obsessed with bullfighting that he took up as an apprentice for three of the most famous matadors of all-time: Juan Belmonte, Manolo Manolete, and Carlos Arruza. Known as “El Niño de California,” Conrad later turned his fighting skills toward writing, and he penned the short fiction novel, Matador, which went on to sell over three million copies worldwide. He also scribed La Fiesta Brava: The Art of the Bull Ring, which in many ways matches the haughtiness of Hemingway’s declarations on the methods, techniques, and behind-the-scenes details of bullfighting. If I ever were forced to compare these two literary titans, I’d certainly have to give Conrad extra points because he faced bulls in the ring rather than a front row seat behind a barrier wall as did Hemingway.
One of the more provocative opinions that Conrad delivers in La Fiesta Brava is that he believes that the whole purpose of using banderillas is debatable. He acknowledges the barbed sticks are intended to correct “defects,” such as a bull’s tendency to favor a particular side when it attacks, but whether this strategy actually makes the bull charge straight is uncertain. At least, according to him. Consequently, Conrad also feels “beginning aficionados usually prefer the banderillas to all else in the ring, because it seems miraculous that a virtually unarmed man can get so close to the bull and come out unscathed.” I’m not sure if Conrad is grousing against banderillas or if he is schooling untutored fans, but when I returned to Tijuana’s Plaza de Toros I became spellbound by the acrobatic stunts of the young matador, Rafael Ortega, as he placed his own sticks on the three bulls he faced that day. Picture a petite gymnast performing a floor routine, resplendent with high leaps, forward and backward turns, sideways spins — all while pirouetting inches away from a stampeding monster with spikes on its head. On one occasion, Ortega used a pair of half-size banderillas, only 13-inches long, and in a zig-zag chase he propelled both of them over his shoulder, straight into the bull’s neck, before ducking safely under its tossing horns. Some, like Conrad, argue this style is more suited for a carnival act, but for me this was as rousing and rewarding as when I used to chuck my dad’s little spear across the yard.
After catching several more corridas that first summer, then the entire slate of them over the following summer season, it wouldn’t be untrue to say that bullfighting had hooked me. Much like Ismael’s passion for the sea, I couldn’t stop myself from voyaging to the ring of sand, and I quickly became adept at judging the distinctions between a respectable or inadequate contest, as there were plenty of first-rate showings, as well as horrific ones with cowardly bulls and unskilled bullfighters. Still, it was a rather lonesome passion, as only a smattering of gringos regularly visited the Tijuana ring, and being one of the few Americans there felt both exotic and unnerving — especially with drug gangs in the midst of a vicious street war. Then by happenstance, or possibly a nudge by the invisible officer of the Fates, I crossed paths with a group of Americans whose fever for bullfights could match even the most strident fans in Mexico and Spain. They called themselves Los Aficionados de Los Angeles, and soon, they would swoop me into their wings and fly me further on this bullfighting odyssey.
Established in 1949, Los Aficionados de Los Angeles proudly bears the distinction of being the oldest bullfight club in the United States. I became aware of them by noticing their plaque in one of Los Angeles’ oldest Mexican restaurants, El Paseo Inn, and after some internet investigation and email exchanges with its long-standing president, Jimee Petrich, I dropped in for one of their meetings. I was surprised to see most of the thirty or so present members were retired, or near retirement age, and I was taken aback once I learned that they came from a variety of professional backgrounds, including, lawyers, construction workers, teachers, and graphic designers. All of them were friendly. Gracious. A tad eccentric. And it didn’t take much of their persuasion into swaying me into joining their club for a $35 annual fee.
