From Torero to Teacher
Jim's work has more recently appeared in USA Today, USA Weekend, The Washington Post and Post Magazine, Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His most recent book, on U.S. race relations is AFRAID OF THE DARK: WHAT BLACKS AND WHITES NEED TO KNOW ABOUT EACH OTHER.
MARIO CARRIONS GOLD BROCADE BULLFIGHTING SUIT sparkles in its glass case. The suit of lights is surrounded by posters and photos of Carrión and other matadors and watched over by the mounted, silent head of a defeated fighting bull.
The entirety of Carrión's basement---below a plain white rancher on a tree-lined street in Ellicott City---is s decorated to look like a bullfight café or club in his native Spain. It's dedicated to a life he once led, nearly half a century ago.Nearby are scrapbooks, 10 in all, filled with clippings from Spanish newspapers and magazines of the 1950s. One after another, the articles tell of the exploits of a young bullfighter named Carrión and his successes in the prestigious bullrings of the world. Carrión's father, too emotional ever to see his son fight in person, meticulously---lovingly, it seems---compiled the scrapbooks documenting his son's odyssey across the bullrings of Spain and Latin America.
The articles describe Carrión's style, grace, and valor in the ring---or, as a well-known Madrid critic put it, his "touch of genius in front of bulls."
Then, in 1959 he married an American and abruptly disappeared from bu1lfighting, quietly moving to Baltimore, a place he'd never been.
Carrión modestly suggests the articles are full of exaggeration. Now 70 years old, he speaks softly and chooses his words carefully "The writers," he says, "they always saw me as much better than I was."
But hundreds of pages of clippings can't all exaggerate. They describe accomplishments that some bullfighters can only dream about, which makes his leap from the roaring bullrings of Spain to the sedate suburbs of Baltimore all the more extraordinary. The much-lauded torero walked away from a glamorous and exciting life to become a high school teacher. And he did it for the love of a woman.
Mario Carrión was born in Seville, Spain-the Andalucian capital with a long bullfighting tradition. His aunt married Curro Martín Vázquez, a well-known bullfighter in the early 1900s, and they had four sons, three of whom also became toreros. The most famous was Carrión's cousin, Pepín Martín Vázquez, a prodigy who made his debut as a 16-year-old novice in 1943 and reached the exalted rank of matador de toros a year later-one of the speediest such ascensions in bullfighting history.
Carrión saw his older cousin as both idol and mentor. "He seemed everything to me," Carrión says. "From when 1 was five or six years old, I told my cousins, 'I want to be a bullfighter like you,' and they laughed. But I listened to them talk and asked questions, and when I was 10 or 12, I wanted to start. It wasn't that they gave me specific lessons; I learned by immersion."
When Carrión was 14, Pepin took him to a ranch where young cows are tested and bred for the bullring. "He waited until there was a good cow, and he let me make a pass or two," recalls Carrión. "Then, [he] said, 'That's enough,' but I didn't want to stop."
Pepín trained Carrión in what is considered a Seville style of bullfighting that introduces elements of surprise and gaiety into the somber business of the ring. Carrión learned well, critics would later say. But Carrión recognizes that the elements identified with Seville are not easy to describe to the uninitiated. "It's like having a light touch," he says. "It is said that the dramatic effect of a long, beautiful pass in bullfighting can take your breath away. But the charm of Seville bullfighting can make you smile."
Carrión made his novice debut at the age of 16 in the Mediterranean coastal town of Vera. "It was a success," says Carrión. "That's what I remember. But at the time, you're in a trance. You only vaguely know what you did."
That might explain what happened after he dedicated a bull to the painter Pablo Picasso, who attended one of Carrión's fights at a beach resort near the French border. Picasso returned the favor by drawing a bull on a napkin and signing it. At the time, he had no idea what a Picasso doodle might be worth someday, but today, Carrión wishes he knew what happened to the napkin. It was probably thrown away, he says.
On July 18, 1952, the 18-year-old Carrión made his professional debut in the 11,000-seat ring at Tangiers, Morocco, and quickly advanced to more prestigious rings. Within two months, he appeared at Madrid's Las Ventas, the number one ring in the world.
Success or failure in Madrid echoes across the world of bull-fighting; careers are made or broken there. "It's like an actor's first performance on Broadway," says Carrión, who performed so well in his debut that he was carried out of the ring's main gate on the shoulders of the crowd.
Such a moment in Madrid is the greatest dream of any bullfighter. "This is the dream you've had since you were seven or eight," says Carrión. "It feels like you're on a cloud-you are king of the world."
Madrid critics recognized Carrión's talent, and the magazine Torerias (roughly "Things About Bullfighting") dedicated a poem in Spanish to the newcomer. "Everything in him is poetry," it said, "and there is art in his presence---art and valor are married as if he has inspired them to become one."
But the sudden acclaim in Madrid was followed by misfortune. In fact, the following year was, for Carrión, a season of calamity; he was gored four times in 45 days. The first came in Linares, where Carrión was gored in the groin. He recovered only to be gored in the groin and stomach in his next fight. Then two more gorings in successive performances ended his season and, perhaps, his career.
"In the Sanatorio [the bullfighter's hospital], I cried every day," Carrión recalls. "Then in the winter, everyone said I was done, finished. It was the saddest winter of my life. I thought my time in bullfighting was over."
He was only 20.
