If you think you have to go to Mexico to see a bullfight, guess again – there’s a circuit right here in California. And if you’re worried that your tree-hugging vegan pals will hate you for being a bloodthirsty troglodyte, here’s your hole-card: it’s bloodless! That’s right: all the artistry and spectacle with zero guilt, or maybe just a hamburger’s worth. Tastes great! Less killing!
When the state legislature outlawed bullfights about a century ago, the Portuguese community got a special exemption for bloodless fights, and they’ve been going at it ever since. Just about every weekend from April to October, in a little wooden bullring behind a Portuguese hall in some dusty little town in the Valley, brave men test their mettle in the traditional way, facing down a half-ton of raging beef-meat in a circle of packed earth. Every bull has a square of Velcro glued between its shoulders, and all the matador’s tools are tipped with the same stuff, but in all other respects this is the real deal.
“Bloodless bullfighting” sounds like an oxymoron, and to some extent it is. When the fighting’s over, these bulls are headed to the same place that all good cattle go in the end. Yet while there’s still plenty to piss off a PETA puritan, for one glorious night these proud touros get a chance to kick some man-ass, and very frequently do – that “bloodless” business doesn’t apply to the matadors, who can get bloodied up pretty good, and occasionally leave the ring on stretchers. At one memorable event in Gustine last season, six different fighters got trampled, including the headliner, a matador from Portugal who got roughed up so bad that he blew out the seat of his toreador pants, and had to finish the night with one bare butt cheek peaking out of his tighty-brighties. The bulls, by contrast, always swagger out of the ring on all fours, escorted by a bevy of bovine beauties.
If you’ve never seen a Portuguese bullfight, there are few things you should look out for. In addition to the traditional matadors, you’ll see bullfighters on horseback, called cavaleiros. Dressed like 17th century fops in frock coats and tricorn hats, these guys are some of the best riders you will ever see, riding some truly amazing horses that seem to enjoy the game at least as much as the humans. But wait, there’s more: the forcados. Based on the dangerous notion that eight men outweigh one angry bull, these loveable fools, colloquially known as suicide squads, get out there and tackle a bull empty-handed, with nothing more than silly hats and bravado to shield them from violent harm. Throw in a 20-piece brass band, some adorable little rodeo queens, plenty of Portuguese food, and generous quantities of beer and wine, and you’ve got an old-school fightin’ festa that’s fun for the whole family.
For a schedule of upcoming events, check out Rick Perry’s California Bullfights fan site. Expect a long drive to a little town you’ve never heard of unless you know someone in prison. Pack a flask and a stadium seat cushion, and look for me on the shady side. See you at the fights!
photos by Stuart Mangrum