A VISIT WITH MARIO CARRION
Mario Carrión was born in 1933 in the barrio of the Macarena, Sevilla. As a member of the Martín Vázquez family, Mario learned the techniques of toreo from his cousin, matador Pepín Martín Vázquez. After several years of learning his trade in the pueblos, Mario Carrión made his debut as a novillero in Tangier in July of 1952. On September 14 of the same year, he presented himself in Madrid cutting an ear off of each of his novillos and opening the puerta grande of Las Ventas. The novillero was able to open the main gate of Las Ventas on a second occasion two years later. On May 31, 1955, Mario Carrión received his alternativa cutting four ears and a tail in the plaza of Cáceres with Emilio Ortuño “Jumillano” as padrino and Pedrés as the witness. The matador appeared in corridas in Spain, France, Portugal, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Guatemala, and Perú and had his career interrupted by nine serious gorings.
In 1959, the matador retired from activity and moved to the United States in order to start a life with his wife, Sally Norton. After a long and successful career as an educator, Mario Carrión is now retired and living in Maryland with his family. Each year, the matador attends the April fair of Sevilla, keeps active by facing becerras in the tentaderos, and maintains a wonderful website called “Mi Mundo del Toreo” (http://users.erols.com/mcarrion/index.html) with articles, news, and opinions in both English and Spanish.
Maestro Carrión, what is your earliest memory of the bulls and can you describe the taurine ambiente that you grew up in as a member of the Martín Vázquez family?
My first experience with bullfighting was when I was a very young child, maybe four or five years old, and I remember seeing two huge bulls' heads mounted on the wall that my uncle had killed around 1912. My uncle was named Curro Martín Vázquez and he is the gentleman that started it all in my family. I used to stand in the hallway and look up at the bull’s head and then look at my uncle and look back at the bull and I just couldn’t believe that a man could confront such a big animal. I became a little obsessive and I used to look up to my uncle like he was a god. I began to listen to the conversations that they had, I never said a word, and I just listened and soaked it all up like a sponge. Then my first cousin, Manolo Martín Vázquez, became a Matador when Manolete gave him the alternativa. He didn’t last too long and he later became my apoderado. Rafael, the second son, was a superb novillero but from one day to the next he became so afraid that he could no longer appear, so he retired. The youngest son, my cousin Pepín Martín Vázquez, was the best and he became known as “the third man” because he was a part of a very popular cartel of Manolete, Carlos Arruza, and Pepín Martín Vázquez. Pepín was quite a special case, kind of like a child prodigy, because in just one single year he fought as a novillero without horses, debuted as a novillero with horses, and then took the alternativa and appeared in sixteen corridas.
Now, it was my mother’s sister who was married to Curro Martín Vázquez. My father’s side of the family was very different as they were a military family. My father was a Lieutenant Colonel and my grandfather had been in the military and they probably expected me to continue the tradition, but I dreamed of and obsessed about becoming a torero. I would accompany Pepín when he was training and he became my mentor. He was my idol and my model for toreo.
What kind of matador was Pepín?
There is a Spanish film that you can still find on the market today called “Currito de la Cruz” that featured the toreo of Pepín. He was a classic torero but at the same time he was a torero sevillano. He performed the fundamental passes perfectly but then he would do a pass with a movement that would bring a smile to your face. It was like the comic relief to the passion. He was hurt very badly by the bulls and his career was rather short by today’s standards. He began in 1943 and ended his career in 1953.
Did you try to emulate his style or his concept of toreo?
No, no and in this sense Pepín was one of the most intelligent men because he never told me how to perform toreo. He corrected me technically, but he never told me to do a pass in a certain way. He might say that I needed to mandar more or to keep my body a little more erect. Of course I see some of Pepín in my toreo, but he didn’t teach me that, it ended up there intuitively or by osmosis. Sometimes my manager, my other cousin Manolo, would say, “Do this pass this way!” and Pepín would say “Never tell him how to do it, let him do it his way!” Later he would take me aside and say, “Don’t pay attention to my brother. Be yourself.”
What was your training process like? For instance, was toreo de salón important for you or was it more important to tentar vaquillas?
It’s difficult to say if one was more important than the other. First of all, my cousin decided that he had been too young to start his career at the age of fourteen and he didn’t want me to begin so early. I was fifteen when I was with an animal for the first time and I had been doing toreo de salón for at least five or maybe six or seven years. So it really was a combination of toreo de salón and tentaderos.