CARRION's 1954 SEASON STARTED MONTHS LATE. HOPING FOR a fresh start, he returned to Madrid in August and good fortune struck. Again the discerning Madrid crowd carried him out of the arena after his victory. The magazine Siete Dias ("Seven Days") declared, "Another triumph in Madrid of Mario Carrión," and the Madrid daily El Alcazar praised his "naturalness and mastery without affectation."
Carrión sensed his moment in bullfighting was at hand, and it all came together in Daimiel, a small marker town 70 miles south of Madrid. Careers are not made in places like Daimiel; no matter what happens, short of the truly rare fatality, the outside world will nor hear much about it. But in Daimiel, he had the greatest performance of his life. "I remember each step," Carrión Says. "I've remembered it all my life. What happened? It all came together. I can see it exactly-from the beginning to the end, it was like I had been lifted by the hands of angels."
He became a full matador de toros, a title reserved for bullfighters who face mature four-year-old bulls, the following year. After three warm-up fights, Carrión took the alternativa-which in bullfighting is known as a "doctorate" as if it were a Ph.D-that Spring at the bullring in the provincial capital Cáceres. In a brief ceremony, a senior matador sym-bolically turns over the first bull of the day to a new matador, and that day, the bull was named Perliro, or "Little Pearl." Carrión did well, and the head of Perlito now hangs on the wall of his basement.
Carrión had 12 more fights in 1955 and finished the sea-son in the top third of the list of active matadors, no small feat. In 1956, he had a dozen more fights and appeared ar Madrid's San Isidro Fair, considered by some the World Series of bullfighting. But he had fewer fights in Spain after getting gored the following year; he went to South America for the winter season, and he spent 1958 fighting in Ecuador, Colombia, and Peru.
Carrión also found a new interest. He met Sally Norton, an attractive American, at a party in Quito, Ecuador. Norton's father had been working in the Ecuadorian capital, and she spoke fluent Spanish. Right off, she told Carrión that she didn't care for bullfights; she found them cruel.
But Carrión persisted nonetheless. "He was very charming," Sally says. "He kept calling, and we really became friends on the phone."
Carrión also kept insisting that she come to his next bullfight in Quito, and she reluctantly accepted the invitation. That day, Carrión dedicated one of his bulls to her, and she stood and bowed, as the crowd applauded the gesture. She also saw Carrión fight in the city of Ambato and twice in Guayaquil, where he was tossed and injured in the second fight, Sally's last. "It was double jeopardy for me," she says. "I'd suffer for the bull, and then I'd suffer for Mario."
The two were married in 1958 and briefly moved to Cali, Colombia, where he was fighting. One day, not long after the couple's first son was born, however, Carrión returned home and surprised his wife by announcing that he was quitting the ring.
When asked why he retired, Carrión says it was more of an emotional than a rational decision, and that bullfighting was "too rough" for his new family. He also mentions the 12 serious gorings he suffered and the almost certain prospect that more injuries lay ahead. And he knew he would have to leave the ring sooner or later, that it was not for him to linger on the fringes of bullfighting, as many do.
But few bullfighters quit the ring easily; bullfighting in this regard seems like an addiction. Many who've fought bulls speak of a love of bullfighting called afición, the root word in aficiona-do. But they also say afición is a "worm" or "poison" that makes successful bullfighters stay on beyond their rime or makes less successful ones dream that they are a break or two away from making it.
Carrión knew the phenomenon and believed that to get out of bullfighting, he needed to go as far from it as possible. And Baltimore, where his wife had family, sounded like a place where the bullfighting worm couldn't get you.
ONCE HE MADE HIS MOVE, CARRIÓN STAYED AWAY FROM THE bullfighting scene completely for a decade. He didn't read about it and tried not to think about it. Starring anew at age 27, he learned English, sold insurance, and went to school at night, first to Catonsville Community College and eventually to the University of Maryland at College Park where he earned a bachelor's degree, majoring in social psychology and education. "I knew it would be three or four very hard years," he says. "But I also knew I was going to make it."
He began teaching Spanish at Catonsville Junior High and eventually moved to Lansdowne Senior High. He completed a master's degree in foreign lan-guage administration and was the foreign language department chairman at Lansdowne when he retired a decade ago.
Carrión now says that teaching replaced bullfighting as a sustaining joy: "It was a substitute. God gave me a gift for teaching, and it gave me pleasure."
But his wife insists that few could know how difficult it was for her husband to leave the excitement of the bullring, settle in a new country, learn a new language, and take up a new career. "It was difficult, extremely difficult," Sally says. "Nothing can replace that afición. No matter how hard you try, you can't replace the love he had for bullfighting."
So how did Carrión do it?
Sally answers without pause: "He is a strong-willed person, and he had a lot of motivation. He's always been a strong family man, and he still is."
Yet in the years since he retired from teaching. Carrión's afición has taken life anew. He follows bullfighting closely---one can now watch occasional bullfights by satellite. He and Sally travel to Spain and Mexico, and Carrión has met and talked to some of today's stars, recognizing in them the youthful aspirations he once had.
He writes articles for aficionado publications, gives lectures, and has a bilingual Internet site called "Mi Mundo Del Toreo/My Bullfighting World." He is widely known in the international world of aficionados.
He also quietly works at home with cape and muleta, the cloth tools of bullfighting, doing theslow, smooth solo dance that bullfighters use for practice. And on trips to Spain or Mexico, he sornetimes visits ranches much like the one where he started.
In September, during a convention of U.S. bullfight clubs in Mexico, Carrión visited such a ranch and couldn't resist. He faced a cow and a small bull.
"They said I did well," he reports with a grin.Return to BIOGRAPHY>