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A Mexican Tradition

Posted by Tony & Cheri on June 10, 2008

Last Saturday night Tony and a few friends went to Cancun to see one of the world’s great matadors in a special bullfighting event. As a number of people, both in person and on the internet have expressed to us an interest in the traditions and practice of bullfighting, we decided to post Tony’s review of the evening.

We know that many people are strongly opposed to bullfighting. We respect those views and ask that you skip this blog entry if you feel it will upset you. It’s not our intention to offend but simply to inform those who are curious about this tradition.

Bullfighting is part of Mexico’s heritage and culture, and in many ways says much about the country. We hope this little essay may add to your understanding of this wonderful place we call home.

Wearing his brilliant suit of lights, Joselito strode into a half filled arena in Cancun last Saturday night accompanied by cheers and the occasional female scream. The thirty-eight year old matador is as well known in his home country of Spain for his rock star looks and attitude as he is for fighting bulls, and a number of young ladies in the audience voiced their approval at his appearance. Slight of build and sporting a Euro-hip spiky hair style above the traditional matador’s “pig tail,” Joselito exuded confidence as he led his entourage of assistants, bandilleros and picadors into the ring.

Cancun is not part of the regular bullfighting circuit in Mexico, and the appearance of a world class matador is a special event. Unfortunately this event had been twice rescheduled due to illness of the matador. The lack of public announcement of the changing dates (no money for additional advertising was likely) may have accounted for the small turnout. Yet, the experienced bullfighter played to the crowd from the start, acting as if he were in the packed Plaza in Madrid instead of Cancun’s small ring. He waved, smiled, and flirted with the crowd as he accepted their applause.

Instead of the traditional corrida of three matadors fighting two bulls each, the evening belonged only to Joselito who would fight four bulls in succession. He quickly acknowledged the judges and moved into the center of the ring with two assistants as the first bull was released. The bull was good sized and aggressive. Unlike many matadors in Mexico Joselito took the major role in the initial running of the bull through the ring. When the bull chased the capes of the assistant matadors, he watched intently. When the bull came towards him he would proceed to a number of dramatic veronicas, passing the bull through the large cape he held with a flourish that had the crowd screaming ‘Ole” with each pass. He would follow this pattern throughout the evening.

After satisfying himself that he was familiar with the bull’s movements, he called for the lance carrying, horse back mounted Picador to enter the ring. The bull charged, striking the heavy padding which surrounds horse and rider. The Picador placed the tip of his lance into the heavy neck muscle of the bull, which showing his strength, refused to back away but instead lifted the horse almost throwing it and the Picador to the ground until distracted by the Matadors assistants. Generally the Picador will invite more charges with resulting strikes from the lance to weaken the bull’s neck muscles and lessen the danger to the Matador. Often a second Picador will be called in to meet the bull. However this evening after the one well placed lance, Joselito waived the Picador out. The crowd loudly showed their appreciation of his bravery. Then the Picador rode out of the ring to great whistling (boos). The Picador is always they object of derision in a bullfight as he fights from horseback covered in padding. He is the cowardly clown as opposed to the heroic matador.

Next came the placing of Bandarillas, or two foot long barbed sticks. The bandarillas must be placed in the “hump” of the bulls neck muscle and must be thrown by reaching over the horns of the charging bull before leaping and twisting out of the way! Many matadors employ specialists in this art known Bandarilleros to place the darts. However some Matadors do it themselves as Joselito did in this fight. His smaller stature was a disadvantage in reaching up and over the horns but he did it beautifully twice, each time barely escaping the oncoming animal.

Now came the final of the three parts of a bullfight (Picadors, bandarillaros, and the matador) called the tercio de muerte. Joselito took the small red cape know as the muleta and the ceremonial sword used to spread and hold the cape and faced the bull. He proceeded through a number of dramatic passes and movements to show his control of the animal. The matador stood his ground, and unlike some bullfighters I have seen, showed his expertise and bravery by refusing to shuffle his feet and change his position to adjust to the bull’s charge.

Joselito made the same commitment to the meeting between man and animal that he asked of the bull. Once placed in motion neither deviated from the path or place they chose. As a result the bull came dangerously close to the man several times and brought the crowd to its feet again and again.

After showing his mastery, Joselito took the curved killing sword and faced his opponent. The killing of the bull is extremely dangerous for the matador. He must charge directly at the bull, delivering the sword thrust between the horns and down into the neck where it will sever the aorta. In order to do this he must lower the muleta as he charges so that the bull, following the cape with its eyes, lowers its head. If this is not timed perfectly, or if the bull instead charges with the head up, the matador is running into the oncoming horns.

Joselito performed the kill perfectly with a single stroke. As the bull swayed in its death throes, Joselito waived his assistants away and stood alone close to the bull honoring it as it collapsed in death. The crowd rose to its feet.

The judges who “grade” the bullfight awarded only one trophy, an ear. They could have awarded both ears or ears and the tail (for a perfect fight) or no trophy at all. The fight deserved an award of two ears at least. However the local judges may have wished to show they were not dazzled by the celebrity of their visitor from Spain and attempted to act nonchalantly in the first fight of the evening. The ear was cut and presented to Joselito who took the traditional promenade around the ring while the bull was taken away by a team of horses.

The next fight proceeded immediately. Again Joselito passed the bull with a series of beautiful veronicas. Again he limited a single Picador to one thrust of the lance, and again he placed the Bandarillas himself. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens the bull was not the equal of the matador. The animal in this fight tired quickly and was not aggressive, Such an animal is the true test of a bullfighter’s skill. Joselito met that challenge by slowly working the bull with the muleta to allow the animal to recover some strength and to build its confidence. He worked closer and closer to the horns to provoke the bull to charge.

