A bloody summer
Mexico City, Mexico
By Edgard Garrido
The truth is that there are lots of viewpoints, myths, interests, ignorance and bigotry when it comes to bullfighting. It’s undeniable – beyond being against or for it – that bullfights are a historical and cultural event, and a reality that I couldn’t ignore as a photographer in Mexico. During a month this past Mexican summer I photographed bullfights, ones that in the end were not particularly bloody for the toreros but certainly were for the bulls and, I have to admit, for my emotions as well.
Stepping into the world of toreros was easy and difficult at the same time. Easy because the people are friendly, and difficult because it was, and still is, an unfamiliar world to me.
I went to the Plaza Mexico, the largest bull ring in the world, to get permission to photograph a bullfight. Indoors there were photographs, sculptures, capes, muletas, and swords, and outside there was the arena. Everywhere was the smell of animals. On the day of my first bullfight I found myself standing in a hallway in front of a horse dressed in yellow padding, banderilleros, matadors and monosabios (workers who pick up the dead bulls).
I was instructed, “You have to stand in the back and you have the right to photograph two bulls, later you must go to the gallery.”
I could feel the fervor, including from the other photographers. It was certainly not my place. I knew I didn’t belong there, and I sensed that others were uncomfortable with my presence as well.
The bull was now in the arena and I observed it through a 300mm lens. Its breath was pure saliva and it immediately gored the protective wall I was standing behind. It jumped with power and speed inside the arena. The picador on horseback jabbed his lance into the bull’s spine but the public jeered at him; they thought he was jabbing the animal with excessive force and taking too long. Later the banderilleros stuck the banderillas in the neck of the bull with the mission to wear it down.
Bull and bullfighter were face to face as the public cheered and a band of trumpets and percussion recreated Spanish songs. The matador, who really was still a “novillero” or aspiring torero, was completely outclassed by the bull. He tried again and again to stab his sword to kill the animal but he failed. An assistant finally granted the seriously injured animal the coup de grace, before the bull was dragged from the arena to the slaughterhouse.
Two more matadors came into the arena. The public continued to hoot and one of the toreros, Cesar Ibelles, finished with an injured eye and a broken nose, but he also finished with the bull. By then it had started raining and the rain continued when I stepped into a bar on Zaragoza Street. I had been invited to get to know more about the world of bullfighting. At the bar I met toreros, former toreros, photographers of whom some were former toreros, agents of toreros, tailors of toreros, and musicians who only play or sing songs related to bullfighting. Surprisingly they were all drinking only coffee, coca cola or water.
The photographers took pictures of the reunion and sold others of previous reunions to the patrons. I sat down with them and started to ask them questions about the rules of bullfighting. The first was Roberto Morales nicknamed “Gironcito,” who was the most famous Venezuelan torero of all times, had retired and become a tailor for matadors.
“I could only fight bulls for two years. Bullfighting is a vocation for the rich and if you are not, you have to find a sponsor or do a lot of other things to get support, and that wasn’t something I wanted to do,” he said.
“There is a time limit for a bull to be killed during the fight,” another retired torero told me. “Have you ever been to a slaughterhouse?” he asked. “Have you ever seen under what conditions a bull is killed? If I was a fighting bull, I would prefer to fight with honor for my life against a matador, instead of being hung on a hook by my legs. In a country where tens of thousands of people are shot and decapitated, it’s ridiculous to get all frantic about a thousand bulls getting killed during a year in the bullfights. And that people go out on the streets to protest against it!”
The noise in the restaurant grew louder with the opinions and conversations and I felt dizzy when I left.
The next day I went to a competition for aspiring novilleros, meaning hopefuls to become a future torero. They were very young novilleros, most of them under 14 years old, and from all over the country. The competition took place in a small but beautiful ring, next to a restaurant. The children got ready in the bathroom, along with others, among them a picador who checked the sharp point of his lance, while 20 or 30 statuettes of saints, neatly placed on a red plastic chair, seemed to observe him.
The young novilleros looked anxious to confront the bull, and without fear. They checked their muletas and said goodbye to their parents. A local TV station interviewed them while transmitting live. The public recognized their courage and applauded with enthusiasm.
The picaderos and bandilleros prepared the bulls and the outfits of the kids soon stopped looking crisp and elegant; they were now stained with the blood of the bulls and clouds of dust.
By rule they are not allowed to kill the bull, so they just pretended by touching the spine of the animal with one of their hands as if driving their swords into the flesh.
A man told me, “Animal rights activists are not like these children. They know nothing about our fiesta and traditions. They think that their love for animals makes them go out on the streets but in reality there are powerful political interests behind the abolition of bullfighting.”
When the corrida was over, the children waved goodbye and left the ring walking with poise amongst flowers. The public looked pleased when they left the Plaza and the little toreros smiled behind their teeth braces. They were happy.
I sensed the same joy when I went to a training session. Some 20 people were working on their routines, some driving their swords into a bullfighter’s training bull. Others practiced with the muleta perfecting the movements of their wrists, hips and legs. All were in search of the perfect body aesthetics. They looked like ballet dancers.
A torero told me, “We have to prepare ourselves physically and mentally from very young, every day. There is so much technique to learn. The better you are, the less the bull will suffer. Our love for the bulls is immense. Matador, torero and bull, we are one. Some people say that the bulls are blinded and tortured before getting into the ring. What a big lie! A matador or torero would never accept a bull that runs like a fool. Nobody pays 1,500 or 2,000 U.S. Dollars for a bull that’s embarrassing. We all want a bull that can see perfectly well, react fiercely. The bull must be in its best condition. That is the only way a matador or torero can shine.”
“I respect the people who are against bullfights. But these animals are being raised for this, they are fierce animals and they are brought up for three of four years to be fierce. I’m sure other bulls, cows, lambs or chickens suffer more when they are being killed industrially by the millions in the slaughterhouses. A defender of animal rights should be coherent and stop eating meat, but can you imagine in a country where people only know how to eat meat tacos?”
Days later I met Mirafuentes de Anda, a 20-year old novillero. When I entered his hotel room, he was just coming out of the shower. Friends, godparents, family members and a tailor were with him. There was a little altar with a candle and an image of Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe. Everybody helped him to get dressed and everybody was giving his opinion about his looks. “Comb your hair,” one suggested while flamenco music played in the background.
Mirafuentes looked into the mirror and left for the corrida. People in the lobby were surprised to see him and he greeted them in passing. When he got to the plaza he went into a small chapel where he prayed for a brief moment. Before going out into the arena, he asked me to take some pictures of him and his family.
While the corrida was taking place I managed to get to the area where the dead bulls were being slaughtered. In a corner I saw hoses, hooks, chains, a wheelbarrow and lots of bull horns stacked in the corner. A young man with white boots showed me from where the dead animals were being brought in. When I peeked through the opening I saw the torero greeting the public as “Don Juan,” as a dead bull was being dragged by horses into the slaughter area.
There were three or four butchers. One drove his knife into the belly of the animal and blood began to flow in a huge and rapid stream. As he stepped over and over again on the stomach of the dead animal in order to get all the blood out, another butcher took off the skin and I was asked to leave the area.
I went back to the corrida and took some more pictures. Another novillero fought another bull.
In the second round of bulls, torrential rain broke out and people started to leave the plaza. The arena was flooding and as the young novilleros discussed among each other how serious the rain was, the judge decided to call it a day.
I decided to leave; the last chapter of the bloody summer was closed.