Sunday, January 20, 2008

Meet the Bullfighters

“What did you think of the bulls,” asked the man as I descended the unstable stairs.

I had just walked across the wooden planks above the fenced corrals where the fours bulls munched hay. Each bull would take a turn in the Santa Marie Bull Ring in La Gloria, Texas later that day. I had been given this privileged walk above the bulls by the Fred Renk, promoter and owner of the Bull Ring. To take a look at the bulls from the catwalk above their holding area is not part of a typical admission ticket.

“I would not want to have to face those bulls any closer than I was up there,” I gestured to the planked walkway safe above the bulls.

As I hurried to catch up with Ed, I thought that perhaps this man speaking to me was a worker at the ranch or another spectator who had come to watch the bulls envious of my preferred treatment. Later in the cantina, I learned he was a matador.

Longinos Mendoza gives an outward appearance of calm at 2 o’clock in the cantina. He tells me that inside he is nervous. Maybe that is why he stands and doesn’t sit. “Will you go to the chapel before you enter the ring?” I ask. He admits that yes, he will ask Jesus and the Virgin Mary to watch over him this afternoon.

Mendoza began his matador career in Mexico City as a young man of the 1970s. “Bull fighting gets in your blood. You just can’t stop,” he says in prefect English.

Mendoza told me he came to Houston, Texas to perform in bull fights many years ago. “A couple photographed me during my first bull fight,” he said. “The second time they came to photograph me, they brought their daughter. I courted her in the traditional way and we married. There wasn’t much opportunity in the US for a bull fighter, so I worked to perfect my English and studied and eventually became a banker who fight bulls on the side.”

Another matador scheduled to fight, Enrique Delgado, “The Monterrey Cyclone,” spoke no English. He sat calmly at the cantina bar engrossed in the Sunday afternoon football game on the TV screen.

Fred Renk built and opened the Santa Maria Bull Ring in 2000 to preserve the art of bull fighting. According to Renk, it is the only bull ring in the USA open to the public. He became enchanted with bull fighting back in the 1950s when as a seminarian studying for the priesthood he saw his first bull fight in Mexico. Renk never did become an ordained Catholic priest, but he did become an amateur fighter or novillero. Fred passed his legacy to his stepson David.

David is the lanky man selling admission tickets. He is the legendary “El Texano” – one of less than a dozen American professional bull fighters and at the time, the youngest American in history to turn professional in the world of bullfighting. As child, he watched bull fighting at Fred’s side and learned the art of bull fighting from some of the best teachers of this ancient tradition. David’s story is told in a book authored by his stepfather called Two Hearts, One Sword. The book explains how David overcame physical challenges – club feet which were eventually surgically repaired and his height - to fight the bulls. His debut, his first formal novillada, happened on February 22, 1977 in Reynosa’s Plaza Santa Fe. David went on to become the first North American matador in history to be chosen to receive the honor of completing his doctorate in La Plaza Mexico, the largest bull ring in the world. That was back in 1983. Now, David is retired from the ring. Goring by a bull has left him scared and now unable to stand in the ring anymore.

Lyn Sherwood had gone to Spain as a young man. Grey stubble now covers his unshaven face, a leather hat shades his eyes and a beer stays cool in a foam sleeve. “I fought bulls until one day a bull nearly made me as soprano. Then, I gave it up.” Lyn traded his cape for a camera and pen. He is author of a book on bullfighting Yankees in the Afternoon. He showed me the mock up of his new coffee table book. These matador photos and bull fighting history will be published when Lyn finds sponsors to cover the cost of printing and promotion. Today, Lyn is Master of Ceremonies and judge. He leads the crowd in shouts of “Olé” and judges whether the matador is awarded one mock ear from a bull, two ears, or two ears and a tail.

These are the men of the Santa Maria Bull Ring, those who still fight and those who are legendary.

January 13, 2008

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