Solo Traveler: Testing Manhood

The Matadors greeted by the Queen and her Lady. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Solo Traveler
Testing Manhood

My Cuban Spanish teacher taught us a lot about bullfighting when I was in high school; the purpose of matadores and picadores, how the bulls were raised, that the skill and the dance of the bullfighter made him a true artist. But in my lifetime I had yet to see a bullfight.

In September, 2010, my friend and I were in San Miguel de Allende for the Bicentenario of the Mexican Revolution. Bullfights are always part of those independence day celebrations. John had gone to many in Tijuana as a teenager, but mostly to drink beer and place bets.

Hurricane Carl was beating up the eastern coast of Mexico and the clouds and rain from that extended far inland. The clouds were blue-black and laden with water. We packed in anticipation of heavy rain and headed out. I had seen the bullring from the overlook on the hillside above it. It was a large round landmark as prominent as the towers of the pink Parroquia church. Tall metal gates at street level opened onto a steep driveway. Where the land was flattened out at the top of the hill, the bullring rose up like a castle with buttressed walls. The stadium was only half full, probably due to the weather.   

After opening ceremonies featuring a parade of exquisitely dressed matadores on prancing horses, and carriages with beauty queens, the bullfight began. The picador on horseback was very skilled. He spiked the bull several times, exactly where he intended. I felt sorry for the bull but this end to his life would be brief, the fights only last about 20 minutes. I felt more sorry for the horses. The first bull was quite energetic and went after the picador’s horse, jabbing it twice with his horns. The picador left the ring and came back with a bigger horse that managed to keep out of harm’s way.

One aspect of this bullfight that we’d never heard about were the daredevils. In addition to the bullfighters and picadores, there were 20 young men, all dressed alike in colorful stretch pants and sparkly shirts. We had seen them hugging each other, making the sign of the cross and acting in high spirits before we went in. After the bull was tired but still feisty, they lined up in a straight row, as if in a line to buy tickets. The man in front set himself up as a target and the entire column yelled and waved their hands. The bull charged the front man and hit him squarely in the chest with the broad part of his head, horns to either side of the man’s body.

The column collapsed as the bull forced the man into the ones behind him. The men in the back swarmed around the bull, pulled on his tail, and grabbed his horns to extract their friend. Aside from entertainment, I wasn’t sure what the point of this show was. The injured man was bloodied but strutted out to roaring cheers from the crowd.

The matador then entered the ring and swirled his cape around the bull with such grace he hardly seemed to move. He played the bull for a while before it began to sprinkle.  We moved up under the covered portal, and when I looked back the matador had finished off the bull with a final knife to the spinal column. A team of decorated horses came in and pulled the bull out of the ring with ropes tied to the horns. Its carcass would be distributed to the poor.

The light rain stopped and another bull came into the ring. The fight went much the same, except the second matador was not as graceful nor as skilled. That bull suffered quite a bit more. The crowd wasn’t enthusiastic about that matador and less so when the rain came down in earnest. We crowded under the portal. The roof wasn’t designed for a downpour. Water dribbled on us everywhere we chose to stand.

Soon the bullring looked like a swimming pool. When it let up, workmen went out into the sludge with long flat boards on the end of poles. They tried to sweep the water out but much of it rolled back in. After half an hour of sweeping, the Matadors, in their red socks, and little black shoes, slid around a bit in the arena. They gave their recommendations to the judges, who then called it quits. There were two other bulls waiting their turn, so it was a great day for them. 

A lot of people left the stands, but the entertainment wasn’t over yet. A small bull was let out. Dozens of drunk men, and boys as young as 10 years old, entered the ring. They used newspapers, their shirts, and big sombreros as capes to attract the bull’s attention and pretend they were bullfighters. Most of them stayed close to the large wooden shields in front of the openings to the arena. They would pop in and out from behind the shield to taunt the bull but never let him get too close. They were testing their courage, but they weren’t stupid.

Except for one middle aged drunk wearing a big black fake mustache and blue jeans. He took his shirt off and used it as a cape. He taunted the bull, strutted around, wiggled his butt, and waved his shirt. He looked just like Cheech Marin of Cheech and Chong fame. The bull came very close to goring him but he successfully used the shirt to detract the bull from his bare upper body. The more success he had, the cockier he got.

Bigote (Mustache) caught by the bull. Photo by Sherry Hardage

Cheers bellowed from the remaining crowd who were drinking up leftover beer, probably now on sale at half-price. The crowd stamped their feet in unison and yelled “Bigote! Bigote!” (mustache), urging him on. Then he made a mistake. He turned his back on the bull after he’d successfully gotten it to go past. The bull whirled around, lowered his head, and charged. Bigote landed square across the bull’s face, between the horns. He was tossed straight up into the air. When he landed, he was face down and still. I thought he was surely dead. 

The other men quickly jumped into action, waving and yelling to distract the bull, while others grabbed up the man and drug him off to safety. A tall thin teenager with a huge white sombrero was the next brave guy but he had already witnessed the previous fiasco. He was a little too cautious for the crowd that wanted to see more action. They began to yell “Puta! Puta!” (a really nasty slur).

Meanwhile, Bigote recovered and came back into the ring, mostly to bow to the crowd and be cheered on. He left many fans and probably got dozens of free drinks at the nearest cantina, not that he needed to get any drunker!

Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the Americas, Europe, and Asia since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer, and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website:

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The picador. Photo by Sherry Hardage