A cuadrilla is the seven-man team that helps the matador to perform his duties in the bullring. The group is composed of three banderilleros and two picadors who, donning the suit-of lights, perform with the matador in the arena, and a sword handler and his assistant, who attend to the needs of the matador and the rest of the cuadrilla from behind the barriers. The phrase 'toreros de plata' in the title of the book refers to the popular term used by the aficionados to refer to the banderilleros, due to the fact that, by tradition, they are not allowed to wear a suit-of- of-lights embroidered in gold as the matadors do.
TOREROS DE PLATA-HISTORIAS Y VIVENCIAS DE CUADRILLAS is Muriel Feiner's fifth book which I read with a critical eye, and I have noted that she addresses the themes of her work with a duality of tendencies; one the academic and the other the journalistic tendency. It also comes to my attention that in each book one of the two tendencies is more prevalent than the other.
Muriel's academic background leads her to thoroughly investigate her chosen topic to support what she knows or to learn more about the subject. Then she presents her findings wrapped in her original conclusions and interpretations. She does it in such entertaining and easy Spanish prose that it masks her intensive and exhaustive investigation. LA MUJER EN EL MUNDO DE LOS TOROS (1995) and its English version WOMEN IN THE BULLRING (2003), as well as ¡TORERO! LOS TOROS EN EL CINE (2004) are her taurine literary productions which most reflect this method.
The other Feiner, the journalist, lives and observes the actions and interviews the protagonists and the witnesses of those actions in order to learn about their backgrounds, opinions and roles in the fiesta brava. Later, in her writing, she filters, condenses, interprets and judges whatever she has observed or heard. This technique is obvious in LOS PROTAGONISTAS DE LA FIESTA. VOLUMENS I and II (2000).
Furthermore, I have also commented in my other reviews of Muriel's books that this author possesses amazing skill for choosing taurine topics that have been ignored or rarely addressed by other writers.
In TOREROS DE PLATA, her last book, I found that the three literary facets of the author are interlocked within the text. First, Feiner chose the cuadrilla theme, which is almost virgin in taurine bibliography, since I do not remember having heard of or read even one book that dealt entirely with the members of the cuadrillas. I noticed also that in the content of this work her dual academic and journalist tendencies are revealed.
The first quarter of the text is a result of Muriel's academic style. In this part she chronicles her findings about the historical background of the cuadrilla, its composition and its development from its origin until the present time. On the other hand, since a lot of written material about the communal and private lives of the members of the cuadrillas does not exist, Muriel has used her journalistic know-how to obtain this information. She managed to discuss their duties, obligations, social, economical and working conditions, and interrelations, as well as other matters related to their professions with many retired and current members of cuadrillas. She was also able to gather personal histories, anecdotes, feelings, opinions, complaints and aspirations from many banderilleros, picadors and sword handlers.
The result of this duality of approaches is unique, since in the book, on the one hand we have a historical description and development of the cuadrilla, while, on the other hand, we find a contemporary history of the group orally expressed by its protagonists, and interpreted and narrated by the author.
In the introduction to her book, Feiner comments that being married to Pedro Giraldo, a former matador who later became a banderillero, helped her to get close and to gain the confidence of 'the men in silver', who accepted her as a part of their world. She mentions that in Toreros de plata she quoted the opinions of about eighty toreros, including the famous banderilleros Julio Pérez "El Vito", Antonio Chávez Flores, Manolo Carmona, Andrés Luque Gago, Luís Parra "Parritas", Alfonso Ordoñez, Manuel Rodríguez "El Mangui, Gregorio Cruz Velez, José Cubero, José Antonio Carretero and, naturally, Pedro Giraldo, as well as the thoughts of the well-know picadors Epifanio Rubio "Mozo", Mariano Antolín, Raimundo Rodríguez, Anderson Murillo y Antonio Montoliú. Also, at the end of her book, she apologizes and thanks many other members of cuadrillas, from whom she had obtained interesting information, which she was unable to include in the text because of the limited scope of her work.
Since I know for a fact how guarded the inhabitants of the world of bullfighting are when conversing with outsiders, I was surprised by the frankness and freedom with which they expressed their thoughts about bullfighting, professional, and personal matters to the author. Muriel explains in the following paragraph why she was able to break the communication barrier:
The relations among a matador and the eight members of his or her cuadrilla are guided by labor regulations that determine the number of fixed employees, their duties, salaries and other working conditions. In this sense the cuadrilla is like a corporation, in which the matador or novillero is the CEO and the banderilleros, picadors y sword handlers are the employees. This subject is amply explored in Toreros de plata.
