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Battle of the bulls, nicely

Matadors use Velcro, not lethal darts, to mark their conquest in the Central Valley where Portuguese and Mexican immigrants continue their bullring traditions.

July 29, 2007|Andy Isaacson | Special to The Times

GUSTINE, CALIF. — The well-coiffed Portuguese matador, muttering provocations in his native tongue, sizes up his weighty opponent's slavering mouth and sloping horns. In his hand he flashes his weapon: a bandarilha tipped not with razor-sharp darts but with nonlethal Velcro. The bull makes no distinction.

Spectators' voices drop to murmurs. Overhead lights sparkle off the matador's gold sequins, and the smell of linguiça (sausage) perfumes the dusty air. This suspended moment could be a summer night in the Azores -- until the matador lurches toward the advancing beast and, with a graceful twist of his body, artfully sticks the strip of Velcro between the bull's shoulders. A brass band launches into a triumphant score, and I join 4,000 aficionados in an eruption of "¡Ole!" that rocks this creaky bullring in the San Joaquin Valley.

On Monday nights, between March and October, Mexican and Portuguese performers routinely headline "bloodless" bullfights in the nine or so bullrings in remote Central Valley hamlets such as Riverdale, Thornton and Stevinson.

The events are a legacy of the early rancho days, from the Spanish tradition inherited by Mexican settlers. In 1957, California banned gory bullfights but did allow supporters -- mostly Portuguese dairy farmers from the Azores, where the sport is popular and bloodless -- to continue the tradition as long as the bull isn't harmed or killed, and contests were staged in conjunction with religious festivals.

The Velcro adaptation was introduced in 1980 by Dennis Borba, an American-born matador whose father, Frank, was one of a few pioneering immigrants to revive the old-world spectacle in the 1960s. Their innovation was a unique hybrid that combined the horseback fighting central to the Portuguese tradition with the on-their-feet matadors in the Spanish style.

The fights remained amateurish until local ranchers began crossing domestic cows with Mexican "brave" bulls. Then came the Velcro, for new-world sensibilities.

Curiosity drove three friends and me up Interstate 5 to Gustine last fall on the concluding night of Our Lady of Miracles Festa, the year's largest Catholic celebration. During the weekend, cow-drawn cart parades, folk dances and communal feasts had transformed the sleepy, tree-lined streets of this agricultural town of 5,300 into an Azorean carnival.

The Praça de Touros is on the outskirts. When we arrive, the dirt parking lot is full and cars stretch down the adjacent alfalfa field. The scene is more wedding reception than pregame tailgate: Couples are shuffling to slow, Portuguese ballads on a makeshift dance floor outside; reunited friends mingle and gossip, snacking on traditional food, such as pregos (pork sandwiches), from a wooden stand.

The plain, maroon-colored siding around the ring lacks any sign of corporate sponsors or advertisers. In the tiered stands, we take seats next to five, convivial sisters in their 60s, who had convened from points across the state for a night out.

The evening happens to be Sept. 11, and so the fight begins with a patriotic commemoration led by the mounted Merced County Sheriff's Posse, a reminder of the country we are in.. The first act features cavaleiros, men renowned for their agile horsemanship. Luis Rouxinol, regarded as one of Portugal's best, trots into the ring on a handsome quarter horse, outfitted like one of the Three Musketeers in an embroidered, 18th century-style frock coat, ruffled shirt and a triangular, white-feathered hat. He dances his horse around the ring for us to admire its technical prowess, offers his hat to a dignitary and signals his readiness to fight.

The bulls in these corridas -- six in each fight -- have been bred for this moment. After tonight, most are retired to the rodeo -- or the slaughterhouse. Rouxinol's challenger bolts into the ring, disoriented.

The cavaleiro steers his stallion toward the excited animal, provoking a brief chase designed to study the bull's movements and display the steed's skillful evasion of its piercing horns, which have been sheathed in protective leather. After a few of these runs, Rouxinol stops to face the bull, pauses and raises a tasseled, Velcro-tipped lance. The bull charges, the horse mirrors the advance, and the two head on a collision course until the horse makes a last-second sidestep around the bull, enabling Rouxinol to angle the bandarilha squarely onto the bull's shoulder.

Act 2. Bugles herald the arrival of eight men who climb into the ring dressed as a cliché of a French waiter: red, bolero jackets fit snugly over white shirts and red ties; tight brown knickers meet white, knee-high socks. Single file, they steadily advance to within 10 yards of the bull, while the lead man -- who wears a floppy, green elf hat in a style descended from Portuguese fishermen -- hollers, "Toiro, oi!"

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