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Even Macho Men Cry at Bullfights – Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Poster for Cancun Bullfight
Poster for Cancun Bullfight
My first encounter with the bullfight was when I was a child on vacation with my family in Barcelona. Before the first bull was finished my mother went pale, averted her eyes and almost fainted. I was quietly crying and my sister was violently gagging and retching. Totally embarrassed, my father led the three of us out of the arena.

I’m much older and more worldly now, so on a recent trip to Cancun when my husband suggested we go, I agreed. I wanted to understand this cultural phenomenon that, although was imported to Mexico from Spain, has taken root and flourished to the point where even the tiniest village has a Plaza de Torros. The largest bullfighting arena in the world is not in Madrid but in Mexico City. It holds 60,000 people. The ticket seller warned us that it would be an authentic fight to the death but only one bull, not the usual four to six. This is because in Cancun, tourists outnumber locals and so the bullfight has been modified slightly to accommodate the sensitivities of foreigners. The local people usually attend another arena on the outskirts of town. At the one in Cancun, the ticket seller told us, there would also be a charreria, which is like a rodeo and folkloric dancing. Wanting authenticity but not too much of it, we were reassured and purchased our ticket for the following Wednesday.

We arrived at the Plaza de Torros and took a seat on the front row. Vendors were selling beer and there were roses to toss to the brave matador. The crowd was lively and diverse — old, young, men, women, tourists from everywhere, and even some locals. The festivities started with a performance by the Ballet Folklorico. This dance troupe in colorful costumes demonstrated dances from various regions of Mexico. Next came the charros, Mexican cowboys performing roping and riding tricks including the “pass of death” where the charro leaps from the back of one galloping horse to another, all this accompanied by raucous, mariachi music.

Now that the crowd was warmed up, the emcee asked for volunteers from the audience. “I need three macho men,” he shouted, “the most macho men here today!” There were hordes of volunteers from the enthusiastic and beer fortified audience. A husky linebacker type was chosen, along with a strapping, brown-haired teenager, and a strong, muscular Latin man. The task these fearless men were given was to fight a baby bull – no problem, they thought. Waivers were signed and amid jokes they were assured that an ambulance waited in the parking lot.

A lesson was given in moving the cape to attract the bull and quick footwork to the side to avoid being gored. The audience was given a lessons in shouting “OLE!”. When the bull starts his charge, we were to start the “OOOOOOOOOOO”, just as the cape flashes and the bull passes within inches of the torero, we finish, “LE!” We practiced a few times and then, full of confidence and bravado, bows and flourishes, the linebacker stepped into the ring. Expecting a chihuahua instead of a bull or some other equally harmless creature, his confidence immediately faded when the gate opened and the “baby” bull turned out to be a feisty 300 pound calf with eight inch horns, filed down to dull points. The linebacker tentatively shook the cape in front of himself but when the bull started his thunderous charge, he turned and ran. Unfortunately there was no where to hide. The bull quickly caught up with him and butted him in the rear. The linebacker went face down in the dusty arena. Score one for the bull.

Next up was the teenager. From the look on his face he was determined not to run. He taunted the bull with the cape; the bull charged; he threw the cape over the bull’s head and attempted to wrestle him to the ground. A tangle of legs, horns, man and animal writhed on the ground until the bull broke free and trampled his opponent. OLE for the bull! I was starting to like bullfighting!

Next up was the macho Latino. Surely this Latin man would have bullfighting in his blood, although after seeing what happened to the first two men, he stepped into the arena rather apprehensively. He waved the cape; the bull charged; he threw the cape in the air and nimbly jumped to the side. Close enough, we screamed, “OOOOOLE!” Before he could regain his balance the bull turned quickly and headed back. The Latino picked up the cape and waved it to the side in an attempt to divert the bull. The bull charged but instead of going for the cape he bent his head and went directly for the macho man’s groin. A trickle of blood ran down his leg as the bull went at him like a bulldozer. I was now beginning to appreciate the difficulty and art of bullfighting, to imagine the power and danger of a 1500 pound bull, the gracefulness and elegance of this dance with death, this ancient duel of man against beast. I was ready now for the real bullfight…but not for long.

Plaza De Torros in Cancun
Plaza De Torros in Cancun
The trumpets sounded and the matador entered in his sparkling traje de luz, suit of lights. In their colorful costumes came the picadores with long lances, riding horses covered in padding. They circled the arena with all the traditional pomp and ceremony. The crowd expectantly waited as the gate opened, but the bull would not come out. It was as if he knew his fate. We could hear him bellow in pain as the banderilleros roughly jabbed the colorful barbed pics into his back to anger him and get him out of the chute. Eventually he emerged. He was a big and beautiful animal but he was not a fighter. He would not charge. He just stood and looked around the ring, hurt and disoriented. With much urging he made a couple of brief passes at the matador until he was brought closer to the picadores. Amid bellows of pain he was stabbed in his back with a long lance, severing an artery. Blood poured down his weakened body and I turned my head, unable to watch. My eyes met the macho man’s, who was now sitting just to my left. His were also averted from the arena and like mine there were tears. Surprised at his reaction I asked him where he was from. He told me El Salvador and there, as in all of Central America, they have “bloodless bullfights” where young men run in the arena with the bull similar to the running of the bulls in Pamplona. “I don’t like this,” he said quietly.

The crowd, who minutes before had been laughing and shouting, was now deathly quiet. Feeling sick at my stomach I heard the bull bellowing again and again. Not able to look, I asked my husband, “Is it almost over?” “Yes” he said solemnly, “very soon.” I heard the matador’s footsteps on the dusty ground. I heard the swish of the metal sword as he raised it high in the air and then plunged it through the bull’s back and into his heart. I heard the bull’s last dying cry and I heard the dull thud as he heavily fell to the ground. There was not a sound in the plaza as the people got up to leave. And as they dragged the magnificent animal’s body from the ring I tossed a red rose…to the bull.

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