Letter from Mexico: A Hero of Our Time
One would have to start at the feet. Feet that rest quietly in the sand. Feet that stay as still as a photograph. Just below the waist a hand can be seen, moving slowly, staying just in front of a snout. All else is stillness. In Aguascalientes, Mexico’s national city of poetry, art has for a moment displaced reality. José Tomás, the man who has restored tragic grandeur to the corrida, is reciting.
From my perch above the action, I can just about make out the warren of streets of the Barrio San Marcos. A red haze hangs over the city. Tucked into one of them is the art nouveau cupola of the old plaza de toros. Corridas are still held there when the fair isn’t in session. José Tomás apprenticed there as a novillero, or killer of young bulls, as many Spaniards do. Here as in Spain, the bullfights always begin at 6 p.m. to escape the sun, but the early evening light is still tinged with the day’s heat. A few odd palm trees stand out on the low-built horizon. The crumbling exposed brick and fading white paint on the façades testify to its mercilessness.
The collective thrall, palpable even in the last row, is why I’d made the pilgrimage to Aguascalientes last April for Mexico’s National Fair. José Tomás is a figure such as bullfighting has not seen in many years. What some call recklessness, he calls integrity. As a student living in Madrid, I had heard the stories. “That one passes the bulls where they need to pass,” the old aficionados said. But I had never gotten to see him. In 2002, fed up with fame and constant disputes with bullfighting’s incestuous network of promoters and moneymen, Tomás abruptly quit, moved to Mexico and disappeared.
The Quiet Spaniard. Bullfighting is an unusual form of popular culture. It remains commercially viable, even as the culture from which it sprang disappears, pushing it further and further from the mainstream. José Tomás is special because he has transgressed bullfighting’s peripheral status to reassert its cultural centrality. He is a “crossover artist” who has entered the wider context of contemporary consciousness. And yet he appears neither media savvy nor concerned with reaching a larger audience in any conventional way. You might say his brand is mystery. His life is off-limits to the gossip press of what Spaniards call the farandula, the revolving stage of B-list celebrity. He has eschewed the limelight and intrepid sexual exploits expected of a matador. It is thought that his wife continues to work as a checkout clerk in the shopping center where he met her. His frame is slight, his face smooth and plain. When he speaks, his voice is surprisingly soft and effeminate. Though it has been years since he has spoken on camera, when he did, he was visibly shy and introverted. Only in the ring is he immersed in his element, and like Michael Phelps in the pool, his awkwardness suddenly becomes a sublime expansiveness. His gestures transmit concentration; every step taken as practiced and conscious as a ballerina’s; every move of the wrist—so crucial in working the cape—as precise as a violinist’s.
As bullfighting has passed from a mass pastime to a niche one, increasingly its revenue streams come from pay broadcasts of corridas. But Tomás, by far bullfighting’s biggest idol, cannot be seen on television. As his dispute with the businessmen grew more bitter in the late ’90s, public sentiment slowly turned against him. Greed, they said, was his undoing. In his last performance in Madrid, he was sent off with a hail of seat cushions. In the six years of his absence, bullfighting’s continued decline cast his decision in a different light. Amidst a fragmented panorama, the public was fascinated by a torero who took the code of his art more seriously than personal gain.
Normally when a bullfighter retires young, few hesitate to call him a coward. Juan Belmonte, the most celebrated torero from 1914 until the Spanish Civil War, explained the afflictions of the profession in his autobiography: “On the day of the corrida, the beard grows faster. It’s fear. Fear. I know it so well. It is my constant companion.” When José Tomás retired he claimed to have different reasons. As he saw it, the culture of bullfighting was corrupt. The same empresarios who control the bullfighting business are behind the real estate bubble on which Spain’s economic miracle has been built. Ironically, Tomás’ five-year sabbatical coincided with the largest speculative boom in Spanish history.
