By Lyn Sherwood
Let’s set the scene with two truths: Spain is in the middle of a new Golden Age of Bullfighting, while the Mexican bullfight scene is in the doldrums.
What verifies those truths? In Spain, there are so many fine matadors, it’s no problem to attract capacity crowds to the plazas de toros in cities large and small. But, doing so in Mexico is just the opposite case, unless a Spaniardeven a third category oneis included on the cartel.
Why? What’s going on?
Soccer, the cinema and bullfighting are the three top spectator attractions in Spain. Eighty percent of the professional soccer clubs in Spain are in such poor fiscal shape, they cannot make full payroll to players. It is estimated that the various soccer teams owe players a minimum of $55 million dollars in back pay.
Cinema: The Spanish film industry is in deep trouble. Seven out of 10 Spanish films do not even recoup basic production costs. This past year alone, attendance at Spanish movies dropped by more than 10 million spectators from the year before.
Bullfights: Of the top three spectator events in Spain, bullfighting is the only one that makes money! In towns where the bullring is owned by the city, the profits soar. Plaza Las Ventas, in Madrid, makes the most money of all.
But, those numbers don’t apply to Mexico, where many aficionados put the blame on those who are in control of bullfighting. Such may well be a large part of the truth, but certainly not all of it. Commercialism is an easy accusation to make, but it’s no less a problem in Spain than it is in Mexico. For the most part, Mexican promoters look upon an afternoon of the bulls as nothing more than an opportunity to sell beer, while in Spain, a bullfight is a deadly serious ritual, in which the performances of the bulls is equal in importance to those of their toreros, and the majority of fans are more knowledgeable and demanding.
Of course, it must be noted that there are 20 or 30 times more plazas de toros in Spain as in Mexico. Thus, there are many more opportunities for Spanish stars and aspirants to demonstrate their mettle.
In both Spain and Mexico, when kids start out, they do so at the bull ranches, participating in tientas. But, in Spain and France, in addition to the tientas, the newcomers are allowed to learn and to hone their talents in the novilladas sin caballos, sometimes referred to as económicas, because they’re usually presented during off-season. In such functions, the kids face novillos of some 300 kilos, which, in many cases, could benefit from a taste of a picador’s lance. The young toreros are rarely paid for their work. Such presentations are common throughout Spain and France, in plazas de toros in major capitals and in modest, sometimes portable, bullrings in the pueblos. Nevertheless, the reglamentos that apply to formal corridas de toros likewise apply to the económicas. It’s a training ground, something akin to a national high school of bullfighting.
If he has the right stuff, after a kid has fought for a couple of seasons in the novilladas sin caballos and has attracted a following, while learning in the trenches how to deal with animals of brave blood, he graduates to novilladas picadas, the college level of bullfighting. The bulls, of course, are much larger and are pic’ed. Their toreros are considered professionals, although they have not yet received their doctorates. They’re interns, practicing while learning. Again, they are paid very little, if anything, but in most cases, their medical expenses are picked up by the union.
Becoming a professional torero in either country is not an inexpensive venture. Sometimes, a guy is either backed by, or is the son of, a matador or a bull breeder. In some cases, he’s financed by a syndicate that gambles on the future of the youngster, and naturally, shares in his financial success. For the lucky ones, there are fine taurine schools, but few kids can afford to attend them.
If the Spanish novillero is good enough, and if he has the right backing, and he has performed in the minimum number of novilladas picadas, over a period of two or three seasons, he can seek his alternativa of matadorship, in which the formal title of Matador de Toros is bestowed upon him. This usually indicates that the new matador has already killed a couple of hundred bulls. It means that he is a professional, one who knows how to deal with toros bravos, while demonstrating technical knowledge and artistic abilities.
It also means that he is, basically, starting all over, again. As a novillero, he performed in competition with toreros who may have been much more experienced or talented than he. Now, as a matador, he’s a rookie in the big leagues. He must face larger, older, wiser bulls. He can no longer be forgiven for lack of experience. He’s expected to give the stars a run for their money. And, if he’s talented, if he has good administration, and if he has luck at the sorteos, he can earn millions of dollars for risking his life. But, even a second or third rater can at least make a decent living.
Now, let’s look at Mexico. There are a couple of bullfight schools, but none of much note. There are no novilladas sin caballos as learning and proving grounds. If the aspiring torero has powerful connections, or if he comes from a wealthy family that is willing to back his career, he may have a chance. But, if he’s a hungry, albeit talented, kid who is desperately seeking opportunities, his chances of finding success are nearly non-existent. The days of “poor boy becomes wealthy matador and saves sister from whorehouse” are fodder for cheap paperback novels. Inexperienced Mexican novilleros must sink or swim against bulls that are beyond their knowledge.
Mexico is in a constant search for a new phenomenon, another Manolo
Martinez or Carlos Arruza, who can fill the plazas, merely by having his name on the card. But, it’s like the optimistic kid who receives a bucket of horse manure for Christmas. He knows that, somewhere in there, there must be a pony. Finding it is the challenge. And, he’s going to get his hands dirty in the process of searching.
Part II, next week.
Rafael Ortega cut the only ear of the day, Aug. 17, during the first corrida of the season in “The Beautiful Bullring by The Sea.” Ortega alternated with Paco Gonzales, who did poorly with the muleta, and Ignacio Garaby, who lose ears with the sword. The bulls of Pilar Labastida presented difficulties that their matadors were unable to overcome.
The running of the bulls isn’t limited to Pamplona. Neither is it free of injuries. About 2,000 fans turned out for the Virgin of Butarque fiesta, at Leganes, just beyond Madrid’s southern limits, Aug. 17, but the nearly five-minute run resulted in three runners being gored, seven others received head, rib, and leg injuries, and many others suffered cuts and bruises.