A "field of dreams" it's not. True, it's in the middle of a cornfield, and there are bleachers and a long line of headlights stretching toward the horizon and hundreds of people happy to pay $15 for a ticket. Also, there is plenty of dust. But the Bella Vista Park bullring outside Gustine, Calif., is otherwise nothing like Ray Kinsella's baseball diamond in Iowa. You probably can't get sardines and octopus at Ray's place. And it's unlikely that Ray ever got around to posting signs warning: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK. And, of course, no one in Ray's ballpark would be caught dead wearing Velcro.
Actually, no one at the Bella Vista bullring would be, either, because death is not a part of the proceedings at bullfights held there. But Velcro is. Welcome to Portuguese bullfighting, California style.
It is sunset on a hot Monday in September, and the Bella Vista bleachers are casting long shadows across the matadors' Winnebago. Inside it several young men are speaking softly in Portuguese or Spanish as they don pink stockings and wriggle into their excruciatingly tight suits of lights. Outside, so many people have gathered that it is difficult to distinguish where the line for the octopus-sardine-pork stand ends and the queue for Budweiser—or is it lingui‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºa?—begins. In the past 10 days 20,000 celebrants have passed through this town of 4,400 to attend daily mass and participate in the parades and dances that are part of Gustine's annual Our Lady of Miracles celebration, the biggest Portuguese festival in the United States. The celebration winds up with the bullfight, long an important part of Portuguese religious celebrations.
In California, bullfights are legal only in conjunction with a religious festival. And because the predominantly Roman Catholic Portuguese do not stint on religious festivals, there are as many as 20 bullfights throughout the state during the spring and summer. Most of them take place in small San Joaquin Valley dairy towns such as Gustine. And although this will be news to most Golden Staters, bullfights have been going on—at the Bella Vista, anyway—since 1937. Back then the bulls were Brahmas, and the "bullfighters" were rodeo clowns who wore fright wigs and jumped into barrels when the bulls got too close. "Actually," says retired dairyman Joe De Oliveira Jr., whose father was a founder of the Bella Vista ring, "it was a lot more fun back then." Since the mid-'70s the fights have taken on a more professional veneer.
Bullfights are now "arranged" by bull-breeders like Frank Borba, who procured the specially bred Mexican bulls and hired tonight's matadors, Venezuelan professionals Pepe Camara, 48, and Ivan Sosa, 20. Camara has fought in California before, Sosa has not, and both are nervous. Joao Miranda, tonight's cavaleiro ("horseback matador") hails from the Azores island of Terceira, as does nearly half of tonight's crowd. Also taking on bulls this evening will be the pride of nearby Escalon, eight young men known as forcados ("bull-grabbers" or "the suicide squad") and any number of other names connoting collective insanity. Their job—their passion—is to catch a bull on the run and wrestle it into standstill submission.
"What you'll see tonight is almost exactly what you'd see at a bullfight in Portugal," says De Oliveira to a visitor. "If the bulls are good, it'll be a great show. A matador can be top of the world, but if the bull is no good—if he just stands there—the show is no good."
Compared with their counterparts in Spain, Mexico and South America, bulls participating in a traditional Portuguese tourada have it pretty good. They don't get killed. In California, they're not even supposed to get nicked. They do, however, have to suffer the indignity of having 18- by 18-inch patches of Velcro glued to their backs. The Velcro patch, under which sits a thin leather pad, is where the matadors and the cavaleiros aim their banderillas, long brightly colored sticks tipped with Velcro. Although the matadors are not supposed to spill any bovine blood, the bulls are allowed to use their horns, which are clipped but still very dangerous. Ask Camara. At a tourada in Escalon two years ago, a bull's horn tore into his thigh, ripping open a deep gash a quarter of an inch from his femoral artery. It took 70 stitches to close the wound.
