At four-thirty in the afternoon Papa’s on North Mesa Street in El Paso was preparing to open for business. Although the place looks like a student hangout and is located near the university, the clientele is largely well-to-do professional men who can easily afford the nine, twelve, and twenty-dollar cigars displayed in a wide tall case to the right of the long bar up front. The barman rolled the dinged aluminum kegs under the bar and hooked them into the beer taps while, at the opposite end of the restaurant, the featured rock band that evening carried in its sound equipment from a pickup truck. The waiters in black pants and clean white shirts, finished with their setup and ready to go to work, sat across the room by the windows, smoking a last cigarette and talking. With them was Bobby Ramirez, the El Paso ticket agent for the Plaza Monumental de Toros in Juarez. The big man who questioned me at the door wasn’t admitting drinkers yet, not even his best lushes, but when Bobby saw me he stood from the table where he had been sitting with his back to the window and walked down along the bar and put his hand out.
“You’re going over to the fight tomorrow?”
“Of course. Are you?”
“I don’t think so. It’s only a novillado.”
“In the last corrida the best performance was by a novillero.”
Bobby Ramirez smiled.
“You didn’t like El Juli?”
“I thought he seemed in a hurry to get through and get out of there.”
“I heard he had a plane to catch to Madrid.”
“He is still in Mexico. But he is booked ahead already for two years.”
“That isn’t bad for 15 years old.”
He shrugged. “Anyway, there is no El Juli fighting tomorrow.”
“Well, we’ll see you on the 28th then. It’s supposed to be a good fight.”
“Or maybe tomorrow, who knows? I like going for dinner afterward and drinking in the bars in Juárez where no one knows me. In El Paso I run into all the guys I’ve had to throw out of this place.”
“So you go across to Mexico for a little peace and quiet.”
“Sure. Last year I had a seat just above where the guys who got shot were sitting and just below the guys who killed them. They were all packing guns and smoking big cigars and I could tell something was up. Going away from the ring I was trying to put some distance between me and them when I got caught in the crowd, and then the shooting started.”
There was a thing I had been meaning to ask Bobby before, and now I remembered it.
“Have they been after you yet, in El Paso?”
He looked surprised. “Have who been after me?”
“The animal rights people. They made life hell for the previous ticket agents over here.”
“I haven’t heard a thing.” Bobby Ramirez grinned. “Anyway, I haven’t had to throw any of them out.”
I exchanged $66 for three tickets and we shook hands again. A sign on the outside of Papa’s overlooking the little parking lot read, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” It seemed to say a lot for the place that it didn’t attribute the quote to Ernest Hemingway.
We did not look at the program next day before the fight. “It’s a woman!” Jim Rauen exclaimed as the cuadrilla entered the ring and the three aspiring matadors advanced across the sand with their folded capes on their arms. Two of them were tall and dark-headed, the other small and blonde with a figure that fulfilled the gold-and-green brocaded suit in pleasing and arresting ways. Her name was Marbella Romero, billed as “la preciosa Torera de Mordia,” Morelia being an old colonial town in the south of Mexico. With her blonde hair, pale skin, and straight, almost severe profile she looked more Castilian than Mexican, but what mattered now was what she was inside, not out, because in 30 minutes she had to face a bull here in the ring with her cuadrilla, which is to say with help but still very much alone. The men walking beside her were Jose Gabriel and Javier Gutierrez, and the combined age of all three of them was probably around 54 years.
The bulls were from the Piedras Negras ranch, wonderful gray animals propelled by plenty of muscle and spirit and very fast on their feet. They knocked at the burladeros with their horns as the men drew in their capes from before their noses as they passed by, skidded on to a halt, and stood pawing the sand fiercely. Gabriel and Gutierrez did some good cape work, but they shifted their feet too often as the bull charged and led him too far, interrupting the fluid rhythm of the pass and repass until the action in its entirety became awkward and broken. Both Gabriel and Gutierrez received knocks from the bull a couple of times without serious injury, while their families looked on calmly. A small boy with his father in the first row of seats a short distance away sat messing with a cob of sweet corn on a stick.
“Look at that kid eating cob corn,” I remarked.
“He’s not eating it,” Jim said. “He’s putting it in his hair.”
The mules hauled away the carcass of Gutierrez’s first bull, the men smoothed the sand over with rakes, and Senorita Romero finished her warm-up exercises behind the barrera. As her cuadrilla took their positions around the ring, she spread her forearms on the red-painted wood and rested her chin on her hands, watching the door marked Toriles directiy across the arena. The door opened and the bull charged through it, wearing the Piedras Negras rosette on his shoulder. He made one complete circuit of the ring, hitting at the burladeros with his horn, reversed direction, and charged again with a momentum that carried him over the barrero and the callejon behind it, almost on top of the boy with the corn cob and his father. The bull’s front hooves struck the concrete wall just below the first seating row and his head and horns were far enough into the seats to make him almost a spectator himself. Flailing, he dropped down into the callejon and ran clockwise until he reached the next opening into the ring, where he met up again with the men who had vaulted over the barrera just ahead of him. When things had quieted down a bit I looked over to Senorita Romero again. She was standing straight now behind the red painted fence as she prepared to enter the ring and take the bull away from the men, and she looked cool and relaxed as if she were arriving at a chic Mexico City grille to meet a girlfriend for lunch after a morning spent having her hair coifed and her nails done.
