Bloodless bullfighting in Texas frontier country: 'I call it the ballet of life'
The clock is stuck at twenty to nine, the second hand flinching but never advancing, perpetually rising and falling a sliver of an inch.
Karla Santoyo picks up her iPad from the couch. The screen has the time as 15.50; 10 minutes to go. The noise outside that rises above the wheeze of the air-conditioning unit in the window is also a sign: jaunty music stops, there is a pause, then a bang, bang, bang, like a drumbeat. It could be the overture to a circus trick, or an execution.
Promotional posters cover the wooden hut’s walls, advertising 2004’s fifth annual congress of the International Association of Taurine Aficionados and appearances from Enrique Delgado, the Cyclone of Monterrey. Longinos Mendoza, the Ace from Houston, . Lupita López, the Yucatán Princess.
Now Santoyo is a headliner. A 24-year-old recently qualified veterinarian from Aguascalientes, Mexico. At home she treats bulls; today she will try to defeat them.
There’s a can of energy drink on a wooden side table with a bent leg; not the brand you’re thinking of. A decorative plate fixed to a wall offers a curious piece of advice for such an ostentatious and formal profession: “Dance like no one’s watching.”
Her father, the great retired bullfighter Paco Santoyo, fusses over Karla’s hat, her montera, and helps with her lime green tie. Pink like her tights, a friendship bracelet pokes out above the right cuff of her frilled white shirt. The dressing ritual concludes as she puts on her ornate scarlet and gold jacket – the traje de luces, or suit of lights.
Paco grabs her monogrammed leather sword case from a worn sofa covered by a throw blanket with a peace symbol design. Karla makes the sign of the cross and says a prayer in front of pictures of Jesus, Mary and John Paul II laid out on the top of a boxy old RCA television set. Then she makes the 20-second walk from the shack over dusty ground to the arena, stopping for another prayer at the chapel by the entrance gate, with two-dozen icons and a pair of horns crammed into a cobwebbed space the size of a garden shed.
There are a couple of hundred in the stands at the Santa Maria bullring in La Gloria, Texas, a pinprick on the map 30 miles from the frontier with Mexico amid flat and forbidding ranches. Kindly folks leave out water jugs for migrants who have crossed the Rio Grande and are trekking north, risking death in the brushlands to evade Border Patrol checkpoints.
Santoyo looks tense but strides into the arena in bold, exaggerated steps. Like a stage actor. In this moment, she is.
She passes a giant beer advertisement attached to the gate that depicts two beautiful women in crop-top T-shirts gazing vacantly into the distance as an all-action cowboy rides a bucking bull. Slogan: “For Those Who Ride with Flavor”.
This homely plaza is the domain and dream-made-real of Fred Renk – Don Fred, to use the honorific, which many do. The son of a Basque mother, Renk became obsessed with bullfighting as an exchange student in Mexico, when it was easy for people to cross between sister cities such as El Paso and Juárez; the frontier then seeming less like a multibillion-dollar blockade and more like a dotted line between two countries linked by history, culture, family.
“I came back from the Korean war, I just wanted to fight bulls and I didn’t give a shit about anything else. It’s a worm, it’s in your stomach, it just eats away at you,” he tells me in a memento-filled room in his ranch house, with two massive bulls’ heads mounted on a wall. Outside a sign on the chain-link front yard fence warns: Beware of the Dog.
“Not only did I fight them, I raised them and then put on bullfights – the first bullfights in the Astrodome in 1986. Walked into the Astrodome, man, we only had seven thousand friggin’ people there the first night. And one guy got tossed in the air and the Post and the Chronicle had [photos of] him in the air with saliva and the horns under his body – 47,000 came in the next night. Saved my ass.”
He made his debut in Mexico in 1961 in a borrowed traje de luces, harbouring professional ambitions until he was gored and battered in Juárez by a beast named Conquistador. His stepson, David, was born with club feet and could not walk normally until the age of nine, yet became a teenage prodigy known as El Texano, one of a handful of Americans to reach the rank of matador.
With a voice as gravelled as a churning cement mixer, he is still sprightly and genial at 80. “The doctor, I pissed him off,” he says. “I said: Why?’ He said: ‘You disgust the shit out of me. You drink, you smoke. Goddamn it, Renk!’ I said: ‘Yeah, but I was raised in the mountains at 10,000 feet in New Mexico, and I used to run 20 miles every day when I was training.’”
A Tecate Light on the table in front of him, he turns to find a photo from 1965. “That’s me, working along the Rio Grande river, every friggin’ day, man. Look at the muscles in my arms, my legs.”
“My girlfriend’s son – one of his best friends died at 51,” says Fred’s pal, Jimmy Martinez. “Son of a bitch!” Fred murmurs. “Vegetarian, exercise freak, did all the right things,” Jimmy continues. “Comes in from working out at the gym, goes to the restroom and they found him dead in the bathroom. A heart attack.”
“Jesus!” says Fred.