When he returned in 2007, the bullfights had already received a serious blow from the other end of the political spectrum. The Socialist- run national television had taken them off the air in a gesture towards E.U. concerns. Tomás went further, all television cameras would be forbidden as an ironclad condition of his performance. His art would demand the collective communion of the arena. In return for the public’s attendance, he would augment the integrity of the feria, its life or death stakes, by putting himself in mortal danger each time he performed.
A Home Away from Home. Ride a bus through the bajío, the immense central region between the Sierra Nevada and the Sierra Maestra, and you understand immediately why the colonizers baptized the territory Nueva España. The ochres and yellows are the same ones stretched all across Castilla. Keep looking as you arrive at the outskirts of the city and you’ll understand why this is also the patio trasero de la superpotencia—the back porch of the U.S. The stark colors of Best Buy, Costco and Starbucks dot the landscape. Amongst the creeping subdivisions on the desert’s edge, they pop out like Franciscan missions of the American Way of Life. Here, it is clear how deeply Mexico is both the U.S.’s and Spain’s alter ego.
I landed in Leon. “Leader by Instinct” a giant billboard lion roars from the terminal as we taxi in. This is the political cradle of former President Vicente Fox. So this is where the airport is. On the bus to Aguascalientes there is news that breaks the initial sensation of Mexico-as-usual. Something more troubling. The radio presenter is talking with confused parents about a rash of school closings. The authorities in Mexico D.F. had made their decision that morning. All public schools would be shuttered. There is some sort of virus. Officially, no one is talking about a pandemic. The report concludes happily with assurances that “the San Marcos fair will continue as planned.” At his half- empty hostel, Lukas, the proprietor, is happy to see me. Guests from the capital had already cancelled on account of the mysterious flu. At $8 a night his optimism seemed misplaced. However, most businesses make a killing from the hundreds of thousands of national tourists who come during the three weeks of the fair.
For the last 180 years, Mexicans from all over the republic have converged on this small city in the country’s center to drink, celebrate their regional identities, and watch the killing of bulls. Aguascalientes is the living, beating heart of old Mexico. This is where the ceramic cazuelas indespensable to Mexican cooking were first produced. No Mexican city has more churches per capita. Society here is what Mexicans call mocha: everyone goes to church and the best families know each other. In the surrounding hills, these families often have sprawling haciendas where bulls are raised.
Today, the fair is in some ways like a large state fair in the U.S. Giant midway, lurid entertainment, and cheap alcohol. Because this is Mexico, there are also rodeo, cockfighting, processions, masses, mariachis and regional musicians that compete for the public’s increasingly bleary-eyed attention. It’s a round-the-clock cocktail hour, but amid the binge, the feria’s spiritual center remains the bullfights. They are a daily ritual that punctuate the fair’s particular version of time.
In the streets, evidence of the drug war and mass migration that define how Mexico is represented in the U.S. is nowhere to be seen. In the French-style parks, each gazebo is offering different entertainment. Older couples sway to danzón, while a group of children play with handmade wooden toys that a mother is selling in front of the colonial solares. Corner gardens are all over. Even in the midst of mechanics and welders. In one of them I am stunned to come across a bust of the Cuban Revolutionary hero José Martí. In New York he is on Central Park South; here he is across the street from a leather workshop. As a Cuban-American I’ve read a bit about Martí, but I’m surprised when the inscription reads “Mexico is my second homeland.” A little farther on there is a row of shaded patios with restaurants offering Mayan specialties from the Yucatán region. Emigration here is a double-edged sword. The families eating out supplement their income with the remesas from the north. On a shaded bench in front of the church an old man tells me that since ‹‹lo de allá››, the crisis perhaps, the checks have dried up.
A Non-Traditional Traditionalist. In a way, here in central Mexico, José Tomás is closer to the world he is from than he would be anywhere in Spain. “El de Galapagar,” as he is known, in reference to his small-town roots in the Castilian Sierra, is from a world that in Spain is quickly disappearing. His grandfather was a banderillero and raised bulls. His father was an official in the local government representing the Partido Popular, Spain’s conservative party. Unlike most toreros, he did not come from poverty. He has no entourage or needy family counting on his financial support. Like most Spanish boys of his generation, he dreamed of being a footballer. Unlike most, his sense of duty made him accept when his grandfather suggested that his youngest grandson take up the cape. And so, like a romantic hero, he has taken on the burden of what is called in Spain la durísima vocación—the most difficult vocation.
