Glory Versus Death: At the Corrida in Tijuana
TIJUANA, Mexico -- The aficionados hissed, at both the matadors and at the bulls. They cursed everyone conspiring to rob them of that beautiful, horrific moment in a corrida, when time slows and life and death become blurred.
I sat in the tenth row of Tijuana's Plaza Monumental, in the shade, surrounded by friends. We took long pulls off a bota, getting drunk on Mexican wine. It was opening day of the 2006 season. My buddy Santiago, an amateur bullfighter, leaned over and nodded solemnly. Just wait, he told me. Either the great Spanish matador El Juli or one of his two Mexican counterparts on the cartel would amaze us yet.
"When you see it," he said, "you will know. You will know."
|Hit the Corrida in TJ|
Interested in seeing a bullfight in Tijuana? Go to http://www.tjbullfight.com for information.
Tickets range from $12-44 on the sunny side, $15-53 on the shady side.
Following is the remaining schedule of bullfights for 2006.
Also, check out more recommended experiences for the bullfighting aficionado from Wright Thompson.
The sun beat down, even in the shade, and blood stained the sand. We sat on the edge of the concrete bleachers, flush with wine, staring into the circle, wondering what this last bull might hold. The door opened. We leaned closer.
We were all there for different reasons.
My friend, Aleco Bravo, was searching for pieces of himself. His dad, a famous Mexican matador named Jaime Bravo, had died long ago. Aleco grew up in gentrified Washington, D.C., raised by his mother and a loving stepfather. But he always wondered what his dad must have felt on those hot summer afternoons.
He'd moved west and entered the small but insular world of American aficionados. He carried a video camera around, to record people who had memories of his father. He'd learned much: his dad had been a flawed but brave man, who was capable of both kindness and acts of incredible ego. People still speak of him in Mexico. Soon, Aleco'd be moving back east, his questions answered. This was his last corrida -- the Spanish word for bullfight -- before the move.
It was on his journey to flesh out the sparse lines of his father that I'd met Aleco. I'd been on a journey, too, on assignment from The Kansas City Star, trying to understand why men do it. I wanted to know what would possess someone to stand so close to a deadly animal. I enrolled in a San Diego bullfight school run by a man named Coleman Cooney, determined to learn by doing.
The first time I stood alone in a ring with a bull, I began to understand. It was terrifying, and, in those tense hours, the people in our class bonded. We shared a taste of what matadors eat for every meal: fear.
Still, I wanted to know more. What was the ying to fear's yang? After a flight to Madrid, a woman named Muriel, a writer and wife of a bullfighter, met me for dinner. She explained the poetry of a corrida. It isn't a sport, she said. The bull dies every time; they are so intuitive that if a bull was put into a ring for a second time, it would kill immediately. The matador battled fear, not an animal, and the beauty is in seeing how close a human being is willing to put themselves to death. Each time the bull is killed, the matador receives new life.
She took me to Spain's oldest bullfighting school, to watch young boys and girls learn the skills that would allow them to perform that morbid dance. The motto on the wall explained it all. "To become a star in bullfighting requires a miracle," it read. "But the one who does reach the top, the bull can take his life but never his glory."
That's it, really. Glory versus death. The bullfighters say once you've accepted that equation, everything in life becomes brighter. It's why many retired matadors slip into depression after the corridas end. When they walk out of the ring the last time, the sun sets, nevermore to rise. Juan Belmonte, the greatest of all time, shot himself in the head.
After visiting the school, it made sense. The questions answered, I left the world of the bulls and slipped back into my previously scheduled life. At least I tried to.
The bulls don't let go so easily once they've grabbed hold.
When I got the e-mail announcing that El Juli would open the Tijuana season, the planning began.
Julián López Escobar, his real name, attended the school I visited in Madrid. He was the youngest to ever become a senior matador, and, by 17, he was reportedly the highest-paid matador in history. Now 23, time and multiple gorings had made El Juli more wary -- and more efficient. He was one of the greats, and he was coming to the doorstep of San Diego.
The bullfight was just 28 days before my wedding, and, as I segued to a new phase, I didn't want to let the life I'd always dreamed of living fade away. Growing up, I'd read Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. Bored at a forgettable high school, I'd lost myself in the book's appendix: a listing of all the meaningful bullfights around the world.
