I'm not sure how we worked it out, but we were able to communicate, several time in some difficult circumstances. We were, I think, so intent on learning about the other's world that somehow we developed a commonality of understanding and a depth of language that went beyond words. We worked it out.
Our living room was a gathering place for some of the elite children of Mexico City. We had four that I can think of right away -- scions of beyond-fathomable wealth. They lived in the richest parts of the city. Their family compounds could take up an entire block of the city. Fourteen-foot high walls and gate guards were normal for them.
Those boys taught me a grace in etiquette that I had never even dreamed of. They were so graceful in a social situation in a way that was completely endearing. The made sure, every time they came and went from my home, to introduce themselves personally, with integrity, to every single person in the room before they sat down or came and had a conversation.
Of the matadors that came to visit, two friends stood out: Carlos Arruza, Jr. and Javier Gonzales. In our time together they told me stories of their fights and they showed me what it was like to be a matador.
Carlos and Javier were an interesting pair of characters because of the diversity of their roots. Carlos, whose father was one of the truly famous bullfighters of his time, was following in the tracks of his father. It was expected that he, as Junior, was going to be a matador.
Here's a vintage home-movie tribute to the elder Carlos Arruza at the height of his career as a matador:
As a young bullfighter, Javier had no money. He had to work his way up. He said it takes about eight years of training before you get to fight as a professional. You fight as a novillero (a novice) and eventually you "earn your stripes" and they make you a professional bullfighter.
The following is footage from 1963 of some novilleros in training:
This is really the seed of what Mexican culture is about. All their bravado, all their machismo -- everything -- is tertiary growth of that particular moment, when the bullfighter meets the bull.
Once, Javier and I were walking along the Paseo de la Reforma, the main street of Mexico City. It runs out from Emperor Maximillian's Sinking Palace to Chapultapec Park and is the busiest street in the city. The drivers go very fast along it. It's the main thoroughfare through the city.
At the time Reforma was four cars wide -- two in one direction, two in the other. There is a beautiful median strip with trees and statues that went through the richest area of Mexico City. The best shops lined both sides of the shaded street.
He was doing passes with his fingers as if the cars were bulls. He was rapping his fingers on fenders and spinning, putting his hand against a window as the cars went by and just basically playing in the middle of this speeding traffic. He went across that way.
It looked like his moves were contemplative and smooth. There was no doubt in this guy's mind; he wasn't thinking about it. He was just doing it for fun. After all, the drivers were not intent on running him down. The cars were not going to hook him or stomp him flat. The traffic was just there, like it was standing still.
And, Mexico being Mexico, the drivers rolled down their windows and just started going crazy. "Ai, matador...matador!" they cried. It echoed in the street. Javier was in his glory on a pedestrian move. It was an exquisite performance for such a roadside attraction.
I asked Javier one day, "What was it like when you were gored by the bull?" I had seen the scars from when he had been gored. They were undeniably impressive.
He thought about it for a minute then said that at first it was a surprise. He looked down and could see the horn going all the way into his stomach and he was up in the air. He was being flung around on the horn. He said he saw his little feet pointed up at the sky and he knew he was in deep trouble.
I asked, "What was your first thought?"
He said he hollered out, "Ai, Mama!" but his thought was for all those beautiful women he had missed.
On another day, Javier and I were sitting in the living room in the house in Tabasco with Carlos. Jay and I had a rooftop garden above the fourth floor that had a Bermuda grass lawn and what the Mexicans call a "palapa" -- a little thatched hut with a hammock. It was pretty.
The two began doing their traditional passes and flourishes with their capes moving in unison. They danced around each other in circles so you were seeing one aligned with the other, then side by side, and then one behind the other, each eclipsing the other as they went around and around. They moved and fluttered their capes as they danced. It looked to me like the wings of a giant butterfly twirling, swirling, rolling in and out.
The thing was, you never saw the matador's body. You just saw his head and you saw his feet, but you never saw the rest of the person. It was an illusion, all swirling, twisting capes, one around the other and back and forth in a beautiful dance. The capes swirled and there were these little heads sticking out.
You were imagining what was inside the swirling mass instead of really seeing it because you knew they were under these gaps but you never saw them. It was so heartbreakingly beautiful.
One sunny Sunday morning we were sitting in my living room and the matadors said, "Hey, it's Sunday morning. It's the day of the bullfights. Let's go!"
So, on that particular Sunday morning, we all walk out to Insurgentes. The bullfighting ring, the Plaza de Toros, is on Insurgentes and everybody in the city was walking that way because it really was the best thing they know to do on a Sunday. There were kids; there were families. Everybody was out there and we were walking up Insurgentes with all the people.
The day was unusual in the fact that a new bullfighter, a novillero, was coming out for his first real professional fight as a poster main event fighter. It was the first fight of the day. The fighter was a young boy. (I don't know how old he was. Maybe he was 20, maybe 21.) But he finished his training and had earned the right for this fight.
The Plaza de Toros is a huge stadium, one of the biggest in the world. There were literally thousands of people there and the mood was festive. Everybody was rustling around, waiting for the fight to begin.