Thus began my bullfight tutelage with our once-a-month meetings when we would gather together to indulge ourselves with margaritas and Mexican cuisine, and listen to an invited guest speaker — usually a matador, breeder, promotor, or some other celebrated bullfighting figure — who would deliver a personal take of bullfighting lore. It was like attending an exclusive college with a faculty of bullfighting connoisseurs. I even rubbed shoulders with Honorary Member Barnaby Conrad, now well into his eighties and referred to as “Maestro.” And besides learning more about the traditional bullfights that take place in Latin countries, I also found out that there were other factions of the bullfighting universe, such as the Portuguese-immigrant communities in California that hold “Bloodless Bullfights.” I later took my family to one of these events in Artesia, California, a quick forty miles from my house, and saw that it held all the dangers for the man, but lessened the harms for the bulls. The razor sharp hooks on the banderillas had been replaced with Velcro tips that stick onto Velcro squares affixed onto the bull’s back; plus, instead of executing the bull with a sword, the matador skillfully plucked a pinned rose off its shoulder. The entire scene resembled a light-hearted blend of a traditional bullfight and an American rodeo that the whole family could enjoy, like my own, and it made me further speculate why bullfighting was not more popular in the States.
Besides my newfound affiliations with the bullfighting circle, at the time of these happenings, I was also in the midst of what you might call an up-and-coming career in Hollywood. Over the previous couple of years, my scriptwriting had luckily earned me low six-figures and few film magazine notices, plus I had recently added the title of creative executive at the Weinstein Company film studio. Naturally, my fresh zeal for bullfighting began to bleed into my creative juices, but I had no idea how to navigate its flow. Sure, bullfighting and Hollywood had once shared a glamourous union when the likes of Orson Welles, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, and Ava Gardner were occupying seats at many plazas de toros — but that was decades before PETA began beating its drum.
With no clear vision of how to meld my two passions, I remained in a blind flux, until I began to notice how much America seemed enamored with these situational reality shows, like Project Runway and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. I wondered if America might be ready for Project Matador or Bullseye for the Blood-thirsty. With this impulsive thought, my hyperactive imagination took over, and I began to envision an American TV series that documented the day-to-day lives of matadors. At the same time, the show could provide an educational dive into the nuances of bullfighting. Teach the audience. Toss in a few comedic and dramatic segments with picadors, banderilleros, bulls, breeders, promoters, critics, journalists, aficionados — and all of sudden I would have a conduit to show America this breathtaking world I had come to know.
To go about the outlandish quest, I placed calls to my Hollywood and bullfighting networks to garner reactions. Predictably, fellow aficionados praised my ambition, while the prickly Hollywood people landed between intrigued or disgusted. Still, my faith remained emboldened, and through my connections, I managed to garner an appointment with the proprietors of the bullring in Tijuana: Pepe and Tony Hurtado. Within a week, I met these two brothers for dinner at Tijuana’s classy bullfight-themed restaurant Casa Placencia, and laid out my proposed TV series. All I would need was access to their ring and maybe a few introductions to suitable matadors. As businessmen, they were immediately thrilled over my idea, knowing the publicity from such an American TV show would mean more gringos in the seats and more gringo dollars in their pockets. I then learned that their legendary father, Major Salvador Lopez Hurtado, was the man who had led the construction of the bullrings in Juarez and Tijuana in the late-50s, and for over a half-century the Hurtado Family had been bringing the most celebrated matadors in the world to perform in northern Mexico. In fact, their father was the promoter of the ‘73 Easter bullfight in Juárez, where my own father had acquired the little spear that I played with as a little boy. No doubt, that officer of the Fates had initiated his plan for me, long, long ago, and his finger was still nudging me along on this fantastical journey.
The next day, Pepe’s son, Curro, picked me up from my hotel to take me on a private tour at the family’s renowned Bullring by the Sea — a 22,000-capacity stadium just 200 hundred feet from the U.S. border and one block from the Pacific Ocean. I’d been there plenty of times before as a spectator to the fights, but this trip was for an up-close examination of the environs. The first stop on the circuit was inside the tiny chapel where nervous matadors solemnly pray before facing the bulls. It smelt of candle wax and dead roses. We then sauntered across the courtyard where picadors prepare their horses for battle, and nearby was the carniceria where dead bulls are dressed into slabs of beef after their performance in the arena. I needn’t describe the stench in there. We next ventured into the infirmary where the unfortunate are taken when they are kicked or steamrolled by a bull. Or worse, gored. The tiled room housed a grim metal table, a movable lamp, and a few medicine cabinets, and, sensing the ghastly horrors that had taken place in there, I was relieved when we moved on.
