Five to nine

Have a drink.

October 06, 2004

Lujuria. Sangre y arena.

Blood and Sand


  • 1oz. scotch whiskey
  • 1oz Cherry-flavored brandy
  • 1oz. Sweet Vermouth
  • A splash of orange juice

Shake the scotch whiskey and vermouth liqueur together and pour on ice. Splash the orange juice and finally, dribble the cherry brandy on top.
When I was six, I lived a year in Mexico with my grandparents. On the occasion of my mothers visit from Los Angeles, my family took me to my very first Bullfight. I learned some valuable lessons about empathy and bloodlust that I did not quite understand until much later. I learned a valuable lesson about excise drinks that made a lot of sense right away.
As I sat there, with my chest tight, a lump in my throat, my heart racing but eyes wide open and with a gleam, I saw a guy with a bucket full of ice and coke bottles and thought it might be nice to have one. When he charged me for it it was $500 Pesos. "But they're only $300 at the store." The guy selling them, maybe twice my age, said "Yeah, but I'm the one who brought them to the Bulls."
At the time, I did not know the words "40% markup", but I certainly understood "almost twice as much." I also noticed that my uncle Manuel (an electrical engineer) was spending thousands upon thousands on a round of "wine" for his wife and in-laws. (Mexicans have the bad colloquial habit of referring to all non-beer drinks as 'vino' but my uncle was actually buying tequila.)
I also understood that what made this Coke and that Tequila valuable was the spectacle going on in the ring. It is the greatest show on earth, and I love it. It makes me sad that misunderstandings about the sport will prevent many of my peers and compatriots from understanding me. So, in defense of the indefensible, I'd like to outline the basics of this very calculated punishment without the shrill sensationalism of the activists, or the glossing over of the apologists. This is just what happens, beginning to end.
It begins long before the show, on the Haciendas. Working vestiges of a time when Spain was in charge. They are kept in free range herds, and before the breeding season, the animals are tested and separated in "tientas." The animals are herded and then one at a time sent into a ring with one of the men who run the Hacienda. The heifers are made to chase the cape much in the way you imagine. The bullocks can not be tested the same way, since that would ruin them for an actual 'run.' They are jabbed with a small spear (of course small is a relative term, it is not big enough to inflict a wound that the animal would not recover from by the time of the 'faena' or show) by a man on horseback, and their reaction is gauged and evaluated by the hacendados. After the test, the animals are separated. Those that fail are sent the way of the beef commodities market, and those that show especially aggresive and territorial traits are kept on the ranch. The heifers are sent back to the herd and the bulls are separated into lots of six. these six animals will be together the rest of their lives. Then, many months of attention are paid to them preparing them for the Run. Everything from a good long spirited chase on horseback to separating them one at a time to help them adjust quickly to new and alarming surroundings. All this is an inexact science and some haciendas have a better reputation than others of course.
By the time the bulls are about six years old they weigh half a ton and it is solid muscle. They are transported to the fair about two days before the event and are given little food and measured water to prevent cramping. During this time the bullpen is on public display, and the fans can take a look and decide wether or not this fight will be worth the ticket. They are expensive. Plazas (i.e. bullrings) are divided into first second and third tier. Countries that allow bullfighting are usually hot and include, but may not be limited to, Mexico, Spain, France, Portugal (but they're a story to themselves), Peru, Venezuela &c. Because the run begins at about 4 in mexico and a little later in europe, the sun can be especially unpleasant, so there is a shade built over half of the ring. Seats under the shade cost more, and help separate the rabble from the polite society. The actual 'faena' or test always follows the same proper procedure.
First the participants march into the stadium in a ceremonial manner, there is pomp and circumstance and a band playing the sounds you probably associate with the spaniards.
The torero takes the 'capote' and waits for the bull. In the bullpen, the bull is stuck in the chuck with a ribbon with the trademark colors of the animals ranch of origin. After running around the ring once or twice, the bull then begins to zero in on the torero. During this first phase, the bullfighter must take advantage of the especially large size of the cape to learn everything he can about the bulls pattern of attack. Charges are like fingerprints. When the judge decides the time has come, the picadors enter the bullring. This is the first actual test of the 'game'ness of the beast. How does he respond to physical torture. The picadors (usually two) are men on horseback. The horse is armored, and they sit on opposite ends of the bullring. The men are armed with a spear. The bull is made to charge at the horse from a short distance, and as he tries to gore his target, he is speared in the shoulder no less than twice and IN NO CASE more than three times. This injury is meant to atrophy the muscles that the bull uses to throw his head up during an attack, because the last two parts of the event depend on the bull simply charging forward as close to the cape and bullfighter as he dares.
Yes this makes the fight unfair, keep one important thing in mind, this is not competitive sport in which we are to determine which side is a better match, like baseball. It's an audience that paid good money to see a spectacle, and to see how it was that the one side exploits its vast resources, like Yankees baseball.
Once the picadors have left the ring, 'Banderilleros" enter to adorn the bull with colored dowels called banderillas near as possible to the spot of the previous lancing. If you place them too far forward or back, you will be booed. This is repeated two or three times for a total of no less than six and no more than eight 'flags' on your bull. Here begins the drama of the fight. The bull, no longer able to throw his head up, is then confronted by a bullfighter with a small red cape called the muleta. The smaller size of the cape, and the intelligent nature of the bull means (generally) that every time the bull charges he is increasingly closer to the matador. The passes and technical details involved especially in this part could fill a book. And they do. When the bull has given his all, the judge signals for the end of the run. The bullfighter tries to position the bull, and penetrate him with the sword through the ribcage and ideally into the lungs or heart, ensuring a quick death. If the sword bounces of bone, or becomes stuck in connective tissue, the crowd will boo. If you repeat this mistake, the crowd will boo louder. If you repeat this mistake twice, the crowd will not forgive you and you will not be cheered in the end. But if you are clean, concise, brave and correct, you will receive some commendation. generally performances are gauged by crowd response in the sports pages. they go in the following order of accolade.
Whistles (akin to being booed)
silence.
applause.
ovation.
with enough ovation, the judge is then allowed to give the following awards
One ear
Two ears
Two ears and the tail.
to the bull (and by association his ranch of origin) he can award one of the following.
victory 'lap' of the body around the ring and...
if the bull was perfect, if the matador put on a perfect show, if it is a first tier ring, the bull can be granted a reprieve. This is most rare. Think, pitcher in a perfect game.
This is a slightly detailed account of the events. I would need to hire a poet if I wanted to write about the incomparable feeling from the stands, the lust for violence, the expectation of perfection, the agony of disappointment, the thrill of a perfect pass, and yes the inescapable sadness of knowing six gorgeous beasts shall come to an end today. We do love these creatures, and those who make their living at this feel for them a compassion, gratitude and appreciation the likes of which PETA members could never understand. Death is after all, what makes this an important event, and not just a show.
This is not a defense of what we love. If you want moral justification for exploiting beasts, go read Kant. If you want to intoxicate yourself with a wine that cannot be fermented or reproduced outside its still, visit Spain or Mexico this summer.

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