If I were to ask any bullfighting aficionado where nine brave bullbreeding ranches are located now, and where about twenty corridas were held each year in 1993 and 1994, and as many are scheduled for the 1995 season, very few aficionados would answer that California is such a place. I never would have given this answer before the personal experiences I had in October of 1993 and in the spring of 1995, and prior to the research I have done in between.
John Gonsalves, a great Portuguese aficionado living in California, had commented to me on several occasions about the corridas in California, and he had sent me a video showing scenes from some corridas and from some bullbreeding ranches. A few years ago I had also read an article in Sports Illustrated about the American matador Dennis Borba, who stated that his father had pioneered the breeding of brave bulls in California, and had organized carats there. Also in 1991, in Chinampas, Mexico, at Manuel Cortina's hacienda, a good aficionado from California gave me a cartel announcing the debut of the Mexican matador Cesar Pastor in a California bullring. Nevertheless, no other American aficionado, with many of whom I have had long and interesting taurine conversations, had ever mentioned, or discussed the existence of bullfighting in California. Nor did it occur to me to bring up the subject. I believe now that my mind played games with me, allowing me to disregard information about this subject and, as a consequence I did not give any importance to the existence of the fiesta brava in California. I might have thought that the carats there would have been a very bad parody of bullfighting. Now I know differently.
In september of '93 I received a call from my friend John Gonsalves inviting me, on behalf of bull breeder Manuel Sousa, to participate in a testing of his braves calves at his Crows Landing ranch, located close to Modesto. John also suggested that Ishould arrive a few days before the tienta to attend the festivities with him that, the Portuguese colony would be celebrating in Thornton, a town near Modesto. We could then go to the corrida together, which is the main attraction of the festivities, and the last fight of the '93 California taurine season. The curiosity of being an eyewitness to how the fiesta brava, so un-American, was developing in my adopted country, coupled with my desire to again feel the emotion of giving a few passes to a brave animal, and to remember my days when I was performing in the ring, made it impossible for me to reject the invitation. So I embarked on an adventure through which I would discover a new taurine world.
In October 16 I left Baltimore for Modesto in the San Joaquin Valley, a region of California where most of the bullfighting activities take place. Here, in towns like Turlock, Laton, Modesto, Thornton, Artesia, Tulare, Stevenson, Gustine, Escalon, and Tracy, immigrants of Portuguese origin, many of them farmers and ranchers, have created a small American Iberia, importing their culture, including the fiesta brava.
The California corridas are a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish bullfighting, with a clever addition to diminish the pain of the bull, and to placate the vocal protests of the
Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. To better understand the nature of bullfighting in California I will make some general observations, and give a brief historical perspective of the Portuguese and Spanish types of toreo. The toreo has a common origin in the Iberian Peninsula. It was an activity sponsored by the kings, and practiced by the noblemen. The primitive corridas gave the noblemen a chance to hone their equestrian skills, and to show their courage fighting bulls on horseback before their peers and royalty.
In the 18th Century, with the new Borbon dynasty in power the noblemen, commanded by their kings, abandoned the rings, leaving the bullfighting in the hands of the common people. The populace, searching for more emotion and variety in bullfighting, experimented with it, gradually converting bullfighting on horseback into the art of bullfighting as practiced today in Spain, France, and Latin America. On the other hand, Portugal did not undergo any royal dynasty change, which permitted the noblemen to continue the bullfighting on horseback. This kind of toreo later developed into the rejoneo, as it is practiced today in Portugal. In the corridas of rejoneo in Portugal, the horns of the animal are shaved and encased in a shield to protect the horses, and the bulls are not killed in the ring. After the performance of the rejoneador, as the men on horseback are called, and before the bull is returned to the bullpen, the forcados show their peculiar way of bullfighting by wrestling the bull until it is immobilized. Other differences in the Portuguese toreo are found in the costumes, and in the parade. The clothing used by the rejoneadores is similar to that worn by the characters of "Three Musketeers;" and the paseillo resembles a military parade, with the regular bullfighters and forcados standing in formation at the center of the ring, while the horsemen perform a series of ceremonies, called cortesias. Starting at the end of the last Century, the Portuguese people became fond of the Spanish way of bullfighting, so they modified their spectacle to include Spanish bullfighters in their corridas. Nevertheless, the practice of not picking and not killing the animal as well as the custom of shaving the bull's horns, were maintained in this combined style of bullfighting, with rejoneadores, matadores and forcados performing together, in what I call the Iberian corrida.
