Europeans from Cortes to Graham Greene, and Americans from Ambrose Bierce to the contemporary tourist who is offered sugar-candy skulls to buy on the Day of the Dead and has his car stopped by men in anonymous uniforms toting guns, have discovered Mexico to be a country characterized by a ferocious reality that very often crosses over into the realm of the surreal. Mexican society, in unsettling contrast with that of the affluent Anglo colossus to the north, is distinguished chiefly by its medieval Christian piety (Catholicism tinctured, in some instances strongly, with aboriginal paganism) and by the irreducible circumstances of its material life. That the two qualities are joined cannot be doubted by anyone who has witnessed, for example, the celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the cathedral plaza in Ciudad Juárez, where men in rags gibber and weep before candle-lit statues of the recumbent Christ and a seemingly endless procession of the blind, the lame, and the halt raises the temperature of the cathedral itself by 20 degrees and fills it, like a gigantic stable, with a gentle animal reek. In Mexico, the spirit and the flesh are yoked in a reciprocity that seems scandalous to the Protestant Christian, outrageous to the northern rationalist, and sickening to the squeamish of both parties, none of whom is usually accustomed to being confronted by that vision of reality that seems peculiar to the Latin viewer, but that is nevertheless as true a one as any available to man on this earth.
From the bridge that spans the Rio Grande from El Paso, the pall of yellow smoke over Juárez was perceptible, and so was the odor of rotting garbage and rising sewers. But it was unexpectedly quiet on the Avenida Juárez on this Easter Sunday, following the excitement and joy of Holy Week. Along the nearly empty street a few merchants lounged in front of their shops, and the last black-and-white backs pressed in through the open doors of the Temple Bautista. On the plaza. Bach choruses were piped through loudspeakers but within the cathedral a quiet Easter Mass was being celebrated before what was much less than a full house. A driver in the taxi-line on the opposite side of the plaza, working with a clean towel that he applied to the automobile with swift caressing motions, polished a beat-up yellow-and-red Chevrolet with the name “Bertha” in hand-painted letters on the rear quarter-panel. An old man with a creased brown neck and face sat patiently in the head taxi. “Al Plaza de Toros, por favor,” Jim Rauen told him as we climbed in.
“Monumental?” the driver inquired as the engine turned over with a clanking uproar. “Si, señor,” Jim agreed, securing his walking stick with its carved ivory head between his knees. The taxi went through narrow streets and wide ones, past pedestaled statues of defunct generals and forgotten politicians, and between rows of quiet middle-class houses and more expensive-looking ones with manicured lawns, carefully trimmed rose bushes, and shiny automobiles locked away behind iron fences secured by heavy padlocks. In a street so narrow that the driver had to slow almost to a crawl, a pair of policemen uniformed in brown stood impassively interrogating a hapless motorcyclist. At the end of the street, the taxi made a left turn into a six-lane avenue that passed directly before the Plaza Monumental, where gaudy posters plastered on a facade of brick arches read:
Juárez, Domingo 15 Abril, 5:00 P.M.
Tradicional Corrida de Pascua
6 San Miguel de Mimiahuapam 6
Plaza de Toros Monumental Bull Ring
There were already a few cars in the parking lot up front by the red-and-yellow-painted gates and the ticket booths, one to the left and another to the right—”Sol” and “Sombra”—and people wandering behind these. Next to the parking lot was the Monumental Bar & Disco, with its doors propped open on the dark cool interior where the chairs rested legs-up on the tabletops. “Let’s go have a look at those Mimiahuapam bulls,” Jim Rauen—who lives in Belen, New Mexico, and is an aficionado—suggested.
The bulls waited in the holding pens directly to the left of the gate area. The pens were dry tanks made of bricks or cinder block, and they had stairs rising to the high promenades that surrounded the walls along their tops and were faced on the inside by a high iron grille. Through the grille, you looked down on the bulls, and they looked up at you. These bulls from the Mimiahuapam Ranch, like all fighting bulls, had never before witnessed a man standing at their own level; nor would they until they entered the ring for the first—and last—time. Upon an assurance of that fact depends not only the safety of the matador, but the art of the bullfight itself.