Marbella Romero did not do a bad job with her first bull. She looked good in the ring except when, approaching the animal, she imitated the matador’s showy strut which does not look so well when performed by a woman but appears, in fact, a little ridiculous. She did not really have the figure either for a torero, being short in stature and with too womanly a build. But the crowd, loving her, ignored her mistakes, applauding wildly and shouting “Guera! Guera!” (“guera,” in a peculiarly Mexican idiomatic usage, means “fair” or “blonde”), while the female controversialist high up in the arena who during Gutierrez’s and Romero’s performances had been yelling “Arriba toro! Arriba toro!” (“Up with the bull!”) fell silent now. While making her veronicas Romero was bumped by the horn, and it appeared as she stood against the barrera massaging her leg that she would be unable to conclude the fight. But she returned to it gamely and almost at once the bull caught her, knocked her down, and went after her with his horns while his wide hoofs trampled the sand. Marbella lay on her stomach with the forward part of her body propped on her elbows as she tried to rise; her mouth was partly open and her eyes looked enormous. The crowd, shocked by the imminent prospect of seeing a woman gored to death, made a low, unheard of sound. The cuadrilla drew the bull off with the capes, and the girl sprang to retrieve her sword. Then she turned, covered with blood, to face the bull again.
“She’s hurt,” I exclaimed.
“That’s the bull’s blood, not hers,” Jim said. “She’s okay.”
Marbella Romero killed her bull, but she was compelled, after several attempts to go in over the horns, to kill with a thrust behind the poll to the brain. She had the crowd’s fullest sympathy anyway and exploited it fully, making a circuit of the ring while people threw things down and applauded. Romero limped badly and her beautifiil suit was covered with blood and sand, but she looked proud of herself and very happy.
“In El Paso, it’s illegal for that young lady to buy a pack of cigarettes,” Jim Rauen remarked.
“Or a glass of beer.”
“She could get a legal abortion though.”
“If they didn’t have her in jail for cruelty to animals.”
“Along with her parents doing ten years for child abuse. Or would it be child neglect?”
“Anyway, it makes you proud to be an American.”
The bullfight critic for Norte de Ciudad Juárez wrote later on that evening that the audience for the novillado should have stayed home, but we didn’t agree with him. Bullfighters, like baseball players and opera singers, have to start somewhere.
Throughout northern Mexico—along the U.S.-Mexico border in particular—bullfighting has made a comeback in recent years. Yet for big city newspapers on the American side of the border, with their lavish arts and entertainment sections covering cultural and multicultural events including border book fairs, chili cookoffs and Big Enchilada festivals, Chicana poetry readings, mariachi concerts, ranch heritage barbecues, and appearances by Dr. Henry Kissinger, the corrida is a non-event. Even in New Mexico, aficionados are regarded as not-so-harmless eccentrics of a type who rent snuff movies on Saturday nights and harbor a secret wish to rescue gladiatorial combat from the mists of ancient history. The bullfight, imagined as a celebration of and indulgence in gratuitous violence, is a fearsome thing for what remains of the Anglo-American public which, without actually saying so, abhors it as the quintessential emblem of Latin bloodthirst.
Stereotypes regarding Latin violence and cruelty, like all stereotypes, conform essentially with known facts. The “lawless roads”—and cities—of Mexico today are more violent than they have been at any time since Graham Greene visited the country in the 1930’s. But banditry. drug wars, political assassinations, government massacres, and murder are not branches on the same vine from which the corrida grew, the bullfight being about control and order, not chaos. And it is chaos, not violence as such, that is headed our way from Latin America, borne along as dangerous refuse on a flood tide of effectively uncontrolled immigration. For the United States, where multiculturalism has become official dogma, importing the corrida to the American Southwest would be the logical and proper thing—as much as accepting limitless numbers of “Hispanics” is illogical and improper. “Cultural enrichment” is not the same thing as mob immigration, but it is not at odds with restriction, either. Civilization would be bullfight ferias throughout the Southwestern states, which could be protected nonetheless from the threat of cultural violence in its many forms: poverty, dependency, political instability, ineptitude, and corruption. Instead, American politicians enthusiastically admit a million disruptive foreigners a year with the understanding that they will wear their Nikes to football games, not bullfights, and eat only hamburgers made from humanely butchered beeves.
On a recent flight from Chicago to El Paso on American Airlines’ Immigrant Express, I sat listening to the conversation of two “Hispanics” in the seats behind me. The woman was a native of El Paso, where she was returning after a visit with relatives in the Chicago area. The man had been born and raised in Juarez, moved to the United States where he became a naturalized citizen, and landed a job as a professor of something or other at the University of Iowa. Having lost a grandparent over the weekend, he was on his way home to Juarez to attend the funeral.
“You know,” the woman said, “the way filings are headed, we’ll be the majority by the year 2050.”
“Yes,” he agreed. “It’s going to be our country before we know it.”
Perhaps so, but if the three of us should happen to be alive 52 years from now, they won’t like it any better than I will because we’ll have the worst of both worlds then. I almost turned around in my seat to give them the bad news, and decided to forget it. It didn’t really seem worthwhile spoiling their day.