Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Speaking from experience, rather than poetic frenzy, I say both. The spring winds blowing white at home in Wyoming blow red down here in New Mexico, a howling gale that seems to be returning to the Dustbowl the errant Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas dusts that have been sojourning in Southern California for 60 years. They might be winds from Hell, though on this Easter weekend tongues of heavenly fire is plainly a more appropriate metaphor.
The storms make their first appearance as skirmishing clouds of pink dust on the western landline, blotting the Florida Mountains and sweeping on across the endless flats toward the Rio Grande. Hot winds lift the dust to an even height beneath a clear blue sky, a dry and scouring fog rolling in from an ocean of red desert upon the springtime valley of green fields and blossoming fruit trees and the East Mesa, where the Organ Mountains vanish behind the blowing dust raised by 60-mile-an-hour winds and the houses around blur to reddish, indistinct shapes. Sheets and ribbons of dust race across the roads, and dust like red talcum powder works its way in under doors and around windows, sifting through the skylight and drafting down the chimney. The parching, hot, and suffocating air inside the closed-up house has a claustrophobic effect which, added to the nervous bombardment of positive ions, produces a feeling of mild panic arising from a sense of entrapment from which there is no escape. Around sundown the storm abates; the sun’s reddened eye appears above the horizon through separating clouds of dust, and the wind dies by degrees, in fits and gusts, leaving small piles of sand against the house and in the angles of the stone wall.
The dust storms blew up for Palm Sunday and banged around during the first part of Holy Week before ceasing abruptly on Good Friday. I emerged from the house before sunset, swept the dust off the truck, and drove across town to Mesilla. Behind a sign posted on the front doors to keep the tourists out, San Albino was crowded beyond its seating capacity. I heard the service from the back of the church. Father Conrad alternating between Spanish and English as he proceeded. The Spanish ladies’ choir in their white dresses and mantillas sang from the choir loft, and at Communion their steps were heard on the wooden stairs at the back of the church as they descended, still singing their melodious repetitive chants, for the Eucharist. Following the service a procession, beginning inside the church and led by two men bearing a tortured-looking cadaver carved from a tough-looking, dark-colored wood and lying in a sort of crib, filed out and around the plaza, past the wide open shops and the marveling tourists, each member of the procession carrying a lighted candle while the church bell tolled with a stark and tragic solemnity on the stroke of every minute. New Mexico has its drawbacks, but it is nice to live in a Catholic country, especially during Holy Week.
As Easter weekend inaugurates the bullfight season across the river in Ciudad Juárez, I had spent the proceeding week alternating religious devotion with attempts to obtain tickets to the upcoming gran corrida mixta at the Plaza Monumental. In addition to two highly regarded matadores, Señor Hurtado’s program featured a novillero 15 years old, Julian Lopez from Madrid, who was the talk of the local aficionados. On the Saturday before the fight I drove down to El Paso through the Mesilla Valley where the cottonwoods were in leaf and the pecan orchards stood under several inches of soaking water and walked across the Rio Grande under a hot sun to the Kentucky Bar in search of good tickets and a cold drink.
“Quiero dos boletos por la corrida el domingo que viene in el primera fila,” I told the barman.
“We don’t have the tickets yet,” the barman said in perfect English. “Monday, maybe, or Tuesday. Tuesday could be better. Come again on Tuesday for the tickets.”
The barman took a calendario from the end of the bar and gave it to me. I read it and saw that the fight was scheduled for April the 11th.
“The corrida is Saturday?”
The barman nodded. “They could not arrange for Lopez to be here Sunday. So he will fight on Saturday instead.”
The gentleman standing next to me at the bar leaned over and tapped the program with his finger.
“This El Juli is a superb bullfighter,” he said, also in English. “If you want to see a real torero, go see El Juli next Saturday.”
I bought a big Cuban cigar and smoked it while I had another beer, partly because it tasted wonderful and partly to keep the CIA on its toes. The barman brought me a bullfight poster carefully rolled, and afterward went back for a rubber band to keep it that way. Conversing about the corrida in the Kentucky Bar, I found it easy to forget that Juárez is a place where over a hundred people, Americans and Mexicans, have disappeared in the last couple of years and nearly 120 young maquiladora workers are thought to have been raped and slain since 1993 by a serial killer. I bought another Cuban stogie when I left and wandered around in the adjacent neighborhood to smoke it. Nobody paid me any attention in my pointy-toed boots and wide straw hat until, when I was getting rid of the cigar, a peddler, penetrating my disguise, thrust a piece of coiled lariat, patriotically decorated in the colors of the Mexican Republic and a tiny leather saddle—the kind of thing you hang on the rear-view mirror of your pickup truck—into my hand.
“Gracias señor, pero no.”
I tried giving the thing back to the man, but he refused to take it.
“Cinco dolares, señor.”
You hate to tell them no. I opened my wallet and looked into it: three ones, a ten, a couple of twenties. Of course he had no change. I drew out the singles and showed him them.
“Cuatro dolares, señor. Uno mas!“
In among some bank receipts I spotted a five dollar bill. I drew it out and gave it to the man.
