Priests of Gold, Blood in the Sand

Mexican Amateur Bullfighters Try to Make It Big Without Getting Killed

Mauro now stands beneath el presidente and asks permission to kill the bull—the final tercio begins. Mauro picks up a sword and a small red flannel cape (muleta) and begins to lead the bull through the faena—the dozens of intricate passes the judge and crowd look for. The bull is still lethal—he bellows in pain and anger as he rushes the cape—but he's bleeding heavily now and tiring. Mauro begins to taunt him, standing mere inches away. Another series of passes and Cyclone comes to a standstill. Mauro leans forward, touches his forehead to the bull's, then turns his back and walks away, chest out, his stride excruciatingly deliberate and unhurried.

He struts around the ring one last time, then faces Cyclone head to head. Mauro carefully aims down the blade of a three-foot sword and charges. With his right hand he reaches through the horns, trying to drive the blade into a softball-sized opening between the vertebrae. Mauro buries it to the hilt. Cyclone bellows and gasps, slowly drowning in the blood from his punctured lungs before collapsing in the dirt. The novillero jumps up and down, resembling, for the first time, a triumphant teenager at a local sporting event. The applause washes over him, hats fall into the ring, and el presidente awards him one of the bull's ears for his performance; Mauro kneels over the fallen bull and severs his prize.

Mauro reminds many of Eloy Cavazos, the five-foot tall "little giant." A national hero, Cavazos is in his mid 50s now and still fighting, so great is the vacuum at the top ranks of Mexican bullfighting. In the 1970s Cavazos, Mariano Ramos, and others routinely sold out the Plaza de Mexico, at 48,000 seats the largest bullfighting ring in the world. Today, the plaza is filled only by an occasional rock concert or by a visiting matador from Spain.

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

Luis David Carrera, the next novillero on the Arroyo's program, is poised to move into this vacuum; the 23-year-old business-school dropout was named Mexico's novillero-of-the-year last season. But as dramatic as Mauro had been, Luis is a disaster. He fights the 950-pound Triumphant away from his body, glances over his shoulder when walking away, and repeatedly loses his muleta on the bull's horns. When he goes in for the kill, the bull is not fooled and jerks his head up, knocking Luis to the ground; the novillero is only saved from a serious goring by Triumphant's peculiar horns, which are turned sharply downward.

Luis has been gored before—in the testicles ("They cleaned it out and sewed it up. I'm fine now," he said) and is badly rattled as the bull stands dripping blood into the sand. The gallery is angry at Luis for turning their entertainment into a sordid and desperate affair. Mercifully, Triumphant collapses, with the sword sticking an awkward 18 inches out of his back.

Earlier in the week, complaining about the current crop of matadors, Curro Candela had said, "They don't have cojones anymore, they don't want to sweat, don't want to tear their clothes." As Mauro stands in the crowd, even the women tower over his blood-stained figure, but no one doubts his cojones.

Will he make the big time? "Right now I just want to go from plaza to plaza, having triumphs and cutting ears," he says. But his manager has other plans and they don't include resuscitating Mexican bullfighting. "He's going to be famous, then we're going to Spain where the real money is. A matador can become a millionaire in one afternoon in Spain." True enough, but the unspoken is left unsaid; it's all contingent upon staying alive.

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