The sun has set, the arena lights are on, and the bleachers are humming with the rapid Portuguese spoken by most of the 3,000 spectators. The bullfighters wait near their Winnebago. Meanwhile the Merced County Sheriff's Posse and the Our Lady of Miracles queens and their courts are presented, and a band plays the national anthems of the U.S. and Portugal. Finally the bullfighters file in for their introductions.
Miranda and his mount get the first bull, a black, half-ton beast that bursts from the chute and immediately charges the horse. (Because the horses are almost defenseless, the bulls' horns are cupped by hard leather.) Miranda twists around in his saddle and sends home an especially festive banderilla that, upon finding its Velcro target, spews gold sparkles. Someone shouts, "Olè!" and the crowd cheers. Miranda has eight sticks with which to festoon his bull. Before sticking on his last one, he has his horse kneel before the panting bull, effectively saying, "In your face!" in bullfighter lingo.
After Miranda exits in a cloud of dust, the forcados enter. The leader is Clarence Borba, the 31-year-old son of the bull-breeder. Borba will attempt his 109th "grab" in a 13-year career as a forcado. As his comrades line up behind him, Borba waits for the bull to turn around and notice him. Borba, it should be pointed out, is wearing what looks like a green elf's hat, which the bull does indeed notice. As it charges, Borba dives onto the animal's head as though trying to catch a ride on the hood of a car speeding toward him—a car with bayonets for headlights. Quickly the other forcados swarm around and stiff-arm the bull until it stops moving. Finally released from the suicide squeeze, the bull leaves the ring with four cows that have been led in to collect it.
"These bulls only fight once," says De Oliveira. "After one fight, they learn what's going on and they get too dangerous." If the bull performs well in the ring—if it follows the cape and doesn't wreak too much havoc—it may be used for stud service. If not, it may be on the next truck to the slaughterhouse.
Camara, who is known as Pepe by the fans, steps into the ring next to greet his first bull, a nervous, drooling head-tosser that jumps at its own shadow. He successfully tosses a couple of banderillas but before he has a chance to finish decorating the Velcro, the bull traps him behind a wooden barricade. Sosa, who is known as El Gago ("the Stutterer"), rushes out to create a distraction. But after one valiant sweep of his cape, he loses his balance and falls over. Immediately El Gago is hooked by el toro. When the bull is momentarily distracted, Sosa jumps up unhurt and shouts at the animal, perfectly enunciating a few Spanish curses. Everywhere there is murmured agreement: This bull is a bust.
As compensation, Camara's second bull—the fifth overall—is a beauty. When it lowers its head and paws the ground, great chunks of earth go flying. True to its breeding, the bull charges the matador's pink-and-yellow cape on cue. But suddenly, he's charging Camara instead. The matador runs and dives over the barricade, aggravating his old gore injury. As he clutches his groin and grimaces, the crowd rumbles in alarm. Is this it for Pepe? And what about the bull? Will the animal ever tire of ramming its horns into the wall? Finally the bull wanders away in a daze, and the injured matador makes his way painfully over to another barricade to pick up his muleta. Pepe has no intention of giving up. "I'm happier in the ring in front of my public—hurt or not," he will say later through a translator. "And that was a good bull."
A bull this good is rare. It lunges at every flick and sweep of Camara's red, fan-shaped muleta. And though he winces with each step and pirouette, the injured matador never lets up. When he feels the bull has had enough, he drops the scarlet cloth, turns on his slippered heel and walks away.
There may be no morte in Portuguese bullfighting, but there is a final symbolic gesture. Returning to the barricade, Pepe Camara takes one last banderilla When he is ready and when the bull is ready, Camara faces the horns, and with a great flourish, thrusts the stick at the Velcro between the bull's shoulder blades. As the matador accepts applause from the crowd, the bull, which is still very much alive, stands panting. There is a winner—but no loser.
Camara presents the muleta to the bull, whose horns are clipped but still extremely dangerous.
Bullfights have been taking place at the Bella Vista ring just outside Gustine since 1937.
The "forcados" catch the bull and wrestle it to a standstill.