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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In the early afternoon Armillita went to the bullring for the sorteo, the drawing and coupling of the bulls. He had to do it himself because he was of the second class of the four classes of bullfighters, and his manager, such as he was, did not accompany him to little bullfights. This one was at Piedras Negras, a Mexican border town across from Eagle Pass, Texas. There was no regular corrida season in Piedras Negras. Each fight was a separate entity brought about by the pressure of local aficionados and the courage of some promoter who had been persuaded to take the financial risk. Usually a card featured two matadors of Armillita's class with perhaps a novillero. This one, however, was to be an odd contrast since the other fighters were Gaston Santos, a millionaire sportsman who fought from horseback, rejoneador style, and Manola Martinez, one of the four Mexican matadors of the special class, the best. Santos was there because rejoneadors are not that important and he would take a corrida anywhere purely for the love of fighting bulls, but Martinez had come only because it was convenient. He had fought the day before in the week-long feria at the Aguascalientes festival and it fit his schedule to make the short run over to the frontier for this meaningless corrida.

But it was not meaningless to Armillita and he spent a long time studying the five bulls they were to fight at five o'clock that afternoon. The animals were all together in the plank corral adjoining the dusty bullring. That, in itself, was a bad sign. If they were of any temperament, they should have been separated. They were from the Golderinas ranch and did not look particularly good. They were advertised as averaging nearly 900 pounds, but Armillita doubted that, just as he doubted that they'd cost $800 each as the promoter claimed. He leaned against the fence and watched them. Around him was an excited group of aficionados and ring employees and hangers-on. They showed him a deference he would not get from the average fan and were careful to make no motion or sound that might unduly excite the bulls.

Four of the bulls stood quietly, but one, a gray with an off-angled left horn, faced the corral fence and pawed and snorted at the people watching him. Armillita hoped he would not draw the animal for such bulls are notorious cowards and a cowardly bull is by far the worst in the ring.

It did not bother Armillita to be the only matador at the sorteo ceremony. He was used to it. Manola's manager was there and a representative of Gaston Santos. The number of each bull was put in a hat and Santos' man drew one since the sportsman would fight only one animal. Then a discussion began between Armillita and Manola's manager over the pairing of the four remaining bulls. This was done with much agitation even though each knew they were working blindly; there was no way to tell anything about such bulls until they came charging into the ring. Finally, after the animals had been discussed and their possible merits weighed, the pairings were agreed on. The gray bull was coupled with a medium-sized black that looked as good as any.

After the numbers of the bulls were written down, each participant had a hand in folding the small pieces of paper. Armillita did his part rather desultorily, but the manager rolled each into a tight ball, shifting them several times from hand to hand as if practicing a coin trick. Armillita thought the procedure overdone since none of the bulls were any damn good.

The drawing completed, he saw he had picked the gray. He immediately decided to fight the other bull first, the average-looking black, in hopes he might win the crowd early so that it would forgive him for what would probably happen with the gray. He knew these border crowds well. Since most of the spectators were poor they demanded a great deal for their money. And since they very seldom received it, they were quick to stand up and wave their ticket stubs and claim they had been cheated. Armillita didn't blame them, he just dreaded being the object of their derision. He would say, later in the afternoon, "It's true that the bulls here are very bad. But the crowds are worse."

He went back to the hotel and put on a pair of bathing trunks and lay down on the bed. He had left his door open and passing strangers would stop, look in, and say, "Buena suerte, good luck, matador." He was a tall, slim man of 32 who didn't look very Mexican with his light skin and copper hair, but that was the Spanish influence in his background. Lying there on the bed he showed the results of several gorings. The horn goes ripping and tearing in and even the best surgeon cannot repair wounds without leaving heavy, ridged scar tissue. Armillita had four; a bad one in his left shoulder, one in his side, one in his thigh and an unimpressive one in his lower leg. He had never had a femoral, a goring in the inside of the thigh that destroys the femoral artery. A matador can bleed to death from that before being carried from the ring.

His real name was Manuel Espinosa. He was called Armillita because his father had been called Armillita. The difference was that his father had been considered one of Mexico's best bullfighters. By now the son knew he would never approach his father's reputation.

A friend had come to act as Armillita's sword handler and equipment manager and to drive him to the ring. He got up and they embraced. The friend asked how he felt and how the bulls were; he shrugged and made a face. His friend said he had heard tickets were selling well and a good crowd was expected. The bullring held 5,000. Armillita shrugged and said that news was more important to Manola Martinez than to him since Manola got a percentage of the gate while he got a fixed fee. He would receive about $2,000 for the fight, which sounded like a lot except he had to pay his cuadrilla—two banderilleros and one picador—out of that, as well as their traveling expenses, and his own expenses.

His cuadrilla were somewhere else in the hotel. They had driven down from Mexico City while he had flown. At four o'clock Chato, the old banderillero who had been with him for years, would come to help with the dressing ceremony. But that was a long time away, at least two hours, and he lay down to relax. He was hungry, but he was used to being hungry on Sunday afternoons. A bullfighter did not eat before a corrida because he might have to go under the surgeon's anesthesia. Another worry in these border fights was the lack of a good doctor. There were plenty in Mexico City and a good infirmary right in the Plaza de Toros. Here there was none of that and, if a matador got a bad horn wound, he just had to hope they could hold him together long enough to get him to the capital.

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