By David Simmonds
I went to Spain right after college graduation, a long time ago. After buying a camper van in Amsterdam for four hundred bucks I headed south for the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. That was to be my introduction to bullfighting, right where Hemingway had been. Perfect. The problem was that my girlfriend and I were camped a couple of miles out of town by a stream, along with an international mix of party-warriors whose stated purpose was to consume all the wine and sangría in the country. Being a friendly American type I was viscously sucked right into their depravity, rendered too hung-over to make it into town early enough every morning for the “running” and following bullfight. As I recall, the South Africans were the primary culprits. Stay clear of those guys whenever you have something to do and beer and wine are involved.
Having blown my chance to attend my first bullfight in the perfect place, I lost interest for a long time. As much as I have been obsessed with learning the culture of Mexico through a lifetime of travel, I had ignored the sport which is so clearly associated with the country.
That all changed one day in San Miguel de Allende. I’m blithely strolling along a quiet street, taking some afternoon photos for an article I’m writing, when I hear the band and I see the signs — and before you can say “olé” I’m being asked if I want to sit on the sunny side or the shady side of the neighborhood bullring. And since it’s only a ten-peso difference I find myself sitting in the shade, totally enthralled by the surroundings. Here I was heading back to my hotel for a siesta, but instead I’m now absolutely mesmerized by the crowd, the costumes, the spectacle, and…the Bull. The bull that will be killed right before my eyes, merely because this is Mexico and this is what he is bred for. I’m not sure that I want to be here, but I also know there is nothing that can make me leave.
Now, thinking back, I wonder what I learned from my introduction to the bullfight. And the most striking and obvious observation is that maybe they named this sport (?) wrong. First of all, I don’t think it’s a fight. Nor is it a sport. It’s a spectacle, a show. It’s the Romans feeding the slaves to the lions, except the animal/man roles are reversed. The bull enters the ring full of life and energy, and in all but a few rare occasions the only way he is leaving that ring is on his side being dragged by a team of horses, quite dead.
Although I’m not ready to call the Matadors athletes (can they hit a curveball or sink a three-pointer?), they do qualify as being brave, not only in encountering the charging bull, but also for wearing those matador pants. That takes a confident courage not even Hemingway would recognize.
If the bull were allowed to confront the matador at full strength, I doubt if too many people would choose a career in the ring. As it is, the bull’s neck and upper spine area are severely penetrated with varas (barbed spears) by the picador prior to any real contact with the matador. The hapless, confused bull is pumping a stream of blood with every step, and it’s just a matter of time before he goes down for the count. In the meantime, the artistry of the bullfight unfolds. And even though you don’t want to like what you see, you do. You forget about the blood and the dying animal, and you concentrate on the guy with the cape, the matador. You understand that even though he has a huge advantage, it still takes some mighty huevos to face down 1,200 raging pounds of disoriented bull with a set of deadly horns. On cue, you find yourself standing and shouting ole. You see fierce pride in the faces of the patrons, and you come to understand more about the country and the people who call you gringo.
Disclosure: I am being compensated for my work in creating and managing content as a Contributor for the México Today Program. All stories, opinions and passion for all things México shared here are completely my own. Mexico Today is a joint public and private sector initiative designed to help promote Mexico as a global business partner and an unrivaled tourist destination.