Did you kill novillos on a ganadería before appearing in a festival or a novillada?
No, the first time I killed was in a festival celebrating the local army unit in 1949. I was invited to kill a becerra alongside Manolo Vázquez who killed a novillo.
Speaking of toreros sevillanos, what is it about certain toreros born in Sevilla that makes their toreo so unique and different from other toreros?
It’s interesting because you can be born in Sevilla and at the same time you are not a torero sevillano. A current example would be Manuel Jesús “El Cid”. He is a good example of a classic, serious torero that performs the essential toreo, derechazos and naturales, without any of the details and fancy adornos associated with toreo sevillano. There have been many more examples of toreros like this throughout history. Now, of course, there have also been a long line of toreros from Sevilla who have had that special touch. If I had to define that touch, I would say it is the ability of a torero to change the reaction that the public experiences from a tense gasp into something easy, a release. At the most dramatic moment, when you think the torero is about to be killed, suddenly they bring something easy and light that relieves the tension. That seems to be what some toreros like Pepe Luís Vázquez, Pepín Martín Vázquez, Manolo Vázquez, Diego Puerta and Paco Camino have been able to do and for one reason or another they all happened to be from Sevilla so it is called toreo sevillano. But not all toreros from Sevilla are toreros sevillanos.
I think I am safe in saying that you are the only resident of the United States of America in all of history that has been carried out the Puerta Grande of Las Ventas two times.
Well, yes, probably (laughs). I often say I am the best Spanish torero in the U.S. because I am the only Spanish torero in the U.S.
What are your memories of those afternoons and what did it mean for your career?
It sure meant a lot for my career. I took a lot of chances. My manager and cousin said to me that we had two choices: we could go around from plaza to plaza without making any money and wait for what could be years, or we could gamble everything and go to Madrid. I had fought just three novilladas with horses and now I was going to debut in Madrid. Before my three novilladas, I had also fought cows regularly: about 200 cows and some five and six-year-old cows of retienta. That is to say, cows that had been fought before and then bought by another ganadero who decided he wanted to see them in the ring. Those experiences helped me to get into good shape and I surprised everyone by cutting an ear off of each of my novillos and opening the Puerta Grande in Madrid. Two years later, in another novillada, I opened the Puerta Grande of Las Ventas again. I think that after I die, wherever it is that they decide to put my ashes, my ashes will still have the memory of those two afternoons.
In the book TODAS LAS SUERTES POR SUS MAESTROS by José Luis Ramón, you have written the chapter covering the adorno “pases de costadillo”. Did you typically close your faenas with this adorno? At the time did you see this as an alternative to the manoletina?
For one reason or another I never gave manoletinas. One of the characteristics of the pases de adorno is that they come from inspiration. You don’t know why, but there you are and suddenly you are inspired to do things. I never said, “Now I am going to do the pase de costadillo”. It’s just the way it happened sometimes. Now, the gentleman who wrote the book, José Luis Ramón, looked through old issues of the taurine magazine “El Ruedo”. He happened to notice that there were many photos of me performing that pass and that it was a part of my repertoire, so he called me. He mentioned on the telephone that he chose many of the other interpreters of passes based on seeing their photos in “El Ruedo”.
Do you feel like you performed that adorno a lot or was it just a coincidence that your photo appeared various times in the magazine?
Well, it was a part of my repertoire but not because I said, “Today I am going to perform pases de costadillo”. Yes, I would say “I’m going to do naturales, I’m going to do derechazos”. But I would never plan ahead of time what pases de adorno I was going to do. After one pass, the bull might be in a certain position and instead of a molinete, I might do the pase de costadillo. The thing about pases de adorno is that you don’t plan them and in that regard they are more genuine.
You had a particularly triumphal alternativa in Cáceres in 1955 where you cut four ears and a tail. Does that afternoon stand out for you as one where you were able to really express yourself as a torero?
No, not really. Success, as in the number of trophies cut, doesn’t always mean that there is fulfillment in terms of toreo. It was very important to have cut those trophies because it was the afternoon of my alternativa, but some of my most memorable faenas have been in small towns and less important plazas. In 1954, I appeared in Daimiel (Ciudad Real) just two days after I opened the Puerta Grande in Madrid for a second time. I remember the faena of Daimiel much more vividly. Right now, when I go to sleep and I want to think about bullfighting, I will close my eyes and think about that faena or another one in Quito. In other words, one thing is the importance of a faena for your career and another is the importance of the faena for the torero.