We next inspected the corrals where bulls are kept on fight days. The stalls were absent of light and stank of dry manure, and I asked Curro if the bulls prayed in here like the matadors did in the chapel. “The bulls are gods themselves,” he replied with a wink. Then we paraded down the same corridor where matadors make their way to the ring, until we arrived at a shoulder-high wooden fence that encircled the arena. Curro opened a narrow gate. “Pasen adelánte,” he said, which I took to mean “go in.” I hesitated with an anxious grin then I soft-stepped onto the sand. I made my way toward the center of the ring, leaving footprints where thousands of brave bulls had met their grisly end. With each stride, I felt as if I were floating. When I reached the center, I stopped and gazed upward into the sky and sun, and whispered to myself: “This is where it happens.”
After returning to Los Angeles, weeks passed by with my mind spinning over my magical tour of the ring. Now, I was even more convinced that it’d only be a matter of time before Hollywood came calling to learn more about my plan. Sure enough, I hooked an interested party: Spike TV. The masculine-fueled network was in search for something original and wild, and bullfighting sounded like it might fit the bill, so on the next scheduled corrida at Bullring by the Sea, I guided two wide-eyed Spike TV executives down to Tijuana where the Hurtado Family had arranged for us to experience a day-in-the-life of a bullfighter.
First on the agenda was breakfast with 22-year-old matador, Jose Mauricio. We met him and his entourage at the Palacio Azteca Hotel, where matadors commonly stay the night before a performance. The young Mauricio was tall, thin, blondish, and his infectious smile veiled all inclination that he would be voluntarily risking his life this Sunday afternoon. He nibbled little and spoke little as his translator tried his best to fill in small talk of their best performances that season in places like Mexicali and Aguascalientes. Then following breakfast, we were invited to Mauricio’s room to observe one of the oldest rituals in bullfighting: the dressing. The sacred process involves a matador’s most trusted non-performing assistant who clothes the matador into a richly adorned “suit of lights.” As directed, Mauricio’s elderly and mustached man slowly and deliberately placed on each piece of the fanciful attire in the properly prescribed order: white bodysuit, pink socks, skintight pants, white dress shirt, tie; waistcoat, a thickly embroidered short jacket, and ballet shoes. No one made a sound during the entire assembly, which made the whole ordeal all the more holy. The Spike TV guys were fit to be tied, confident this was the type of macho-romantic fluff that would set their network on fire.
At two o’clock that afternoon, we arrived at the Bullring by the Sea. The mostly-Mexican crowd was already gathering, the brass band was blowing, and the patio bars were serving sangria and calamari. After giving the Spike TV execs a hurried tour, Pepe and Tony Hurtado placed us in front row box seats, inside an enclosed chamber, right behind the barrier walls. Stationed only a few feet away from the action, I pictured myself as Hemingway, so I decided to drink like him. At promptly at four o’clock the ceremony began with Jose Mauricio and the two other matadors leading a gallant procession of banderilleros, picadors, and the general ring workers out into the ring of sand. At the end of this introductory parade, each matador slung off his ornamental capote de paseo (ceremonial parade cape), and surrendered them to honored guests to hold during the day’s festivities. Unexpectedly, Jose Mauricio tipped his traditional montera cap in my direction and dedicated his cape to me. I staggered, shocked, choking on sangria. Then in an attempt to gain composure, I nodded my head and uttered, “Suerte, Matador,” which in gringo-lingo essentially means “Good luck, killer.” As the crowd applauded me, one of Mauricio’s banderilleros handed over the beautifully decorated poncho, and the Spike TV execs mooned at me as if I were a saint. Then the banderillero reached out with an orange-and-white banderilla for me to keep as a memento to mark this great honor.
