Priests of Gold, Blood in the Sand


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.

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.

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.

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.