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The Last Coliseum

SAN PEDRO GARZA GARCIA– My taxi headed north on Avenida Cuauhtémoc through downtown Monterrey to my first bullfight.  It was a fine, hot Sunday in northern Mexico and the cloudless sky was the starched, flat blue of a faded work shirt.  I had bought my ticket, front row in the shade (barrera y sombre), a few weeks before the event.  Plaza Monumental was built in 1937 and, when empty and silent, it had the look of a place becoming history.  I took my boys along and after paying for my seat the man said, “Go back to the second door, it is open.  Show your sons the bulls.”

There were shafts of sunlight in the silent space.  A man in an old undershirt with skin like sun-cracked earth emerged from a small room and asked what we were doing.  I said the man at the taquilla had told me to show my sons the bulls.  I asked him his name.

“Andres,” he said.

“Yo soy Andres, tambien,” I replied.  He smiled and said, “Then we are twins like your boys.”

“No, caballero.  We are twins but the boys are not.  The older is a little small and the younger is very big.  Where then are the bulls?”

“Over there.  Go up those stairs.”

They led to metal walkways.  The animals rippled with muscle and horn and violence — ancient, savage progenitors of the race we call cows.  The air sparkled with dust.  They pawed the sand looking up, trying to find a way to kill us and I was glad they could not fly.

The Sunday of the fight came.  The event began at 5:00 p.m.  I was dressed in khaki slacks and a safari shirt with my expensive ticket buttoned in the front pocket, and I wore the fine Panama hat I bought in Peru on my honeymoon.  I had my Domke camera bag with a Leica monochrome, a Fuji X100f, and a few lenses to record what I saw.

“Don’t take too many pictures,” said my wife as I left, kissing me, “Be there at your first bullfight.”

The courtyard of Plaza Monumental was packed full of life and people for the first fight of the season and the sad, faded look was hidden.  The concessions poured beer and liquor and a band with an accordion was playing Norteño.  The space that had been filled with light beams and silence was filled with men in Stetsons and snap-button shirts or Guayaberas and straw fedoras, with immaculately dressed women on their arms displaying long legs and red lips and décolletage.

The air smelled of perfume and sweat, whiskey and beer, the mixed smoke of cigars and meat and chilis.  I climbed steep stairs into the light and was guided down to my front row seat overlooking the callejon, the narrow alley separating the stands from the round, sand stage that would soak up blood when the matadors faced their bulls.

I rented a cushion for the hard, concrete bench and sat a while enjoying the feel of the Mexican sun and the blue sky and the smell of fresh raked earth.  Men were wetting the ring with hoses and in the middle of the space were six arrangements of fresh flowers and palm leaves, and two banners: one with the name of the venue and one simply bearing the word, Suerte, “Luck,” in bright red letters.

The bullring is a classic stadium in the round but surprisingly small.  My front row barrera seat was no more than 10 feet from the arena floor and even the cheapest seats gave a good view.  Up high on the shade side, an orchestra was warming up.  Live music would accompany the action.  Then the seats began to fill, the band played a fanfare, and the men who would fight that day emerged from a passageway and crossed the raked sand in formation to salute the crowd and the officials.  I was seeing the final echoes of Rome’s gladiators, the last coliseum.

There were four matadors on the card that day.  They would fight, one man after another, and then fight again, until each had fought two bulls.  Each fight takes about 15 minutes and follows a prescribed form though there is, in its nature, the unpredictability of bulls and men and of luck.  As the afternoon progressed the sun began to divide the arena.  The men and bulls faced each other in a drama that moved between sol y sombre, sun and shadow.  The final act is, almost inevitably, death for the bull and the men who face them are not safe.  The bulls are of ancient lines, sharp-horned, aggressive, and fast.  As for the men, to do well they must face the bulls head-on, work close to the horns, and, in the end, try to kill them cleanly and well, from the front.