José Tomás is not religious. In a world where such things are blasphemous, he ignores bullfighting’s usual litany of saints and superstitions. His apoderado, a sort of all-powerful bullfighting agent-manager, is a Catalan writer and critic without connection to the dominant circles of the industry. In a world given over to conservative men of business, José Tomás has made himself persona non grata. Though they revere him, he ignores the incestuous world of La España rancia, the part of Spanish society that revels in being retrograde, machista, Catholic, the right President Zapatero is talking about when he says there is no right more conservative in Europe than that of Spain. His friends are poets and musicians outside a bullfighter’s usual circuit. The popular Catalan poet and singer Joaquín Sabina has written that “José Tomás is the man who is bringing the intellectuals back to the arena.”
Bullfighting is a dangerous activity. With Tomás it is more so. Last year he suffered numerous cornadas—or horn wounds. Fighting only twenty times, when some bullfighters fight more than 100, he was gored in nearly half his appearances. It was in Madrid, bullfighting’s capital and cathedral, where his performances were of such drama and artistry that the long slow estrangement of mainstream Spanish society from el toreo seemed to stop all at once. Few could believe that in this day and age a torero would subject himself to such peril. In his second and final performance in Madrid, the horns reached him three times, one causing a wound of twenty centimeters in length. Blood streamed down his face and darkened the red of pant legs laced hastily with tourniquets. Normally, such wounds demand immediate medical attention and can take weeks to heal. They often perforate muscles and cause serious blood loss. They did not, however, prevent him from finishing the faena—or performance—with elegance and preternatural calm. He killed recibiendo. That is, interring the sword in the bull’s back while receiving the force of the animal’s charge, allowing himself to be lifted into the air. When he came down, Las Ventas, bullfighting’s most demanding judge, was at his feet. The deafening chorus rang down: ‹‹¡To-re-ro! ¡To-re-ro!››.
With the King in attendance two weeks earlier, he had become the first matador in thirty-six years to be awarded four ears in Madrid. The two ears of each bull killed being the maximum prize when the public considers that the torero has made an exceptional display of his art. He left Las Ventas, en hombros—carried out of the arena through its main gate on the shoulders of the crowd. Spurning tradition, he had not dedicated either bull to the King. The judgment of the 24,000 assembled, though, was unanimous. The next day, the front page of Spain’s most respected Socialist daily, El País, read simply: ‹‹La Leyenda››.
Later in the season, Tomás had performed in Linares, the town outside of Madrid where in 1947 the great Manolete met his end, killing and being killed in the same gesture. On the sixtieth anniversary of arguably bullfighting’s most famous death, he seemed intent on testing his limits. As the public pleaded for him to stop, he got closer and closer to his adversary, recklessly inciting charges from impossibly near. Gored in the thigh and hemorrhaging blood from his neck, half mad with fury, he demanded to finish his duel before finally being forced on a stretcher and to the infirmary. The prognosis did not detail when he might perform again, but if he might survive. Some critics whispered half in awe that José Tomás may have had it in mind that such an anniversary would have made a good afternoon to die.
Capitalizing on History. Earlier that year in his adopted hometown, the Mexican National Museum of Death opened its doors. Officials solemnly declared that this was the kind of unique attraction that could pull in tourists to the otherwise sleepy city. It made perfect sense. The skull and skeleton imagery associated with the cult of death in Mexico has long been one of the most readily available images of the country. Naturally, it immediately became the featured attraction in the Lonely Planet write-up of Aguascalientes.
Unfortunately, my curiosity duly piqued, I visited the museum. The well-appointed display cases present a series of replicas and handicraft fetishes, many audaciously labeled late twentieth century. Despite the shortage of true artifacts, there are many employees. Young, bored attendants collect my five-part ticket and make sure that I move through the rooms in the required order, even though I was practically the only visitor. What was stranger still, they were all wearing surgical masks.