“Seis dolares, señor!“
He took the money from me and was gone without another word.
Jim Rauen picked me up around noon Saturday on his way from Belen, and we rode down to Juárez together in his new Buick. Arriving at the ring too late for the sorteo we crossed the street to Paco, formerly Max-Fim, for lunch, and found the place almost unrecognizable under a face lift and a new coat of paint. It was also permanently closed, and so was Geronimo’s next door. There is scarcely a decent Italian restaurant below Canal Street in New York City which is not the site of at least one gangland killing, but the citizens of Juárez are apparently less blasé than New Yorkers, Paco’s owners having closed down the restaurant and sold the building following the shootings last August and September.
Being among the first to enter the ring after the gates opened, we escaped the inconvenience of a body search performed on all later arrivals as Juárez’s finest were suddenly everywhere, while walkie-talkies crackled and red lights swirled. It was a well-meant gesture, no doubt initiated by Hurtado himself, and we worked hard not to notice that anyone toting a bomb or packing a semi-automatic weapon had had a full quarter of an hour before the arrival of the police to sneak himself and his contraband past the gate and take up a strategic position inside the ring. Besides the cops there were a considerable number of TV cameramen. We walked around three of them trying to get the perfect angle on a pair of girls in tight shorts and halter tops to the refreshment stand and drank a couple of beers as the crowd passed by slowly into the arena.
With bullfighting making a comeback in northern Mexico and along the border, the patrons of the Plaza Monumental are more enthusiastic and at the same time more serious than they were six, seven, or eight years ago, when Hurtado padre was still alive and the temporada was three corridas a season. The calendario for 1998 lists ten events: the Easter corrida mixta, in which a novillero, or novice who has yet to make his alternativa, performs with one or more matadores in the course of the afternoon; five novilladas, all of whose toreros are novilleros; and four corridas, restricted solely to matadores. This afternoon the ring, though half empty as always on the sunny side, was more crowded than we had seen it yet, and the crowd itself less full of idle chatter.
From our third-row seats immediately to the right of the president’s box, we could watch the entrada forming for the entry and then, when the cuadrilla was in place for the first fight, look straight up the tunnel as the bull came charging out. Bulls fought by the novilleros are called novillos, smaller and lighter than the toros—big fighting bulls—but there wasn’t any difference between them that I could see, unless it was that El Juli’s animals were faster and more furious than those Antonio Urrutia and Carlos Rondero faced: all of them magnificent grey bulls with perfectly symmetrical horns from the breeding ranch of Cerro Viejo. El Juli himself was a beautiful boy who would have been perfectly cast in an episode of Brideshead Revisited and who possessed the aplomb, stage-presence, and panache of a man of 40 who had been fighting bulls all his life. In spite of the slight uncooperativeness of his first novillos. El Juli performed brilliantly, planting his own banderillas with a style and accuracy that challenged the older men who followed to call off their banderilleros and match the performance. Watching him in the faena, passing the bull so close to his body that he was bumped twice by the horn, I felt not only that I truly understood the bullfight for the first time, but that this was also the first occasion when I was actually seeing it—or being made to see it. On the afternoon of April 11, the separate faenas—Urrutia’s and Rondero’s as well as El Juli’s—unfolded in a fluid series of perfectly executed passes, to which the only possible response was: “Yes. That is how it is supposed to be always, you have never seen it quite this good before, and now that you have seen it you will never forget what good looks like, how everything really is supposed to be, and now you have a standard of perfection by which to judge every fight that you will ever see between this afternoon and the end of your life.”
The second half of the corrida was disfigured by a drunk who tossed a plastic bottle filled with branch water at one of the picadores (always the most unpopular of the cuadrilla), hitting him in the side of the head and nearly knocking his cap off The picador, who at the moment of impact was leaning on his lance to press the steel point deeper into the bull’s shoulder hump, shot a killing look into the crowd which, rising simultaneously to its feet, shouted, “Fuera! Fuera! Fuera!” in unison as the police moved in to apprehend the culprit and Rondero, shrugging, seated himself across the ring to await the restoration of order. But the wind, which got up just after he had killed his first bull, though it scoured the faces of everyone sitting on the sombra side of the arena, allowed the three toreros to show what they were capable of in the most dangerous conditions that a bullfighter can know in the ring. El Juli, concerned but not in the least intimidated or flustered, gestured to his cuadrilla as he stepped out to take the bull from them. Following the faena that ensued he killed beautifully by a perfectly placed estocada and was awarded an ear by the president, which he afterwards tossed to the arena’s equivalent of the peanut gallery as he exited the ring.
After the corrida we washed up at the hotel and then went for dinner at La Fogata on the Avenida 17 septiembre. The restaurant wasn’t there—not just closed but the building removed down to the foundation with that sudden and final dispensation that awaits so many things in Mexico, including bulls. We found a fish place and dined there for 20 dollars for the two of us, while in the Catedral de Nuestia Sefiora the Easter Vigil went on and on and, in the wide streets, a hot wind blew.