Around the promenade, fathers lifted small children on their shoulders to view the bulls, little girls in voluminous Easter dress stood on the toes of their patent-leather pumps to peer, and old men wearing straw hats and suspenders squinted, sizing up the animals and muttering to one another. There was sand spread on the floor of each tank, and each had a brick water trough, and burladeros—wooden shelters built out eight inches or so from the wall for the handlers to get behind if they needed to. In the first tank were a black, a brown, and a brindle bull. The bulls were in good flesh and had very sleek, shiny coats. The brindle, Jim observed, also had a slightly upturned point on its right horn. The bulls pressed together, smearing each other with their bright green manure, while the black pawed the ground and rolled his eyes upward to the promenade. As they stood their ground pawing, the yellow dust rose in clouds around them, lifted through the grille, and dispersed itself among the spectators. The three other of the six bulls to be killed that afternoon had been moved to adjoining tanks to prevent them from fighting one another. Everyone on the promenade, including the old men, appeared to be very pleased by the quality and the general aspect of these bulls.
We left the bulls and went through the red-and-yellow gates to attend the sorteo. On the other side of the gates, we were met by a brown old man dressed in a loose brown suit, a brown shirt with no necktie, a brown hat, and brown shoes who wanted to sell us tickets to the fight. When Jim explained that we had our tickets already and wished to see the sorteo, the man nodded affably and shuffled ahead of us under the concrete flair of the stadium bowl close to the holding pens where a sign on an inset yellow door said Peligro. Here beneath the overhang, everything was crusted with pigeon droppings, including the folding metal chairs and tables where people sat drinking beer and waiting for the sorteo to take place. Among these were a party of Anglos, including a middle-aged couple from Midland, Texas; an elderly one from Denver who said they came every year for the Easter fight that begins the season; and a lady from Santa Fe in a long blue dress with heavy folds in it and eyeglasses, wearing her hair drawn back in a salt-and-pepper bun. This woman, who reminded me inevitably of the Old Lady in Death in the Afternoon whom Hemingway attempts to instruct in the art and morality of the bullfight, turned out to be a true aficionada. While we were talking, the sorteo was accomplished: after the names of the six bulls had been inscribed on six cigarette papers, the managers of the three matadores selected two papers apiece. The bulls whose names appeared on those papers were the bulls their men would fight that afternoon.
In the shaded angle between the pavement and the slope of tiered concrete, men unloaded cases of beer and coca, plunging the bottles neck-first into plastic pails filled with crushed ice. Behind them, through the dark tunnel the puerta made, a figure in the open yellow oval of the ring was watering the sand with a hose. With Bob Guidry, Monumental’s public-relations man in El Paso, we drank beer and discussed the history of the stadium, which Guidry said was built in 1957 when nobody dreamed of the speed and extent of Juárez’s future growth. Guidry explained that a decline in enthusiasm for the bullfight has occurred along the border with the United States and in northern Mexico generally, which is why fights are scheduled nowadays only on holiday Sundays between Easter and Labor Day. What he called “the fight of the decade” had taken place only the year before, he said, when el Presidente intervened to spare the bull’s life. Such a thing happens with about one in every ten thousand bulls, A bull spared in this way, in recognition of his outstanding bravery, is put to stud so that he may pass on his brave genes to as considerable a progeny as possible.
The Monumental Bar & Disco was a shabby cafe open on three sides to make a patio where low tables, built of rough plywood tops held in iron bands and standing considerably off-plumb, were surrounded by a motley assortment of chairs. Beyond the cafe the disco yawned, a gray cavern, empty and dim. Children belonging to the Tarahumara Indian tribe sold candy and nuts from baskets, and between the tables a single waiter ran back and forth, gripping by the necks with grimy fingers uncapped bottles of beer.
Around four o’clock people began arriving in numbers by cars, pickup trucks, buses, and vans. Drinking beer with fresh lime slices, we watched a girl wearing a tight-fitting polka-dot dress and no underwear over a superb figure, and another girl, of a Spanish fairness and with a classic profile, dressed out in a complete going-to-the-bullfight costume: black-and-white hat with a flat crown and a stiff brim, a white blouse, black pants ending just above the knees, and a black-and-white pocketbook. Her husband was of a much darker Spanish type, almost swarthy; they had two small children with them. At a table near us an Anglo gentleman, silver-haired and florid, in a gray tweed coat with display handkerchief in the pocket above pressed charcoal slacks and tasseled loafers, sat cool and remote between two lovely blonde girls of 14 or 15. A fiesta atmosphere was beginning to develop, and somewhere behind us a band was playing pasa dobles—bullfight music. The parking lot and the Monumental Bar were extremely crowded now, and the day felt hotter than ever. At the service bar, boys with tongs were busy dragging in big blocks of sweating ice. A commercial bus stopped beside the bar to discharge passengers, while the people standing around took pictures.
