Bull by the tail
Pain and perseverance at the bloodless Portuguese bullfights of the Delta
With dying sunlight shifting through the Delta farming hamlet of Thornton, Donald Alcino Mota lays back on a stage inside its empty Portuguese Hall and prepares to grab his bahetta—the festive hat of an Old World bull-baiter.
On the other side of a parking lot, a boxed-in steel trailer is parked at a corral teeming with long-horned steer. The trailer is shaking violently, and every thunderous crash against its siding is a signal from the restless bulls, hell-bent on running.
Few outsiders know it, but for nearly 50 years Thornton has held bloodless bull combat as part of a broader ceremony that celebrates deep Portuguese roots in the Delta. It scarcely feels like California, as matadors in gem-studded vests and ornate horse-mounted bull-chasers called cavaleiros, travel from Lisbon to perform in this quiet corner of San Joaquin County.
The exhibitions in California are much tamer than the bloody bullfighting in Europe. There’s still some danger for the matadors, but no real weapons are used against the 1,700-pound beasts they’re ducking and riding around. The bull’s horns are capped and the spears the horse riders wield are magnetic.
No, the real risk is embraced and obsessed over by the Portuguese American men from the surrounding communities—men like Mota, who has spent more than a decade on a team of forcados, the unpaid volunteers who perform the Pega de Cara, or “face catch” of the toro, at the end of the bullfight. Working in eight-man teams, the forcados tackle the bull and hold it in place until it calms down. Thirty years ago, one reporter watching this chaos of costumes, hooves and dust coined it the Golden State’s version “a suicide squad.”
The forcados embrace that mantle, too.
Mota grew up in Central California watching them. After his stint in the U.S. Army, he got hooked on the teams.
“Everyone thinks that grabbing the bull would be the big thrill,” Mota says, “but it’s really similar to the military, in that it’s knowing there’s people who you’re with, and you’re willing to sacrifice your body for them, and they’re willing to do that for you.”
In two hours, Mota will learn just how prophetic his words really are.
Portuguese immigrants began farming on the Delta’s islands five generations ago. Thornton may be a backwater of 1,100 people, but its Portuguese Church is the epicenter of a long legacy in Northern California—and its bullfighting stadium is the largest structure in any direction.
This night’s contest on Oct. 21 between man and beast marks the end of a four-day festival praising Our Lady of Fatima, which also includes candlelight processions, float-laden parades, communal feasts and performances of Portuguese singing and rhyming traditions. Al Magina, one of the organizers, says the weekend is about keeping a sense of identity.
A migrant farming background, combined with a shared Catholic faith, has also created a special bond between the area’s Portuguese halls and its Mexican- and Filipino-American churches. Some of those parishioners are now die-hard participants in this festival.
“Even though they don’t know our culture, they’re very devoted to our Lady of Fatima, and so they come and gather with us,” Magina explains. “And I guess we’ve become one whole family.”
Soon, the royal call of Iberian trumpets blasts through the bull stadium, filled with several thousand spectators. The matadors and cavaleiros from Europe make a grand entrance to a panorama of cheers.
Looking on from trenches, Mota waits for his team, the Forcaods Luso-Americanos, to perform the Pega de Cara at the third bullfight of the evening. Everyone can see that the massive, jet-black bulls hauled up to Thornton tonight pack a punch. At one point, the first bull moves so fast that it catches one of the cavaleiros’ horses at the hindquarters, knocking both stallion and rider down into the grit. Screams explode overhead as forcados rush into the brown, pluming cloud from every direction. They join two unflinching matadors, instantly stopping the bull from goring the horse by overwhelming it with new targets.
Things don’t get better when the first forcado team tries to tackle this hoofed heavyweight. The lead man approaches with bold, deliberate struts, taunting the animal with his hands on his hips. The bull zeros in, ducks its head and launches across the stadium floor. A pair of horns go ramming under the forcado’s legs, the muscle-stump of the aggressor’s neck launching his victim into the air like a ravaged rag doll sailing on the Delta breeze. In an instant, the bull crashes through the other forcados, scattering them into a battered blur of overturned bodies.
Within an hour, it is time for Mota and his teammates to make their play. The bull they’re up against looks even meaner than the first one. As the matadors whirl their capes, the bull keeps digging its hooves into the dirt before bolting at the men with wild desperation. Three times this bull lunges so hard that he smashes into the wood siding of the trenches. The forcados are supposed to wait until it’s tired. But it never seems to get tired. So, finally, they face him down.
With the entire stadium watching, their leader, Raymond Oliveira—Mota’s brother-in-law—practically dares the bull to trample him. It’s eager to oblige. Moving like a primordial cannon blast, the bull rams its forehead into Oliveira’s midsection just as he catches its face. The animal tries to launch him, but Oliveira hangs on. He’s tossed and turned and skull-butted—yet he’s able to keep clinging to its neck. Mota and the others form a human cuff on the bull. They have him pinned—but suddenly, something’s very, very wrong.
Bracing themselves against the bull’s spine, they begin emphatically calling for a medic. From where he’s wrestling the bull, Mota can see that Oliveira is hurt. In fact, two bones in Oliveira’s leg are shattered, and his foot is broken in four places. The forcados struggle to keep the bull subdued as firefighters run into the stadium. They carefully pull Oliveira from the tense tangle of bull and bodies, loading him on to stretcher.
Once the medical workers are clear, the team releases the bull. But the creature isn’t done. It starts chasing the other forcados. But it can’t. It suddenly realizes that Mota has both hands holding its tail. The animal becomes a blazing tornado of flexing tendons, a stomping head of steam that’s trying to kill the man at its rear. Mota keeps his grip as he’s spun in ever-faster circles. A dust storm is lashing up from his heels that are half-skiing on dirt clods. Mota spins again and again, six times.
When the last forcado jumps into the trenches, Mota releases the bull’s tail and skids to a stop under the stadium lights. The bull turns to face him. Mota nods back. The audience erupts with cheers. The bull slowly pivots, trotting away.
Mota is soon standing over the stretcher at his brother-in-law’s side.
“It’s breaking my heart to see him in pain,” he says. Then, asked about his feat just minutes before, Mota gives a shy nod: “That was just doing my job.”