In California some corridas are of the Iberian style with rejoneadores, forcados, and toreros sharing the billing, and other fights are like the Spanish corridas with toreros on foot and without rejoneadores, but maintaining the Portuguese aspects of not picking or killing the bull. There is also a more elaborate paseillo. To overcome the social and cultural resistance of the general American public to the introduction of bullfighting in California, the Portuguese-Americans have added two local characteristics to the corrida. One is functional. It consists of attaching a piece of velcro on the bull's shoulders for the banderillas to adhere to, rather than sinking them into its flesh. This spares the sensitive audience the sight of blood, and it allows the Portuguese colony to claim that in this kind of fight the bull does not suffer more than the animals used in the American rodeo. The other aspect is social in nature, since often the corridas are programmed as part of the religious celebration of a given town, with a priest giving an invocation from the presidential box before the fight, and the parishioners carrying banners with religious images during the paseillo.
The Feria of the Portuguese Community of Thornton honoring the Virgin of Fatima took place on October 15, 16 and 17. During those days I attended several festivities, where the Portuguese-American people displayed the wealth of their cultural heritage. At those functions I met local bull breeders, aficionados, and the toreros who would be fighting the last day of the Feria. I was impressed by the anticipation existing for the fight, and by how the aficionados and the public in general commented about the upcoming fight, and about the art of bullfighting. At the same time I was surprised by the lack of participation by members of other communities, since the vast majority of people I talked were of Portuguese origin.
The corrida took place on Monday at 8:00 PM. The paseillo was colorful and unique, with local leaders, beauty queens, children wearing typical costumes, and the Portuguese matadors Ricardo Chivanga, Antonio de Portugal and Manuel Moreno parading with their cuadrillas. After the invocation and the playing of the Portuguese and American national anthems, the first bull from bull breeder Antonio Nines entered the arena. The bulls were of Mexican origin. They weighed about 450 Kgs, possessing good presence and acceptable bravery. Chivanga had a flat performance, but his peers Antonio and Manuel did very well with their bulls. The band played during their performances, and they were rewarded with turns around the arena, which is the equivalent of the cutting of ears in the Spanish corridas. All the matadors did very well placing banderillas, which is a strong point of the Portuguese bullfighters. It was an entertaining spectacle which, although it would fail to satisfy some purist aficionados who do not believe in compromise, contained, in my judgment, many moments of emotion and art. It reminded me of some of the corridas I fought in Portugal. In this type of fight, the danger of being gored diminishes because the bull's horns are shaved; but the chance to have a broken bone increases, since the bull retains all its strength during the fight because of the lack of picking. It is also more difficult for the bullfighter to completely dominate the animal. It is not unusual to give a few punishing passes in the middle of a faena, since the bull seems to be driven by Duracel batteries. To fight smoothly is almost imposible because the bull attacks repeatedly, but the bullfighter's work can be very emotional.
On Tuesday morning I visited the ranch of Antonio Cabral who formed a ganaderia with calves and stud bulls from Mexico. In our conversation he showed his knowledge of bull breeding and his enthusiasm for his task. In the evening I arrived at the ranch of Manuel Sousa, where I stayed as his guest until my return to Maryland on Thursday. Don Manuel is one of the pioneers of the fiesta brava in California. Besides the ganaderia he has several purebred horses for the rejoneo on his ranch, and a beautiful bullring for 3,000 people, where in April each year he organizes the first fight of the California taurine season. He also has his own church on his ranch dedicated to the Virgin del Pilar, in whose honor the bullfight is celebrated.
