Trading in Steel Swords for Plastic Flowers - Pacific Standard

Trading in Steel Swords for Plastic Flowers

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Inside a bloodless bullfight in south Texas.

By Fortunato Salazar

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Jim Verner takes on a bull at the Santa Maria Bull Ring. (Photo: Cesar Martinez)

The walls of the Santa Maria Bull Ring are plastered with banners from dozens of sponsors: cattle ranches, doctors, dentists, tractor dealerships, Tecate beer.

Fred Renk, wiry and energetic even at 80, owns and operates Santa Maria. As a young man, Renk (or Don Fred, as he’s called by everyone who visits Santa Maria) aspired to become a priest. But over the course of a year spent at the University of Chihuahua — where his seminary sent him to improve his Spanish — Renk became intensely interested in the bullfights that took place at the local ring.

Following a stint in the Marines, he studied bullfighting in Juarez with an American torero, and fought in arenas throughout Mexico until the early 1970s. A self-made water-treatment business provided Renk with the funds to build Santa Maria, a labor of love, in 2000. At the same time, he began raising his own fighting bulls, most of which are sold for the bull riding circuit — about 500 currently are at work for Professional Bull Riders, Inc., the largest organization in the United States. But every so often a few are siphoned off for Santa Maria. Located deep in south Texas, Santa Maria is a last bastion of the bullfighting tradition, or at least the bloodless variety of the tradition (bloodless fights, legal in Texas and several other states, exclude both the actual kill as well as the banderillas that weaken the bull in preparation for the kill).

Today marks an occasion: a celebration for Renk’s 80th birthday. Three of his bulls are here, as are 500 or so spectators — friends and relatives as well as bullfighting aficionados for whom Santa Maria is a Texas landmark. They’re braving the July heat to celebrate Renk and to watch three fighters take turns squaring off against their respective bull (an abbreviated version, in concession to the heat, of the normal winter corrida, in which each fighter faces two bulls).

Just before the fight I meet with Karla Santoyo, one of the fighters on the cartel, in her trailer. Santoyo comes from a family of bullfighters; her ambition, perhaps not surprisingly, is to stake out a career as a professional bullfighter. (In the Santa Maria arena hangs a banner dedicated to the “Santoro Dynasty de Aguascalientes, Mexico.”) Santoyo, who has been training with her father since she was 10 years old, has fought dozens of bulls in bloodless fights. She is booked to kill her first competition bull in Ecuador the week after Renk’s birthday corrida (she’s only once killed a bull in practice). But later, when Santoyo enters the Santa Maria ring, the announcer describes her as “a courageous young woman who is studying to become a veterinarian.”

Tugging the cape away, Santoyo is jolted by the bull, lifted off her feet. As she lands, the bull thumps her with its forehead, sending her sprawling.

Santoyo’s reliance on a second vocation is not unique; it is yet another tell-tale sign of bullfighting’s swift recession into the past. Of the other two fighters on the day’s card, one makes a living painting murals in San Antonio, and the other is an agronomist. Even in Spain and Mexico, a career as a bullfighter is an uphill battle. The Spanish province of Catalonia banned bullfighting in 2011; two Mexican states enacted bans in the past year, and the state of Baja — the biggest draw for bullfighting tourism — is likely to vote a ban within the next few months. It’s still possible to cross the Rio Grande and view a bullfight in Nuevo Laredo or Reynosa, but few Americans are willing to risk the troubles along the border.

America is another story. In the 1960s and ’70s, Mexican bullfighters fought regularly in Dodge City, Kansas, and as late as 1986 the Astrodome in New Orleans hosted a bloodless bullfight (co-organized by Renk, of course). Mexican bullfighters still occasionally make appearances at Portuguese festas in Southern California. As recently as 2013, a bullfight that featured Mexican fighters was held in Jackson, Mississippi. But Santa Maria is the only remaining arena in the U.S. devoted solely to bullfighting.

