By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
My host, Pancho Villa, is in the midst of a three-week drunk when I arrive in Cheran. "Look at my hands," says the former schoolteacher. "D.T.'s." But drying out is not a possibility at the moment, for how can you not drink during the fiesta?
Small-town Mexican fiestas are always intense affairs: unpredictable weeklong bacchanalia where laughter and tears and rage fuse and crescendo to a cathartic and sometimes violent climax. Cheran's fiesta - nominally devoted to St. Francis, although equally rooted in pre-Columbian harvest rites - is just like any other town's, except more so. Cheran is known throughout Mexico for the number and tenacity of its wetbacks, and the fiesta is the time when the migrants come home from the north, from the tobacco fields of the Carolinas and the citrus groves of California, bringing with them tales of their journeys. It is a time when husbands and wives are reunited, when embraces turn to punches, when enemies make peace, when madness rules. It is also the time for a bullfight.
As it happens, the three bullfighters who will take to the ring at this year's fiesta are also staying with Pancho Villa, who earned his nickname as a fearless union activist. They're all from Jalisco, because that's where Mexico's great macho men are from: the best soccer players, the hardest drinkers, the finest-looking men with the most finely sculpted asses. You need a finely sculpted ass to be a bullfighter, of course, and our present subjects are no exception to the Jalisco rule.
Juan Carlos Lopez and Sigifredo Loza, a.k.a. El Cerillo ("toothpick," for his thin though not anorexic body), are in their mid-20s, dressed casually and hiply like a CK ad, their hair longish and slicked back. Crew leader Ricardo del Toro is 39, and his graying hair is receding; he's shorter than the other two, less striking in his looks, but he makes up for it with a gregarious, almost manic demeanor.
In a back bedroom of Pancho Villa's, the crew prepares for the bullfight, now only a couple of hours away, by trying for the right mix of alcohol, coke and weed. Though few townspeople actually know it, Cheran awaits a crew of bullfighters about as decadent and wasted as the Rolling Stones on their '72 tour.
In between tokes and snorts and shots, the bullfighters tell my photographer friend Joe and me about their lives. They all grew up in Los Altos de Jalisco, the highlands above Guadalajara, a place legendary for its macho mores. They've been on the road since they were child prodigies in the ring. Now they are the toreros of the poor, traveling from village to village, usually for fiestas honoring patron saints, and fighting 20 bulls every couple of days. They rarely fight to the "moment of truth," as most of the places they visit can't actually afford a kill.
"This is the only way you can stand it," Ricardo says, dragging hard on a fat joint of pungent weed and then holding it up high before us as if it were a sacred pipe. "How else could I get into the ring 150 times a year with those cabrones? We never kill them, but they could kill us anytime."
Time to get the costumes on. The bullfighters peel off their clothes at a slow, stoned pace, without the least bit of modesty. Bullfighting is, after all, an exhibitionist's sport. Ricardo, the veteran, has the most scars: a 3-incher above the right breast with an exit wound through his shoulder blade, a nasty tear along his left hip, several small streaks across his balding dome. He tells of the one that almost killed him, of the horn that went clean up his ass and into his bowels. It's a wonder he can still shit, he laughs.
The younger fighters still have their bodies more or less intact, in part, I will later realize, because they are conservatives in the ring. Ricardo, you see, is a verifiable madman before the bulls. "I do something that no bullfighter before me has ever done, and I don't think anyone ever will," he says. "I do handstands in front of the animal." He promises to perform the feat in honor of his new friends from the States. He looks at Joe. "You take picture," he says, his finger pressing down on the imaginary camera. "Yes?"
To be a bullfighter, Ricardo says, is to be a character, flouting rules. He tells of the time he stepped off a bus in Guadalajara after a grueling tour. He stood in pouring rain, waiting for another bus to take him home, when he noticed a fine black '82 Mustang with gleaming American racing rims, idling at the curb. He reached into his pocket and felt the wad of bills from the dozen faenas he'd just performed. "How much do you want for it?" he called out to the guy at the wheel. The driver quoted an exorbitant price. Ricardo peeled off the exact amount, and the stunned driver walked away richer, but wet. "A bullfighter should not suffer the indignity of being soaked by a Guadalajara thunderstorm," Ricardo says, "when he can ride home in a black '82 Mustang with American racing rims."