Priests of Gold, Blood in the Sand

Mexican Amateur Bullfighters Try to Make It Big Without Getting Killed

 MEXICO CITY—Inside the ring, the clergyman has blessed the bullfighters and gone, his vestments trailing lightly over the hard-packed dirt. The crowd and the mariachi band fall silent as a man peers through a porthole, watching a bull's descent through the "gates of fear." As the sound of hooves grows louder, he yanks the gate open and an angry half-ton fighting bull storms into view. The ring's walls shake as the beast slams one of the barricades arrayed around the perimeter, trying to gore the humans taunting him from their refuge.

On the far side of the ring, Mauro Lizardo, a slender 16-year-old, steps out from behind one of the barricades, looking like a boy-king resplendent in his gold-braided traje de luces (suit of lights). Traditionally, the bullfighter watches the bull's first few passes, letting his sidemen, known as pawns of trust, challenge the bull while he sizes it up. But Mauro ignores this, waving his cape and stepping into the bull's path.

The bull, called Cyclone, fixes on Mauro like a homing missile, accelerating toward the young torero wedged dangerously close to the ring's six-foot wall. An instant before impact, Mauro sidesteps into the wall, drops to his knees, and waves Cyclone by with a flourish of his pink and yellow cape. He then leaps to his feet grinning and gesturing to the crowd. The spectators and el presidente, the plaza judge, break into tentative applause, intrigued by the nonchalance and bravado of this diminutive novillero (amateur) from Guadalajara.

Blood and Gored: Luis David Carrera in a desperate situation
photo: Michael Kamber
Blood and Gored: Luis David Carrera in a desperate situation

This late July morning is the first day of the amateur bullfighting season in Mexico City, and Mauro is one of four novilleros fighting at the Plaza Arroyo, a small ring on the city's outskirts. He and about 200 others throughout Mexico are trying to build reputations—one dead bull at a time—with hopes of landing an alternativa, a combination coming-out ceremony and bullfight that marks an amateur's entry into the ranks of full-fledged professional matadors.

Most of the novilleros will never make it; some get lost in the sea of politics and payoffs that partly determine who gets a shot, some lack the technique or courage to capture the crowd, some lack what every bullfighter mentions: luck—loosely defined as the ability to stay alive in a sport whose practitioners routinely taunt horned animals the size of Volkswagens.

The crowd here at the Plaza Arroyo is waiting for the next star to emerge from these ranks—for a cape-and sword-wielding Alvin Ailey who can revitalize the art form (aficionados become incensed when bullfighting is referred to as a "sport"). "We're in a grave crisis right now," says Curro Candela, a retired matador. "There are no great bullfighters left. We need a figure with charisma." The great bullfighting plazas in Mexico are mostly empty.

But the 300-seat Plaza Arroyo is packed. Attending are well-heeled patrons who can afford the $8 admission, twice Mexico's daily minimum wage.

Cyclone is still fresh and charges with abandon at Mauro, who uses the bull's momentum to perform a series of veronicas, or sweeping passes, before concluding the first tercio (third) by motioning into the ring a Sancho Panza-like figure on a blindfolded and heavily padded horse. Cyclone charges and rams the horse; the picador simultaneously plunges a steel-tipped lance five inches into the bull's shoulder. One can see the animal's heartbeat in the thick red liquid pulsing out of the wound. Animal rights advocates would surely disagree, but the bullfighters insist this "decongests and detoxifies" the bull. "It damages the bull if you don't bleed it and take the bad out," is how Luis David Carrera, a novillero fighting later in the day, explained it. He fails to mention that Cyclone's neck is also weakened, lowering the bull's head and making the final kill easier.

The second tercio consists of the planting of the banderillas, two 28-inch sticks, each sporting a barbed steel point. A banderillero steps forward but Mauro brashly takes the lances from his sideman; he'll plant them himself. He and Cyclone charge each other from opposite sides of the ring. As they close at full speed, Mauro raises the sticks over his head, jumps into the air and plunges the barbed ends into Cyclone's neck. He struts around the ring smiling and waving, grabs another pair of banderillas and repeats the performance. The crowd is now clearly in his corner. The third pair nearly brings disaster.

Mauro runs headlong at the bull as before, but in bullfighter parlance, Cyclone has "learned to defend himself." He anticipates Mauro's maneuver and hooks toward the bullfighter at the last instant. Mauro frantically tries to scramble away but the bull slams into him, flinging the novillero into the air as if he were a rag doll. The pawns of trust rush in, and through the dust the crowd can clearly see Mauro face down in the sand, blood staining his golden suit, the bull's rear hooves on his head and back. The ambulance driver is reaching for a body board as another novillero pulls Mauro to his feet. The young matador waves off those rushing to help him, wipes blood from his face, and motions for another set of banderillas. The bull's horns had bracketed the bullfighter's small body—the blood on Mauro's suit is Cyclone's. The stadium is silent as Mauro charges the bull again, then erupts in cheers as he plants the banderillas successfully.

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