During your ten years of activity (1949-1959), you have faced some of the most important ganaderías of the twentieth century: Pablo Romero, Concha y Sierra, Buendía, Benitez Cubero, Escudero Calvo, Juan Pedro Domecq, Guardiola, Pérez Tabernero, Prieto de la Cal, and your confirmation in Madrid marked the debut of the Celestino Cuadri. What were your favorite ganaderías to appear with and why?
It is funny that you ask because today you hear so much about the Domecqs and then the other ganaderías that were considered difficult. In my day, the apoderados would say, “What ganadería is coming out good?” Maybe at that moment the bulls that were coming out good didn’t belong to a ganadería with a big name and they wouldn’t have a big name until after several years of successes. But I never had a preference of a ganadería in my mind. I just always asked, “How are those bulls coming out?” “A couple of days ago those bulls were fought in Murcia and boy they were excellent!” We went by the immediate result so I was never a big follower of certain ganaderías.
I am impressed with the variety of encastes that you have faced. At least from today’s perspective, after appearing with a ganadería like Juan Pedro Domecq, most toreros wouldn’t even consider appearing with a ganadería like Prieto de la Cal. Was it important for you to be able to torear a wide variety of breeds of toros?
At that time, the Domecq bulls didn’t mean that much, they were just another ganadería. Now, beginning in the 70’s and 80’s, the Domecqs have completely taken over. Today, most of the ganaderías say “procedencia Domecq”. Back then, Domecq was just another ganadería among a lot of different encastes.
How was a ganadería like Prieto de la Cal, which today is considered difficult, viewed back then?
Back then, Prieto de la Cal was just one more ganadería. In other words, there were a few select ganaderías and a few bad ganaderías and then the bulk of ganaderías. Prieto de la Cal was just one more ganadería of many. No one would have ever said, “Toros de Prieto de la Cal? No, I won’t fight them.”
Were there any ranches that you were keen to avoid?
Well, I never said, “I will not face those bulls”. But because of my type of toreo, I did not go out of my way looking for corridas of Miura or what you would see today with the “toreros guerrilleros”. No, that was not my style of toreo, but of course, I would have faced anything. I never fought the Miuras, but not because I was avoiding them, it just never happened that way. Right now, looking back, I am glad that I did not face them (laughs)!
You also appeared with the Escudero Calvos in Madrid which were later to be bought by Victorino Martín and turned into the most important ganadería of the last thirty years and one of the most important of the twentieth century. How were those animals viewed back then and what was it like to torear them?
I faced two corridas of Escudero Calvo. The first one in Jaén with César Girón where I cut three ears and a tail. At that time, the toros of Escudero Calvo were relatively good. I was very familiar with this ganadería because the ranch was about three miles from where I used to stay in the winter and I used to go to all the tentaderos and I fought maybe 100 or 150 becerras of Escudero Calvo. Then Escudero Calvo himself spoiled the ganadería. I remember when his bulls started going down because in the tentaderos he would see a cow that was very bad and we would all say, “No, no, Don Vicente it was terrible” and he would say, “It’s excellent!” Little by little the ganadería went down completely. The last corrida of Escudero Calvo that I fought in Madrid was awful. Victorino Martín knew that there was still a seed of good casta in those animals and he bought the ganadería for almost nothing. Through good selection he turned the ganadería into what it is today.
How has the presentation and the general behavior of the bulls changed in the last fifty years?
That is easy to answer. The majority of the bulls that were fought in the 50’s and 60’s would not be allowed into an important first class plaza today. The bulls back then were on the average 50-100 kilos smaller than the bulls of today. But they seemed to be stronger and more aggressive. The bull had to be controlled back then and it was necessary to give many punishing passes. The faena had more continuity from one moment to the next and you would see a torero move away from the bull and it would still attack. Today, the bulls are more impressive physically, but there is less casta or aggressiveness. The bulls were more mobile before. When they came into the plaza, the toro ran around the ring a couple of times and then a banderillero would come out and test the bull while the matador was in the burladero watching. In my whole life I might have come out to receive a bull twenty or thirty times. Most of the time, I paid the banderillero to have the first encounter with the bull. Today, every Matador comes out immediately to receive the bull because they are less aggressive, and you can see the bull go soft in the capote. I’d like to say that I am not criticizing today’s corrida, I am just noting the difference.
