Bullfighting, a colorful spectacle combining ritualized drama, big business, and life-and-death ballet, is considered the national fiesta of Spain. Along with Catholicism and the Spanish language, the conquistadores brought to the New World the age-old Iberian custom of playing with the bull and evading its charges. Spain has always been the center of the bullfighting world, but parts of Latin America have an extensive and passionate bullfighting history. Mexico and Venezuela have produced important matadors who have played a key role in the history of the spectacle.
Professional bullfighting on foot dates from the 1770s. Long before that, however, New World Spaniards, especially noblemen on horseback, enjoyed challenging charging bulls. The forces of Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) in 1521, and by 1529 the town council had mandated bullfights for every August 13 to honor Saint Hipólito and celebrate the conquest of the city.
The first ranch in the New World to raise fighting bulls was established by the conquistador Juan Gutiérrez Altamirano, a cousin of Cortés, who in 1527 received the town of Calimaya from the crown. He subsequently acquired other lands in the Toluca Valley and formed the Atenco hacienda, importing twelve pairs of fighting bulls and one hundred cows from Navarre (the cradle of bullfighting in Spain). Thus was established the renowned Atenco Bull Ranch, which survives as the Mexicapán Ranch.
Mexico's first major matador was Rodolfo Gaona (1888–1975). Gaona became a full matador in Spain in May 1908, and he performed successfully there and in Latin America from 1908 to 1920 and in Mexico from 1921 to his retirement in 1925.
Another notable Mexican contribution to world tauromachy was Carlos Arruza (1920–1966). He took the alternativa (ceremony to become a full matador) in Mexico City in 1940 and began performing in Spain in 1944, where he was an immediate success. He had extraordinary courage and good technique and was excellent at placing the banderillas (barbed, decorated sticks) into the bull. At the top of his form in 1945, he appeared in 108 bullfights in Spain and France (more than any other matador). Retiring in 1953, he returned as a rejoneador (bullfighter on horseback) in 1956.
Although Peru has a long history of bullfights (dating back to 1540) and the oldest permanent bullring still in use in Latin America (the Plaza de Acho, from 1768), Venezuelan matadors have played a much more significant role in the international bullfighting world in the twentieth century. On four occasions Venezuelan matadors have placed at the top of the list of the number of corridas fought during the year in Spain: César Girón in 1954 and 1956 and Curro Girón, his younger brother, in 1959 and 1961. Mexican matadors have accomplished this only twice.
César Girón (1933–1971) was the oldest of six brothers, all of whom became professional bullfighters. He took the alternativa in Barcelona, Spain, in 1952, with Carlos Arruza as his godfather. (Ironically, Arruza and Girón, after extensive and illustrious careers facing death at the horns of a bull, both died in auto accidents.) He met with great success from then until the end of 1958 (his first "retirement"). Girón was respected for his strong will to succeed, his technical facility, his expertise in placing the banderillas, and his aplomb before the bulls.
The ritualized procedures of the bullfight have a universal sameness. Latin American bullfights and bullfighters, however, share some superficial differences from those of Spain. New World matadors tend to exhibit more variety, utilizing an extensive repertoire of passes. Almost all are skilled in the placing of the banderillas. The fighting bull is usually somewhat smaller and lighter than the Spanish animal, giving it more mobility and speed.
For many years no Latin American matador was at the top of the bullfighting world. At the 1991 Fair of San Isidro in Madrid, however, César Rincón, a Colombian, was declared the "absolute best," and he set a record by being carried out of the bullring on his admirers' shoulders on two consecutive days.
See alsoSports .
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