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On the horns of a dilemma: bullfighting tradition hits the skids in Mexico City. (Executive Travel).

The crowd roars as the bull explodes into the ring. After careening for 60 seconds, raising clouds of dust and searching furiously for someone to gore, the animal spots a lone bullfighter beckoning him to the other side of the arena.

The bull, inappropriately named Amigo, paws the ground for a split second then charges. This 500-kilo wall of rippling muscle, snorting snot and curved horns plows toward the diminutive man dressed in a bright white traje de luces, a skin-tight costume festooned with silk and sequins and virtually unchanged since the 17th century.

Able only to perceive movement, the myopic bull thunders centimeters past the torero and into the empty swoosh of a purple cape as the crowd in unison shouts "Ole!" The first pass of the afternoon has been made at Plaza Mexico, Mexico City's huge concrete bullring.

The event looks dangerous, thrilling and wildly popular. Amigo is the first of six beasts to fight this afternoon. The bulls seem baffled and exhausted by the deft swirls of the cape before being subjugated, one by one, to the bullfighters' wills, moving where and how they are bid. Each animal eventually meets its demise at the estocada, when a sword is dramatically thrust through the bull's nape into its massive heart. At Plaza Mexico, with Spanish torero Enrique Ponce topping the bill, those climactic moments unfold before a delighted crowd of around 30,000. Man has conquered beast.

Or has he? The next day, La Jornada, one of Mexico's leading newspapers, describes the bulls, which weighed an average of 490 kilos, as "small, meek and weak." It also publishes its own estimates of the financial losses from the fight: US$95,000. Despite the excitement at Plaza Mexico the afternoon before, the New World's bullfighting tradition could be stumbling toward its own estocada.

"You don't have a good spectacle, neither brave bulls nor good bullfighters." complains Leonardo Paez, one of La Jornada's bullfight critics, who claims Mexican bullfighting is in decline. "The spirit of the epoch is not heroism.

Ponce and colleagues attracted more spectators than an average soccer game. but they still left more than 10,000 seats empty in the world's largest bullfighting ring.

"It is inconceivable," says Jose Chafik Hamdan, co-breeder of the Miaja bulls, which count among Mexico's mostly highly regarded. In 1946, when Plaza Mexico opened, it never failed to sell out. Now, with rival attractions like television and shopping malls, bullfighting is struggling.

A growing dislike of the undoubtedly cruel side of the sport could also be to blame. President Vicente Fox, a keen fan with a private ring on his ranch in Guanajuato state, is prevented from publicly attending fights or even discussing them under the terms of a pact he made during the 2000 elections with Mexico's small Green-Ecologist Party.

Bitter irony. The dangerous sport planted its roots in Mexico within a decade of the Spanish conquest and, today, nowhere outside of Spain is bullfighting more popular than in Mexico. Together Spain and Mexico probably account for more than 90% of the world's bullfights, with Colombia also continuing the tradition in a significant way.

But, while purists complain about the quality of the spectacle in Spain, ticket sales continue to thrive there. That cannot be said about Mexico.

Paez says Mexico has not produced a great bullfighter for more than two decades, someone with the technical ability and charisma to control both the bull and the audience. "You need at least 10 good Mexicans, 10 more pushing them hard plus 10 good visiting Spaniards," he says, referring to the mix of bullfighters needed for an impressive performance.

Yet, he blames the impresarios even more for skimping on the $5,000 cost of ferocious, full-grown and well-bred bulls, "Without a good animal, it is very hard for even the best bullfighter to look good," explains Paez.

Hamdan, whose animals weigh in at an average 580 kilos, adds: "The impresario has a big weight of responsibility to choose the right animals. They try to buy cheap." The result, according to both men, is that the animals starring in contemporary bullfights are less fierce and often smaller--prompting knowledgeable fans to stay home in disgust. Like the bulls' weights, audience figures at the country's principal bullrings in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey have been in decline for decades. So have promoters' profits.

The bullfighting industry has done little to rescue the flagging sport. Plaza Mexico and the Association of Breeders failed to respond to LATIN TRADE phone calls. One man did not duck the battle, however. Enrique Fraga, president of the National Association of Bullfighters, acknowledged much of Paez's criticisms.

At his office in the shadow of Plaza Mexico, the lean 46-year-old Fraga admits that Mexican bullfighting is "not in its best moment." But he insists it is merely a cyclical lull.

Explaining why he is relaxed about the sport's long-term prospects despite its current trough, the soft-spoken Fraga points to an irony he says will save the tradition. "Bullfighting has no place in modernity, in this age of globalization," says Fraga. "That is actually part of what makes it so special and why people will always want to watch it."
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Article Details
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Author:Tegel, Simeon
Publication:Latin Trade
Article Type:Industry Overview
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Mar 1, 2003
Previous Article:Complex, complejo, complique. (Focus on).
Next Article:Miles for the money. (Executive Travel).

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