When I was ages ten through thirteen, my dad would take me to the bullfights in Tijuana. My parents were long divorced then and my father had probably run out of ideas of what to do during our weekends together. He had been living in San Diego during those years and he had become a bit of an aficionado. So he took me during that first summer vacation I spent in San Diego. I don’t remember that we ever did anything else in Tijuana; we didn’t shop or look around. We went straight to the Plaza de Toros. Sundays at 4 o’clock was when the bullfights began.
The entrance to the Tijuana arena is dirty. It’s not even paved, just dusty and has some paper litter. Inside, though, it’s cleaner. We climb to our seats on the shady side—the best side. Those tickets cost a few bucks more. Promptly at 4 pm, the spectacle begins. I am so excited! It’s my first bullfight. It begins with a procession of all the participants—except the bulls, of course. The toreros and their entourage, men on horseback–the picadors, my dad calls them– accompanied by rousing music of trumpets and drums and other instruments. I have no idea what to expect or what anything means. All I know is that there is vibrant, live music and a grand procession. And costumes! They are as awesome as any fairytale princess gown—bejeweled, intricate, and in the most luxurious fabrics and colors. The word “pageantry” really says it all.
The picadors ride into the arena on horses draped in heavy quilted blankets reaching almost to the ground. I ask my dad what they are, what are they for? “You’ll see,” he says, “They will protect the horses.” The picadors wear plain, beige costumes and they are all fat. They carry long wooden staffs. What I can’t see from my seat are the small blades on the business end.
The procession ends and only the picadors on their horses are left standing around the arena. And the horses are blindfolded. Suddenly, a gate opens and a bull comes charging out of a tunnel, and almost instantly stops in his tracks from the sunlight and the roar of the crowd. Even from my seat half way up the stands, the massive power and size of the bull is glorious– a mass of muscle and rawness. My dad tells me these are not your ordinary, domestic bulls, but are specially bred to be mean and brave.
The bull starts drizzling urine from his pizzle. I feel so sorry for that animal, peeing in confusion. Nothing that pees is really all that frightening. But soon he regains his wits, such as they are, and looks around for something to charge. What he sees, and what I don’t anticipate, are the horses. The bull runs straight towards one of them, and now I understand why they need padding. The bull starts trying to gore the side of the horse, which is kept from running away by its cruel rider. (I am pretty sure I didn’t scream aloud.) Now I hate the bull and feel only pity for the horse. I want that bull to STOP. So does the picador, sort of. He uses his long staff with the small blade to poke back at the bull. No, not poke—to jam the blade into the bull pushing him back from the horse with all his might. But the muscles of the bull’s withers are so dense it hardly slows him. I stop hating the bull. Eventually, the bull backs up and moves on to the next horse– and the next picador. At some point for reasons that I cannot figure out, the horsemen leave.
Next come the lesser or junior toreros, the banderilleros. There are three of them, each holding two foot sticks covered in colorful frilly paper wrappings. They look so pretty and gay—like party favors– but on the tips are iron barbs. By now the bull is hot from charging and pushing the horses. He is heaving a bit and foam is flung from his mouth when he turns his head, looking from one banderillero to the other. He decides which one to go after and when he charges, the guy runs towards him raising the sticks high above his head. Just as the bull and the man are about to meet head on, the banderillero stabs the bull in the withers with the barbs and jumps out of the way at the last second. The bull stops so fast that his forelegs are in the air. I am unable to turn away and ask my father why did they do that?! “Because they are trying to get the bull to keep his head down; they are weakening his neck muscles.” I still can’t understand why they would need to do this.
This brutality –and show of bravery–is repeated two more times, and now the bull has six colorful spears bouncing from between his shoulder blades. His back is red with blood. My dad looks at my face and does something he so often does when he looks at me: He gives a little laugh and kisses my cheek. I guess I am amusing and adorable. But about that bravery of the banderilleros? Well, they were brave to run at a charging bull, but when the bull starts to really go after them they seem cowardly. They high tail it to the barriers placed all around the arena. Sometimes they just jump right over the fence to escape the bull. And I laugh at them, the scaredy cats; the bullies. It serves them right.
