This Sunday afternoon, June 18, stating at 5:30 pm, Mazatlán will witness two rites of passage:
- The last bullfight of Mexico’s greatest rejoneador (horseback-riding bullfighter)—Rodrigo Santos. He has intentionally chosen Mazatlán as the site of his retirement. He is from San Luis Potosí, but our home has much sentiment for him. This is a huge honor for our city.
- In the same event when this giant retires, but of much lesser importance, at least at this point, we will see the debut of a nine year old forcado—those who catch the bull’s face with their bare hands—named (Ariel) Emiliano Vàaquez Vargas. He will not face any of the four bulls on Sunday, but he will be granted the opportunity to walk into the ring with the rest of the 20-strong Forcados Mazatlecos group.
In the 35 or so years Greg and I have been traveling to Mazatlán, we well remember that there used to be several bullfights each month, sometimes as many as once a week. It was a valued tradition in Mazatlán and throughout Latin America, one that came in with the conquistadors via Spain and Portugal. René Tirado, cabo or leader of the Forcados Mazatlecos, grew up in that tradition. He’s now doing his best to teach the next generations to carry on the art. Click on any photo to enlarge it or view a slideshow.
Recent years, of course, have seen a huge decline in bullfights, due to complaints of animal cruelty. To the rejoneadores, toreros, and forcados, however, bullfighting is an art and a way of life. While our bullfight ring looks tired and worn on the outside, I was happy to see it looking clean and well-cared-for on the inside. As René told us, “I understand if people don’t like what we do. Nothing is for everyone. But we should not judge something as bad and try to ban it without first trying to understand it. I would never critique a painting, as I’m not an art specialist.”
“The cattle industry actually helps preserve the lands we have here in México. These bulls graze on open range, they live life as kings. When they are four years old they enter the bullring. In the ring, if they succeed, they will live out the rest of their years on a stud farm, again as a king. If I were a bull, I would much rather die in the ring, with dignity, fighting for my life, with the chance of rescuing myself, than die in a slaughterhouse.”
On Sunday there will be four bullfights: two with toreadores on foot, and two with rejoneadores on horseback. For the fights on horseback, the forcados, equipped with nothing but their team of eight, their hands and their speed—come in at the end to put their arms around the bull’s head and neck—ideally between not on the horns—in order to subdue him.
The bulls are raised to fight; it’s in their blood. The evening we visited the bullring the forcados brought their children in, to get them acquainted with the sport and hopefully pique their interest in pursuing it. In addition to the four bulls in the plaza for next Sunday’s event, there was also a calf or becerra at the bullring. He must have been just six or eight months old, but he was feisty! He had such a good time chasing the men, and the children, around the ring. Even though he was just a baby, he could push the men right off their feet and into the air. He made short shrift of the fake bull that had the audacity to stand in the ring with him, too.
Emiliano, the boy who will stand with the forcados on Sunday, had his first pega or face-stop with that calf the afternoon we were there. Dad was with him to help out, and René was quick to assist. The calf really took the wind out of Emiliano, but his face glowed with pride that he was able to accomplish the feat. Below is a sequence showing the action:
The Forcados Mazatlecos are well known nationally and internationally, representing Mazatlán wherever they go. They were founded in 1987 by Arturo Castro Ortega. They travel about twice a month, sometimes even four times a month, to events around the country and internationally. They recently performed in Plaza México—the world’s largest bullring—and travel to Portugal. Amazingly, they all hold full-time jobs as the forcado gig is unpaid! They receive no help from CULTURA or IMDEM. Festivals that invite them to perform will pay their expenses and a small honorarium, but these artists do it for the love of the sport and the art; they are passionate and committed to what they do.
A couple of details I learned from René:
- Forcados originally existed to protect the king and the royal court during bullfights in the plazas. A prince was killed at one point, and after that bullfights were held in bullrings built for the purpose, rather than in city plazas.
- Spanish-style bullfighting has the torero on foot. Portuguese-style has the rejoneador on horseback. Traditionally you learned these arts if you grew up in a wealthy cattle family.
- René has a horrible couple of scars down his right leg, where ten years ago he had an artery replaced. It saved his life. The accident happened during a bullfight right here in Mazatlán.
If you’d like to take advantage of this very unique opportunity, you can buy tickets at the Gran Plaza, in the kiosk right in front of Cimaco, or at Via Rápidas or La Trokería up in Sábalo. Tickets prices start at 100; general admittance in the shade 200; preferred seating in the sun 250; and preferred seating in the shade 300.