“When the moment of truth came, there was no brass band playing, only the soft wind; no aficionados, screaming for the kill, just the whisper of wind in pine trees. And, there was no blood and sand of the bullring. Instead, there was the blood and asphalt of a highway accident.”
That is how UPI’s Terrance W. McGarry described the scenario that took place 41 years ago (May 20), when Carlos Arruza, who was known as “El Ciclón”, perhaps the greatest Mexican torero of all time, died when the auto in which he was a passenger collided with a bus, 12 miles west of Mexico City.
“That Carlos Arruza, who gambled his life again and again in bullrings from which he always returned, should be felled forever by the faulty mechanism of a car, makes the unexpected horror of his death even more horrible,” wrote Constantine Hassal-evris in this reporter’s book, “Carlos Arruza.”
To say that Carlos Arruza was special would be an understatement. When he entered a room, everybody knew that he was a special man. And, when he entered the plaza de toros, he demonstrated that he was also a very special torero.
If one were to name the most important element in the makeup of a great torero, he would probably say, “ability.” But, there have been hundreds of able and talented toreros in history who have never attained that elusive reputation of greatness.
Maybe, one afternoon or even one season is remembered when a matador approached, but never quite attained, that certain, indefinable status that is referred to as greatness. He may have shown sparks of genius that eventually elapsed into pleasant memories, but never to become an ever-burning flame that haunts one’s mind and fills one’s soul.
So, perhaps ability, itself, is not enough. Perhaps, a man who has intimate knowledge of the bulls and has mastered all of the phases of the art may still lack other elements that are even more important than sheer talent. Perhaps, he must also possess integrity and humility, which, as talent, are integral parts of the persona of the man who achieves greatness.
Integrity and humility. Without them, no torero, no matter how talented or knowledgeable he may be, no matter what kind of publicity machine he may have behind him, no matter how powerful his contacts may be, no matter how much or how often he may bribe the critics, will ever attain greatness in the eyes of the aficionados who know how to separate the wheat from the shaft.
One could count, almost on the fingers of one hand, those few torerosof the thousands who have walked on the sand of the plaza de toros, and hearing the inspiring music of the trumpets and applause, overcoming the delicious stab of fear in their stomachswho have attained greatness, whose art has been immortalized, whose afternoons of glory, as well as those of failure, are etched indelibly in the pages of taurine history. They were toreros whose very existence personified the honor and grace of La Fiesta, and whose deaths left voids to be filled.
Carlos Arruza was such a man.
Carlos Arruza was on that list of immortals long before his tragic death. It was there from the first day that he donned the suit of lights, and it will be there, long after the commercialization of the modern world has condemned La Fiesta to an ungraceful and unmerciful demise.
Arruza exemplified the best in torero and in man. As a torero, both as a matador and later as a rejoneador, he could take the most difficult, unmanageable toro and transform it into a beast that wouldn’t even twitch, until he told it to do so. As a man, his elegance, sense of humor, and grace of personality engulfed all of those around him, putting at ease even the most nervous of autograph seekers.
His life and death can be summarized in an afternoon when Constantine, Arruza, and I were sitting around, drinking a beer. Arruza looked tired and I suggested that he take a nap.
“No,” he said. “Sleep is a small thief that robs a man of too much of his life. I never want to be an old man. I don’t want to be like Gaona, living with the memories of what I used to be.”
And, Constantine said, “You won’t Carlos, ever.”