Time for the main event. More trumpets. The posturing and elegant torero enters the arena with his suit of lights and his enormous flowing silk cape—shocking pink on one side and saffron on the inside. He reminds me of a ballet dancer. Oh, he really is something! Thin as a whip, incredibly lithe and wiry. He walks onto the sand, not too fast or too slow. And, if this is possible, he is both deliberate and tentative at the same time—or maybe I’m just imagining that. He’s probably keeping watch on the bull from the corner of his eye, but I can’t tell.
The bull pretty soon decides he cannot abide this asshole. And then, for the first few encounters, the torero loses his poise and kind of scrambles, passing his cape over the bulls head until they both settle down into the dance. I am totally unimpressed by this exhibition. My father explains that the torero is learning how the bull moves; if he hooks his horns; which direction he hooks them; if he is a brave bull. OK, I can see that, but I also understand that the bull has no such analytical powers—he will just do what he must do. I want some daring here from the torero. I want the torero to give the bull a fair shot at goring him. Soon enough, he does. He stands perfectly still when the bull charges, arching his back and letting the bull pass mere inches from him. So this is where all those Olés! come in. I get behind that shouting Olé! along with the crowd.
And this seems to go on for a while until the bull is no longer charging but just circling the matador, and the matador swishing the cape over its head. Soon another torero comes out with a smaller, plainer red cape and gives it to the star torero. This cape has a sword hidden behind it, Dad explains.
With a smaller cape, the dance gets tighter. The bull is tired. He is pausing and then charging again as if he just can’t stop himself. But it seems like he wants to stop. Now the torero shows how arrogant he is. He kneels in front of the bull. He turns his back and taunts the bull—he is, for some ungodly reason, contemptuous of the bull! He is the picture of dominance and the bull is the picture of a defeated and exhausted animal that cannot stop doing what he was bred to do. I am more than ready to call it for the matador. Game over, we can go now. The matador won. But it is the unfairest match I’ve ever seen, even if my father tries to explain that all those stabs the bull endured actually makes the field fairer—after all, the bull is vastly stronger than the skinny matador. All I know is what I see.
My father warns me that now the torero is going to kill the bull. He’d better kill him cleanly and quickly, he says, or the crowd will be very angry. And if I don’t want to watch, this is the time to cover my eyes. I watch. The bull is facing the torero, his head is slightly lowered. The bull is motionless as though he were mesmerized by the moment. Me too. He is heaving and breathing steam. The torero unveils the sword and raises it to his eye level. He has all the time in the world, it feels like. The entire arena is very still. Then, he does a little skip and runs towards the bull pushing the sword almost to the hilt, just behind the bull’s horns. The bull drops like a stone, dead. Just like that. The crowd goes wild, screaming praises of relief at the matador. Not me. I am stunned. I can tell you this: I feel that sword right in my heart. It isn’t a pain; it is heaviness. It was for this feeling that I think the expression, “her heart sank” was coined.
(I was lucky. That first kill was the best I would ever see.)
The bull ring is showered with flowers. A team of horses comes into the ring and men hook a chain around the dead bull’s horns and drag him away. (To be butchered and given to the poor, my father said.) The torero struts around the arena, sometimes throwing back roses to ladies in the stands—just like the movies. I wish I had some flowers to throw. The kill was so perfect, Dad says, that the officials will award the torero both the ears and the tail of the animal—a rare honor. They present them to him as he takes his victory walk and he holds them up for us to see.
(Now, I feel I should defend my father about these excursions. My early years were spent in my grandparents’ butcher shop, so this experience didn’t really scar me—I was used to carcasses of beef. When I was little, my father was a butcher and worked with my grandparents. Then he had an accident at another butcher shop and lost his right arm in a meat grinder. After that, for me, watching a bullfight wasn’t that horrifying. The bullfight was somehow like my relationship with my father. Funny—he was even a Taurus. Like a bullfighter, he was maimed.)
After that first bullfight, I wanted to learn more about it. I read about the famous toreros, especially about the one my father admired, Manolete, who was gored and died in the arena in 1947. I learned about the veronicas, about the pasodoble music, collected bullfight posters. I learned bullfighting terms that I have long forgotten. The bullfight thrilled me; it was beautiful and terrifying. It broke my heart and exhilarated me. Just like my father did.
The old Tijuana bullring on Boulevard Agua Caliente once drew Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner to its stadium seats.
Suit of Lights:
How Picasso saw it: