Why you should care
As restrictions on bullfighting emerge around the world, Southern Texas is becoming a magnet for international fighters.
On a Friday night last month in Mercedes, Texas, a matador dressed in a traditional suit of lights stepped out into a makeshift bullring and dangled his scarlet cape to get the attention of a thousand-pound bull. As the animal charged, the matador shut out the distractions all around him: The PA announcer’s voice in a foreign language (English), cellphone cameras flashing, the peculiar feel beneath his slippers of the dirt that had been trucked in just for that evening (much like a rink’s worth of ice frozen for a one-off hockey match).
It was the first time in 75 years that the popular 11-day Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show had booked a bullfight. That milestone and the event’s scale — a festival bullfight attended by several thousand fans, and featuring four international bullfighters — exemplify the recent rise in popularity, in deep South Texas, of traditional Mexican bullfighting adapted to north-of-the-border norms by omitting the usual finale in which the bull is killed.
At least six arenas in the region have hosted Spanish-style bullfighting over the past year, compared to a solitary venue in the remote town of La Gloria, 20 miles north of the Mexican border, up until 2017. In March 2018, a stadium-size fight, starring the young celebrity French-Mexican bullfighter Michelito Lagravere, was held at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo, Texas, a city in the Reynosa-McAllen borderplex — essentially an urban bullfight. Until then, no bullfight in the U.S. had ever been hosted in a venue whose naming rights are owned by a major national corporation. Now, the sport’s popularity is spreading so fast that it’s attracting high-profile sponsors such as Metro by T-Mobile and H-E-B, a Texas supermarket chain listed on Forbes’ top 50 largest American private companies list in 2018.
If they [the bullfighters] can dominate the bulls here, they’ll have no trouble over there.
Manolo Martinez, Mexican matador
Lagravere is one of more than a dozen international fighters who have fought in South Texas in the past two years. Manolo Martinez, the son of one of Mexico’s most famous matadors with whom he shares a name, is on the roster. Rocio Morelli, the first woman to officially become a matadora in Colombia, and Mexico’s Paco Rocha, one of the few matadors in the world to have fought in Dubai, are among other star attractions.
For-kill bullfighting is illegal in the U.S., but these international fighters are embracing the newest iteration of bloodless bullfighting in Texas as a desirable opportunity outside the shrinking for-kill circuit globally, where restrictions are increasing. In Mexico, three states have banned all bullfighting. Italy, Argentina and parts of Spain have introduced bans as well. Not only can a matador earn a paycheck in South Texas, but also the challenging fighting serves as valuable training.
“If they [the bullfighters] can dominate the bulls here, they’ll have no trouble over there,” Manolo Martinez tells me.
Manolo’s cousin Gerardo Martinez, a Mexican-born former aspiring bullfighter and cattle rancher, has driven much of this shift in South Texas toward what amounts to a third wave of bloodless bullfighting in the U.S. For decades a Portuguese form of the sport, mostly done on horseback with lances, has been practiced as part of religious ferias in rural California towns.
The next wave began in Texas in 2002, with the construction of a small arena in La Gloria that became the only place in the U.S. to view Spanish-style bloodless bullfighting. In this variety, the fighter, on the ground, progresses from passes with a cape to a simulated kill. At La Gloria, the bullfighters were a mix of American amateurs, Mexican novilleros (young fighters who haven’t earned the rank of matador) and the occasional visiting matador or matadora.
Everything changed two years ago when the arena’s aging owner agreed to partner with Gerardo Martinez, who tells me he decided to “clean house.” His goal was to introduce “a more authentic bullfight product” that would appeal to both Americans and the overwhelmingly Latino demographic of the Rio Grande Valley.
Martinez started by finding more authentic bulls. Before, the bulls at La Gloria had tipped the scales at a modest 500 pounds. The new bulls doubled that weight, and they weren’t mere ranch stock but the descendants of the Spanish behemoths that his family had raised in Mexico to provide to arenas around the world: muscular, nimble and bred specifically to fight to kill. Next, Martinez brought in Manolo, who was soon fighting 1,000-pound bulls in the pint-size ring at La Gloria.
To square off against a genuine fighting bull in a small space that gives the matador little room to maneuver is a daunting challenge. Moreover, a bloodless bullfight omits the traditional practice of jabbing barbed banderillas into the bull’s shoulders and neck to weaken it and cause its head to droop. An unjabbed bull charges at full strength, its horns held high, poised to gore. For international fighters, especially younger fighters seeking more experience, this kind of challenging fighting holds appeal as valuable training.
The international fighters have also contributed innovations to enhance the sense of authenticity. For example, in the earlier La Gloria protocol, bullfighters simulated killing by plucking an artificial rose from a Velcro patch glued between a bull’s shoulders. In the transformed “third wave” version, there’s still a Velcro patch, but the fighter goes in for the kill wielding a sword — and succeeds if the Velcro-tipped sword sticks to the patch.
Without doubt, bullfighting remains controversial across the U.S., including in Texas, and is even illegal in all forms in states like Florida and California (though California exempts on religious grounds the fighting at Portuguese ferias). John Di Leonardo, a PETA spokesperson, characterizes bloodless fights as “masquerading as painless alternatives to real bullfights.” In Texas, VOICE for Animals, a San Antonio activist group, takes a similar position. “There’s likely a lot of abuse behind the scenes that doesn’t come to light,” Rachel Wolf, VOICE’s co-director, tells me.
The potential for controversy makes gauging the full scope of the expansion along the Rio Grande difficult. It also makes the work of Martinez and his colleagues more complicated than just booking fighters and looking for sponsorships. When I speak with him, Martinez shows me a schedule of bookings for fighters under contract with him: It’s full for six consecutive weekends in February and March.
But he is tight-lipped about details and locales. He does divulge that one fight would be at a private event where in past years attendees had flown in well-known country singers all the way from Nashville to perform. And perhaps this shift, from rhinestones to suits of light, is as telling about the emergence of the new trend as is the influx of foreign fighters into the South Texas circuit.
Even the Mercedes festival, though, listed the bullfight on its schedule only at the last minute. It’s this wariness that Martinez and his colleagues will need to overcome as much as the 1,000-pound bulls in upcoming seasons, as the matadors seek new conquests.