There are many ways of staging history, though. The GovernmentPalace, for example, was filled with a football-field-length mural of scenes from Mexico’s past. The atmosphere inside feels much more twentieth century: social realism instead of kitsch. It isn’t a Diego Rivera, but the scale and vividness are impressive. A tour guide is rattling on about the Constitutional Convention of 1917. I notice some French tourists getting back on a bus remodeled to simulate a trolley.
I am no more inconspicuous. Even speaking Spanish fluently, I stand out here. There are very few foreigners at the fair. After a couple of days, I’m beginning to understand Hemingway’s exultation when he wrote that he and his wife were the only foreigners at the Pamplona Feria in 1931. It’s a frivolous thought, but it leads me to consider an important difference between the relative place of bullfighting in Mexico and Spain today. Almost no one goes to Mexico specifically to see a bullfight. The Running of the Bulls, on the other hand, is known the world over and visited accordingly. In Spain the corrida is the cultural and historical product most available for foreign consumption. In Mexico, the bullfight remains a spectacle mounted almost entirely for a local audience.
The differing conditions produce widely different outcomes. In Spain there is a vociferous and meaningful resistance to the way bullfights are run by the very people who are its staunchest supporters. Their complaint is that the promoters who organize today’s bullfights are guilty of the same trivialization and emptying of content for an undiscerning audience as the curators at the Aguascalientes Museum of Death. The pomp and pageantry are preserved, but the suerte, or actual combat, is reduced to a simulation. The movement in favor of the traditional has ironically found strength on the web, where the No Al Fraude! insignia is spread across hundreds of pages. In the last two years protests by organized sections of Las Ventas have been commonplace. The bulls of today are measurably smaller and younger than those of the past. Less dangerous bulls make elegant and baroque passes much simpler, but there is something cruel and disfiguring about a man dancing around an animal that can hardly put up a fight. What is irrefutable is that the toreros of today are gored far less frequently than ever before.
In the boardrooms things are no less controversial. An operation like Taurodelta in Madrid receives a concession to run the state-owned arena. However, while they are charged with managing the national patrimony, they have close ties with the construction companies who are busy tearing it up. Taurodelta has a sponsorship agreement with Construcciones Rico, a firm famous for its massive and endless infrastructure projects in and around Madrid. These projects are in turn closely linked to Madrid’s conservative government, which is currently being investigated for laundering over 40 million euros through public works projects. The case, known as the Gürkel Plot, is symptomatic of the way development works in Spain. The latest twist is that the mayor would like the same firms under investigation to redesign Madrid’s emblematic boulevard, the Paseo del Prado. The preliminary plan calls for the uprooting of seven hundred trees.
The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset once wrote that “The state of the bullfighting fair reflects the state of society.” As recently as the 1970s men and women would fill Aguascalientes’ bullring in the procession of roses. They circled in opposite directions until a man crossed a woman he liked and offered her a rose. If the woman accepted, she would return the flower at their next crossing. Then they would walk together to the rhythm of the pasodoble. Today as I walk down to the arena the procession is of spandexed women who work for tequila companies. Even Mexico’s national dairy company has a stage with an impromptu semi-clothed sex show.
I take a detour to get around the show and stumble onto an empty back street. I’m met with two unbroken rows of baby clothing stores. It’s still the siesta, and they are all closed. As the sun beams down, the chiaroscuro contrast between the white communion outfits heavily shaded by the canopies and the bleached white facades is striking. Uncannily, a ray sneaks between two awnings and illuminates a single baby jumpsuit in radiant white.
Ortega y Gasset’s aphorism has become more oblique as the connection between the bullfights and the surrounding culture becomes more and more refracted. The mirror is not as direct as it once was. Bullfighting is an historical appendage. A reflection of a society that has not discarded tradition but that does not know exactly where it belongs.
