by Andrew Bosworth
March 2000 Guadalajara-Lakeside Volume 16, Number 7

A bullfight, it's been said, is the only event in Mexico to start on time. At the stroke of the hour, horsemen dressed in 16th-century attire enter the ring and doff their hats at the president's box. What follows is a ritual with deep roots in Spain, where bullfighting goes back thousands of years to the first Iberians.

The bull erupts into the ring, tears up the groomed sand and knocks his horns on wooden barriers protecting the matador and his three banderilleros. These banderilleros, assistant bullfighters, are the first to move the bull around with long, sweeping capework. After the matador notes how the bull moves, he steps out to make the first series of passes with the cape. As he and the crowd warm up, the matador switches to more dramatic, dangerous passes, with his banderilleros poised to enter the ring and distract the bull at the first sign of trouble.

Trumpets sound and two picadors enter. They are mounted on well-padded and blinded horses. Positioning his horse about eight feet from the bull, a picador and horse (who can smell the bull) brace for its charge, and the picador jabs a lance in the base of the bull's neck, drawing a stream of blood and weakening the beast.

Next, banderilleros place barbed wooden sticks into the bull's back. Starting from a standing position, and waving the arms kyward, a banderillero races toward the bull, provoking it to charge him. At the last instant, the banderillero cuts across the bull's line of charge—virtually grazing the horns—and jabs the barbs into the bull's back.

The matador's final passes display his maximum grace, daring and dominance. Then the matador profiles for the kill, holding the cape in his left hand and aiming the sword with his right. The crowd shushes to a silence; the moment hangs in anticipation. The matador then passes over the bull's tight horn (it is at this moment that the bull has the best chance to gore the matador) and thrusts the sword deep into the bull's body, aiming for the heart. This prompts the banderilleros to rush out with their capes and spin the bull around. As soon as the bull falls, a puntillero enters to administer the coup de grace with a short sword driven into the base of the skull. Muleteers drag the bull away, and for particularly valiant bulls they drag them completely around the ring. Once in a great while, an especially courageous and powerful bull so valiant that he might pass his genes on to other generations is spared.

Mexico has produced a long line of distinguished matadors. Carlos Arruza, for example, enjoyed enormous success in Latin America and Spain. Perhaps it was Amando Ramirez, nicknamed "El Loco," who revealed how extraordinary bullfightíng could be under the Mexican sun. Amando was a novillero (apprentice matador) who first appeared after the regular bullfight as a comedy act. The crowd laughed at the skinny, knobby-kneed bullfighter, who botched his first passes and met a chorus of boos. The illustrious author, Norman Mailer, was in the crowd that day, and he wrote: "Then, it happened. His next pass had a name, but few even of the aficion knew it, for it was an old-fashioned pass of great intimacy which spoke of the era of Belmonte and El Gallo and Joselito. It was a pass of considerable danger, plus much formal content (for a flash it looked like he was inclining to kiss a lady's hand, his cape draped over his back, while the bull went roaring by his unprotected ass). If I remember, it was called a Gallecina, and no one had seen it in five years. It consisted of whirling in a reverse serpentina counterclockwise into the bull so that the cape was wrapped around your body just like the Suerte des Enchiladas, except you were vertical, but the timing was such that the bull went by at the moment your back was to him and you could not see his horns. Then the whirling continued, and the cape flared out again.

"Amando was clumsy in his approach and stepped on his cape when he was done, but there was one moment of lightning in the middle when you saw clear sky after days of fog and smelled the ozone, there was an instant of heaven—finest thing I had yet seen in the bullfight—and in a sob of torture and release, 'Ole!' came in a panic of disbelief from one parched Mexican throat near to me. El Loco did the same pass one more time and then again. On the second pass, a thousand cried 'Ole.' And on the third the Plaza exploded and 50,000 men and women gave up the word at the same time."

El Loco was usually a terrible bullfighter. Critics found him lacking in almost every respect. When he was bad he was the worst ever, botching his passes and taking forever to kill a bull, standing out "like an old lady talking to a barking dog," Mailer observed. He sometimes let an animal outlive three warning times, a disgrace so complete that any self-respecting bullfighter would be ready, as Mailer said, to commit "a Mexican variety of hara-kiri."

But when El Loco was good, he was the most stunning bullfighter imaginable. His fans followed him around Mexico to wince at 14 performances and marvel at the 15th. They will never forget that afternoon in Mexico City when after a series of dangerous passes he knelt and kissed a bull on his forehead and when, instead of moving forward to plunge the sword into the bull's back, he simply remained planted, profiling with the sword, while the bull charged into him. Amando had killed the bull while standing still, recibiendo.

(Ed. Note: The career of El Loco could never have flourished in the United States, where consistency in all things—even mediocrity—is considered a virtue. Can you imagine a NFL quarterback who loses 14 games (and in hideous fashion) for every one he wins ever becoming a sports celebrity? But the difference in cultural attitude is instructive. In the U.S., one is almost always judged by his worst; in Mexico, almost always by his best.)