I must confess, the surrealistic events and too much sangria cost me a clear recollection of the six tragedies that played out in the ring that day. I do remember Jose Mauricio being bowled-over and tossed in the air. He survived, as did the other matadors, and the six bulls did not. I better remember the ride back to Los Angeles, when the Spike TV execs were lost between exhilaration and disbelief. Even half-tipsy, I knew they were psychologically damaged by what they had just seen, and, looking back on it now, maybe it was too much to ask them to help me import this bloody death spectacle into America’s living rooms. It didn’t help my case that NFL quarterback, Michael Vick, had just been arrested for sponsoring illegal dogfights, and America was up in arms, demanding justice for the blatant cruelty toward man’s best friend. So, as expected, Spike TV called me a few days later with the news that they were going to pass on producing my proposed TV series.
Believe it or not, Hollywood’s dismissal of my dream project did not trigger any ill effects on my spirits. Rather, I was relieved. Maybe it was Jose Mauricio shining a spotlight upon me, or maybe it was the crowd applauding me inside the arena, but something about that day led me into recognizing that the low-key status of bullfighting was exactly where it needed to be. I realized that greedy-and-fickle America would only suffocate it with a tidal wave of controversy before leaving it behind as a passing craze. Sure, the seductive spectacle might draw a trifling audience at first, but would the wall-screen watching masses come to value bullfighting as a science as well as an art? Would they appreciate its rules, its history, its traditions, its literature, its art forms, or its language? Would Americans actually go to a live bullfight? Probably not. Besides, what more satisfaction would I have gained with creating a false-reality TV show? Somehow, I’d miraculously reached a high point in the bullfighting universe that millions of aficionados, both past and present, could only fantasize about, a triumph no one could ever diminish or take away from me. I was living the dream.
Nearly two decades have passed since I went to my first bullfight, and over this time, I’ve gone on to witness such notable matadors as El Juli, Eloy Cavazo, Morante de la Puebla, El Pana, and El Zotoluco strut their courage in various bullrings in Mexico. I’ve also travelled across the globe to the legendary Las Ventas Bullring in Madrid to cheer the classical Spaniards as they perform on their home stage. I’m not sure what status this places in me in the realm of aficionados, I can only say that bullfighting fascinates me like nothing else, and I try not to judge myself too harshly for enjoying such cruelty. Unlike my dad, I proudly display my banderilla inside the house, rather than hiding it away inside a tool shed, and I am all too happy to tell the story behind it when friends and neighbors come by and inquire about its origins. Even my two little girls sometimes notice it and ask me, “Daddy, when are going to take us to a bullfight?” I’ve yet to fulfill their wishes, but I do recognize the irony of my own children wishing to do as their father does. And from time to time, I pick it up to rub its frilly paper and test its sharp point, just like I had done with the little spear that I had played with as a little boy, and I consider how much of my own bullfighting chronicle has already faded into memory. Pepe Hurtado died in 2009. Barnaby Conrad in 2013. Jerry Magee in 2019. So gone are a few members of Los Aficionados de Los Angeles. The bullring in Juárez has been bulldozed for a Walmart store, and the Tijuana crowds at Bullring by the Sea are dwindling more and more each summer. When I add up all of this dying, I start to wonder if bullfighting itself might soon be extinct. Or at least wiped out in Northern Mexico. If so, I suppose I am one of the fortunate few to have witnessed it before it is gone.
The author, riding a pony, at the same age he found the little spear in his father’s tool cabinet.
Sean Jacques is a fifth-generation native of the Missouri Ozarks. His wayward career includes bartender, stone sculptor, public relations director, creative executive for a film studio, and presently, he teaches English Literature in Los Angeles. His writing can also be found in the upcoming 2021 Fall Issue of 34 Orchard.