While the stands continue to fill, visitors debate the sport’s future: Could bullfighting’s unwillingness to adapt into something more acceptable to animal-rights activists really spell its demise in Mexico? And just how should it adapt in the first place?

Some envision a bright future in the U.S. where bloodless bullfighting will overtake rodeo in popularity along the border, especially in south Texas and Southern California. Eventually, the idea goes, a new crop of American bullfighters — the first generation of homegrown American bullfighters — could rise to international prominence and hold their own against Mexicans and Spaniards in whatever remains of bullfighting in Mexico and Spain.

David Verner, the agronomist, is the first to match up against a smallish bull. It is mid-afternoon, the temperature well above the century mark. As he makes his entrance, the announcer informs the crowd that we have Verner to thank for the jumbo jalapeno peppers that are so delicious when filled with cream cheese.

Verner deftly works the bull, his ponytail-bound curly white hair bobbing as he leans left and right. After only a few passes, the bull abruptly topples onto its side. It simply can’t stay upright in this heat. The crowd falls into an uneasy silence. Another of the bullfighters takes hold of one horn and hoists the bull upright, where it stands panting and wobbling. But after a few more moments, the bull crumples again to the ground. Renk had mentioned earlier that he’d never sent a bull out before in such extreme heat; perhaps this is why.

Verner walks briskly to the barrier to consult with Renk, who puts aside his can of Tecate, takes the cape from Verner, and enters the ring. To raucous applause from the stands, Renk manages to coax the bull into a halfhearted charge.

Once Renk has shown off a few passes—an unscheduled interruption that befits the loose, festive tone of the occasion—Verner returns and, bowing to the judge, asks permission for an early “kill”; in a bloodless fight the kill is made symbolically by plucking a small plastic flower from a Velcro patch affixed between the bull’s shoulders. The kill is made and the bull trots back into its chute; soon enough it will be sold off into the riding circuit.

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(Photo:

Fortunato Salazar)

Bullfighters aren’t as dismissive about this kind of faux kill as you might expect. The maneuvering is similar with or without a sword, because the placement of the bullfighter’s hand is the same whether the goal is to plunge a sword into the animal’s body or to pluck a plastic flower. Either way, it requires fearlessness and a steady hand.

In a traditional bullfight, a bull that would begin the fight pumped up by adrenaline — its blood pressure is elevated fourfold, according to Renk — reaches the final act extremely weakened, having been stabbed dozens of times. In a bloodless fight (unless it’s a brutally hot day in July), nothing weakens the bull except its own fatigue, caused by repeated charges toward the bullfighter.

Verner’s brother Jim, the mural artist, also white-haired, fights next, taking on a comparatively larger bull — one that shows no signs of withering in the heat. After a short bout, Jim is able to pluck the flower from his opponent, much to the delight of the crowd. (Bits of rusty steel rained down from the underside of the stands — a result of 500 or so feet being stamped against the bleachers at once.)

In her previous fight at Santa Maria, Karla Santoyo had been pummeled hard. As a result, she’d been forced to spend a night in the hospital. This afternoon, she looks a bit more on edge than the Verner brothers. Santoyo’s bull is impressive — Renk boasts its weight to be 1,000 pounds. It snorts louder and runs with more power than either of the previous two.

Santoyo gets off to a good start, but she soon finds herself in trouble; the wind has picked up, the flags above the arena are snapping at their masts, and Santoyo’s cape twists and billows out of her control. The bull catches a horn on the cape. Trying to tug the cape away, Santoyo is simultaneously lifted off her feet and delivered a loud thump, which sends her sprawling. Santoyo quickly scrambles to a safe distance. She appears shaken. But she’s done this many times before. She assumed the expression of haughty daring typical of veteran matadors staring down a bull.

Santoyo’s “kill” is the finest of the day, her body brushing the flank of the bull as she dives in close and plucks the flower. The crowd shows its appreciation.

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