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There will (not) be blood

22 January 2008

Lynn Brezosky in the San Antonio Express-News (via Houston Chronicle)

LA GLORIA — The bleachers were full, the air rich with the aroma of fajitas, the matadors resplendent as the sixth season of corridas, or bullfights, at Texas’ only exhibition bullring got under way.

After the opening act — Guapo, the dancing horse, pranced sideways and backward, lifted its hooves, and curtsied to ranchera music — a tractor combed the dirt.

Announcer Lyn Sherwood prepped the crowd. Many were white-haired retirees from Northern states, “Winter Texans” taking in part of the tapestry of the Mexican border. Others were families from surrounding miles of lonely ranchland. Most had never seen a bullfight.

What they saw last week at the Santa Maria bullring wasn’t a classic bullfight, with a half-ton animal weakened by lances and barbs but still capable of killing the matador with each pass at his cape before being killed himself.

By U.S. law, there can be no blood and no kill, only a final swipe by the matador to remove a rose attached to the back of the bull. Without the lancing during the picador phase, known as the Tercio de Varas, the bulls must be smaller.

But the essence of the bullfight is retained, owner Fred Renk said, and spectators are able to experience the dance of man against beast, which he said is as ancient as the walls of Crete.

Renk, 71, inaugurated the 30-foot ring at his ranch 60 miles northwest of McAllen in 2002. He named it for his patron saint and installed a small prayer chapel for the matadors under the stands.

It was the realization of a dream dating back to his own days in Mexico City, when he abandoned plans to become a priest in favor of becoming a bullfighter. He fought as a novillero, or novice bullfighter below the rank of matador, from 1958 to 1967.

His son, 44-year-old David, made full matador in 1981 and earned respect even in the most snobbish of bullfighting circles as El Texano. He was the sixth U.S. matador in history and the only American to confirm that status in Mexico City’s La Plaza Mexico, the largest bullring in the world.



I have yet to write on two Texas-born bullfighters who particularly fascinate me: Patricia Hayes, who threw up her music studies at North Texas State College in the early 1950s to move to Mexico City and take up a respectable career as a”the Grace Kelly of the Bullring” and Patricia McCormick of Big Springs, Texas.



Bullfighting is not nearly the elitist sport we think. There have been women bullfighters (including the two Texans), gay bullfighters (see Ernest Hemingway’s “The Mother of a Queen” — incidentally Hemingway’s only story with a Mexican protagonist, or the somewhat NSFW gay Turkish site, Casual in Istanbul — gay Turkish bullfight fans… who knew?) and tauromachia has been racially integrated as long as “race” has been a factor in our thinking.


While tauromachia has roots going back to ancient Crete, the modern bullfight celebrates the common man (never mind the fancy suits). In the 18th century, the sport radically changed: before that it was meant as a ritual glorifying stratified social classes. The picadors – representing the nobility – were protecting the unarmed peasant from the forces of nature. When the matador first took up the sword in the ring, the commoners came into their own. And, became demi-gods. In their traje de luz, the matador – a common man (or woman) – takes on an almost mythic status. Unlike other “mythic” creatures like rock stars or pro athletes, the matador in a very real sense is putting his (or her) humanity on the line. A “bloodless” bullfight misses that “point” … Becoming one with nature is not risk free.


Hemingway’s story (which is somewhat difficult to find) is less about bullfighting (or gays) than about accepting our place in nature, and our own mortality. The greatest of twentieth century matadors, Silverio Perez, (who lived to be over 90 by the way) spoke and wrote of his art almost as if he were writing Buddhist precepts. “Only by becoming one with our fear, and the bull’s fear, and becoming one with our own mortality, are we alive,” he wrote.



And, consider this. In Texas, you can’t stab a bull, but you can shoot your neighbor. ¿Qué barbaro?

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