At last Jim said it was time to go. We finished the beer and walked through the gates toward the stadium, where men were offering cushions for rent at 1,000 pesos, about forty cents. We paid for two cushions and entered through the nearest puerta to our places in the barreras (front-row seats) on the shady side of the ring, guided by the ubiquitous old man in brown to whom we gave a dollar. “Only one thing in Mexico ever starts on time,” Jim remarked to me as we dropped the cushions on the tendidos (these are the numbered places around the concrete tiers) and sat on them, “and that is the bullfight. Other events, including business meetings, are frequently hours late. And I mean hours.”
We were seated between an Anglo family on my right and, on Jim’s left, an elderly Anglo pair. The girl directly beside me looked to be about ten years old; she sat licking a very large lollipop and appeared entirely unimpressed by the spectacle around her. Above and to our right was the presidential box (AUTORIDA), and lettered signs above the entrances honored the names of great artists of the bullfight: PUERTA JUAN BELMONTE, PUERTA FERMIN ESPINOZA, PUERTA JUAN SILVETI. In the callejon or corridor between ourselves and the barrera, which is the red-painted wooden fence that forms an inner boundary to the sanded ring, the radio broadcasters strutted, jabbering excitedly into their hand-held microphones.
Heralded by fanfares from the white-coated band above the president’s box, the grand entry started—as Jim had predicted—precisely at five o’clock. Through a door under the sign CUADRILLAS the three matadores with their banderilleros came into the ring, followed by the picador on his padded horse and a young woman in a black satin costume mounted on a lively black one, its saddle and bridle trimmed with silver, which she made to prance sideways around the arena. The matadores—Ramos, Arruza, Silveti—looked to be of Caucasian blood: all three were very tall and slender, with aquiline features. Each carried on his arm a pink cape with a lemon-colored lining, which he proceeded to drape over the barrera directly under the president’s box. When the grand entry was concluded and the girl in black had trotted her horse out of the ring, Arruza and Silveti retired and a man came with a rake and smoothed over the horses’ tracks in the sand. Finally, Mariano Ramos was left alone with his banderilleros, all of them watching the entrance below the sign that said TORILES.
When the bull came out he carried a divisa (a sort of rosette tied in the breeder’s colors that is stuck into the bull as he enters the ring) on the point of his right shoulder. He was the feisty black we had watched in the pen before lunch. For an instant he stood, not quite aghast but in astonishment, waiting to discover the meaning of this wholly unfamiliar situation. Then he began to charge around the ring, striking with his horn at the burladeros behind which the banderilleros had taken shelter; while they, from their refuge, watched to see which horn the bull favored to use and flaunted their capes at him to goad him into using it. You would see the flash of yellow-and-pink over the top of the burladero, and feel the impact as the bull struck the wood with his horn before continuing his charge. Several times he came to a halt against the burladero, and on these occasions the banderillero would put a hand over the wood to pat him gently on the nose while he talked to him, bull and man with their heads only inches apart. Ramos watched every one of the bull’s moves intently. Then he signaled to the picador, who had been waiting just outside the ring.
Boos and hoots rose from the crowd as the picador—villain of the suerte de varas (trial of the lances), which is the first of the three acts (los tres tercios de la lidia) of the traditional bullfight—rode into the ring on his blindfolded horse, which was padded on its right side. The picador is a suspect character on two counts: first, it is he who initiates the process of breaking down the bull by weakening the morillo (the hump of muscle over the shoulders) so that he must eventually drop his head for the estocada, or killing thrust high up between the shoulders; second, the picador, who like the banderilleros works for the matador, takes his orders from his master regarding how hard to punish the bull with the lance (the sooner serious damage is done, the easier the matador’s job in the kill is going to be). The picador also was thickly padded on his right leg. He worked the blinded horse around to put its right flank against the bull, and then he made his thrust with the lance, leaning his weight on it so that the blade penetrated the morillo as far as the guard. “Oh my God!” the woman seated by Jim said.
