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Only the Bull Is Safe
Bill Barich
May 15, 2000
Portuguese-Americans in the San Joaquin Valley of California stage bullfights in the style of the Old Country, with one exception: No bull sheds a drop of blood
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May 15, 2000

Only The Bull Is Safe

Portuguese-Americans in the San Joaquin Valley of California stage bullfights in the style of the Old Country, with one exception: No bull sheds a drop of blood

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If you ask Manuel Correia, a retired butcher from the Azores, how he came to promote bloodless bullfights in his adopted home state of California, he shrugs and smiles. "The bulls obsess me," he'll tell you. "I am an addict. I'm crazy for the bulls."

On his ranch in Madera, in the San Joaquin Valley, Correia breeds brave bulls from Mexican stock and spends his idle hours listening to bullfight music and studying bullfight videos. He thinks nothing of driving 400 miles to watch a fight. From his backyard he has a fine view of his own private bullring. The sight gives him immense pleasure. "I owe everything to the bulls," he says.

Correia shares his obsession with many other Portuguese-Americans in the valley, mostly dairy farmers who take part in an annual bullfight season that runs from spring until fall and features corridas at 14 rings. The fights are steeped in nostalgia and tradition, complete with brass bands that play the classic paso dobles marches. Matadors often appear on the same card with rejoneadores, who perform on horseback in the style of the old Iberian nobility. It's no accident that the leading cavalier in the San Joaquin is Joe Correia, Manuel's youngest son, who rides with talent and courage, and who dreams of turning pro someday and performing before huge crowds in Portugal.

The world of bullfighting in California is shadowy and mysterious, half hidden from public view. The fights are usually advertised only in the Portuguese-American media, and some participants want to keep it that way, even though everything is legal and the bulls never shed a drop of blood. But others are proud of the fights as a cultural legacy, and they believe the sport should be promoted more vigorously to attract a larger audience, because only when real money rolls in will the quality of the corridas improve.

Last October mere was a corrida in Tulare, not far from Madera, and the Correias didn't want to miss it. The ring was set up in a cavernous building ordinarily used for exhibits of farm machinery. About two thousand fans packed the bleachers, not only leathery old cowpokes but also women and children, just as you'd find in the Azores, where bullfighting is a part of village life. The atmosphere was festive, as at a church bazaar or a county fair.

The bulls were in a corral, swishing their tails to ward off hordes of flies. They came in a variety of colors—black, brown, gray and even chestnut—and weighed about 900 pounds each. They were smaller than Spanish bulls, which routinely top 1,000 pounds. They seemed calm, but that would change the instant the corrida started. The idea was to keep them in the dark until then, so they would be angry and confused in the ring and go on the attack, as the breed had been doing for centuries. Fighting bulls are so intelligent that they are allowed to fight only once. They learn so quickly that they can never be fooled again by the tricks of a torero. "It takes a man 20 years to become a matador," Manuel told me, "but a bull can master a matador in 20 minutes."

The evening began with a paseo—a parade of dignitaries and little beauty queens in tiaras. When the first matador, Paul Pinto of Portugal, was in position, the corral gate snapped open and a bull shot forth as if from the barrel of a gun. No matter how often you've seen this furious rush, it takes your breath away. Bulls can be faster than racehorses over a short stretch. In a herd they feel safe and shy from human beings, but when they're alone and provoked, they'll charge anything that moves, as this bull did. Pinto deflected him with a cape, and the bull came to an abrupt stop and looked puzzled. His great chest heaved, and mucus streamed from his nostrils in gouts.

At such moments bulls appear to be stymied and harmless, but that's a dangerous illusion. They can switch on the power again in a flash. Pinto passed sloppily with his cape and caught a horn in the butt as he scrambled over a wall. Fortunately the sharp tip of the horn had been shaved off, as is the custom in bloodless fights, or he might never have sat down comfortably again. Only his dignity was wounded, though, so he slipped back into action, holding a pair of banderillas in his hands—wooden dowels wrapped in tinsel, with a steel point at the end. He ran at the bull, sidestepped neatly and placed the banderillas in the hump of muscle at the animal's neck. The steel points didn't pierce the bull's hide; instead, they landed in a thick patch of protective Velcro.

Pinto brought out the cape known as a muleta for the fight's last act. It was made of red serge and was smaller than his first cape. He teased the bull into a series of charges, stamping his foot and crying, "Eh, toro, toro!" but the bull was growing tired, and Pinto finally walked away, his back to the horns in defiance. Some cows with clanging bells trotted into the ring to lead the bull back to the pen, accompanied by two cowherds. That's how a fight ends in Portugal. The bull dies at a slaughterhouse, not by a matador's sword in front of the crowd. In the San Joaquin, the bull isn't killed.

The fight was entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it, but Joe Correia had not been impressed. He thought that the ring was in poor shape, with bad footing that was caused by the slippery, fine sand. Nor did he approve of the lighting—it was too bright, he said, and that distracted the bull. Manuel felt the bull was not aggressive enough, but animals that charge indifferently are not uncommon in the valley. Only one bull in five proves to be a worthy opponent, according to Manuel, partly because the breeding industry in the San Joaquin is so new. Still, he maintained high hopes for the upcoming corrida in Thornton, where Joe would saddle up his horses and have a chance to be a star.

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