The bull that will die this afternoon must have thought he’d survived the worst that could happen. He’d lived on a ranch for three years with no human contact. Yesterday, when he was forced into a truck, the men using metal prods remained hidden. Being shoved into a truck after a life on the open range is frightening. Bulls resist. One died yesterday as a result of the manipulation and another lost one of his horns.
Today, the bull will see people for the first time. The first boy he meets will stick him at least once before he enters the ring to be taunted and stabbed. The bull will be fighting for his very life, but the outcome is inevitable.
My friends and I get to the bullring in Zapopan near Guadalajara just as the band is warming up. Juan, owner of the bulls, motions for us to sit with him in the prized middle seats of the bleachers. Hugs are exchanged and people introduced. Some cattle ranchers pass tequila. The festivities begin promptly at 4:00, a time when the sun will be in the bull’s eyes so he won’t see too clearly the matador who will taunt him.
Juan’s sons and grandchildren, dressed in festive costumes, appear on horseback to wave their greetings to the crowd. Six matadors, thin, muscular men who swish fuchsia and yellow capes in what seems to be a choreographed display, come next. When the matadors retreat to the 8 x 10’ wooden barriers positioned along three sides of the bullring, a man parades through the middle of the ring displaying a sign that reads “Andariego 320 kg.” A rancher tells me this is the bull’s name and weight.
The bull that’s been stuck with a knife and is bleeding from his shoulder is released from the gate and invited into the ring to prove his mettle. If he doesn’t charge and pursue the matadors, he will be sent back to the paddock. He must exhibit power and strength in order to test the virility of the matador. That’s what all this is supposed to be about.
Two matadors claim each of the three wooden barriers and take turns darting from behind the walls to entice the bull to charge. He runs from one side of the ring to the other, snorting and bleeding, sometimes battering his horns against the wood while the matadors surely quake behind it. Capes wave in the breeze. The matadors, dressed in skintight pants and fancy jackets, perform a ballet, of sorts, while this beast of the field fights for his freedom.
The second stage of the bullfight occurs when the picador and his horse make their entrance. The picador, dressed in an elaborate vest and armored leggings, must insert two banderillas, three-foot long sticks decorated with red ribbon on one end and sharp points on the other, in the bull’s back. Because his horse is terrified of cattle and would rear if it sees a bull, it has had its ears stuffed with wet newspaper, its eyes blindfolded, its vocal cords cut so the crowd won’t hear its cries when the bull slams into it, and its sides and legs covered with batting. When the picador has successfully placed the banderillas, which will dangle from the bull until the very end, the rest of the matadors retreat and the battle becomes one of a single man against an angry, injured, and exhausted bull.
The matador now uses a red cape called a muleta. It makes no difference to the bull since he’s color-blind and will charge at anything that moves, but it signifies to the crowd that the true heroics of the bullfight are about to begin. The band, quiet until now, starts playing music designed to work the crowd into a frenzy.
As the matador swings his cape and the bull passes only a few feet from his side, the crowd notices the two-foot silver dagger hidden behind the matador’s back. The battle is staged right in front of us. I see the mucus streaming from the bull’s nose and mouth and the blood oozing a red glaze over his back. As the bull passes closer and closer to the matador, each pass now only inches away, I wonder if the man will be able to use the dagger in time.
The bull’s horns barely miss and his back grazes the matador’s side. The cape swirls. The ballet intensifies. The crowd shouts “Ole” with each near miss. The band plays louder and louder. I want to scream at the man and the bull, “Stop! Stop before you’re both killed!” But the matador goes on and on. The man and bull now just a breath apart. Sparring with each other in a deadly dance.
Suddenly, the bull rolls the matador in the dirt. He lunges again and again. But no blood seeps from the matador who still clings to his red cape. Other men appear and somehow get the bull to the far side of the ring.
The matador struggles to stand, bows to the crowd, and strolls to the back of the ring where men stand around the bull. As though trained to do so, the bull suddenly falls to his knees. Later I learn that the men inserted swords to cut his spinal cord. The matador plunges his silver sword in the bull’s neck again and again, and Andariego rolls over on his side. Since he dies just a few feet from the back gate, a couple horsemen with ropes quickly drag him out of the ring so the next bullfight can begin.
In all, four bulls will have a first encounter with mankind today. Not one of them will survive the introduction
If you still want to see a bullfight after reading this, check the newspaper in any large Mexican town, look for advertisements on restaurant walls, or ask people in the jardin or plaza for information.