(more pictures?)

Aug 1995


 Death in the Afternoon

A hot Sunday afternoon in Mexico City. The largest bullring in the world is packed with feisty locals. Restless, they whistle and hoot before the main event when emotions run high and which, surprisingly, begins on time. A quick ceremonial parade by the human performers, and the first marked bull is unleashed into the ring. Today, three matadors will tackle six bulls, and for the first time ever, a female matador (from Spain) will perform in Mexico.

In the first act, three assistants to the matador, the banderilleros, in gaudy costumes of the sixteenth century Spanish courtier, enter the ring and start waving purple capes. By provoking the bull into empty chases, their job is to tire out the proud animal, weighing nearly half a ton. From the flanks, a matador takes note of the bull's temperament.

Minutes later, two men arrive on heavily padded horses-the picadores, armed with long sharp spears. The bull sees red, so to speak, and charges a horse. The man atop, seizing his moment, repeatedly stabs the bull just above the spinal cord, causing a vigorous spurt of thick, dark blood. The crowd roars, among them genteel men and women with children, overcome now with enormous anticipation. The bull, wounded and fierce, turns to the other horse and rams into its well-padded ribs in an attempt to topple the rider, which leads to another wild uproar. This time the bull is out of luck and merely sheds more blood. The picadores, basking in warm applause, retire to the pavilion.

Next, a banderillero, holding three banderillas (adorned sticks with spiked ends), faces the charging bull. At least theoretically, the bull can gore his provocateur at any time. The tension dissolves as the man leaps away at the last minute, but not before inserting one banderilla into the bull's neck. He repeats this twice before exiting the ring. The hubbub in the stadium rises until a bugle blows, and the Matador de Toros strides in for the solo act.

It is the Spanish woman, wearing the traditional traje de luces (suit of lights). She does not disappoint, playing the crowd and fooling the animal. In subjugating brute power with human skill, she, too, will be judged for her 'style and artistic statement'. She moves with calm and confidence, teasing and dodging with flourish. The crowd screams, 'Ole! Ole!' getting louder with each daring maneuver of her crimson muleta. This continues for a few minutes until she flashes a long, steel sword, the espada, sending shivers of excitement through the stands.

The trick is to aim it and time it precisely. She leaps away from the charging bull's path, and with one swift move, plunges the entire sword between the bull's shoulder blades. A perfect kill; nothing less, it seems, would be appreciated by this audience. The bull writhes helplessly, hobbling along like a drunk for a minute or so, ornate hilt sticking out above, and then collapses, as if his knees were suddenly too weak to bear his weight.

A banderillero rushes forth, takes aim, and thrusts a sharp knife into the bull's neck—the final blow, final as death is—the victory is complete. The crowd goes wild as the bull lies still under the hot sun. The matador bows, stylishly swings her Basque cap, the bugles blow, jubilant white handkerchiefs dot the stands. According to a panel of distinguished judges, she is deemed to have displayed exceptional élan, so she wins an earlobe of the fallen animal as her trophy, to keep. The picadores return to drag the corpse out of the ring. Food and drink vendors appear in the stands. The din of conversation rises, the band bursts into a cheery tune.


In the evening, Aztec dancers perform in the Zócalo, in front of the quake-damaged sixteenth century cathedral that Cortez built, and adjacent to the dug up remains of the capital city of the Aztecs, Tenochtitlan. Amid wild drumbeats and incense smoke, they dance with fiery abandon to the songs of their ancestors. Beneath their ornate winged headdresses and serpent-skin costumes are sports bras, but even more conspicuous is the carefree Latin swagger of the times.

Late evening ushers in the bonhomie of burlesque shows off Plaza Garibaldi. Wage laborers, castaways, and disgruntled men gather for a bit of fun and loving. Clad only in cheap talcum, the ladies descend into the audience and good-naturedly fondle the men-who must not reciprocate-as if they were babies, with physical needs that demand swift attention. Somehow, the dominant sensibility mixes both primal instinct and good cheer. Outside, Mariachis, with their harps and guitars, hang out late into the night strumming earthy songs of love and betrayal to a world fast adopting the joys of digital music. The bars around the plaza do a roaring business serving tequila con sangrita and juicy tamales.

A traveler, haunted by scenes from a bullring, wanders the city. He witnesses high-energy flamenco dancers in street-side bars; forlorn leftists in Coyoacan cafes, cracked walls painted with murals that scream; a pious lady cajoling the Lord in low whispers; an old man counting all who might weep at his funeral; young men into the ranchero look of romantic movies; the timid eroticism of glances adolescents exchange in the park. He sees a hunched Mayan woman waiting patiently for alms on the sidewalk, staring vacantly at this mad, rushing world.

NB: This article was published in Words and Pictures Magazine, Issue 3, Fall 2005.


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