Bullfights in the Plaza Mexico

Fumiko Nobuoka

Plaza México

I attended my first bullfight in January of 1998. At the time, I knew no one who was even vaguely interested in it to tell me what to expect so I had little idea of what I was in for. All I knew was that I had heard a lot of negative things about this spectacle and I wanted to know why people went and what was so interesting about a man and a bull in a ring.

Plaza MexicoThat Sunday was warm and sunny. The walk down the ramp to the "barrera" (the first seven rows around the ring) took me deep into the heart of the largest bullfighting plaza in the world, seating a whopping 41,262 people. A little over half the size of this monumental plaza is the second largest plaza, found in Madrid: the impressive Las Ventas, which seats 23.798. The Plaza Mexico is so large that it looks a little like a drill, burrowing into the earth. Entering from one of the upper tunnels and standing on the top step, the stairs drop steeply into the center, a sensation which can give a bit of vertigo and the fear of a fatal misstep. The seats and their respective prices are divided up depending on how far they are from ringside and if they are in "sol" (in the sun) and "sombra" (in the shade).

Plaza MexicoBefore and after the fights, there are always people wandering about or eating, especially in the street booths around the Plaza. Mexican food of all kinds, as well as beer, is served here and around few plazas in the world can you find open-air booths where you can sit and people-watch. If the bullfight is an important one, celebrities, politicians and athletes of renown come.

Plaza MexicoAt four o'clock on the dot, according to the large clock on the top back wall of the plaza, the doors to the ring open. The "banderilleros" (matador helpers who put in the brightly decorated wooden picks) come out into the ring first and make way for the matadors, who appear, sun bearing down into their eyes, as they step up to the first chalk-lined circle dusted into the ground. From the Plaza Judge's Box, the trumpet sounds to mark the official beginning of the bullfight. Everyone, as if on cue, shouts "ole!" with such force, it sounds as if it comes from the heart of the Plaza itself. The matadors, who claim not to be superstitious, cross themselves or pray while holding onto a pendant of their saint of preference before crossing the length of the plaza to salute the Plaza Judge.

Plaza MexicoWhen everyone has finally cleared the plaza and entered the "callejon" (the area between the ring and the barrera), the first bull was released. It burst into the ring and, as the matador passed his cape in front of the bull, he stood straight, with an elegant sweep of his arms. The crowd, as if thinking in one mind, shouted "ole!", following the smooth gesture of the heavy cloth. He led the bull across the ring with a series of passes, the golden embroidery of his suit painting a line in the air as the cape in his hands drew the bovine towards the "picador" (a rider on horseback, who hold a thick stick, about 10 feet long with a sharp point) who "picks" the back of the bull.

Plaza MexicoThat particular day, I also saw the first professional female bullfighter in the world, Cristina Sanchez. It was difficult for her to break into the "Fiesta Brava" (the proper name of bullfights in Spanish), as I later found out, in a world that harbors mixed opinions about the "properness" of the feminine presence in the ring. Recent years have seen changes in this aspect, with more young women donning the "traje de luces" (literally "suit of lights", the embroidered suit that is typically worn in a bullfight) to garner a place in this very demanding profession.

Plaza MexicoIn all, six bulls were fought, two per matador. One by one, they showed their skills in this age-old art. Their expertise, if to the crowd's favor, may be rewarded. If one believes that the matador deserves recognition, a person may wave a white handkerchief after the death of the bull. Depending on how many people do this, the Plaza Judge decides whether the matador merits recognition or not. The prize, in such case, is an ear, two ears or two ears and a tail, with the former being a "well done", the second is an "excellent" and the latter, a "phenomenal".

Plaza MexicoAn odd sort of community forms when one starts to attend bullfights on a regular basis. There is a phrase in bullfighting that, loosely translated into English is something like "crazy about bullfighting" ("tiene mal de la montera"; the montera is the black, bicorne hat that bullfighters use). It refers to people who love bullfights so much that they are "a little sick in the head". In the stands, the regular public is usually divided up into two groups: the "aficionados" and the "villamelones". The "aficionados" are those knowledgeable in bullfighting. The "villamelones" are those who feign to know about bullfighting but don't really have a clue.

Plaza MexicoIn the Plaza Mexico, the crowd also plays an active part. Many make quick-witted comments, compliments and most often, criticisms that are shouted at the matadors. In between fights, when the plaza is being cleared for the next bull, the time to socialize begins, where one can comment on the fight or get food and drink. It is also time to pass around the "bota" or the "boot", referring to the stomach-shaped wine bag. A man in the second row passed the bota back five rows to me. He didn't know who I was and I never saw him again but in one brief moment, I was on the receiving end of a random act of kindness.

Plaza MexicoMuch can be said about bullfighting. It is a look into a world that has evolved from a tradition on horseback among nobles in the early 12th century to an elegant dance in present-day fights. It is a spectacle that has provoked discussions, passions and art. It has always been hated and always been loved and whether one realizes it or not, it exists because of what one thinks of it. That day in the plaza showed me a very different world from what was painted for me. That the bullfight isn't about simply killing the bull: it is about everything that precedes in the life of that very bull. It is about sharing an opinion about a fight, a matador or a bull, where perceptions can be as individual as a fingerprint.

Plaza México