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Published: February 23rd 2010
I was flipping through the 150 channels I get in my student residence in Flamingo, Costa Rica on a Saturday morning. I was hoping to pass the first few hours of the day laying in bed watching something mindless. A few days ago I had accomplished the same thing by watching the entirety of a movie I had never seen before, 12 Monkeys, and was hoping to have similar success.
Costa Ricans are less prudish when it comes to the television and even newspaper. You might be reading about the effect of Barack Obama’s policy toward Cuba on the Costa Rican economy in the newspaper—and right next to it is a tit. Sometimes two of them. All of these distractions make the newspapers here much more difficult to read—even the ones in English.
So there I was—hungover, flipping through the television channels on a Saturday. Spongebob, soccer, soccer, soap opera, soccer, soap opera, cartoons, soft porn with a woman riding a man while his wife masturbates on the couch, soccer, and then it happened—A Mexican bullfight.
I could see right away it was real. The bull already had three or four spears bouncing along on its back, and the waterfalls of blood cascading down its side meant they weren’t Velcro-tipped. There was the lone matador, skin-tight, gaudy green and red tights with what looked like a cucumber taped to the inside of his thigh (I’ve always wondered what those are. Who are they trying to impress—it’s not like there are any women in the stadium? Is it a catheter for the long day in front of a crowd? Do they all really have 13-inch dicks?).
Real Spanish and Mexican bullfights are illegal in the United States—and there is no way they would ever allow such a spectacle on television. But I put the remote down, smiling through my headache because I was about to finally witness my first authentic bullfight.
Before we got married, my now wife and I decided to check out a Portuguese Bullfight in Hanford, California, because I am 100% Portuguese. But like my own Portuguese blood, the bullfight was far from authentic. The first Torero was actually Mexican and it was done as a traditional Mexican bullfight—except for one crucial fact—they aren’t allowed to hurt the animals in California. So instead these bulls came running out with large Velcro patches strapped to their backs. The Torero and other participants used Velcro tipped spears to stick the animal with. Watching the Mexican gave me a rudimentary knowledge of how a traditional bullfight worked—minus the blood.
Then the Portuguese people started in on their version of how men should interact with dangerous animals in front of drunken crowds.
Instead of one Torero there are three, but these guys don’t do anything but prepare the bull for the Cavalliero. The Cavalliero is the main guy, and rides in figure-8s with the bull right behind his horse before turning to stick Velcro spears into the bull’s back-patch. It was interesting but didn’t seem as dangerous as the Mexican/Spanish version. The man on the horse didn’t seem to be in as much danger as the Torero on the ground, and as everyone knows, you watch the bullfight secretly hoping to see someone get gored to death, or at least maimed for life.
I was going to once again chalk up another Portuguese activity to the “For Pussies” category, when the Forcados showed up.
After the Cavalliero left to polite applause, eight of these little Portuguese fuckers came front-flipping over the walls. They lined up in front of the bull and then, I don’t know how else to describe it—the bull just ran them all over. He hooked them with his horns, trampled them, kicked them, and just ran right through all eight in one pass, leaving their Peter Pan outfits literally in the dust.
I remember Alisa and I stood up and applauded. It was the most amazing thing we had seen all night. The balls of these guys (clearly visible under the green tights) were at least figuratively big—the nerve to line up in front of a pissed off bull knowing you’re about to get run over was impressive. Alisa whistled as loud as she could and I saluted the effort with both hands clapping above my head.
We then realized we were the only two people applauding in the entire stadium—a stadium of quiet, seated people who were now all staring at us. Wondering what was wrong we sat down and were angrily informed that what had happened to the Forcados was not how things were supposed to go. Evidently the eight Forcados are supposed to line up like dominoes and each one is supposed to cling on to the bull’s head as it rams them in turn, and by the time it reaches the eighth Forcado, the combined weight of all the men should bring the bull to a stop.
I apologized and told people I was African-American and this was all new to me. When Alisa’s back was turned I pointed to her and whispered to the angry Portuguese faces around me, “But she’s Mexican, you’d think she’d know better.”
The Forcados eventually pulled it off on their third painful try. And I must admit that watching them pull it off correctly is almost as amazing as when they get trampled. They limped away to a rousing applause—the front of their tights completely flat all of a sudden.
Back to the present, and I’m excited I finally get to see some blood on Costa Rican television. Right now it is the bull’s, but I’m secretly hoping it will be Captain Hook’s Cabin Boy in a minute or two. And I’m rewarded—the bull doesn’t fall for the blanket for once, and molests the Torero a little bit. He gets up limping but unfortunately it’s not mortal—or even enough to stop the proceedings for long.