During your presentation, you mentioned how it made you uncomfortable to see modern toreros get so close to the bulls (encimistas). Would you say that the tendency for toreros to get so close nowadays is because the modern day bull permits that?
Yes, because the bull is stopped and the torero has to get in its face in order to provoke a charge. In my time, in the 50’s, it was extremely rare that a bull would allow you to be that close to it, because before you got to that position, he attacked you.
Did the average bull of the 1950’s generally transmit more and produce more emotion than the average bull of today?
I would say so, yes, definitely. When you stand on a train track and there is a train coming at you at 20 miles per hour compared to when there is a train coming at you at 100 miles per hour, obviously the latter is more interesting to the spectator. The spectator thinks, “How in the heck is he going to get away from that train?” With the 20 mile per hour train the spectator thinks, “Oh, yeah, the guy is going to get away from that train”. In that sense, the emotion was greater back then.
You have shared the paseíllo with the most important toreros of the time: Antoñete, Antonio Ordoñez, Julio Aparicio, Litri, César Girón, Manolo Vázquez and you have appeared in festivals with the likes of Antonio Bienvenida, Manuel Jiménez “Chicuelo”, Domino Ortega, and Nicanor Villalta. Which toreros were you most honored to have appeared with?
Well, naturally, being a young guy who was studying toreo and suddenly having the opportunity to be in the plaza with Domingo Ortega, it was like being in the plaza with God! At that age it was an honor just to be watching him and then to be able to be in the plaza next to him meant a lot. With some of the other toreros, well, yes, they were very famous, but you think that you can compete with them because they are more or less a part of your generation. But toreros like Domingo Ortega, well, it is a name that I remember and have read about since I was five years old! Like when I met Juan Belmonte and just to hear that man say, “Muchacho, suerte”, what a moment!
Are there any anecdotes about any of these toreros that stand out in your mind?
This is something personal, but one time I went to a tentadero uninvited. I shouldn’t have done that, but I did it anyway because of afición. I was a beginning novillero and there was Pedrés. I stood by and watched Pedrés and another torero fight ten becerras and he did not allow me to give one single pass. Later on I had the pleasure of taking the alternativa with Pedrés as my witness. That was very satisfying, it was something down deep in my gut, because I never forgot that that guy never allowed me to give one pass and now he was watching me take the alternativa.
If you ask me which torero impressed me the most, well, I don’t consider my cousin Pepín a torero of the 50’s, but in the last fifty years, from 1950 until today, there is one name that stands out by far as the most complete torero: Antonio Ordoñez.
Because he had a classic movement, he had courage, he had confidence. When other toreros did well, he turned it on and did well too. He may not have been the most popular, like El Cordobés or Litri, but he was the most complete torero. If you ask ten or twenty professionals from my generation the same question, I will bet you that 70 or 80 percent of them will also say that Antonio Ordoñez was the best. He is what we call a torero of the toreros. He is a torero that is more appreciated by the professionals than by the general public. Another torero that all the professionals really admired was Antonio Bienvenida. He was not the biggest star, but any torero of the time would say that Bienvenida was a great torero. For me, it was Ordoñez.
Watching the video of you with the vaquilla in California at the age of 66, I thought I could see the influence of Manolete, a torero that I assume influenced greatly the toreo of the 1950’s. Your body remained vertical, you didn’t throw your leg forward as they do today, and you linked passes pivoting quickly “en un palmo de terreno” without taking distance between each pass. I believe you were a young teenager when Manolete died in Linares. Did you ever see Manolete in the ring and do you think his style of toreo dominated the scene when you began as a torero?
I never saw Manolete in the ring. I saw him in the street once as I was coming home from school and he was waiting for a cab in front of a hotel. I asked him for his autograph and I had the courage to tell him, “Maestro, I would like to be a matador!”, and he replied. “Suerte, muchacho!” My cousin appeared with him many times so I knew that he was very bitter at the end and wanted to quit.
Modern toreo, and when I say modern, I mean beginning after the Spanish Civil War, is based on the toreo of Belmonte and Manolete. They are the foundation of modern toreo. There have been no great revolutions since these two. There have been different styles or greater perfection of movement, but when a torero is in front of the bull and he is doing well, he is using the techniques of Belmonte and Manolete. If it is a difficult animal, then he may only try to dominate the bull which is going back to Joselito "El Gallo" and the toreo of the beginning of the twentieth century.
What was it like appearing in Latin America as opposed to Spain?
