By Lyn Sherwood
Once again, as it does every few years, the name that is on everybody’s lips in the Mexican bullfight world is Rodolfo Rodriguez, who is known in bullfight circles as “El Pana” (The Baker), who recently registered a huge triumph in La Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bullring.
He dedicated the bull from which he won two ears, to “all of the whores who cared for me when I was a nothing”. The dedication caused lots of talk and smiles, but all admit that it was in keeping with the outrageous public persona of El Pana. He’s so unpredictable, even his unpredictability is predictable.
Love him or hate him, everybody has to admit that this guy is a character, a throwback to an earlier era. In other words, he’s a lovable nut case. And, yet, he is so unique and rather cockeyed, both as a torero and as a man, one cannot help but to admire him, even like him.
He fights bulls the way that Yogi Berra speaks English. You never know what to expect. “Did he really say that and did he mean it?” is a typical response to one of his other worldly utterances.
He’s 53 years old, but people still speak of his debut as a novillero in La Plaza Mexico, several decades ago. He was horribly gored, suffering the rupture of the femoral artery. His surgeons held no hope for his survival. And, even if he somehow managed to live, he most certainly would lose his leg. His days as a torero were behind him.
Thirty days later, El Pana made his second appearance in La Plaza Mexico.
What are some of the things that make him so weird? For one thing, he enjoys making the opening parade in a horse-drawn carriage. He carries a huge loaf of bread, from which he tears off chunks and throws them to the crowd. He doesn’t fold his parade cape over his left shoulder, as do the other toreros. He lets it hang down.
He has a natural, braided, Chinese-type pigtail that hangs down his back. Between bulls, he smokes huge cigars, often while seated on the estribo. Prior to the entrance of his second bull, he usually demands that all of the people outside the plaza, who couldn’t afford to buy tickets, have the doors opened to them.
In truth, he isn’t a great torero. He lacks so much, technically. But, his courage makes up for his taurine shortcomings. But, he isn’t a tremendista who cheats the crowds. El Pana never cheats. He shocks. As I said, he’s a nut case.
Nowadays, matadores who place their own banderillas sometimes place a pair of cortas (short sticks) “a la violina.” In other words, with their backs to the bull and the sticks placed over either shoulder.
The first time that I saw El Pana do that maneuver was in Mexicali’s Plaza Calafia. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, nor could anybody else. After the initial Olé, the plaza went strangely silent, as if the fans were slowly digesting that which they had just seen. The placement went on to become known as “El Par de Calafia”.
He was a product of impoverishment, and perhaps that reality provides the greatest clue to the psyche of El Pana. As a child, he was usually hungry, not just for lack of food, but for lack of recognition. Bullfighting would change all of that. But, of course, along the way, he had to eat, so he became a baker.
I sat down with him for an interview, but I discovered such to be a genuine challenge. He speaks of himself only in the third person. It’s as if El Pana is a ventriloquist’s dummy that is folded up and put into a suitcase, after the corrida de toros, and is replaced by Rodolfo Rodriguez.
“Are you afraid of the bulls?” I asked.
“I? No, not a bit. Why should I be? But, El Pana is terrified of them.”
“Is El Pana a male chauvinist?”
“Someone who doesn’t believe that women are equal to men.”
“No, of course not. El Pana believes that women have their places. In the kitchen and in the bedroom, but certainly not in the bullring.”
El Pana is scheduled for a second appearance, this season, in La Plaza Mexico. And, don’t be surprised if he shows up on a few cartels during the 2007 Tijuana bullfight season, and that he attracts huge crowds. People want to see him, before the inevitable occurs, because nobody fights bulls the way that El Pana fights bulls, and no torero is nearly as crazy as the inimitable, incomparable, just slightly psychotic El Pana.
Will a bull eventually kill El Pana? It wouldn’t surprise me. Frankly, I don’t think that he would have it any other way.