Through the gates came a truly massive creature who was absolutely infuriated. It saw the skinny kid standing there with his cape and charged, determined to run right over the interloper. The kid made his first passes and he was truly impressive. He let the bull come so close.
The object is to hide yourself in the cape and let the bull see the cape swirling. The bull goes for the cape and you get out of the way. A good pass...a really good pass...is a quarter-inch from your body. Or you can draw the cape to one side or the other and make the bull hook into nothing and stumble about to the point where sometimes the bull will tumble head over heels.
The first movement of the dance was magnificent. The bull was fiery and passionate, the fighter was courageous and cool. The torero produced a handful of bandarelleras, darts with little flags on them. As the bull was making his passes, the boy got down on his knees and as the bull charged, he sank those bandarelleras into the hump in the back of the bull. The crowd was really impressed because to do this from standing up is really difficult. To do it from your knees, as he did, was above and beyond the call of bravado.
The picadors -- riders on horseback -- slowed the bull with spears. The spears actually cut into the back of the bull's neck somewhat so it drops the head of the bull, but it doesn't really incapacitate the animal. What it does is make him more furious than furious.
The boy left the arena. When he came out again, he had his sword and cape for the final act of this three-part fight. The bull was making his pass and the kid began his illusory moves again. He was smooth and the bull was really great.
A lousy bull makes a lousy bullfight. My friends told me you have to have a bull that challenges your mortality for the fans to get really excited. If it's a crappy bull, it doesn't mean anything. You did not show the crowd anything. A truly magnificent, powerful bull...that's what every bullfighter really wants.
The fighting bulls are raised by people who have too much money. They're a status symbol and there is no profit in it. The bulls have lineages that go back forever and it's a distinguished honor to be a raiser of these fighting bulls.
I was getting a blow-by-blow description of all this from the matadors sitting next to me. They had me be the bullfighter. Then I was the bull. Then I was the bullfighter. Then I was the bull....
The kid was absolutely stable and not showing any fear. He was making really beautiful passes. The crowd was cheering wildly. (They do not cheer if you are a bad bullfighter. They throw things at you -- lunch, whatever they've got -- and holler insults.) The whole crowd was going really nutty with this boy because he was showing such bravery and skill.
Right in the middle of all of this, the bull made a left hook, and the horn sank square into the middle of the young man's belly. The bull hoisted the matador up on its horn and started shaking the boy around. The boy was flying around in the air on the horn of the bull.
The crowd gasped. Javier cried, "Ai, Mama!" in a voice that let you know he had been there and done that.
The bull finally flung the young bullfighter through the air and he landed on his back. He did not move. The bull tried to gore him again and tore the ass off his pants. Assistants raced into the bullring and backed up the bull to keep him from goring the young man to death.
The crowd was stunned, overwhelmed. Guys came through the gates with a stretcher and loaded the torero up onto the stretcher while the assistants kept the bull cornered. They hauled off the unconscious bullfighter. He was not moving. The men disappeared into the bowels of the stadium.
The assistants were fooling around with the bull, trying to get it under control so they could do something with it. About five minutes went by. Then out through the gates came the young matador. He had his cape and his sword and he was holding his innards in with one hand. The blood was running freely between his fingers, down his suit, down his leg and into the ground. His naked ass is bloody and visible.
All of the men who had been trying to handle the bull disappeared. There was nothing left in the ring except the still completely enraged and triumphant-feeling bull and the young matador.
The bull charged and the matador began his passes again. He started going through the routine to tire the bull. They did a beautiful dance and continued on with the fight. The matador's moves were exquisite even though he was still holding his innards in with one hand. The fighter went through his routine, baiting the bull until the animal was just standing there, tired and confused. They both stood there, about ten feet apart.
The young lad stepped up towards the bull, trying to lure it forward. The bull did not know what to do. It stood there looking at the young man. The young matador stepped right up to the bull, went up on his tiptoes and he sank his sword right straight down through the spine, into the heart of the beast. The bull dropped dead at his feet, nose about an inch from the matador's shoes.
It's called, in Spanish, a recibiendo, and it is what master bullfighters call "the perfect kill." In honor of this kind of kill, the fighter gets to make two laps around the ring.
The boy started walking around taking his victory laps. The crowd just rained down everything they had onto the boy, cheering wildly. And he was so proud. He still had his sword and his cape; he was still holding his insides in with his hand. He started moving a little slower as he made his first lap around the arena to unbelievable cheering. He began his second lap around and halfway through that lap he completely passed out.
The people underneath the bleachers raced out with the stretcher. They loaded him on it and hauled him, unconscious, through the door. It was the end of the fight. The crowd went absolutely wild.
I don't know what happened to the boy. I never saw him again, but it was a truly awesome thing.
I think I told this story basically because it's a side of the story I've never heard before, one I experienced with master practitioners of the art. From the matadors' side of the story, from the bull's side, from the boy's side...it was, I think, the bravest thing I have ever seen.