Bullfighting as Ethic. In the only interview he granted before reappearing, he declared: ‹‹Vivir sin torear, no es vivir››, “To live without bullfighting is not to live at all.” The sentiment was as triumphal as it was resigned. He would once again offer up his own blood in order to live more fully. For the aficionados it is evident that no bullfighter assumes more risk. This risk is an ethic. It is a way of negotiating with the history of bullfighting. And the history of bullfighting is a history of deaths. The Catalan bullfighting critic and historian Carlos Abellà put it thus: “Above all else he wants to be authentic.”
As a result, José Tomás is unpopular amongst many toreros and their promoters. They look mercantilist by comparison. He insists that what the bullfight provides must be more than spectacle. Enigmatically, he declared, “One must live in purity and gold. Not just in the plaza, but in all walks of life.” For other bullfighters it is an imposing fiat. Recently he returned a medal awarded by the Minister of Culture to protest its devaluation after it was presented to a torero known for his famous father and nocturnal escapades and not for his work with the cape. Frowning, the empresarios thought of their pocketbooks. Tomás would be excluded from Seville and Madrid in 2009 as punishment. The brouhaha made it all the way to U.S. media and a Sixty Minutes feature on CBS. But to those who have followed him, it came as no surprise. Asked to elucidate his position, his response was typically mordant: “Some live from the feria, others live for it.”
Despite his unpopularity with the businessmen of his industry, they cannot argue with his drawing power. The matador’s return in 2007 was a landmark event. For the aficionados it represented the return of a savior. Attendance swelled whenever José Tomás was one of the three names on the bullfighting ticket. Seats in Madrid went for 500 euros. In Barcelona, the hotbed of the anti-taurino movement to ban the bullfights, he sold out the plaza seven times when it had not been full in twenty years.
A Hero Unmasked. I was still breathing heavily with the plenitude of the shared experience of the plaza when I stumbled out of the thronged streets onto the roof of the hostel. Lukas’ friends were gathered drinking caguamas—the green two liter bottles that look like sea turtles—avoiding the crowds, badmouthing the fair. It’s Saturday night in Aguascalientes. Introductions are made, “Call me, Ismael,” one of Lukas’ friends says. He wants to hear how José Tomás has been. Everybody does. I feel the responsibility. One guy works for the local government. One is a musician. One who is on the way, they refer to as the espaldamojada—the wetback. Of course, there were no television images of the corrida. The authentic feria of the great corridas has always been transmitted by word of mouth. “It was like watching a man in a trance,” is all I can manage. But Ismael’s eyes light up at the word, ‹‹¡Sí, en trance!››
They call Ismael the purist. He describes how women who get up in the middle of a faena are quite rightly whistled at. Everyone laughs. But they are silent when he lays it out with his fist on the table: “There is a man down in the sand putting his life on the line.” The Johnny Walker bottle shakes. It turns out Ismael had almost worn the traje de luces himself. From the time he was three his father pushed him towards the plaza. At that age, other children, outfitted with plastic horns, play the part of the bull. Eventually he was old enough to face a novillo—a three-year-old bull. That’s when he decided it wasn’t for him.
He told me that his father had been quite the amateur himself. He’d played baby bulls and often triumphed whenever local ranchers would have a cookout. At these, friends would gather to polish off a side of beef, set up an impromptu enclosure, and crown the day by testing their courage against the rancher’s stock. Modern bullfighting left Ismael’s father cold, though. The complicity of promoters and ranchers to provide a certain kind of bull or a friend’s was too transparent. The animals were adulterated too. Their horns shaved, or their ribs beaten while they were kept in madness-inducing darkness in the days before the corrida. The collusion of ganaderos, those who provide the specially bred toros bravos, with the administrators or promoters of the plaza, was a way of lending each other local prestige, of sprinkling each other with some of bullfighting’s noble dust. Land and livestock deals were easier and more lucrative for Don Somebody whose bulls appear in the National Fair. The toreros, often friends of the family, were just window dressing. They were to be kept safe, promoted, and in the best of circumstances pushed to back-page notoriety in the tabloids run by the same families. But when José Tomás came back to the ring in Aguascalientes, Ismael’s father told his son to get him tickets. They wouldn’t be cheap, but after fifteen years he said he finally had a reason to return to the arena.
