A farewell to Hemingway

Bullfights, and the bulls themselves, are alive and well in Portuguese communities throughout the Central Valley

“Bloodless” bullfights (the spear is Velcro-tipped) are an innovative way to hold legal bullfights in the United States.

“Bloodless” bullfights (the spear is Velcro-tipped) are an innovative way to hold legal bullfights in the United States.

Photo By Dave Howe

If you drive south on Interstate 5, take the Walnut Grove exit and turn left, you’ll pass through a small farm town called Thornton. It’s easy to miss. So is the bullfighting ring in the middle of a big dirt lot, surrounded on one side by oak trees. So are the bullfights, which take place a couple of times a year and go virtually unpublicized—except in the Portuguese communities that exist up and down the Central Valley, from Tracy to Tulare.

In early July, I saw my first bullfight. Before finding seats in the ring, men and women stood around in groups of threes and fours speaking Portuguese, eating bifanes (“meat in bread” is how the woman selling them described it), linguica and tremocos (salty beans, like lima beans) and drinking beer. Portuguese fados crackled over a loudspeaker.

Inside the ring, a brass band had set up opposite where the bulls enter. After a short introduction, in which the cavaleiro, or bullfighters, trotted around on their horses (in Mexico and Spain, matadors fight on foot, but the Portuguese tradition is to fight bulls on horseback, using the horse as the cape), the first bull came into the ring.

“He didn’t come out very strong,” a man sitting near me said.

After a minute, the bull stood still in the middle of the ring. When the cavaleiro tried to get the bull to chase him, the bull stood still.

“This is bad,” said the man.

“You could tell by the way he came in,” said a woman he was with.

Finally, goaded, the bull gave chase, and the cavaleiro stuck it with the first of six bandarillas, a colorful, paper-frilled and Velcro-tipped spear.

The bullfights that take place up and down the Central Valley from April to October are “bloodless” bullfights and are part of Portuguese religious celebrations known as festas. Instead of sticking the bull with a lance or sword, the bullfighter sticks a Velcro-tipped spear on a special Velcro patch worn around the bull’s neck. This innovation allows the bullfights to circumvent the 1957 law that made bullfighting illegal in the United States.

The Portuguese immigrants who brought these bullfights to California came from the Azores, an archipelago of nine islands about 800 miles west of Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean. The bullfights are a hybrid of Spanish and Portuguese bullfighting. The matadors and cavaleiros who fight the bulls come from California, Mexico, Spain and Portugal to perform for crowds that can exceed 5,000 people. Bull breeders typically rent the bulls to the bullfights, though at the event I saw in Thornton, they’d been donated.

“Anytime you’re going to donate a bull, they’re going to donate the worst they got,” Manuel Sousa told me a few weeks after the fight in Thornton. I’d driven to Turlock to meet with Sousa, whose father, along with Frank Borba and Manuel Correa, began breeding bulls, training horses, building bullrings and organizing bullfights in the Central Valley during the 1970s.

“The bull is a wild animal. And the matador or whoever is fighting him will use his training and skills to fight the bull. If the bull had to go into the ring again, he learns so quickly from the first time,” Sousa said. His bulls live wild on land he owns in the foothills, and he breeds them to be noble and suave.

“The bull that’s suave and noble is the best. A bull that’s not noble, he tries to hook the guy’s feet. A bull that’s noble follows the cape. But these don’t come along very often,” said Sousa. Then he urged me to get a second opinion. “That’s the thing about bullfights. Everybody has an opinion.”

Later, I followed Sousa to George Martins’ dairy farm. Martins also has bulls, but his passion is for his horses. He currently has 14 he’s imported at a cost of between $30,000 and $80,000 each. The horses take two to three years to train for bullfighting. Cavaleiros come to his house five or six days before a fight to practice.

We got in his air-conditioned truck and drove a few hundred feet over gravel from his house to his stables. “I do this as a hobby. The love that I have for bullfighting, that’s what made me go overseas and do this kind of thing. It takes a special breed. These are Lusitano,” he said, pointing to one of his horses. “This is a breed in Portugal.” They are smart horses, the best breed for bullfighting, and Martins has five.

During the bullfight, the bullfighter changes horses several times. Different horses fight differently. “This horse dances a juke in front of the bull,” he said, pointing to a gray Lusitano. He then pointed to a white one. “This one kneels in front of the bull.”

Martins occasionally looked to his 14-year old son, George Martins Jr., to translate a word from Portuguese.

“Me, I would like to see him someday become a bullfighter,” said Martins, who came to the United States when he was 10. “My kids were all born here. I don’t know if they want to get involved.”

In Thornton, after the cavaleiro fought the bull, a group of eight men entered the ring—members of the Turlock Suicide Squad, known as forcados. While the bullfighter’s assistants lured the bull to a corner of the bullring, the men lined up behind the man in front. Then the lead man put on a green hat.

“Bull! Bull! Bull!” he yelled.

The bull turned and charged. The bull’s momentum quickly collapsed the men together until the eight men had wrapped around the bull, wrestling him to a standstill.

Both Sousa and Martins are former captains of the Turlock Suicide Squad. I asked Sousa to explain how they subdued a bull. “The bull picks up the front guy and goes in the air,” he said. “When the bull drops his head, there’s separation. When the bull senses separation, he’ll throw the guy.”

The second man’s job is to bring the first man back on, closing the separation. The third and fourth forcados take the bull’s horns, one on the left and one on the right. They raise the bull’s head up, holding the horn to their chest. A bull has enough strength in its neck to roll over a pickup truck. If the neck lowers, the bull could toss all eight men, but if the bull’s head is high, all the bull can do is push.

The fifth man grabs the bull’s tail and guides the bull in the direction of the rest of the team, helping to break the bull’s stride and thus reducing its power. The sixth, seventh and eighth guys fill in any gaps. They also cover the bull’s eyes so the bull can’t see any daylight. The forcados make sure they’re all OK, they do a three count and then they release—except the tail guy, who surfs the bull’s tail until the others get away. Then he lets go, too.

“He walks away, suavely,” said Sousa.

During the bullfight, the forcados’ team captain watches the bull carefully so that he can set up his team for a successful grab. “Setting up the bull, to me, was 80 percent of the grab already—if you know how to study the bull the way it goes after the horse and the way it goes into the cape,” Martins said. I mentioned to him that the forcados at the event I saw didn’t grab the bull every time. “When the bull goes in without being grabbed, the bull won,” he said. “A lot of the guys these days, they’ll get dressed to go out to a bullfight, and if they grab, it’s fine. If they don’t grab, that’s fine. That’s not the tradition.”

Martins is president of this year’s Festa of Our Lady of Miracles, the biggest Portuguese festa in the United States. It concludes with a bullfight on Monday, September 13. He encouraged me to attend.

“I’m bringing three professional bullfighters from Portugal,” Martins said, including Ana Maria Batista, the best female bullfighter in Portugal. A 44-person band will play.

“If you come to that one, you’d better come early,” he said. “Going to [the bullfight in Thornton] and going to this one, you’re going to see a big difference. You’re going to see some of the very best.”

Festa dos Milagres (“Festa of Our Lady of Miracles”) runs from September 3 to September 13. The bullfight, which concludes the festa, takes place September 13 at 8 p.m. in Gustine. Admission is $20. Take Highway 99 south. In Merced, take Highway 140 west to Hunt Road, right to Bella Vista Plaza. Arrive early for parking and tickets. For more information, contact George Martins at (209) 668-2495.