Filming bullfights is not worth dying for

Everything was for sale as Ulises and I made our way through the throng of men, women, children and babies come to watch the show: tacos, tequila glasses, hats for the sun, balloons, toy torros, headbands with horns attached, cigarettes, sweets and lollipops, chewing gum, t-shirts, pulque (Mexican moonshine), tamales, corn-on-the-cob, beers made into spicy micheladas (condimented with chile, Tabasco sauce, Worcester sauce and other ingredients that can work their way through the walls of one’s stomach), caramelized peanuts, chopped fruit, ice-cream, ink-stamps of bulls for children’s faces, bright squishy toy balls and even mouth organs.
The sound of hammering could be heard all around as the men from the town constructed the make-shift bleachers / stall seating that lined both sides of the streets that would transform into temporary (torture) pens for the bulls later that afternoon. Most of the seats were just thick planks of wood lain along wooden scaffolding. Sol beer branded boards ran along their front – protecting the families behind them from the frenzied street activity to come.
The incessant chatter of friends and family mixed with the hammering, along with the drunken chanting and laughter of the inebriated. The woman at the taco stand, fruit-sellers, a boy selling tequila glasses and a boy who proffered toy torros were all happy to be filmed, and there was lots of environmental action to catch on tape before midday, when the bulls were released.
Francisco Hernandez Villera was hanging out in the street with his friends, bending his knees and practicing postures with an old and faded pink cape that had no doubt seen more glorious days than today would prove to be. Slight of build and 24 years old, this was his eighth year at the Huamantlada, but luckily he had yet to acquire the scares to prove it. It’s a big adrenalin rush, he told us, because of the audience more than anything.
“They apply a lot of pressure,” he said.
Come eleven, the stalls were filling up and we needed to bag a seat. It proved difficult – most of them were already full. We ended up on the third row back on the north side of the street Juarez, flanked top and bottom by a group of girls and then boys respectively hell bent on having a good time. I was annoyed with our positioning, and wanted to be closer to the action. Ulises chatted with Laura Pimentel, a young teacher who befriended us and – who despite being a vegetarian for moral reasons came to watch the show for fun with her mates. She said many of them had been coming to the feria since they were children. But I was distracted, looking around for a better place to be.
A firework sounded and a rowdy roar came up from the crowd. It was close to kick-off. From where we were, I could see up and down the street at least 200 yards each way, and the people still in the street drinking and laughing suddenly parted like the red sea as men tried to jump into the stalls out of the path of the 500 kilo black bull who ran through the masses. The enormous animal shone magnificently in the sun and looked utterly confused.
And so the games began.
Contrary to last year, when I have to admit I spent the first 15 minutes hyperventilating, I adjusted pretty soon to the risk factor and the knowledge that everyone standing around in the street was only five seconds away from a violent and painful death. My sympathies were a hundred per cent with the animal, who was surrounded by humans mad with booze and testosterone. I cringed internally as I watched a man kneel down, arms outstretched, in front of the confused animal as the crowd egged him on. The bull would only have to step forward a meter and toss its horns to change this man’s life forever.
I was annoyed with my limited angles for shooting – where we were positioned allowed me very little movement because of the groups of people above and below us.
I was pondering a move down into the street when the bull tore past once again, men scattering every which way in front of him. Once of them tumbled to the ground but the bull – too distraught to focus – passed him by. Girls screamed hysterically. The whole thing gave me the creeps in a way it hadn’t last year.
I looked towards the opening in the wall that separated the stalls from the street – maybe I could slip through there and just run out of the way when things got hairy? But the entrance was blocked by drunken men, smoking and watching for the bull to tear by again at which point they piled through the gap out of harm’s way. I didn’t fancy the challenge, nor my expensive new LATimes camera’s chances of getting safely out of the way in time.
So I stayed put – this story simply wasn’t one worth risking my life and my gear for.
After tormenting the bulls for a couple of hours, they were roped in and dragged, pushed and beaten into the metal crates from which they had emerged. Pimentel, our friend in the stalls, told us that they would be taken away to be killed. Once a bull has been in the ring with a human, he can learn how to charge and fight – these bulls had already had too much experience now to be ‘safe’ to torrear (bullfight). The name matador – that given to professional bullfighters – suddenly made sense. It means, literally, ‘killer.
The results of the shooting you’ll see in a day or so once the film is done in editing.
Photo: A man falls prey to the bull, but escaped unharmed. Credit: Ulises escammila haro /