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Last Days of the Bullring?

Mexico's 500-Year-Old Tradition Is Suffering From a Case of Modernity

January 13, 2002|CHRIS KRAUL | Times staff writer Chris Kraul last wrote for the magazine about Mexico's Rosarito Beach

Imagine a baseball season in which no player hits more than 20 home runs, games are held in nearly empty ballparks, the farm system is belly up and the world's best teams are in other countries. It might describe what's happening to the national pastime of Mexico, where the tradition of bullfighting runs so deep that the landscape is dotted by more bullrings (280) than there are minor and major league ballparks in the United States.

Word of the demise of bullfighting might cheer Americans who find the sport barbaric, but that is not the issue in Mexico. To fans of the sport, death is acceptable if the struggle is artistic and heroic. The sin is in killing badly or with unfair advantage, such as was described in a confidential report last year.

Julio Tellez, the bullfight commissioner of Mexico City, had grown frustrated over government inaction to halt the deterioration of the sport. So he released the report publicly--and was promptly fired for it. The report found that eight of 12 bulls examined by veterinarians during the 2000-2001 bullfight season at Mexico's premier bullfighting arena, Plaza Mexico, were either under the minimum age of 4 or had their horns blunted to make them less dangerous to matadors.

Bulls in that condition ordinarily are a mismatch for bullfighters. But in Mexico today such disgrace is saved by a sorry equilibrium. Many toreros are as unsatisfying as the bulls. Together these inferior combatants engage in fights that crowds would never tolerate in Spain, the birthplace of bullfighting, or in Mexico not so long ago. But here, too, the sport has achieved a sad balance: Hostility toward its decline is muted because most fans have given up on it. Fights take place in largely empty arenas.

"The attitude in today's bullfighting world is that we have lost the essence of professionalism," says Luis Ni-o de Rivera, a former city bullfight commissioner who is now head of the German Dresdner Bank's Mexican operations. "The public feels cheated and is voting with its feet by staying away from the plazas." During the 2000-2001 season, Plaza Mexico attendance averaged no better than 10,000 to 15,000, or less than one-quarter full.

Mexico's love affair with bullfighting has its heritage, like much of modern Mexican culture, in Spain. Bullfighting there dates from the 11th century, when fights were staged as sacrificial acts to celebrate marriages. Philosophers and historians have tried for centuries to explain why bullfighting--the fiesta brava--holds Spain in such thrall. Some say it represents Spaniards' rejection of modernity, or that the bullfight somehow reflects national sexuality. Others insist that it's just a show of blood lust.

What is clear is that bullfighting has resonated throughout Latin America. Spanish conquistadors brought it with them to the New World, with the first known mention of a Mexican bullfight appearing in a 1526 letter from Cortez to Spanish King Carlos V.

Bullfighting followed the colonizers to Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, but it took hold in Mexico as nowhere else, possibly because Mexico was the most important colony in the Spanish imperium.

Bullfighting begins, of course, with the bulls. The instinct a fighting bull displays of charging moving objects that present apparent threats is a trait that breeders have carefully cultivated over centuries. Descendants of wild bulls that roamed over the Iberian peninsula, fighting bulls have been refined for optimal bravura, or aggression.

Fighting bulls were imported to Mexico by the Spaniards, and by the early 1600s were bred in Mexico City specifically for bullfights. Over time, however, the quality suffered. In 1887, after a particularly bad bullfight in Mexico City, an enterprising breeder named Luis Mazzantini went to Spain and brought back 30 Spanish bulls. It was the beginning of the practice of "refreshing" Mexican livestock with Spanish cows and fighting bulls. This practice continued until 1946. Then an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease led to a quarantine of Spanish livestock that was not lifted until 1996.

Experts say the long isolation is what caused the decline in the quality of Mexican bulls, even as the sport thrived and bullrings were erected over the length and breadth of Mexico, from Merida in the Yucatan peninsula to Tijuana. The most important arena of them all is "La Mexico," or Plaza Mexico, which, since its completion in 1946, has been the proving ground for Mexican toreros and breeders.

The season in Plaza Mexico typically extends from late October or early November through February, with fights held on Sunday and holiday afternoons. Since Spain's bullrings operate in summer months, the two seasons complement each other, and it is common for toreros from Spain and Mexico to travel back and forth in their pursuit of glory. Despite the infusion of Spanish talent, however, the 2000-2001 season in Mexico was pitiful.

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