August 29, 2003

Bullfight World

By Lyn Sherwood

In our first installment in this series, Bullfight World discussed the differences between Mexican and Spanish bullfighting. In this installment, we discuss why Mexican bullfighting is in the doldrums.

Most bullfights and most plazas de toros in Mexico are controlled by Espectáculos Taurinos Mexicanos, S.A., which has a handful of about a dozen matadors and a dozen ganaderías who/that receive most of the opportunities. Becoming part of that select group is very rare and very difficult.

If a young novillero shows any talent, whatsoever, he is rushed into his alternativa after only 30 or 40 performances, long before he has the experience to live up to his title. His bad afternoons are chalked up to his inexperience. The caveat is that failure in La Plaza Mexico usually translates to expulsion from consideration for inclusion in that special group of matadors who perform, somewhere in Mexico, practically every Sunday.

For, even if the kid has talent, such doesn’t necessarily ensure success. There are many, very talented Mexican matadors who receive only a very few corridas a year, people such as Fernando Ochoa, Jorge Gutierrez, Ricardo Sánchez, Luis Fernando Sánchez, Mauricio Portillo, Lomelí, Joselito Ruiz, Fermín Armillita, Jeronimo, and perhaps to a lesser degree, Uriel Moreno “El Zapata,” Federico Pizzaro, Miguel La Hoz, Oscar San Roman, Alfredo Gutierrez, Paco Gonzalez, Enrique Garza, César Castañeda, Enrique Delgado, “El Cuate,” and the Capetillo brothers. They get the crumbs, the leftovers, and they’re paid comparative peanuts.

Why don’t they get more opportunities? Because, their names on the cartels don’t attract ticket buyers. Why? Because, they haven’t received enough support from those who control bullfighting (those who don’t understand modern marketing and merchandising), but mostly because they haven’t been afforded enough opportunities to grow, to learn, to progress.

It isn’t like the days when the names of Antonio Lomelín, Luis Procuna, Antonio Velasquez, Rafael Rodriguez, Carlos Arruza, El Cordobés, Alfredo Leal, Manuel Capetillo, El Calesero, or Mauro Liceaga on a card would attract large crowds. Hell, in those days, no matter who was performing, merely a herd of Mimiahuapan bulls would result in a full plaza. Those days are gone, perhaps forever.

No matter how you may feel about his toreo, there is only one número uno in Mexico, today, only one name that consistently fills the plazas de toros: Eloy Cavazos. Not only is he the only one who can attract ticket buyers, he is politically so powerful, he can shut down the career of any matador, and, as have other powerful matadors before him, has done so. But, Eloy’s career is winding down. What will happen after he has hung up his swords, for good?

Now, let’s look at the Mexican press media, the writers who can practically ensure the success of any torero. Some of them are very good, very honest. But, many might as well write their reviews before the corridas, depending on how much money the matador’s manager has paid to them.

What about the Mexican afición? Well, that is certainly an important key. But, the knowledgeable aficionados are, today, very much in the minority, because they are tired of buying tickets to see underage, shaved novillos, presented to uncaring matadors, even in the largest plaza de toros in the world. That leaves the majority of ticket buyers, the unsophisticated and/or drunken hedonists who are all too anxious to award gift-wrapped ears and undeserved indultos to matadors who have thrilled them, often with tricks and tremendismo.

Why? Because their aficionado parents have lost interest. And, with that loss has gone the desire to teach their progeny what real toreo is all about. Alas, poor Fiesta Brava; they knew it.But, in Mexico, widespread, rabid afición is a thing of the past. Whether it can ever be resurrected is a question mark for which there doesn’t appear to be a viable answer.

Adding to the problem are the extremist animal rightists, who intimidate the American press media with threats of boycotting their advertisers and thus dramatically cut down on the attendance at border bullrings and thus enforce the political incorrectness of bullfighting. And, in many border cities, long time aficionados aren’t willing to wait in line, two or three hours, trying to drive across the border, after a bullfight.

All of these things compute to the reality that Mexico’s La Fiesta Brava is in dire straits, and there doesn’t seem to be any resolution, without a total reassessment of the problem and re-dedication to restoring public interest. Those in control are doing nothing to assist new toreros, who usually must buy their own bulls and pay for their own expenses. It can easily cost $100,000 to promote a novillero to his alternativa, but then what?

Those who are normally in the tendidos are staying home to watch soccer or professional wrestling on the tube, while many of those who do buy tickets are more interested in having a good time than in witnessing a nearly religious experience, and especially watching greenhorn toreros who are matadors in name, only. Fewer and fewer youngsters are considering bullfighting as a career, and for those who do, fewer and fewer potential fans are patient enough to watch them grow as toreros.

The administration. The taurine press. The ganaderos. The empresarios. The fans. The few untouchable toreros. All must share responsibility for the sorry state of Mexican bullfighting. Combined, they portend a future in which Mexican bullfighting will continue to lose its credibility, profitability, and attractiveness, while Spanish bullfighting continues to seemingly effortlessly dominate the Mundo Taurino.

It’s a conundrum. And, it’s so very sad.

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