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.”
On the other hand, it was what Ricardo calls his “Long Walk” that earned him at least a mention in the annals of bullfighting history. It began because, despite his handstanding heroics, Ricardo had never made it to “the show” in Mexico City, the country's premier bullfighting venue. Time and again he was passed over while colleagues he considered to have less cojones got the nod to stand at center ring under the rain of red roses. He was convinced it was official corruption that kept him out, so he decided to let the world know his plight. Dressed in his traje de luces, the gleaming uniform of the bullfighter, he walked from Guadalajara to Mexico City (a 250-mile trek), handing out fliers decrying the dirty politics of the sport. The pilgrimage made headlines in papers all along the way. After a month of walking, he arrived in Mexico City with his feet blistered and bleeding, his knees shot through with excruciating pain, his traje in tatters. But he still hasn't fought in the ring in Mexico City.
It's time. Outside, we can hear the banda de vientos, the ragged brass band that will accompany the bullfighters on their procession through town to the bullring. Our trio grows quiet. As slowly as they took their clothes off, they now pull on their trajes de luces. First the stockings, the hip-hugging pantyhose rolled up over hairy legs. Then the white shirt – well, not so white; the collars are hopelessly ringed with grime, and the material's wearing so thin on Ricardo's that you can see his tanned torso clearly through the shirt. Now the thin black ties. Juan Carlos has a neat little silver crucifix that serves as tie pin. Now the spangled pants and the suspenders up and over the shoulders. And finally the gleaming vests, though not as gleaming as they once were; several dozen sequins have fallen off, and the silk is fraying. Finally come the pieces de resistance – the sunglasses. Ray-Ban Wayfarers for Juan Carlos and Cerillo; aviator shades for Ricardo.
As the toreadors strut out into the gray afternoon, stoned and floating, the banda starts up a raucous tune. The mayor shakes hands with the honored guests, and, as the procession picks up momentum, more and more of Cheran joins in. The teenage girls half-hiding their coquettish smiles with their hands. The local gangster kids with their crew cuts and baggy jeans. The town drunks. The just-back-from-the-States wetbacks dressed in their Guess-best.
It's a magnificent bullring for such a small town. From the bandstand, Cheran's prettiest young women, in Indian dress, with rainbows of ribbons dangling from their hair, wave white scarves to the music.
It is beginning to drizzle now, but bullfights are not called for rain. The ring becomes a squishy swamp of deep-brown, almost black Michoacan earth. All is chaos, as teenage kids in their L.A. gangster regalia run wildly around the ring with the bulls, leaping behind the barricades when the snorting beasts come too close, then pulling at their tails after the horsemen lasso them.
The first bull out of the pen is easily tamed by Ricardo. But each bull that runs is meaner than the last. Juan Carlos and Cerillo maintain a discreet distance from the animals, letting Ricardo do most of the work. He doesn't have that much grace out there: His movements are stiff, a bit awkward, a far cry from the balletlike movements I remember from watching bullfights on TV as a kid at my grandparents' house in L.A. But he gets the job done, twirling his cape this way and that, eventually dizzying each bull to a standstill.
Meanwhile, the drizzle has turned to a steady rain. Spectators open umbrellas or buy sheets of plastic from well-prepared vendors. Now comes a tremendous blond beast, the meanest of the afternoon. Juan Carlos and Cerillo look really nervous now; Ricardo runs behind one of the barricades and takes a tremendous shot of Don Presidente brandy straight from the bottle, prompting a spontaneous ovation. Ricardo shouts to us – this is the one. He will perform the feat that no other bullfighter has ever attempted: the handstand.
Ricardo makes a grand show of taming the animal, twirling his cape, standing arrogantly with hand on hip, then going down on one knee, again and again until the bull stops in its tracks, disoriented. Ricardo turns to us, makes a snap-the-picture motion with his hand, and then turns back to the bull. Down he goes, his hands sinking into the wet brown earth as his feet rise in a perfect gymnastic execution of a handstand. A crazy act and a terrible insult to the bull. Then he gets back up, places his dripping hands on his hips, and thrusts out his chin in a parting affront to the defeated bull. A standing ovation.
A few minutes later, a black bull rushes out from the pen, and Ricardo, visibly drunk now, goes at it again. Once again he dizzies the bull to a stop. And once again he stands on his hands, this time only about a yard away from it. “Behold the valor of Mexicanoooooo . . .” the announcer shouts over the PA. For as long as the reverb holds the vowel, time seems to freeze. Ricardo remains upside down, as rain falls on the soles of his muddied black slippers. Juan Carlos' face is tightened into a nervous scowl.
“. . . ooooooooos!” Ricardo comes back up, turns his back to the beast, raises his arms in a Y to his fans – and in the next instant is airborne, as a collective aspirated “iAy!” comes up from the crowd. Ricardo twirls in the air from the impact of the 1,600-pound animal, ultimately turning a complete somersault. Cerillo and Juan Carlos are stunned and motionless for a second or two, and in that interval the bull stampedes straight for Ricardo's crumpled form, first flipping him over with its huge nose, then running completely over him, hooves coming down here on earth and there on skin and bone.
It takes all the combined energies of Ricardo's apprentices and the clown and the horsemen to finally distract the bull. All eyes are on Ricardo's still body. Slowly, he moves a hand and pushes the rest of his body back up from the muck. He comes upright like a trembling fawn standing for the first time. He slowly waves to the crowd and forces a feeble smile. But nobody else is smiling. We are all looking at Ricardo's face, which looks as if it has been torn in half. And now we notice a funny white spot, about the size of a 50-cent piece, high on his forehead. It is his skull. He takes one step toward the barricades and collapses.
After the ambulance wails away, Juan Carlos and Cerillo gather the capes and muletas and, since no one can tell us where they've taken Ricardo, we head back to Pancho Villa's to wait for word of the fallen master. “This is the worst time, maybe this is the last time,” Juan Carlos says. They light joints. They drink. They wait, swapping stories of Ricardo's exploits with bulls and with women. But our laughter is forced, and the solemnity begins to feel like the beginning of a wake.
Night falls, and the rain is relentless.
A couple of hours later, there is a knock on the door. Like a soldier out of a WWII flick, Ricardo enters, his head completely swathed in white. He walks feebly, supported by Nora, a local girl. He utters not a word; neither does anyone else – no one is sure whether he's survived or is in need of last rites. Nora undresses him, hanging the torn, bloodied and muddied traje on a chair. He lies there cradled by her, naked but for a small towel across his loins; the pair look not unlike a poor Mexican version of a Michelangelo sculpture.
It's then that he looks around the room, a smile beginning to curl his lips, and shouts: “So where's the party?”