On Wednesday the highlight of my adventure took place. I was able to test the bravery of the California calves, and I can say that the results of the testing were encouraging for the future of the fiesta brava in the San Joaquin Valley. The Portuguese matadors, a Mexican novillero, and Dennis Borba, the good American matador joined me in the testing, and everyone took advantage of the good qualities of most of the calves to have fun performing with them. After the tienta, I met Dennis' fathe Frank Borba, a bull breeder and also taurine pioneer in California. I chatted with him and the other participants about the development of the fiesta in California, about failures and disappointments, accomplishments and successes, but mainly about the hope that everyone there shares that the fiesta brava in California is not an isolated phenomenon, but a continuing process which is there to stay.
Back in Maryland, I thought about my California taurine experience. I concluded that the fights in the San Joaquin Valley are valid artistic taurine expressions. They are different from the fights in Spain or Mexico, but they are not a parody of bullfighting. They have merit on their own; and I believe that the valiant Portuguese-American aficionados, who are institutionalizing the corridas in a land that is unfriendly for the fiesta, deserve the support of all of us who love bullfighting.
In spite of distance, since I reside on the East Coast, I decided to somehow contribute in the development of the California bullfights. For this I set two goals: to increase my knowledge of the fiesta brava there by keeping in touch with the California aficion, and to promote their bullfighting activities though my writing, presentations, and conversations with aficionados from different parts of the world. Although in 1994 I was unable to go back to the San Joaquin Valley I learned more about its bullfights and the people involved with them by telephoning and corresponding with some of the bullfighters, bull breeders, and especially with my friend John Gonsalves, who I consider to be one of the most informed persons about the California taurine world. He also sent me several videos of the '94 fights so that I could judge for myself how the taurine season was developing. So the new knowledge acquired this year, added to my '93 personal experience, has made it possible for me to advance my goal of divulging the rare existence of bullfighting in the United States though my writings, conferences and conversations in 1994.
In the Spring of 1995, I again had the opportunity to be involved during two weeks of the taurine activities in the San Joaquin Valley. On Friday, April 28 I returned to Modesto, to attend the opening of the taurine season the next day in the town of Turlock, to participate in tentaderos, to visit several bullbreeding ranches, to interview the bull breeders, and to go to another corrida in Gustine, on Monday, May 8, the day before I returned to Maryland.
The rain, which has been a curse for California this year, adversely affected my plans, since some of the activities were postponed or even cancelled, as happened with the corrida opening the season. The fight was rescheduled for the following Saturday a week later. The weather did give us a break with a few nice days, which permitted the major part of the taurine activities to be held as scheduled, and permitted me to participate in them. I took advantage of the rainy days to talk with the people involved in bullfighting, since this seemed to be the only way to research the subject, because there is very limited written material about it.
On Sunday, Dennis Borba, the only active American matador, asked me to fight a young bull and few calves with him in the bullring of the ranch that his father owns in Escalon. This fighting was the high point of the traditional fiesta given by the ganadero to entertain his friends, after the completion of the branding of the cattle done that day. The bravery of the animals allowed us to perform beautiful passes that were rewarded with the applause of the invited audience.
The testing of the calves belonging to bull breeders Manuel Sousa, Manuel Correa, and Manuel da Costa was also cancelled because the rain had left the ground of the rings on their ranches in such a condition that they resembled swimming pools more than bullrings. Nevertheless those gentlemen were kind enough to share the history of their bullbreeding enterprises with me, and tell me what they knew about bullfighting in California, as well as describe the roles that they played in it. They also showed me around their ranches in their all-terrain vehicles, so I could see their brave animals, all of Mexican origin, and learn how they were raised. I had more luck with the tienta of the calves of the bull breeder Antonio Cabral. We took advantage of a clear day and, in spite of the muddy ring, we could test the bravery of a few calves, and I had fun performing with them.
