November 18, 2005

Bullfight World
By Lyn Sherwood

Birth of a Notion

Some 11 years ago, Fred and Lisa Renk purchased a ranch home on a 60-acre plot of land in the hamlet of Santa Elena, Texas. Although it was in the middle of the nowhere, it was rich with mesquite and ebony trees, not to mention rattlesnakes and all other sorts of creepie crawlie critters. But, to Fred, the former novillero, student at the Mount Carmel Convent, and stepfather of Matador David “El Texano” Renk, it represented the nucleus of a dream. He named it Rancho La Querencia, which would, one day, become a taurine center, second to none in the United States.

A water conditioner expert, he established Renk Water Systems. At the back of the property, he built three, small lakes, served by a water well and stocked with fish. Within a few years, he leased an additional 400 acres of land, for no apparent purpose. But, there was a method to Fred’s madness.

One day, he would need those 400 acres. The family prospered. Soon, Fred paid off the ranch. And, he continued to oversee the career of David, who was trained and managed by Mexican Matador Pepe Luis Vásquez. No matter what the future held for David, he would play a key role in the plans that Fred held for Rancho La Querencia.

In 2001, Fred and David, with the help of other family members and friends, began construction of Plaza Santa Maria. With a fighting surface of 90 feet in diameter and seating capacity of 1,000, the plaza was completed in January of 2002.

Fred began offering bloodless bullfights, designed to attract the attention of “Winter Texans”, those visitors from the east and Midwest who were escaping the bitter cold and snow of their home states. He made a deal with a Rio Grande Valley travel agency to provide bus service to and from the plaza. And, as the overwhelming majority of the ticket buyers would be seeing their first bullfights, Fred hired Lyn Sherwood, an amateur torero/publicist/broadcaster, to present educational programs that would introduce them to the myriad complexities of bullfighting. Sherwood also serves as the plaza judge.

A torero and Fred’s other son, Binker (armed with a pair of horns), demonstrated the variety of passes and cape lances that the spectators would soon see, live. The toreros, Fred, and Sherwood were always mobbed, at the end of each bullfight, mostly by people who admitted that they would never have otherwise considered seeing a bullfight, but that which they had witnessed allowed them to learn what toreo is all about.Naturally, David fought in many of the bloodless bullfights, but Fred also hired such toreros as Enrique Delgado, “El Cuate”, and San Diego resident Raquel Martinez, along with aspiring novilleros, including Longinos Mendoza, a banker from Houston, who received his alternativa of matadorship in Plaza Santa Maria.

The difference was that, unlike many Mexican toreros, who find it difficult to obtain opportunities and frequently have to pay for them, Fred pays them for their performances in Plaza Santa Maria. The plaza became an instant success, attracting busloads of visitors.

Soon, Fred had to enlarge the plaza, installing palcos and other additional seating. He built a small chapel. He hired a rejoneador, a flamenco troupe, equine dressage performers, and other cultural programs to help entertain the ticket buyers.

And, he began inviting area schools to bus their students for afternoons of bullfights. They responded, enthusiastically.Soon, he began the Santa Maria School of Bullfighting. It wasn’t designed to produce future matadors, but to help toreros/as learn how to become active aficionados prácticos. It, too, became an instant success. The aspiring amateur toreros live at the ranch during their stays, dine on delicious meals prepared by Lisa Renk, and go through daily training, conducted by David, and sometimes by visiting matadores, such as Pepe Luis Vásquez and Raquel Martinez.

The ranch has been featured on several television stations and in newspapers and magazines from the Rio Grande Valley and from as far away as San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas.

Of course, putting on bloodless bullfights was nothing new to Fred Renk. He and David had presented them in such venues as the Houston Astrodome.

Some of Mexico’s finest matadors, including David Silveti (QEPD) and Rafaelillo Gil, had performed in them.In 1999, Fred, Eddie Cohn, and Bruce Hutton formed the International Association of Taurine Aficionados. The IATA began offering annual conventions among aficionados prácticos, in Reynosa, Monterrey, and other Mexican locations. They attracted such fine toreros as Jim Verner, David Moss, Rosita Morales, Mario Orlando, and many other, well-known amateur toreros, who are charged the bare minimum to purchase their animals. There is no effort to profit from the conventions.

Indeed, most of them lose money. These days, the feria is celebrated in the plaza de toros at Rancho Fandanguillo, the ganadería of Don Arturo Garcia, in the State of Tamau-lipas, an hour or so from the Mexico/USA border.  The 2006 convention will be celebrated March 25.

But, Fred was far from finished. He became the first gringo to be granted membership in the Mexican Ganaderos Association. He began purchasing seed bulls and brave vacas from various ranches, and Rancho La Querencia soon became a full fledged ganadería. Fred and his mayoral son, Binker, are breeding brave-blooded animals that are first fought in Plaza Santa Maria and later sold to the rodeo circuit. Said Fred, “To me, a ganadero has a tremendous responsibility. After fifty years in El Mundo Taurino, I realize that being a torero is only one element of La Fiesta.

At the professional level, good bulls are a guarantee of success. To me, the unsung hero is the man who raises the bulls.  He tries and tries, and after many years, he may become a Garfias, a Chafik, a Llaguno, a Rafael Mendoza, a Don Arturo Garcia, or a Don Oscar Dominguez. “My goal is to bring more Spanish blood into my herd. To some degree, the blood is already there, thanks to Don Rafael Mendoza. I am relieved, excited, and inspired by the knowledge that my life’s work as a ganadero will live on in my son, Binker, who can handle and entire camada by himself, moving them easily through the corrals and chutes.”

But, is Fred resting on his laurels?  Hasn’t he already accomplished more than any other USA-born aficionado? Not by a long shot. Plaza Santa Maria is now being used as an educational tool. Fred has invited all 90 Valley schools to bring their students to witness bullfight exhibitions, flamenco, horseman-ship, and a bloodless bullfight. The kids are invited into the arena, where David Renk teaches them the basics of handling a capote and muleta.

If the school students can’t afford to pay anything, the instructional sessions are provided, free. “The future of La Fiesta Brava is in the children. They are the future aficionados, and perhaps even the matadors, of tomorrow,” said Fred.

As a footnote, Fred and Lisa’s goddaughter, Millie, who was educated in Spain and is a fine flamenco dancer and one of the children of the late taurine artist César “Silver” Contreras, has become a full time resident of Rancho La Querencia.

A man who deserves all of the accolades that he has already received, one who will pass into bullfight history as one of the most worthy gringo aficionados, ever, Fred Renk is making his dreams come true at Rancho La Querencia. His web site is: Are you listening, NATC(USA)?

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