The bull leaned into the horse, keeping his head turned along the padded flank, and stood quite still, as if he wished to cooperate in the maneuver. After what seemed a very long time, the picador twisted the lance free of the morillo; immediately the hot blood pumped from the wound like a small fountain and ran in slow red sheets down the shiny black withers while the crowd booed and hooted some more. “He overdid it on that one,” Jim commented, looking intently at me under the brim of his Panama hat. “He’s weakened him badly—way too early.”
When Mariano Ramos came forward holding the cape in both hands and cited the bull, the bull appeared to be already lethargic. Five times Ramos passed the bull in front of his body, holding the cape just ahead of the horns and bringing them very close in. (These passes are called veronicas; they are named for St. Veronica, who wiped the face of Christ with a cloth as He was on the point of crucifixion and who is always depicted holding this cloth by two corners, in the manner of the matador with his cape.) Ramos completed his veronicas. Then he swirled the cape suddenly in the face of the oncoming bull and turned his back contemptuously upon its abrupt halt, in what is known as a media-veronica. (By his veronicas, the matador expects to tire the bull further and weaken his spinal column through forcing him into a series of quick unnatural turns.) Although Ramos’s veronicas had been impressive enough to the inexperienced viewer, I could not tell whether he had succeeded in slowing the bull or not.
In the second act of the bullfight, things can happen too quickly for the untrained eye to catch and the brain to register and make sense of them. The banderillas are sticks with harpoon tips, about three feet long and furbished with colored ribbon; the banderilleros‘ job is to implant them in the morillo, thus weakening the muscle still further and causing the bull to drop his head even lower. Also, the banderillas are used to correct unwelcome tendencies in the bull’s use of his horn. The speed with which the placement of the banderillas, in pairs, is accomplished is so great, and the audacity of the maneuver so much more so, as to numb the uncomprehending mind to everything but the unimaginable fact of it. As the bull, cited by a banderillero, charges him across the sand, a second banderillero intercepts the charge at an obtuse angle and, placing his feet close together, rises on his toes to thrust the banderillas home, one on each side of the morillo as high up as the banderillero can place them. Three times the black bull charged, and three times the shade—no more—of a banderillero flew athwart the animal’s path and, reaching over the horns, placed the sticks in the wet red back with a brisk click of its slippered heels. “Cervesa! Cervesa!” the vendors cried from the puertas. Beer is sold in paper cups rather than in bottles or cans, which are outlawed lest they be tossed at the matadores. When the three pairs of banderillas had been set, the bull stood in his bright streaming blood, gaily beribboned. Then Ramos walked calmly over to the barrera where he took up the muleta and, facing upward to the president’s box, asked for permission to kill the black bull.
The muleta is a stick with a spike at one end and a handle at the other, over which a piece of red cloth is draped. By the muleta, the matador guides the bull to his final weakness, then directs his head to that dropped position in which the vital spot between the bull’s shoulders is exposed to the sword thrust. The black bull did not appear to require a lot of work with the muleta before Ramos, waiting with the muleta in one hand, received with the other hand the killing sword from one of his banderilleros. His back was toward us as he sighted along the sword to its down-curving point, and I could see that the bullfighter’s traditional queue, or pigtail, was an artificial pin-on.
Ramos did not kill cleanly but had to thrust several times, going in over the horns at each attempt. In the first couple of attempts, the sword went in only part way and was expelled by the muscular pressure of the bull’s breathing. At the last, it penetrated to the hilt. The black bull went down on his knees, stuck his muzzle in the sand, and rolled onto his back with his four legs in the air. The puntillero ran in and delivered a stroke with the puntilla, or dagger, to the back of the head just behind the horns. Then a team of blinkered mules wearing yellow-and-red head plumes was driven into the ring and the carcass was hitched to them and dragged out through the exit directly opposite the door by which the bull had entered the arena. When they had gone, the man with the rake came back and raked over all the blood and the long drag marks. The president did not bother to award Mariano Ramos an ear.
