CITY PAPER BALTIMORE; AGE 80: MARIO CARRION
Mario Carrion was born in Seville three years before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. His father, a “military man,” was a colonel in Franco’s army. He remembers the very bad days of his childhood when there were people dying of hunger on the streets. But enough of normal life remained that Carrion could wish to emulate his uncle and his cousin, who battled bulls instead of Communists.
Actually, Carrion insists bullfighting is not about fighting at all. “How stupid would I be at 140 pounds to fight a 1,200-pound bull?” he asks, standing below the enormous bull head mounted on the wall of his home in Ellicott City, where he’s lived for over 40 years. “The Spanish word toreo means to stay in front of the bull and create art. As Hemingway said, [it’s] a ballet in which, if you make a false step, you can be killed.”
Carrion’s father told him he could train to be a matador as long as he maintained B’s in school. “Oh, you wouldn’t believe how good a student I became,” Carrion says with a boyish grin.
In 1952, he debuted at a small fair in Tangier and later, the same year, in Madrid. He did so well that, in each case, both ears of the bull were cut off and presented to him—one of the highest honors in the sport.
He had many glorious fights all around the world and eventually killed over 400 bulls, but before he goes to sleep at night, he still remembers an inconsequential fight in a small town called Inca in 1954. “You look for perfection, whatever perfection is. But that day, that bull was perfection for me. I felt it in my soul.”
The matador must be in complete control during every minute of the fight—except one. When he goes in for the kill, the matador must stand in front of the bull and lunge in to kill it.“You have to be crazy in that moment,” Carrion says. On one occasion, the bull came up and gored him through the lung. “The first question is not ‘how bad is it?’ but ‘how long will it be?’”
He received more than 10 such gorings—he proudly shows off a terrible scar on his leg, asking how many hunters are willing to face such danger. But it was not the danger that got Carrion out of the ring, at least not directly.
He was fighting in Latin America when he met an American woman named Sally Norton, who did not like bull fighting. “The pageantry of it is beautiful,” Sally says, bringing coffee and cookies down into her husband’s basement museum. “It’s neat to have the bull dedicated to you, when there’s nobody more important in the plaza. That’s cool. You stand up and everybody applauds. But then the bullfight started and it was all over for me.”
After the two were married, Sally never insisted that Carrion quit working as a matador. Bullfighting was, and still is, clearly his passion. “But she was afraid to death,” he says. So when she was pregnant with their first child, Carrion decided to give it up. He came to her right before Christmas in 1959 and said “I’ve fought my last fight.”
But he had no idea how difficult it would be to quit. “You’re used to being important, being great. . . then to actually have to work?”
Sally’s parents offered the couple a chance to move to the United States. Once they got to his in-laws’ house in Catonsville, Carrion refused to return to Spain for over 10 years because he was afraid he would get back in the ring. In the meantime, he attended UMBC and UMD College Park and eventually began a 30-year career as a Spanish teacher and department chair at Lansdowne High School. “I found in teaching an avocation. To me, it was not just a profession. It was something I enjoyed thoroughly and that allowed me to adjust my life away from bullfighting.
*Photo by Noah Scialom