The weather also helped for the celebration of the corridas scheduled for Saturday and Monday, May 6 and 8 in Turlock and Gustine. The two fights were of the Iberian style with rejoneadores, forcados, and matadores sharing the same billing. The twelve bulls fought in both corridas were born and raised on North American soil. The bulls in the first fight belonged to Manuel Sousa and the ones in the second fight to Antonio Cabral. In general, the majority of the animals showed more than satisfactory presence and bravery, proving to me that the California bull breeders were successful in selecting and adapting the brave bull breed to the new environment. The Portuguese rejoneador Victor Carrasqueira, the Forcados Amadores de Turlock and the Mexican matador Alberto Galindo did very well, and were rewarded with applause when taking turns around the ring. Dennis Borba, the local matador, performed bravely, but his two animals were inferior to the other ones of his peers, not affording him the chance to be brilliant, merely efficient. He was applauded for his effort to please the audience. In Gustine, the fight was also a success with the same group of forcados performing with the rejoneador Octavio Sanchez, el matador Alfredo Delgado "El Conde", both Mexican, and Manuel Moreno, a Portuguese matador who has became the favorite torero of the California public. "El Conde" and Manuel gave the audience a scare since their bulls tossed them. Fortunately, they were not gored just bruised. All the performers took a turn around the arena with an enthusiastic public cheering the bullfighters. For me the end of the corrida marked the end of my second taurine trip to the San Joaquin Valley. The first trip was one of discovery and celebration, this second one has been one of confirmation and evaluation.
Let's now identify the most important people, places, and facts related to the Portuguese style of bullfighting in California.
The bull breeders play the role of utmost importance in the development of the corridas. They have provided the capital to import bulls and cows from Mexico, or to buy them from each other. Some of them also raise purebred horses to be trained for the fighting on horseback, and others organize the corridas contracting the performers. Two bull breeders have even built bullrings on their ranches. Sometimes they are the only promoters of a fight, other times they act as middlemen for Portuguese-American associations, providing them with a package of performers, bull and horses for a price. There is little profit to be made in those enterprises. The bull breeders are motivated more by aficion and prestige than by money. At the present time there are nine bull breeders, that I categorize in three groups: "the pioneers," who dreamed of introducing the bullfights in California, and against all odds realized their dream; "the followers," who soon joined them to expand the celebration of the corridas in the area; and "the newcomers" who are in the process of breeding new bullfighting cattle.
"The pioneers" are Frank Borba, Manuel Sousa, and Manuel Correa. About 25 years ago, Frank Borba started to form his brave bull stock by crossing regular domestic cows with Mexican brave bulls. Later he added Mexican brave cows and through selection is producing good quality bulls. He owns good horses trained for bullfighting. His ranch is located in Escalon, where he built his own 2,000-seat bullring. Besides giving corridas in his bullring, he sometimes promotes then in Gustine, Thornton and Tracy. Manuel Sousa, in 1978, started his brave bull stock by interbreeding local cattle and Mexican brave stud bulls on his Cross-Landing ranch at Thornton. Generally his bulls display a certain nobility that makes the performance of the bullfighters easier. He has a well-trained stable of purebred horses, which are highly appreciated by the rejoneadores that fight with them. Sousa owns a beautiful 3,000-seat bullring, situated at the entrance to his ranch, where he traditionally opens the taurine season in April with a corrida. Occasionally he organizes other fights in his arena during the year. Manuel Correa was the first bull breeder who imported pure brave bulls and cows from Mexico in 1977. His first bulls raised in California were fought in Gustine in 1980. He also owns horses trained for the rejoneo. He claims to have been the impresario of the first fight that took place in California 1975. His ranch is located at Madera. At the present time he sells his bulls but is not promoting fights.
"The followers" are also three: Tony Cabral, Joe Rocha and Manuel Da Acosta. Tony Cabral' herd is of pure Mexican origin. Some brave animals were imported and some have been bought from other California bull breeders. Tony has beautiful and well-trained horses. He promotes corridas in Gustine, Artesia, and Stevenson. His ranch is at Snelling. Joe Rocha has his ranch in Turlock. His brave herd was formed with cows and bulls of pure Mexican breed. He also has trained horses for bullfighting. He promotes several fights in the bullring at Stevenson. Manuel De Costa, of Los Banos, formed his herd with cows he bought from other California bull breeders. He crossed them with Mexican stud bulls in 1983. De Costa also has horses for rejoneo, trained by his son, an aspiring rejoneador. This bull breeder also promotes fights in Gustine and Chino.