My parents had seen a bullfight in Spain not long after they were married in the 1960s.  My mother said she was sickened by the blood and the sun, but I knew I would not feel that way.  In Ernest Hemingway’s bullfighting book, “Death in the Afternoon,” he invents a character as literary device, a sort of Virgil-of-the-bullfight, to guide him through his initial understanding of the events that transpire in the ring.  The first girl I ever loved grew up in South America and her father, an American adventurer, was a matador among other things.  She is a great aficionado of bullfighting and her father still known in that world.  And since I was a boy, I have read Hemingway and then reread him, finding new meaning each time as I pass through my own phases of life.  So, I was not completely alone that afternoon in Monterrey.  I watched and felt the sun and smelled the earth and the beer and the sweat and cigars and at times I thought Earnest was whispering in one ear and Blair in the other to guide me through the day.

Being my first fight, I will not go too much into the details of the performances.  I have neither the expertise nor all the proper vocabulary.  I wished I could write with the great authority of someone who has seen a 100 fights and talked with matadors and knows the details of what makes a fight good or bad but this was my first time and had had no guides but what I had read and maybe the ghost of a dead writer and a long ago love.

First in the ring was Pablo Hermosa de Mendoza, a Spaniard famous as a Rejonador, a matador who fights from horseback.  He is in his early 50s, greying, slim and fit, with the confidence and easy grace of a man who has spent a life in the saddle.  Of all the events, all the dramas of the day, the most remarkable was his riding.  He rode sideways, backwards, one with his horse, pursued by an angry bull, keeping himself and his horse calm, engaging the bull to plant the banderillas and, eventually, the sword.  Later, I would see other rejoneadors in other corridas – but none exhibited the skill of the Spaniard Hermosa.  He rode perfectly, in absolute communion with his horse and like any great athlete or artist he made it appear effortless.  I think even someone who hated the blood and sun, the spectacle and cruelty would appreciate the finesse with which Hermosa controlled his horse.

Also fighting that day from horseback, was Guillermo Hermoso de Mendoza, Pablo’s son.  The younger Hermosa fought very well, with style and courage and grace in the saddle, marked only by the nerves of youth and, perhaps, the presence of his father.  The other two matadors were Mexican: Diego Silveti, from Irapuato, Guanajuato and Sergio Garza, a local son of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon.

The matador who stood out was the local favorite, Sergio Garza who I would end up meeting and photographing several times.  Garza is an old family name common among Regios as the inhabitants of Monterrey are called.  There are Garzas, de la Garzas, Garza de la Garzas, and other permutations naming Regios of all classes and walks of life, from the very powerful to the very humble.

Sergio Garza was lithe and carried himself with a gravity and pride that did not feel forced like other matadors I would see.  When he came to select his swords, he looked thoughtful and a little sad.  I was not experienced enough to pick out all the tricks and fakes I had read about, but it was obvious that Garza was no fake.  He worked close to the bull and was the only matador that day to be hurt.  His second bull caught him with his horns and threw him into the air.  He was allowed a short time to recover then came right back, taking the banderillas himself.  He broke them off, making them shorter and more dangerous to place then charged and stabbed them into the bull who had just thrown him.  The crowd cheered and a tide of excitement washed through the stands.  But not everything goes well, even that which ought to.  When it came time to kill the bull, Garza went straight in over the horns and the sword bent and flew into the air.  He did this again and again, seven times, but the sword would not go in.  Everyone was exhausted and the bull was in pain and it was sad and ugly and the night should have been over but it wasn’t.  It was not a fault of Garza’s bravery or even skill but of bad luck and an exceptionally tough bull.  The crowd turned against him and for the animal.

Finally, bleeding and exhausted, the bull lay down and the fat puntillero went in with a knife to administer a joyless coup de grace.  But the bull got up and the crowd rose to cheer the animal.  It staggered across the ring towards the door where it had come in, tired, dying, unbroken.  It fell to its knees and died there on its own.  People threw their cushions into the ring in protest.  I tossed mine in, “Renta,” it said.  Rented.  I thought of time and love and fame and death and I went home.

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