Only the Bull Is Safe Portuguese-Americans in the San Joaquin Valley of California stage bullfights in the style of the Old Country, with one exception: No bull sheds a drop of blood

May 15, 2000
May 15, 2000

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May 15, 2000


Only the Bull Is Safe Portuguese-Americans in the San Joaquin Valley of California stage bullfights in the style of the Old Country, with one exception: No bull sheds a drop of blood

If you ask Manuel Correia, a retired butcher from the Azores,
how he came to promote bloodless bullfights in his adopted home
state of California, he shrugs and smiles. "The bulls obsess
me," he'll tell you. "I am an addict. I'm crazy for the bulls."

This is an article from the May 15, 2000 issue Original Layout

On his ranch in Madera, in the San Joaquin Valley, Correia
breeds brave bulls from Mexican stock and spends his idle hours
listening to bullfight music and studying bullfight videos. He
thinks nothing of driving 400 miles to watch a fight. From his
backyard he has a fine view of his own private bullring. The
sight gives him immense pleasure. "I owe everything to the
bulls," he says.

Correia shares his obsession with many other
Portuguese-Americans in the valley, mostly dairy farmers who
take part in an annual bullfight season that runs from spring
until fall and features corridas at 14 rings. The fights are
steeped in nostalgia and tradition, complete with brass bands
that play the classic paso dobles marches. Matadors often appear
on the same card with rejoneadores, who perform on horseback in
the style of the old Iberian nobility. It's no accident that the
leading cavalier in the San Joaquin is Joe Correia, Manuel's
youngest son, who rides with talent and courage, and who dreams
of turning pro someday and performing before huge crowds in

The world of bullfighting in California is shadowy and
mysterious, half hidden from public view. The fights are usually
advertised only in the Portuguese-American media, and some
participants want to keep it that way, even though everything is
legal and the bulls never shed a drop of blood. But others are
proud of the fights as a cultural legacy, and they believe the
sport should be promoted more vigorously to attract a larger
audience, because only when real money rolls in will the quality
of the corridas improve.

Last October there was a corrida in Tulare, not far from Madera,
and the Correias didn't want to miss it. The ring was set up in
a cavernous building ordinarily used for exhibits of farm
machinery. About two thousand fans packed the bleachers, not
only leathery old cowpokes but also women and children, just as
you'd find in the Azores, where bullfighting is a part of
village life. The atmosphere was festive, as at a church bazaar
or a county fair.

The bulls were in a corral, swishing their tails to ward off
hordes of flies. They came in a variety of colors--black, brown,
gray and even chestnut--and weighed about 900 pounds each. They
were smaller than Spanish bulls, which routinely top 1,000
pounds. They seemed calm, but that would change the instant the
corrida started. The idea was to keep them in the dark until
then, so they would be angry and confused in the ring and go on
the attack, as the breed had been doing for centuries. Fighting
bulls are so intelligent that they are allowed to fight only
once. They learn so quickly that they can never be fooled again
by the tricks of a torero. "It takes a man 20 years to become a
matador," Manuel told me, "but a bull can master a matador in 20

The evening began with a paseo--a parade of dignitaries and
little beauty queens in tiaras. When the first matador, Paul
Pinto of Portugal, was in position, the corral gate snapped open
and a bull shot forth as if from the barrel of a gun. No matter
how often you've seen this furious rush, it takes your breath
away. Bulls can be faster than racehorses over a short stretch.
In a herd they feel safe and shy from human beings, but when
they're alone and provoked, they'll charge anything that moves,
as this bull did. Pinto deflected him with a cape, and the bull
came to an abrupt stop and looked puzzled. His great chest
heaved, and mucus streamed from his nostrils in gouts.

At such moments bulls appear to be stymied and harmless, but
that's a dangerous illusion. They can switch on the power again
in a flash. Pinto passed sloppily with his cape and caught a
horn in the butt as he scrambled over a wall. Fortunately the
sharp tip of the horn had been shaved off, as is the custom in
bloodless fights, or he might never have sat down comfortably
again. Only his dignity was wounded, though, so he slipped back
into action, holding a pair of banderillas in his hands--wooden
dowels wrapped in tinsel, with a steel point at the end. He ran
at the bull, sidestepped neatly and placed the banderillas in
the hump of muscle at the animal's neck. The steel points didn't
pierce the bull's hide; instead, they landed in a thick patch of
protective Velcro.

Pinto brought out the cape known as a muleta for the fight's
last act. It was made of red serge and was smaller than his
first cape. He teased the bull into a series of charges,
stamping his foot and crying, "Eh, toro, toro!" but the bull was
growing tired, and Pinto finally walked away, his back to the
horns in defiance. Some cows with clanging bells trotted into
the ring to lead the bull back to the pen, accompanied by two
cowherds. That's how a fight ends in Portugal. The bull dies at
a slaughterhouse, not by a matador's sword in front of the
crowd. In the San Joaquin, the bull isn't killed.

The fight was entertaining, and the crowd seemed to enjoy it,
but Joe Correia had not been impressed. He thought that the ring
was in poor shape, with bad footing that was caused by the
slippery, fine sand. Nor did he approve of the lighting--it was
too bright, he said, and that distracted the bull. Manuel felt
the bull was not aggressive enough, but animals that charge
indifferently are not uncommon in the valley. Only one bull in
five proves to be a worthy opponent, according to Manuel, partly
because the breeding industry in the San Joaquin is so new.
Still, he maintained high hopes for the upcoming corrida in
Thornton, where Joe would saddle up his horses and have a chance
to be a star.