When he kills the bull it is just as disturbing as I thought it would be. He stabs it in the heart through the top of its neck. Then, straight out of a cartoon one channel before the porn, the bull seems to actually jump up in the air and rotate to land on its side. Its legs kick and wiggle as it dies in the dust, and the five year olds there with their dads in the front row rise to their feet and clap. The camera pans around the stadium to show the excited male-only audience.
I am speechless on my bed. And I am speechless through the next two bullfights until Alisa comes in and makes me turn it off. I am filled with so many conflicting emotions I don’t know what to do, and just continue to lay on the bed even though it is now past three. Is that appropriate for kids? Should they show that on tv? Should that even be legal? Why can’t I fill out a pair of tights like that? Does the bull ever win?
And the answer to that last question is yes.
A few weeks later Alisa and I are spending the holidays with our friends who live in San Jose, Costa Rica. “Wanna see a Costa Rican bullfight?” They ask us at Christmas dinner.
Alisa and I don’t say no to questions like that.
You have to give it to Costa Ricans. They’ve brought the bullfight down to its most basic element. Like the Running of the Bulls in Spain, it truly is man versus angry beast. As opposed to the Torero and Cavalliero, the protagonist in a Costa Rican bullfight is not one but many. Basically they allow two hundred drunk everyday citizens into the ring and let a bull loose on them.
It’s that simple.
And for seven nights in a row starting on Navidad the stadium in Zapote sells out because the masses can’t wait to see the goring and trampling. Costa Ricans don’t even pretend to root for the humans. You go for the blood, and in a Costa Rican bullfight, the only blood you’ll see isn’t the delicious kind that seeps into your baked potato at Applebee’s.
But it’s the subtleties that are interesting, as in any great sport. In the ring you have everyone from the sixteen year old without his parent’s permission to the grizzled vet who brought his own cape. They line up at the gate and scatter like ants the moment the bull comes forth, jumping over the walls to escape the angry animal’s charge.
There’s the fruity guy in star-spangled 80’s pants and frills on his frontless vest with balloons on his back who is always five feet from the bull, but it never charges him.
There’s the youth soccer players making runs at all angles so the bull doesn’t know who to charge.
There’s the fat guys who thought it looked like a good idea from their couch, but are the first to get impaled because they forgot they are not agile and cannot run.
Conversely, there’s the guys who can run really fast, and charge the bull only to somersault over his horns at the last moment. Three guys did this, two of them didn’t return.
There’s the guy with the cattle prod whose job it is to run around the ring and shock the bull in his ass so that he stays nice and mad and continues to try and end people’s lives.
Of course they are all men.
Then there’s the media.
You can watch the entire spectacle on television every night—this is how Costa Rican families spend their holidays. They have eight celebrity announcers who make jokes for the whole three-to-four-hour production. They have a reporter on the ground, a cross-dresser who shoves people in front of the bull to keep the public interested, and a guy with a camera on his head who gets up-close shots of the carnage and pain from inside the ring. Every time someone is trampled, the cross-dresser picks them up and drags them to the reporter on the ground, who then interviews them live, despite the extent of their injuries. They give shout-outs to their friends and parents and hope they’ll come visit them in the hospital.
There was one crazy bastard with a cape who stood out in the crowd of drunks in the ring because he was the most active. He was like a retired Torero, and let the bull charge through his Banco de Costa Rica cape. Evidently he was sponsored. He ignored the 199 other idiots, and for a few minutes pretended like it was his own personal show. He came around the stands shortly afterwards with a can for donations. He lifted up his shirt and showed us a road map of horn and hoof scars—the result of coming to this event for 15 years in a row. He proudly boasted that he now has a permanent colostomy bag under his pants after what a bull did to him a few years ago. I gave him the amount of Colones that add up to ten cents American.
When it was all over, after six or seven bulls, I didn’t know what to think once again while pondering the spectacle of bull versus man. But I did find myself comparing the three types of bullfighting I knew (and the Running of the Bulls too, I guess—it is on ESPN some years). These rituals are integral to the rich diversity that separates one world culture from another. They began from some ancient way of life and continue today despite the drastic changes of a world forever getting smaller. And as they cling to the last remnants of tradition, are they preserving what is sacred or simply practicing the archaic idiocy of the Dark Ages?
Whatever the answers to these questions, walking away from the arena that night, I knew one thing for sure. It makes for good television—whether culturally relevant or outdated lunacy.
In India the bull is sacred and cannot be harmed. In the rest of the world we play with our food before eating it.
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