“Whatever you say,” Jim warned me, “don’t ever refer to bullfighting as a sport. Aficionados will be very offended.” When the second bull, Arruza’s first, came into the ring he jumped the barrera and ran through the callejon before crossing back through the gate, while the radio broadcasters vaulted clear and the spectators in the barreras reared back on the tendidos. From his first appearance, everyone in the ring seemed scared of this bull, including Arruza. As he went under the cape in the first veronica, he demonstrated a peculiar hooking movement with his horn that Jim said was unpredictable and therefore extremely dangerous. Arruza was plainly taking care with the bull, but he placed his own banderillas, lightly and brilliantly. He placed two pairs of them, but with the muleta too he was cautious, and although the crowd was not enthusiastic about him, they did not seem ready to blame him either. Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performer is left to the fighter’s honor.”
When Silveti entered the ring his fans, holding a large blue-and-white banner—ADELANTE SILVETI—broke into loud cheers and shouts of applause. In fact, “El Tigre de Guanajuato,” abetted by a good bull, delivered the first real performance of the afternoon. And Silveti was a performer to his fingertips. In his final veronicas he disdained even to look at the bull, and when he did face him he would glare, showing his teeth as he cited him—”Eh—Eh!”—and finally jerking his head back to toss his hat. When it was time for him to kill, he got in close and killed with a single stroke, receiving as he did so a strike on the right leg from the horn. It looked bad for him at first, but there was no blood and Silveti, still keeping his disdainful manner, limped across the ring to the barrera where, from beneath the president’s box, he watched the bull in his death throes. The president awarded him both ears, and Silveti circumambulated the ring proceeded by two men carrying a banner warning that anyone caught throwing anything into the ring would be arrested; he was bombarded by cheers, and also by women throwing their shoes and hats. “You’d be amazed,” Jim said, “the things women sometimes manage to get off themselves in public and throw to the matador. That was maybe not the greatest fight you could ever see, but it was on a par with what you’d see every day in Madrid or/Pamplona or Mexico City.”
By the fourth fight, in which Ramos met his second bull, I had observed that, contrary to tradition or bullfight lore or both, these bulls this afternoon were not taking querencias but fighting all over the ring instead. I observed also the incredible calm and patience of the horses, standing their ground stolidly under the great leaning weight of the bulls as the picadors thrust with their lances and turned them in the morillo. Ramos’s second bull caught the horse with its protected right side against the barrera and hooked his head under its belly from the unprotected left. “Don’t look!” the American cried to his daughter beside me, who had finished her lollipop and was drinking a soft drink in bored detachment. As the horse went down the picador came out of the saddle and rolled fast against the barrera, which he managed to leap over as the horse, weighed down by its equipage, struggled to its feet unhurt.
In spite of the excitement, Ramos’s had not been a notable fight, but it was more than compensated for by Arruza with his second bull. With this bull, Arruza was making an obvious bid to rival Silveti in drama, as well as in artistry. In his finely executed cape work, he dropped on his knees and patted the bull’s nose as he turned him—a cheap trick, perhaps, on the order of kissing the bull or taking the point of the horn in your mouth as bullfighters have been seen to do, but extremely impressive to the neophyte spectator. When Arruza had to kill, he did so with the second thrust but very neatly, so that the bull dropped as if poleaxed, spouting an eruption of blood from the mouth that should have emptied him completely before he reached his knees in the sand, and rolled onto his back with his legs up and the life fading visibly from his great dark eyes. It was a fine kill and the president awarded Arruza both ears, which he paraded around the ring before tossing them to his fans.
Bullfighters have egos unmatched except by those of opera singers, and so Silveti must have been anticipating a brave bull—or anyway a bull on rails, as aficionados say—for his second bull, the brindle we had seen earlier in the pen. But this bull was not on rails, he was on them completely—meaning that nothing that he did, the way he used his horns or charged or in any way conducted himself, was in the least predictable. This type of bull is of all bulls the most dangerous to the matador and to his men, and the strain of dealing with the brindle must have worn badly on Silveti in the first two acts of the fight, so that when he had to kill he found that he could not do it properly: perhaps he had become afraid to go in over the horns of this bull. He stood just as Mariano Ramos had stood, with his back turned directly to us, so that I, with him, sighted along his outstretched arm to the turned-down sword’s point. When Silveti went in to kill, I felt almost that I was dealing the estocada myself.