I imagined myself in these faraway places, with romantic names like Mexicali and Tijuana, Sevilla and Madrid. Bullfights became intertwined with a teenaged desire to escape my small town's gravitational pull.
So, when presented with a chance to not only see a bullfight but soak in the entire culture for a weekend, I booked a flight. After all these years, I'd get my wish. Santiago went to Mexico to buy tickets. Aleco promised to drive down from L.A., taking a break from Hollywood. For a few days, at least, we'd be part of this ancient and brutal ritual.
I landed in San Diego. Santiago had said we'd meet at the downtown bullring, where the glitterati of Tijuana were throwing a private party. If we missed each other, we'd catch up in San Diego later. I repeated the plan to fiancée Sonia, who has heard some ridiculous things in the years she's known me.
"So your plan is to meet your friends in Mexico and if that doesn't work you're going to meet them in California?" she said. "Good plan."
I took a cab to the border, walked across and got another cab to the Plaza. Some fast talking later -- ESPN opens most every door -- I walked into the party. Inside, bullfight royalty consumed a spread of food and beer. The police mariachi band played. Girls flirted and old men told stories. Americans huddled around tables, there by virtue of a membership in the Los Aficionados de Los Angeles, the U.S.'s oldest bullfight club. If you don't have the Worldwide Leader on your side, this club can get you in the party.
Drinking the cold Pacificos, I was introduced to one of the fighters on Sunday's cartel, César Castañeda. Our conversation was interrupted every few moments by beautiful young women. He smiled easily, the stress of tomorrow's work not yet pressing down. An American whispered in my ear that he'd never seen a bullfighter with such an unscarred face. The horns hadn't yet left their mark on César.
Later that night, I met Aleco and Santiago, and some new students at the bullfight school, for dinner at local restaurant called Casa Plasencia. The restaurant was popular with the bullfight crowd, and a taped corrida showed on the flat-screen television in the upstairs room. The meal lasted hours, as most meals after the bulls do. Finally, we all went to our homes and hotels, ready for Sunday. Six brave bulls went to sleep, too, for the last time. They didn't know what was coming. The matadors did. For them, surely, sleep did not come easy.
The final bull pawed out of the tunnel into the ring. Alejandro Amaya awaited. His stepfather, the mayor of Tijuana, sat in the front row in a black cowboy hat. I stole glances at his dad, seeing if he had fear or pride on his face. He wore his pride like a crown.
There are three phases to the bullfight, each violent and steeped in tradition.
First, the picadors ride out on horses, to drive a spike deep into the bull's back. This does two things. It weakens the bull, dropping the head and those shining horns enough for the kill. It also lowers the bull's blood pressure; otherwise, enraged, it could have a heart attack.
The crowd hates the picadors; it is awful to see the horses blindfolded and tossed by angry bulls. And the more the bull is picked, the more the crowd boos. The blood begins to flow down the bull's back, dripping into the dirt.
Next, a banderillero placed barbed darts, further dropping the head, leading to the third and final act, the denouement. Amaya moved this bull back and forth with his muleta, screaming at the animal and at the crowd, who rewarded each pass with a fervent "Olé!"
This was it, the thing that Santiago had spoken of. Amaya moved the bull like he was on a string, dodging the sharp horns. He inched forward, working in the animal's world now. Finally, at the end, his sword ran true, sinking in to the hilt, spinning the mortally wounded bull to the sand. Amaya whirled around.
The crowd exploded.
Women threw roses, flowers flying like shrapnel. Men tossed their seat cushions. Botas of wine landed at the matador's feet, a violent Sunday afternoon communion. He drank from them and threw them back. Music played. Amaya was awarded the bull's ears as a trophy.
For an instant, the aficionados dropped their cynical pose, enraptured by the scene playing out around them. Later, in the shadows of the grandstand, they'd find fault. But in the moment, there was no good or bad, just a man standing at the center of a ring, letting roses fall at his feet. This was as close to ancient Rome as we can get.
Aleco videotaped, imagining his father down there, awash in flowers and cheers. I tried to remember every detail, living for an afternoon like the men in the books, not just a kid from Mississippi reading them.
Wright Thompson is a correspondent for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com.
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