For me it was like a blessing. I was not a big star in Spain, just a good torero. In Spain, I was fighting big animals and then I went to Ecuador and the bulls were younger, maybe 50 kilos lighter and they also paid very well in Latin America. We used to say the bulls were smaller and the bills were bigger in Latin America. I think it also facilitated my type of bullfighting. I went to Ecuador in order to appear in two corridas and I ended up fighting there during four seasons. I felt I actually contributed something to the rebirth of bullfighting there. After Madrid, Quito was the most important plaza for me. The worst was Sevilla, which was terrible for me.
Why because of bad luck with bulls?
No, because of the politics. We didn’t get along with the empresario. My manager had problems with the administration of La Maestranza.
So it was difficult to get contracts even though you had gone out the puerta grande twice in Madrid?
After Madrid, I was put on a cartel in Sevilla by substitution and I cut an ear. When they asked for me again, my manager asked for more money, and I think they resented having to pay more than they wanted. Politics prevented me from appearing there. I felt they were unfair with me. After triumphing in four novilladas, they never asked me back and I never fought in Sevilla again. That is the only resentment I have about my career. I felt I was mistreated because of the politics of Sevilla. As a matter of fact, at that time, I always lived in Madrid because I resented it so much. Now, I am at peace with it. I was not a prophet in my own land.
When you came to the United States to start a life with your wife, did you keep your taurine history a secret or did you share it freely with people?
In 1959, when I was living in Ecuador, I got married and I told my wife, Sally, that I was going to give her a present: my retirement. I was afraid because everyone around me was constantly saying to me, “Hey, when are you going to torear again? I thought the best cure would be to go to the United States where my wife was from. My father-in-law also suggested that going to university in the United States would keep me away from it all. I came to the U.S. and I didn’t want to know anything about the bulls, I really wanted to be cured. It’s like the alcoholic who goes to Alcoholics Anonymous, for me the United States was Anti-taurinos Anonymous.
One day a reporter from the local newspaper in Baltimore found out that I had been a torero and did an article about me, you know the kind, “Famous Matador leaves bullfighting for the love of an American girl”. At the university I had a professor that recommended that I write about something I knew and so I wrote my thesis on the bulls, and slowly, I got over my desire to torear. I decided not to see a corrida for ten years. Finally, I thought I could face going back to Spain. As soon as I attended a corrida, people said to me, “Don’t kid me, you are planning to reappear like many others are doing”. “No, no”, I said, “I am here to bring my wife and children to see Spain”. Now, I enjoy bullfighting as an aficionado. I still wasn’t ready to face an animal, because I think that is like the alcoholic who has a drink. It was in 1992 when I faced the first becerra and now for pleasure I go and torear the becerras and enjoy myself. Even then I put a limit to it by just facing becerras and not entering any festivals. By 1992, well, I was an old man by then, so what in the heck could I do?
You said you play tennis five times a week. Can we expect to see you in front of a becerra any time soon?
Next April, in Sevilla, I will do it again. But now I am selective. I don’t try to prove anything. I am there to enjoy myself, when the becerra comes out and it doesn’t have the right condition, I turn around to a brave man and say, “it’s for you!” Now, I will give the becerra to you, Robert!
¡Con mucho gusto, Maestro! Do you have any advice for aficionados prácticos?
I often see beginners with a preconceived idea of what they are going to do, a plan of action, without considering the animal that they have in front of them. You have to be ready to adapt your expectation to reality. It is not only prácticos who do this, but any novillero who hasn’t matured yet.
One final question, Maestro: Spain is changing rapidly. The future of the fiesta seems uncertain in Cataluña. Looking ahead, do you foresee problems for the spectacle?
I can’t see the future, but to answer your question: as far back as I can remember people have said that the fiesta was going to end. Now the corrida is considered politically incorrect, and yes, it is a dangerous situation. Taurinos should be more aware and active, but at this moment, I can’t see how it could come to an end because of simple economics. How can all the little towns celebrate their fair without the corrida? Especially, when people come and spend thousands of dollars in the town. As a matter of fact, there are more corridas than ever before, there are more ganaderos breeding bulls than ever before, and although there are relatively few aficionados, the corrida is an important social event. Can you imagine Pamplona without the encierros? It doesn’t matter who gets hurt, how politically incorrect it is, I think it will continue. I’m probably too much of an optimist, but I don’t see the immediate threat.
¡Gracias Maestro Carrión!