As I try to continue recounting the afternoon, the memories come in a blur. Two horsemen, one with a Mexican flag, the other with a Spanish one, circled the ring, passed each other and came together again, crossing the line of shade along the plaza’s diameter at exactly six o’clock. The whole sol side was a flicker of fans. I think of the public’s distraction during the first bull, knowing that José Tomás would kill the second—the anticipation. I remember the unnatural calm that took hold when José Tomás stepped out onto the sand. Everything that followed rendered a hurricane of impressions; but this was the eye. I can’t forget the first sonorous ‹‹¡Olé!›› charged with expectation and delight. After a beautiful series of passes in the style of Manolete in the querencia—the defensive territory of the bull—the torero took three firm steps in retreat, picked up his montera—the matador’s hat—and threw it away with purpose and gusto.
“There is not a single family in the bajío without a relative up north,” Ismael tells me as the conversation wanders from the corrida to Mexico indiscriminately. Internal immigration has replaced the workforce headed north, changing the city’s character. NISSAN, or ‹‹La Nissan›› as they call it, made Aguascalientes a hub not too long ago. Before that, the INEGI, Mexico’s national statistical institute, brought an army of bureaucrats from the capital. With them came big city problems. Everyone present agrees that at about that time the expression “Do something for your country, kill someone from the capital” became part of their vocabulary.
Bullfighting takes the human instinct to violence and directs it through channels that give it meaning. Anyone who doubts the potency of violent expression in our own culture should take a stroll to the multiplex. The question of what meaning can be derived remains. The bullfight treats violence openly, and with this openness comes accountability and the opportunity for communal absolution. This explains why the matador’s principal enemy, the principal enemy of all truth, is speculation. It is wrong to mistake him for a gambler. His is not a game of chicken. He is not in competition with the animal. It is not a sport or athletic demonstration. The matador exists to prove one thing: that fear itself can be mastered.
“How ’bout the very honorable son of a bitch, your boss?” Gabriel, the “wetback,” jokes. He’s talking to Juan Pedro, who works for the government. “If things keep going the way they, are he’s not going to have any gringos to swindle,” he replies. Ismael explains that a few years back the governor had bought some ranch land just outside the city limits. Instead of raising bulls there, he has redirected development projects to the surrounding area. The land value spiked. Soon, foreign investors are breaking ground on a boutique hotel. But it’s not the kind of place that people who take the bargain basement package to Mexico are going to patronize. We’ve hardly heard about it, but the first rumors of a central government cover-up of the flu’s extent are starting to spread. On the late news, the Mexican president claims that the confirmed cases only number in the tens. The U.S. Embassy is less sanguine; a travel warning has gone into effect.
What the bullfighter does, must be done openly. He must never seem to be trying to deceive the public, only the animal. The bullfighting public’s distinguishing feature is that its eyes are wide open. We are there to hold the torero accountable, and by extension, to be held accountable. Each person present is a testimonial executor of the animal sacrificed. With each bull, the horror is given a face and a name. It is remembered against all the others who came before him.
Airoso, Tomás’ first bull, charges out. He weighs 605 kg. Straight. Strong and insistent. Hooks with his left horn. The bullfight proceeds in acts. First the colorful banderines are placed in the bull’s back by an assistant called the subaltern. Then José Tomás leads the bull through a series of elegant quites—getaways—with a larger heavy purple cape. The animal is still full of energy. He positions the bull so that the mounted picadors can do their work with a lance. Then as quickly as the ring was filled with secondary players, it is empty and the matador is alone with the bull.
