By Feature Writer Carlos Cuellar

Bullfighting, a centuries-old Spanish (and Portuguese) art form, is more firmly entrenched in Mexico than anywhere else in Latin America.

The soldiers of Cortes introduced it into Mexico early in the 16th century, and it's been popular here ever since. It is said in this country that Mexicans are only on time for two occasions: bullfights and funerals. (However, of the last two funerals I went to, the "guest of honor" was more than 30 minutes late.)

The last few bullfights I've attended, though, started promptly at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. It is more than tradition that dictates this starting time, for the arena or "Plaza de Toros," which was built by men, not bulls, is designed to give the bull a handicap.

If the matador is able to position the bull so the sun's rays are shining in the bull’s eyes, the matador gains some advantage. (Remember the bull outweighs the bullfighter by over 400-500 kilos.)

These fighting bulls are descended from Spanish breeding stock, and the matadors (toreros), banderilleros and picadores, in their rich and colorful costumes (named "traje de luz" or suit of lights), follow all the rules of the contest as presented in Spain. With each successful "pass," the matador becomes more daring--sometimes kneeling, sometimes turning his back on the bull--while the crowd shouts encouraging, "Ole's!!"

It is a dangerous dance, this bullfighter's ballet. He must have poise and elegance and some big cajones; he must adopt positions that are pleasant to the eye, and at the same time he must let the horns of the bull come as close as possible, the closer and more dangerous, the better. It is to see these movements performed that people go to a bullfight.

Will the matador perform with grace? With courage? Will the bulls show their cast and fighting spirit? During which facet of the fight will the bull prevail? (They invariably do at the beginning.) And of course, will our hero come home unscathed and triumphant?

At the end, the killing of the bull is only an incident of the performance, which is also accomplished according to definite rules.

If the matador acts with cowardice, clumsiness, or fails to kill the bull in a humane manner at the end of the fight, he leaves the arena in disgrace, taunted by the jeers of the audience.

About "El Toro": These fighting bulls are bred to kill anything that moves. (They attack the cape because it moves--not because it is red; bulls are colorblind.) They have never seen a man on foot until they get to the arena. The bulls are run constantly to diminish body fat and gain muscle tissue. They are deadly killing machines, and indeed, many a matador has been maimed or killed, because of the bull's inbred fighting instinct.

Another facet of this awesome spectacle that will be of great interest to horse lovers is a bullfight on horseback. These majestic animals are unbelievable.

The acknowledged master of this type of fencing is Rejoneador Pablo Hermoso de Mendoza, of Spain. His stables are unequaled in the world, and he owns almost 30 bullfighting horses, 15 of which he brought to Mexico for a special tour. He mostly directs his steeds with his legs, as his hands are busy orchestrating the fight.

He will perform the same skills as the matador --up to and including the kill--and he will select different horses for different phases of the fight, depending on the training that they have received.

If I was a gambling man, I'd place my pesos on the matador--the bull always loses--if, by definition, to die heroically by fighting is losing. But the risk factor to the matador is tremendous; thus most bullfighters don't retire by choice--the bull makes the decision for them.

Ah, but the pageantry, the old traditions, the music! Yes, the MUSIC! Bullfighting music is unique. It is intended to arouse your emotions, inflame your heart and instill you with bravado (when you didn't know you had any.)

For more than 460 years, trumpets have been used by the judges to signal instructions to the matador. But from those first musical notes, a genre of high-spirited music has evolved that entices children to dance, hombres to strut proudly and "viejos" to tap their feet.

The next time you're sitting at a botanero, and have a Mariachi band stop by your table, ask them for one of these bullfighting songs: "Musica Taurina": "La Virgen de la Macarena"; " Silverio Perez"; or "El Dos Negro." Imagine you're with the matador in the arena, and the bull is charging! Another successful pass, and you hear a chorus of "Ole's"! That's the spirit! Viva Mexico!

"The only thing you feel is fear because you know that any minute now, he can get you, and you won’t be able to do anything about it…your heart feels like it’s in your throat."

Christina Sanchez
First female matador

What is this sport coming to? Female Matador Christina Sanchez makes headlines throughout Mexico. Male matadors have refused to fight in the same ring with her.

Mexicans consider our belief that a bullfight is a "spectacle of cruelty," to be contradictory. (We wouldn't miss a chance to see Tyson bite off another ear, would we?) And, after all, every steak we eat comes from a slaughtered animal.

Bulls raised to be slaughtered for food have only 3 years of life. A fierce fighting bull is given 5-7 years of the most luxurious life a bull can know and then he dies fighting, in a blaze of glory.

Isn't that better than being driven to the slaughterhouse to wait his turn for the ax? And then there's baby veal cutlets…I think I'll have a salad for lunch.

By the way…3 cheers for Christina!

This story was taken from the tourist guidebook, "Manzanillo and the state of Colima: Facts, Tips and Day Trips."