Blood sports aren’t all that popular these days. But bullfighting, beautiful, brutal and balletic, has been an important part of Spanish culture for hundreds of years. In the otherwise tame artists’ and expats’ town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, founded by the Spanish in 1511, we attended a bullfight recently and came away with one of the most authentic, un-touristy experiences we’ve ever had abroad, one that’s seared in our memory forever. While bullfights have been banned in some countries and toned down in others, in San Miguel tradition holds fast. Hemingway wrote that for a country to love bullfighting “the people must have an interest in death.” That’s certainly true in Mexico’s case, think of dia de muertos. Going to see one felt slightly illicit at first, gothic, decadent and antiquated, as befits what the author and bullfighting aficionado called “the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.”
We won’t get into a discussion of animal rights here, but while unquestionably meeting a cruel and bloody end the bulls are said to have a far better life than most of their ilk up until the final hour. And though they haven’t got much of a chance, there’s always the possibility that the bull will do some damage. The matador who risks nothing will never achieve greatness, and the best bullfighters stick their necks out the farthest. Prayers to the Virgin of Guadalupe are given before each event. In San Miguel the bullfight, or corrida, is in fact a corrida de rejones, meaning that the matadors – in this case rejoneadors – are mounted on horses. That may sound safer but repeatedly stabbing a raging, stampeding bull in the back, from the front, on horseback at full tilt while wearing a suit and hat takes serious cojones.
Corridas in San Miguel feature three rejoneadors taking on three bulls apiece. Each bull is dispatched in three stages called tercios in the classic Spanish style, wherein swords and lances of ever shorter length are driven into the bull’s back in increasingly precarious ways, until finally the animal collapses and is killed with a coup de grace. It’s gorgeous and a bit gruesome, a Goya painting come to life. Aside from the rejoneadors, there are toreadors armed only with capes and clownish forcados who keep the bull occupied between tercios while the rejoneador changes horses. The toreadors are the most colorfully, in some cases outrageously, dressed, all acid pop oranges and prostitute pinks, while the much younger rejoneadors are fairly soberly attired and the forcados look like Santa’s helpers. The latter literally grab the bull by the horns. Most of them end up smeared with a fair amount of blood by the end of the night.
During the fight countless vendors dispense souvenirs and also beer – served two at a time in a deft one-handed pour – wine and anything else you care to drink, as well as Cuban cigars nestled against big stacks of Bubble-Yum and candy on wide wooden trays. Souvenir wineskins painted with bullfighting scenes are sold outside the main gate of the old stone corrida, and can be filled from an enormous wine barrel wagon parked out front. You can also order an entire bottle of Johnnie Walker if you so desire – but you have to drink it all out of a plastic cup, Big Gulp style. As the fight begins both dust and cigar smoke cloud the air while the ubiquitous off-key brass band strikes up a tune. We’re pretty far up in the mountains, but the crowd is thick with Chilangos, the slightly pejorative term for people from Mexico City. The New Yorkers of Mexico, in other words – assholes. But the girls are great looking.
The main draw is always Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, as famous in Spain as any movie star, considered by many to be the best rejoneador in the world. A little older than the others, he alone among the bullfighters wears a colorful brocaded jacket. The horsemanship and dressage is truly incredible, the rejoneadors effortlessly exerting total control over their mounts, executing twists and twirls even as the bull’s horns brush up against their flanks. In years past, the horses had mattresses strapped to them to minimize serious injury; these days the bull’s horns are filed down a bit. Eventually, no matter how fierce, the bull is killed. The rejoneador, assuming he hasn’t made a total hash of it, is then awarded a trophy determined by his bravery and skill in the ring – usually one of the bull’s ears, sometimes both if it’s been a particularly good fight. Often the rejoneador will toss one of them into the crowd.
There used to be an encierro, or running of the bulls Pamplona-style, in San Miguel before fights but it was nixed a few years ago either due to mounting casualties or too many alcoholics, depending on whom you talk to. Another tradition that seems to be in decline is the drinking of blood from one of the slain bulls, passed around in little paper cups and so riddled with adrenaline it gets you high. You can still purchase fresh blood from the butchers who hang around with their vans to take the bull carcasses away after each fight if you know who to talk to. Like fox hunting in England, bullfighting will eventually be banned even in Mexico, with its deep-rooted love affair with death. You need to go see one before that happens. –JPS
All photos by Jared Paul Stern.