Even for those who find beauty in bullfighting, morbid ruminations are never far away. While moving the animals in 2006, Fred’s 36-year-old son, nicknamed Binker, was hit in the chest by a horn. There was hidden damage to his heart. “An aneurysm went to his brain and he died,” Fred says. “He passed right on that driveway out there.”
David Renk attained matador status at the Plaza de Toros México in Mexico City, which once held 55,000, though never achieved the stardom that once seemed within his grasp. “He’s the only American to ever appear in the world’s largest bullring. Fifty thousand people,” Fred says. “Twenty-five years and guess where he gets hurt? Here in my bullring.” El Texano was crushed by a 1,000lb bull in 2005. “All his ribs are gone, the lung collapsed, then he had open heart surgery,” Fred says. In his mid-50s, David now opens and closes the gate at Santa Maria.
Fred has a promoter’s savvy, a salesman’s gift for patter. He just sold the water treatment business he ran for 50 years. In his bullring he emcees out of horn’s reach behind a wooden panel opposite a billboard with a slogan that recalls the famous line from Field of Dreams: “Build It And They Will Come.”
He did, and they do: winter Texans, the snowbirds who migrate south in the colder months for the sort of weather they find on this Sunday in February, for the fifth and final event of the 17th year of Don Fred’s entertainment; hot enough to make you wonder whether Karla’s freckled face is glistening from the sun or the stress.
The two-tier bleachers are held up by a skeleton of red metal poles. It’s $30 for a seat in the sunny side, which is mostly empty, $35 for the shady side, $40 for ringside. With so many retirees, there’s a fiesta-meets-Margaritaville atmosphere.
An elderly man in the upper deck wears boat shoes and puffs on a cigar.
Don Fred – craggy, thin, bespectacled – sports a white and part-unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt, loafers and a beige flat cap. There’s a Marlboro in his left hand and a microphone in his right. A half-empty bottle of Estrella Jalisco lager nestles in a holder fixed to the inside of the panel.
Renk’s contests are bloodless – at least for the animals – with the fight over when the torero plucks a flower stuck on the bull’s back, where blades would normally be plunged. In the US, only bloodless battles are legal and they only happen regularly here and among California’s Portuguese community, though animal rights activists maintain they are cruel.
“In 13 countries in the world they call it the ballet of death. I call it the ballet of life,” Renk tells me in his memento room. After they fight, bulls are sold for use in rodeos.
Bullfighters take bloodless fights seriously. The animals are not weakened by banderillas – darts which stab the bull in the neck and shoulders before the kill. Karla, who loves the adrenaline rush of the job but feels nervous before every performance – respectful of the animal’s threat – is back at the scene of a violent encounter almost exactly 12 months ago.
“It was the end of the season that she got nailed last year and we were worried about her because she was bleeding from her ear – it wasn’t the ear, it was an earring, but she [got] hit on her head,” Renk says.
“Her neck was completely in an L-shape and I thought she broke her neck. We got her out of here quick. She came back [later in the year] and fought that son of a bitch. She wasn’t hurt at all. Slight concussion, but that was all.”
Out in the ring, clutching a pink and yellow cape, Santoyo waits her turn behind a gaudy advertising hoarding for “Floors By Uncle Frank”. As pasodoble tunes play through loudspeakers, she works the animal back and forth with twists of the cape, bending her knees as the bull passes.
“Olé!” says Fred.
“Olé!” shouts the crowd.
Karla turns her back on the bull, which kneels and bellows – tired, fed up, or both.
“She’s developing into a great bullfighter,” says Aaron Canales, a regular attendee in a Yankees cap. “Karla – she’s pretty good. Oh man, she’s very good,” says Javier Valdez, who’s decorated the rear of his Texas property with bullfighting memorabilia: “I want to keep the tradition for my sons, my grandsons, that my father taught me.”
Karla returns for the finale in the second half of the show. The music stops, Paco Santoyo, still wearing a dark blue coat despite the heat, stubs out his cigarette and she pumps her legs on the spot, like an athlete on the blocks.
The bull – not the largest you’ve ever seen but the meanest of the afternoon – knocks off her cape, pushes her back, and her montera falls to the ground.
“This is power,” Fred says.
Sword in her right hand, Karla arches her back, arms out, cocky, daring the bull to come at her. It nudges her again, requiring evasive action.
Fred: “Ladies and gentlemen, talk about bravery, look at her!”
A needle-thin line of spittle drips from the animal’s mouth. Sad eyes blink, its chest heaves.
Karla leans over the horns and plucks a red and white rosette. “She got it! She got it!” yells Fred, sounding proud and relieved. “Karla Santoyo, ladies and gentlemen.” Later, she tells me that she feels at home in La Gloria; that Fred treats her like family in a vocation that’s “a little bit complicated for a woman because it’s a world of men”.
The judge is impressed; Renk hands her the traditional prize of two bulls’ ears. They embrace. A few in the crowd make for the parking lot as she embarks on a lap of honour; some wait outside to take photographs with her. Amid the applause, Don Fred turns to a spectator. “She brings tears to my eyes,” he says.