"The newcomers" are Antonio Nunes, Manuel Carmo, and Joao Mendoza. Nunes bought cows from Manuel Sousa and crossed them with Mexican stud bulls. He organizes the fights in Thornton. Manuel Carmo has formed his brave bull herd with animals of the same origin as those from Nunes. Both bull breeders have their ranches at Elk Grove. Joao Mendoza, who has his ranch in Tulare where his brave herd grazes, owns a portable bullring in which he presents fights in Tulare, Laton, Gustine, and other towns.
The majority of bullfighters and rejoneadores performing in the bullrings of California are Portuguese and Mexican who are engaged for the occasion. Nevertheless there are a group of performers who are native Californians or immigrants residing in the area. Dennis Borba, born in California and the son of the bull breeder Frank Borba, is the most successful of the group. He is a fine and brave bullfighter who became a full-fledged matador in Mazatlan, Mexico, in 1987. He has the unique distinction of being the only active American matador, since John Fulton officially retired in 1994. Dennis fights regularly in California, but he should expand his career to other taurine countries, since he has the potential to do well in any place. Besides bullfighting he helps his father with the management of the bullfighting business. Mario Techeira and George Gabriel "Vaca" are banderilleros. Both of them are accomplished professionals, and their names appear on almost all the California billings. The forcados are the men who working as a team wrestle the bull after the rejoneadores finish their performance. The forcados are the only people in the ring who participate as amateurs. They put their lives on the line just for the sake of daring. The most popular local forcado groups are the ones from Turlock, Escalon, Tulare and Artesia. Those groups are booked often since groups from Portugal or Mexico are rarely brought to California. There are also a few young men practicing the rejoneo as amateurs; among them Jose Correa, Carlos Costa and Marcelino who are in the process of becoming professionals.
Permanent bullrings have been built in a few towns, and in others portable structures are erected for the fights. These are the permanent bullrings with their estimated capacity shown in parenthesis: Cross Landing of Turlock (3,000); Gustine (5,000); Escalon (2,000); Tracy (2,000); Stevenson (3,000); Thornton (4.000) and Elk Grove (1,500}. Most of the fights on the taurine calendar take place in these arenas. They are as follows: April: Cross-Landing, Turlock, season opening; May: Stevenson, Gustine, Laton, and Elk Grove; June: Stevenson, Tracy, Tulare, and Escalon; July: Stevenson, Escalon, and Gustine; August: Laton and Artesia; September: Gustine, Escalon, and Tracy; October: Cross Landing, Turlock, and Thornton, when the season closes.
In June of 1995 as I am writing this article, I can say with certainty that bullfighting in California shows a vitality that will guarantee permanency. Nevertheless I have observed that the appeal of this spectacle is basically confined to the Portuguese-American community; a fact that will limit its growth, unless the organizers of the fights promote them to attract American and Hispanic aficionados, and to arouse the curiosity of the general public. During my two trips I noticed that in Modesto and in the other towns I visited, there were no advertisements in the English language media, nor write-ups with references to the fights in the local papers, or any other kind of promotion. On the other hand, the media in Portuguese, which targets the Portuguese-American public, was saturated with publicity. The leaders who had introduced the fiesta brava in California had encountered multiple obstacles in the process, having had to overcome the opposition of the government and the animal protection organizations. They have walked a thin line between the lawful and the unlawful, until they obtained the right to celebrate bullfights in their community as a cultural expression of their heritage. The dilemma for the promoters of bullfighting is twofold: either to continue organizing interesting but modest fights with a low budget in small bullrings, to satisfy the cultural need of the Portuguese-American community; or to promote the corridas at a state or national level with the intention of growing. This last option might allow the promoters to build bigger rings to generate capital to bring in the most famous bullfighters, but at the risk of inciting the forces that oppose bullfighting in the United States, which might renew the movement for its abolition. For the moment bull breeders, bullfighters, and the Portuguese-American community in general, appear to be leaning toward the status quo, that permits them, and whoever wants to join them as I did, to enjoy the Iberian art of bullfighting, without risking losing this pleasure.