Sadly, some of the small crowd in Cancun did not appreciate such work and continually rained whistling boos down upon Joselito. The spectators failed to understand that the quiet moments like the ones provided by this fight can require the greatest skills and be the most dangerous for the matador. They would be shown why before the evening was finished.

After a suitable time with the cape, Joselito again dispatched the bull with the killing sword. No trophies were awarded despite the excellent effort by Joselito with a substandard bull.

The third fight proceeded as the others. The bull was large and full of fight. Strangely its horns did not point forward as those of most fighting bulls but curved upwards. This slight difference in breeding may have saved Joselito’s life.

In this fight the Picador badly placed the lance, driving it too deeply into the bull causing severe bleeding. By the time Joselito began to work the bull with the cape it became obvious the bull was badly injured. The bull moved slowly and did not charge or respond to the cape. Since the bull sees movement (not the color red as is popularly believed), Joselito stepped closer and closer to the bull to allow it to focus on the moving cape. Suddenly without warning, the injured bull charged not the cape, but the matador.

The bull lifted Joselito upon its horns and tossed him into the air, catching him and tossing him again. The slight man fell to the ground at the bull’s feet and the animal attempted to drive the horns into the figure beneath him. However the strange upward curve of the horns kept the points from hitting home. The bull then stomped the earth about Joselito trying to strike him with its hooves.

As Joselito rolled into a ball and tried to cover his head, the assistant matadors surrounded the bull and tried to get it to move away. One even bravely, perhaps stupidly grabbed the bull’s tail and pulled as if he could physically drag the 1500 pounds or more of the wild animal away from prone bullfighter. As the bull circled above him Joselito managed to roll from beneath the bull and escape.

Joselito was obviously hurt. He attempted to pick up his sword but dropped it. When he finally was able to hold it he walked to the center of the ring with a limp on his right side. He was covered in dirt and the blood of the bull from head to toe. He refused medical attention but instead proceeded to finish the fight. He attempted to kill the bull but was unable to place the sword in two tries. Each time the weight of the charging bull pulled the sword from his hand and sent it into the air. It was obvious he was having difficulty with his right hand. The crowd began to boo loudly despite the injury.

On the third attempt he was able to drive the sword into the bull’s neck but not fatally killing it. The animal collapsed but did not die. Usually in this situation a special member of the Bullring comes forward with a sharp instrument which is then used to severe the spinal chord, quickly ending the bull’s life. However Joselito himself took the new blade, and killed the animal himself. It was an act of humility before the crowd and the bull that had nearly killed him.

The final fight of the evening was a repeat of the first one. The magnificent bull was full of energy, possibly more energy than Joselito at this point. The matador was obviously injured by the previous bull. He limped and was favoring his right arm. He did not place the Bandarillos himself, and rested on a chair until it was time for him to face the last bull. However despite his exhaustion and injury he held nothing back. He and the bull danced through an incredible series of passes and movements. At one point he literally had the bull circling him so closely that their bodies were touching as the bull passed continuously around him. It was a virtuoso performance. When it came time, he killed the bull quickly and skillfully. He was awarded two ears by the judges.

By the time Joselito was carried on the shoulders of his friends around the ring for his final promenade the crowd had sadly thinned out. Those aficionados and fans who remained cheered wildly. Men tossed hats and women threw bouquets of roses. I heard an elderly white haired gentleman sitting behind me sum up Joselito’s evening quite well. “Muy Elegante,” he said softly as the matador passed beneath us and out of the ring.” Muy Elegante.”

7 Responses to “A Mexican Tradition”

  1. -tim and ruth- said

    Wonderfully elegant description!
    How sad though, that the subtleties of Joselito’s profession and performance that night seemed to go unnoticed and unappreciated by so many. I am glad, however, that the experienced gentleman behind you was moved.

    Thank you very much for this entry.

  2. micheleinplaya said

    Great entry T! Thanks for letting a newbie come along. The pictures don’t really tell the story, pero “Muy Elegante” indeed. I was happy the big guy got to attend this event with someone as knowledgable as yourself.

  3. DavidB said

    Great writing Tony. Seeing a bullfight is one of the few things I still need to do in Mexico. I take it these where not the normal bulls seen in Cancun.

  4. Louise said

    -“The matador stood his ground, and unlike some bullfighters I have seen, showed his expertise and bravery by refusing to shuffle his feet and change his position to adjust to the bull’s charge.”-

    -“At one point he literally had the bull circling him so closely that their bodies were touching as the bull passed continuously around him. It was a virtuoso performance.”-


    How beautifully you have recounted the series of event Tony! Reading your narrative gave me goose bumps as if I was ‘right there’. Gracias for taking the time to indulge us. I think that Bullfighting is an art form, almost like a dance. The Paso Doble wouldn’t exist otherwise, right?
    I love how Joselito acted as if he was performing in a full plaza de toros. What a classy guy.

  5. […] It is not meant to offend anyone, just to inform those who might be interested. Thanks. Papa T A Mexican Tradition Luna Blue’s PlayaZone __________________ Tony & Cheri Luna Blue Hotel & Garden Playa del Carmen, Mexico […]

  6. Shelley. said


    My husband and I attended the bullfights in Tijuana and reflect quite often our desire to return and see the fights again. Your description was right on the money. Thanks.

  7. Eileen said

    A delightful read my friend.
    Thanks again for taking “the girls” to the bullfight in Coz last year. I want to try to make it to the Cancun bullfights next month. You got me hooked 🙂

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