The sword penetrated to the hilt, but the bull did not drop. Silveti stepped away from the bull and faced up to the band above the president’s box. “Musica, musica!” he cried. The musicians obliged, but the crowd drowned them out. “Toro! Toro!” the people shouted, as if their sympathy had been transferred suddenly from the man to the bull that man was trying to kill.
Silveti went in again with the sword and this time the bull charged him, knocking him down in the sand where he disappeared under the trampling brindle body as it struck with its horns at the human figure pinned directly beneath it. The banderilleros rushed in swirling their capes, and then Silveti was free of the bull and on his feet again, making furious gestures and exclaiming loudly as he caught up his sword from the sand. Already cushions were spinning down and plopping around him, while the stadium echoed with the boos and catcalls that had been added to the groans, and finally the bellowing, of the mortally wounded bull. Silveti had that fierce expression on his face that he had had with his first bull and he was showing his teeth again, but in true anger this time; his handsome blue-and-gold costume was covered with blood. He kicked a cushion out of his way as he brought up the sword and sighted along its quicksilver length. Even as he went in the air was thick with cushions once more, and all around the ring people were getting up and leaving. The puntillero ran in with the knife and Silveti struck with it unsuccessfully before he seized the sword again and jammed it between the brindled shoulders. At last, with heaving bellows, the bull collapsed in the sand and rolled in his little blood, the upturned point of his right horn gleaming in the evening light. It was the same strangely deflected point Jim and I had noted when we visited the pens many hours before.
“That horn,” Jim said as we stood from the tendidos and reached behind ourselves for the cushions, “is probably all that kept that guy from being gored to death this afternoon.”
On our way from the bullring, we became engulfed in the tide of eighty-five hundred departing spectators among whom the matadores were driven slowly by their chauffeurs. They sat with grim and fixed expressions, staring at their laps except when they gave the driver the order to stop and wrote autographs through the rolled-down windows. In the middle of the confusion two or three taxi cabs began backing among the crowd, and suddenly Jim shouted to me, “It’s a pickpocket scam!” The drivers of the taxis were pushing people like cattle toward the Monumental Bar, and I felt a tug at the sleeve of the jacket I carried over my arm. The ringleader was obvious enough when you caught on to what was happening; a dark, stoutish, and highly unpleasant looking man. Jim had begun to scowl but we did not dare to react aggressively in the middle of that Juárez crowd, which we escaped as quickly as we could to flag a waiting taxi on the boulevard. The driver wore a Chico Marx hat and in almost every other way resembled Chico himself. A large die in black-and-white hung by a cord from the rearview mirror.
“Cuánto cuesta al puente avenida Juárez?” Jim asked him as soon as we were inside the taxi.
“Five dollars each person.”
Five dollars was what we had paid coming out for two people. “No, no,” Jim told him. “Five dollars for two people!”
“Oke,” the driver agreed cheerfully; “—for two!” But we didn’t go anywhere.
“What seems to be the problem?” Jim asked the driver at last.
“No problem, señor. I am only waiting for more people.”
“For God’s sake, man,” Jim exclaimed. “Take us to the bridge, can’t you? You can come back here and get all the fares you want.”
“Oke,” the driver explained, starting the engine.
He drove very fast, not stopping for the ALTO signs and plunging precipitously into a one-way street that did not happen to be going our way, as the black-and-white die danced and spun from the rearview mirror. Jim’s face during the trip was difficult to read. When we reached the bridge the driver put his foot down hard on the brake before turning to regard us across the seat-back with a wide grin of self-approval. “Here is bridge. You want anything else? You want to get drunk? You want some p—y?”
We paid him the five dollars and walked on to the bridge, sidestepping the teenage whores as we went. Already the wetbacks were taking to the river on inner tubes with boards placed across them for seats, and ahead of us the lights of the El Paso skyscrapers flared through the smog and the blowing dust, while in memory I heard again the cry uprolling from eight and a half thousand throats: “Olé! Olé! Toro! Toro!” In the bullfight, the bull has nobility conferred upon him because, for all his strength, courage, and endurance, he can never be a man; as, in the bullfight also, the man, for all his skill, control, bravery, and grace, can never be a god. Only a very spiritual and essentially realistic people, it seemed to me, could ever have appreciated and developed the art and ritual of bullfighting.