Few people in the
U.S. ever heard his name, but to Spaniards, Portuguese, Mexicans and South
Americans, Carlos Arruza was a giant, the greatest matador in the history of
Mexico. His dark good looks, his athletic prowess and his warm, elegant charm,
combined with the mystique of the bullring itself, placed him in a category
that simply does not exist in this country. During his career he earned an
estimated $4 million fighting the bulls. Half a dozen books had been written
about him, and a movie based on his fantastic life was being filmed. But last
May, on a wet road outside Mexico City, a car in which he was riding spun out
of control and crashed, and Carlos Arruza was crushed to death.
The afternoon it
happened I had put in a call for him from San Francisco to Mexico City. I
wanted to know if it was definite that he was fighting in Tijuana on the 29th,
as I had four people who wanted to fly down for it with me. His wife, Mari,
said that he'd taken the children out to the ranch but was expected home any
Two hours later
Jim Fergus of Toros magazine called to tell me he was dead. I sat stunned.
Then, when I could, I phoned a friend who also knew and loved him. After the
first intake of breath and a long pause, he said, "Well, he'd been asking
for it for a long time."
And it was true.
He'd started asking for it when he was very young.
wounds worse than the bulls," the aspirant toreros like to say, but Carlos
was not the archetypal, hungry-poor matador. He was not like Belmonte, who saw
his 12 younger brothers and sisters carted off to the poor-house and swore he
would become the greatest and richest bullfighter in the world in spite of his
puny body. He wasn't like the current star, El Cordob�s, who, to get himself
out of his hopeless squalor, marched off to the taurine wars vowing
significantly to his sister: "I'll either dress you in gold—or I'll dress
you in black." Although now a multimillionaire, El Cordob�s still keeps a
smoked ham hanging in his hotel suite to remind himself that he can now afford
the whole jam�n Serrano when as recently as five or six years ago he couldn't
even afford a slice. No, Arruza was unlike other toreros in the reasons for his
drive—but the drive was there, and unmistakably there, right up to the moment
of his death.
He was born of a
middle-class family in Mexico City on Feb. 17, 1920, the son of immigrant
Spaniards. His mother, a modern, capable businesswoman, owned successful stores
carrying children's clothes, while his father was a custom tailor. Carlos was a
vague, purposeless, happy-go-lucky boy until he was 13. Then one day his father
took him and his brother, Manolo, 15, to a bullfight. That was the day, as he
was to say later, "I grew up."
From then on the
Arruza boys thought of nothing but bullfighting. They contrived to get
themselves flunked out of several conventional schools so their father would
let them join the bullfighting academy of Veteran Matador Samuel Sol�s. Maestro
Sol�s worked the boys unmercifully with the mechanical bull and the various
cape maneuvers and exercises necessary to the profession. But on the first day
that Carlos came to the act of the banderillas Maestro Sol�s saw he had a
genius on his hands. Even as the Maestro was saying: "The way one places
the banderillas is..." Carlos snatched up a pair of the frilled sticks and
loped gracefully out toward the boy pushing the mechanical bull. Lifting the
sticks above his head he jabbed the barbs perfectly into the cork shoulders of
the contraption, letting the horns graze his rib cage. The amazed Maestro
turned to the rest of the class, cleared his throat and said: "That,
gentlemen, is the way banderillas are placed." The Maestro's amazement
would never lessen. Arruza became one of the greatest banderilleros of all
A few months
later the Arruza boys heard that a festival—a bullfight with small bulls and no
picadors—was going to be presented at the big Toreo Plaza. Manolo and Carlos
decided to become espont�neos—they would jump into the ring for their first
encounter with a live animal! They hid their capes under their jackets and set
off bravely for the arena. But the small bulls seemed to have grown as big as
trucks when the time came for the boys to confront them. On the second bull
Manolo whispered to his brother, "You could do better with the cape than
that matador!" Carlos answered, "So could you! Go down there!"
Manolo, wet with perspiration, hissed back: "You go down there!"
agreed to go together. Worming their way through the crowd, they jumped down
into the ring passageway and vaulted the fence. Carlos got to the bull first,
flourishing his cape and shouting to attract its attention: "Toro
He wrote in his
autobiography: "As I watched the bull wheel and start to charge, the
horrible thought struck me: this was not a friend of mine pushing a mechanical
bull—this was a real and vicious wild beast. I froze for a fraction of a
second. My first reaction was, God, he's going at this cape, so if I clutch it
to me he won't see it and then he'll go away and leave me alone! That would
have been fatal, of course, as the bull, following the movement of the cape,
would have crashed straight into me. My next reaction was, God, he's going at
the cape, so if I fling it from me he'll attack it and leave me alone! And as I
watched the animal bear down on me, I thought. Mother, help me, this idea of
being a bullfighter was complete insanity! Mother!