When José Tomás begins a faena, the effect is overwhelming. He stands, statuesque, as the bull rushes at him and then passes harmlessly by. In the entire arena only the bull and a few errant beer hawkers are in motion. The trance in which the torero appears submerged becomes collective. The passes form a chain, a garland of loud color, like an exotic fabric swinging in a Delacroix painting. This is what aficionados call toreo hondo—profound in that it leads the bull with a sense of purpose. Always ennobling the animal, never making him an object of ridicule, but instead, inviting him where he can do the most physical damage to the bullfighter and then leading him slowly and gracefully away.
It is the ‹‹¡Olés!›› that now ring around the plaza in waves. ‹‹¡Qué zurda más chingona tiene el güey!››—“What a fucking left hand that guy’s got!” a man sitting above the last row exclaims. The band directly below me reaches a crescendo. And the final flourish, a dazzling pase de pecho, in which his entire person looms exposed over the onrushing horns, coincides perfectly with the resounding collective cry, ‹‹¡Qué Viva Aguascalientes!››
The animal has been given time to catch his breath, and Tomás starts to his task again. His hand is low as it should be, but the bull is reluctant. Then all of a sudden the bull rushes in and hooks up with his left horn. Disaster! There is a collective gasp. Tomás is on top of the bull. His calf is hooked just behind the horn, and the bull gives as many as six or seven jerks of his head. It takes an eternity. The other toreros finally come running out. It doesn’t matter, he’s freed himself and hopped off the bull on his own. He furiously waves them away. He reclaims his lure, the muleta—the red cape. Now the bull is willing to charge. The faena is in full flight. He passes the bull changing hands, then gives him a series of pases de castigo, where the muleta is yanked back with a flick of the wrist towards the man as the bull passes, like a theater curtain being drawn back. It is a sharp movement that catches the eye of the bull and makes him double back on himself and on the man just as he passes him. Where he stands ready to charge again there might be three inches between them. We are witnessing not just a rehearsal of a set repertoire but a profound and intimate call and response. He has rhythm. This is the secret. José Tomás and the bull are counting the same. Now, the bull believes he can win; he’s been impelled into battle. As Tomás pivots, the bull approaches him in ever tighter concentric circles. His feet remain firmly planted. And then, just when the bull must surely think that he has reached the target in the center of the labyrinth, he discovers that the man has stepped—deus ex machina—out of the maze!
Epilogue. As I was leaving Aguascalientes the news became official: the fair would be closed for the first time in 181 years. Masks in the city were running out. The virus had spread from the capital. The porcine flu had arrived. Two locals were already dead. Containment was the watchword. The corrida I had seen would be the last of the year.
On the bus I get my hands on a copy of the newspaper and read that the governor had ordered all the fair’s spectacles closed, noting separately that the “traditional bullfights” were also canceled. The army would be deployed to keep the peace. He asked that May Day demonstrators stay at home. A woman sitting behind me convinces the driver to put on a DVD of Friends. The eternal rerun. As we advance, patches of green merge with and separate from the orange land. A man stands by a watering hole with a herd of cows. Antonin Artaud once compared “true” theater to the experience of the plague. In the theater, he said, “as in times of plague, there is a sort of strange sun, a light of abnormal intensity where it seems that the difficult and even the impossible become all of a sudden our normal element.” This strange sun now seemed to color and shade the arc of my visit.
The airport was a controlled stampede. It’s the last gathering place permitted in the capital. Mexicans are being denied entry to certain countries. In Asia, quarantined. Everyone is taking precautions. Everyone who can is getting out. I’m waiting for my connection. The family next to me is wearing matching blue masks, a miniature one for their infant. I think of the Emperor Maximilian, alone in Mexico. Staying against all better judgment when he could have left. Marching to meet a force of 6,000 with 400 men. Betrayed by his gardes de corps, his subalterns. And of Juárez, his adversary, the only man willing to bear the weight of the Mexican Republic in his person. To let the fate of the republic rest on whether he lived or died. Upon his execution by Juárez’s men, Maximilian shouted into the smoking guns ‹‹¡Viva México!›› He was eviscerated but glorified—as it is with the bulls.
Gabriel Arce Riocabo