SI Vault
Giles Tippette
October 07, 1974
In a less-than-noble town on the Mexican border, a journeyman matador faces a cowardly animal and a hostile crowd, yet even in that rude plaza the pomp and circumstance and tradition of bullfighting endure
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October 07, 1974

Of Noble Rites

In a less-than-noble town on the Mexican border, a journeyman matador faces a cowardly animal and a hostile crowd, yet even in that rude plaza the pomp and circumstance and tradition of bullfighting endure

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As they neared the ring there was the usual group of urchins and young men at the entrance. They crowded around the car, peering in the window to see the matador. Several officious police could do little to help as the car inched into the parking lot.

The ring was of drab-white concrete rising suddenly on the plain just at the edge of town. Structural steel sticking out here and there gave it an unfinished air. The ring was so small it did not have the required chapel in which the matadors could pray just before the paseo. All bullfighters are strict Catholics. Armillita's friend, who had been an interested novillero before he foolishly tried to kill a bull in his querencia (the section of the ring where the animal feels most secure), said, "There is a comfort in the ritual, as if a man has satisfied himself he's done all he can for his own protection."

Bullfights begin with very little preparation. There is no way for matadors to warm up, so they arrive just before the performance and then wait in the tunnel to make their formal entrance. Manola Martinez was already there and Armillita greeted him with an embrace. Manola looked tired and drawn around the eyes. He had driven that morning from Aguascalientes and then spent the afternoon sleeping in the hotel. He didn't look very interested in the proceedings. He had been drunk at nine that morning, having celebrated with his friends and followers.

It was even hotter in the tunnel, but suddenly they were opening the gate and the band was striking up and the three men were proceeding across the loose sand of the arena. Armillita looked up, seeing the full stands. He hoped the crowd contained a goodly share of American tourists. They never cared what they saw. All they wanted was to drink beer and yell and laugh and have a good time.

The matadors walked to the barrier on the far side from the entrance of the bulls and laid their ceremonial capes over the wall. All around them attendants bustled. Gaston Santos would fight first, then Manola would have his first bull, then Armillita, then Manola again and then Armillita would end it with the gray. But none would be through until the finish, for a bullfighter, by law, must aid the other matadors on the card, if necessary. The promoter is responsible under the law for the size and breeding of the bulls he has advertised. If they are not up to specifications he can be fined or jailed, though in Piedras Negras no one remembered the last time such a thing had happened.

While Santos was performing his equestrian ballet against his bull, Manola and Armillita stood behind the barrier discussing conditions. Manola said the wind was terrible, as, indeed, it was. A stray gust can blow the cape or muleta back against the body and the bull with his horns follows. To combat this, the pe�nes wet the bottom of the fighting capes and scuff them in the sand to make them heavier. But a cape cannot be too heavy or else the bullfighter's wrist numbs and he loses the fine touch he needs to control the bull.

Armillita was particularly concerned about the sand. "It's too loose," he said. "The bulls will be slipping all over."

"Oh yes," Manola said, "the bulls, such as they are." He laughed. He was not particularly concerned about conditions or the bulls. He had flatly announced back in his hotel room that he was not going to overwork. He had explained, "It is pointless to attempt anything here. If you did the fans would not understand."

Santos killed his bull, which the crowd liked well enough, and Manola moved out into the ring while his pe�nes spread their capes before the early charges of his first bull. Armillita stood behind the barrier and watched, thinking how he would fight Manola's bull.

Manola, as he had said he would, fought safely. He risked nothing, and the fans, sensing this, began to resent it even before he was half through. Watching, Armillita knew he was going to inherit some of this enmity. Still, he admired the technical skills that Manola was displaying, even when he went in to kill in such a fashion that he exposed very little of himself. That, too, took skill, even if it was a talent employed to deceive the crowd. But the crowd was not going to be duped. The price of the bullfight represented a day's pay to many of the spectators and they were getting hot. Armillita listened to their outrage and merely shrugged and smiled when asked what he thought. "I believe," he said, "they will understand there are some bulls with which nothing can be done."

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