Art. Barbarism. Culture. Butchery. Sport. Bull fighting is often labelled with one of those words, depending on your point of view. I suspect you’ll need all of them and a few more to really sum up the spectacle that occurs from November through to March in Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bull ring.
I’ve been wanting to go to a show ever since I got here. Just once. And that’s enough for me. I’m not really a fan of blood sports, but it is a part of Mexican culture, albeit a dying one – the stadium rarely attracts more than a few thousand spectators these days, and you’ll find more people against it than for it.
After three years of set backs, I finally made it to Plaza Mexico, and yesterday watched a full three hour festival of colour, blood, noise, music, grunts and oles. There is still an awful lot of tradition to be found here, with the matadors and their side kicks kitted out in the most glorious, sparkling, colourful and rather tight fitting attire. Did I mention the abundance of pink tights? I even saw one matador arriving at the stadium, already fully dressed, being chauffeured in an equally glorious automotive relic from the 50’s or 60’s. But perhaps the vendors patrolling the stands have modernised a little more than the event itself, serving frappes and packets of M&M’s along with the more traditional flasks of beer and cigars.
Sat on a concrete bench that cost the pricely sum of 150 pesos (although there are some cheaper seats to be had higher up) I watched as, on the stroke of 4 o’clock, the first bull rocketed into the ring, having been released from the bowels of the stadium. The bull fight is carefully choreographed in accordance with the traditions and rules, with horses clad in armour, matadors with spikes and assistants with capes luring, stabbing and playing with the bull for a good 20 to 30 minutes. And then the finale. The chief matador goes to the side of the ring to collect his killing sword. A few more charges from his four legged foe, a few more swishes of the cape, a few more oles, and then it is time. The sword is plunged deep, and hopefully the bull dies quickly.
High up in the stadium is a little box, Juez de Plaza, housing a judge. All eyes turn to him. Will the matador be awarded an ear? Two ears? A tail? Or nothing at all, if he hasn’t performed the rituals just so. His award is cut off the bull and he parades proudly round the ring, accepting the adulation, cheers and thrown hats and flasks of beer from the more enthusiastic members of the crowd. One disabled man threw a matador a crutch. A joke or a compliment, I’m not sure! But the crutch, like the flasks and hats are thrown back to their rightful owners.
Another participant will approach with a knife to offer a coup de grace, a pair of strong looking white horses are lead out, the bull attached to their harness and the corpse dragged from the arena. The sand is raked and we are ready to go again. And forth comes another bull…again and again the process is repeated until finally the supply of bulls, nine of them yesterday if my counting was correct, is exhausted.
Can a bull win? It’s possible, but rare. On this day a bull did win, but was then robbed. He was the last bull of the day, and a fiesty one weighing nearly 500kg. He charged out with fury and deadly intent. He overturned a horse and he kept the matadors busy for quite some time. But finally his time for the sword came. The matador raised his steely blade, looked the bull in the eyes and lunged forward to kill the bull. But the bull still had his cojones in full working order and the matador found himself on the wrong end of a powerful pair of horns, floored and his very life in serious danger.
His assistants desperately intervened, getting the bull away from their striken friend and carrying his limp body to safety at the side. Surely this bull had won. what exactly are the rules? But the matador quickly recovered and returned to battle, plunging his sword into the bull, who in truth should have already done one victory lap. But he did not die easily. Even when he went down, finally, and the knife was put to his neck to finish him off, he found the energy and rage to rise again and chase his foes a little more. But eventually his blood ran too deeply in the sand, and not where he needed it, in his veins and arteries. He staggered, lost his footing and collapsed. Finally dead.