Nevertheless, bullfighting is not fully perceived by the members of a cuadrilla as 'work', because inside each torero there hides an artistic soul, that may surface when caping, placing banderillas or picking a bull, acts that are rewarded by the aficionados with applause and cheers. But those artistic displays are not necessarily the qualities that are most important for the matadors, who usually place more value on the obscure effectiveness of the cuadrilla in molding the bulls to facilitate the matador's triumph. This situation may create tension in the relationship among matadors and members of their cuadrillas, since a matador may perceive that his helpers are more interested in the applause than in the effectiveness of their work. Meanwhile, the banderilleros or picadors may feel that they have to sacrifice their art for the welfare of their bosses, and that neither the audience nor the matadors adequately recognize and reward the more subtle technical facets of their labor.
Another matter of interest found in Muriel's book is the contrasting points of view expressed by the retired and veteran 'toreros de plata' and by the younger ones. The veterans acknowledge that the present cuadrillas enjoy an improvement in working conditions and in social benefits, such as good salaries and well paid early retirements. Nonetheless, they romanticize about the 'good old times' when they believe there was more professionalism and better camaraderie among the toreros, including a closer relationship with the matadors. They mention that cellular phones and the Internet are taking the place of the tertulias where they used to keep in touch with each other and with matadors, managers, and other people from the taurine world. They complain that now in many instances the members of a cuadrilla only meet and socialize in the car during their travels, and with their matador only when they are getting ready for the parade in the bullring.
The veteran toreros claim that the new methods of professionalization are failing to produce banderilleros y picadors who are well prepared to perform in the bullring. Until recently most banderilleros started performing in the ring with the intention of becoming a matador, but when they fell short of the goal, they became banderilleros by default. It was a way to make a living without abandoning the world they loved. But in the process they learned anything that they had to learn about the bulls and the bullfighting environment. On the other hand, the picadors traditionally did not have the desire to be a matador and were content just to pursue the picador's career. Until recently they started their careers as an apprentice 'picador de reserva', performing intermittently in corridas until completing the requisites to obtain a license as full picador. The veteran horsemen point out that today there is no a career path to follow to learn how to be a picador, and they learn however they can. On the other hand, lately the taurine schools have opened another career path for the banderilleros. There, the students, who do not have the qualifications to be a matador, are encouraged to become banderilleros, and they do so without having to endure the long years of learning the profession when trying to be a matador. So, the veterans allege that the new method has produced a superabundance of banderilleros and picadors and that many of them not only lack good preparation, but also the love, aficion and respect for the profession. They also mention that some of these youngsters are cheapening the profession by performing for wages below those required by their unions. Some exasperated veterans say with great sadness that these inept new banderilleros and picadors are able to endure in the ring because many of the bulls being fought today lack strength and temperament.
I mention these interesting topics as examples of the many issues concerning the cuadrillas with which Muriel deals in the 320 pages of her book. The text is divided in four sections, titled 'La Cuadrilla', 'Living as a Torero', 'From Profession to Devotion', and 'Romanticism and Intimacy'. The first chapter includes the definition of the cuadrilla and its historical development; the second discusses the professional activities of the group, such as travelling, accommodations, daily routine on the days of the corridas, and some matters related to the relationship among the members of the cuadrilla and their matadors. The third section deals mainly with professional matters such as labor organizations, wages, retirement, health insurance and other social programs. The final section emphasizes the human and philosophical aspects related to the 'toreros in silver'. Here we read about their love for bullfighting, their feelings about their professions, peers, bosses, and families. The subjects of injuries and death in the bullring appear also in this chapter. One reads how a few toreros remember the bitter experiences of having witnessed a terrible goring that caused the death of a peer. They claim with sadness that they can not erase those dramatic images from their mind. Regarding the danger that these men constantly face in the arena, the author adds the following:
Muriel Feiner in TOREROS DE PLATA-HISTORIAS Y VIVENCIAS DE CUADRILLAS allows us to enter the closed world of the cuadrilla. She opens its doors to enable us to learn the history and the development of the cuadrilla, as well as the role that it plays in the fiesta brava today. The author also has permitted us to listen to the voices of some banderilleros, some picadors, and some sword handlers, so they could inform us about the pertinent matters of their profession, recount their personal experiences and share with us their most intimate feelings about, bullfighting, their vocation and their peers. If authors, after publishing their work, would be granted trophies as matadors are, Muriel would receive two ears and a tail for her original and interesting work; and the many members of her cuadrilla, whose thoughts and experiences contributed to her narration, would hear a resounding ovation, while accompanying her in the vuelta al ruedo.
PHOTO: Muriel Feiner with retired banderilleros Julio Pérez "El Vito", Luis González and Manolo Carmona.