In the U.S. bloodless bullfighting has a curious history. It has
cropped up at various times in various places, most notably at
the old Astrodome in Houston, where 107,000 spectators took in a
trio of fights in 1966. Despite an honest effort to keep the
bull from being injured, there is always an outcry from those
who find the sport cruel and worry that it represents the first
step toward far more brutal contests in the Spanish or Mexican
style. On the other hand, bullfight purists can't stand
bloodless fights and consider them a mockery. One disgusted
aficionado has compared them memorably to "sex without an
orgasm." Manuel Correia was unaware of all this controversy when
he promoted his first corrida in the San Joaquin and immediately
found himself in hot water.

Manuel was born on Terceira, the third largest island in the
Azores, to a poor farming family. He left home at 19, in 1958,
to seek his fortune, stopping first in Brazil and next in
California, first in Artesia, then in Mira Loma, where relatives
helped set him up as a butcher. He didn't return to Terceira
until 1971, when he had enough money for an extended vacation.
His trip coincided with the start of bullfighting season.
Although Manuel wasn't a huge fan, he went to a fight for fun
and loved it. In essence, he had a mystical experience he still
can't describe--the birth of a passion, an obsession. He stayed
four months and attended 74 bullfights, probably a record even
for an Azorean.

When he got back to Mira Loma, life without a bullfight seemed
boring, so Manuel acquired some Brahma bulls and tried to teach
them to charge but failed. Only bulls bred for the ring would
suffice, so he traveled to Mexico and bought nine of them. He
put on his first fight, in Visalia, Calif., on May 10, 1975,
counting on his fellow Portuguese-Americans to turn out in
force. The event was a great success, and he planned to repeat
it, but somebody warned him that bullfighting was illegal in
California. "You'd be in jail by now," he was told, "except the
mayor here is Portuguese."

Instead of going underground, Manuel took the high road. He
appeared before a city and county commission in Riverside County
to request a special permit to conduct fights, but he lost when
the Humane Society objected. The next day, though, he learned
about a provision in the California penal code that allows a
bloodless bullfight to take place if it is an expression of a
group's cultural or religious heritage. In fact, that was
Manuel's goal--to re-create the village scene in Terceira. He
got a second hearing, won his permit and dedicated his next
corrida to the Holy Spirit.

The corrida didn't go unnoticed. There were protests this time,
but the complaining seemed wrongheaded to Manuel, who believes
his bulls are treated better than rodeo bulls and far better
than the beef cattle that wind up as Big Macs. Besides, Manuel
is attached to his bulls for the good luck they've brought him.
The land in Madera he bought for them to roam has appreciated
and selling part of it made him such a wealthy man that he put
down his butcher's cleaver forever.

Now Manuel concentrates on his breeding program and on training
horses in the special techniques of el rejoneo. He runs the
ranch with Joe, who began performing as a forcado, or bull
grabber, when he was 15. Teams of forcados are part of the
Portuguese tradition and appear only at horseback shows, where
they force the bull to a standstill after a cavalier is done
with it. Joe was often the lead man of the team, who taunts a
bull into charging and then grabs it by the neck while the
others pile on. He was exceptional at it, but he got cocky and
took too many risks. In Tijuana, in 1986, a bull turned its head
unexpectedly and Joe felt a horn enter his groin, severing his
femoral artery. Surgeons worked on him for two hours and sewed
him up with 176 stitches.

That was the end of Joe's career as a bull grabber. Instead, he
turned to horses and mastered the art of el rejoneo, becoming
such a gifted cavalier (a cavaleiro, to use the Portuguese word)
that he expects someday to take the alternativa, a formal
ceremony that would recognize his talent and establish him as a
pro. He plans to do it in Portugal, where he has fought one
time. He must have the approval of the promoters of the corrida
and fight on a card with two full-fledged rejoneadores,
alternating among the bulls. If he passes the test, he would be
one of the first American to qualify, a feat that will mean as
much to his father as it does to Joe himself.

The grand finale of the California bullfight season took place
in Thornton. The four days of fights got under way on a Saturday
afternoon, promptly at three o'clock, with the valley sun
blazing and the temperature in the 90s. Two performers were on
the card, both standouts imported from Portugal. Vitor Mendes,
the headliner, had been a top-ranked matador on the tough
Spanish circuit for many years, and he was renowned for his deft
touch with the banderillas. For his star turn he would be paid
about $23,000. Mendes shared the bill with Mario Miguel, an
Azorean lad of 20 on the brink of international fame. Miguel was
tall, slender, fair and blue-eyed--he was almost pretty,
really--and he carried himself with the grace of a dancer.

The Azores Band, sprightly in its naval-style uniforms, marched
into the ring to launch the festivities. Some sheriff's deputies
on palominos came next, trailed by Mendes on foot with his
cuadrilla, or assistants. Miguel, who would fight as a
rejoneador, rode in on a glorious chestnut stallion. He wore
tight breeches, a ruffled silk shirt and a knee-length coat of
brocade, and when he raised an arm to salute the fans, he could
have been a king surveying the peasantry.

El rejoneo originated with the upper classes as a way for a
nobleman to prove his bravery and his skill on horseback, so a
cavalier always fights first, before a matador. Miguel sat his
stallion across from the corral and looked no more concerned
than a man resting in his favorite easy chair. He didn't even
blink when the bull was released. Its horns were not only shaved
but also covered with a leather-and-steel glove to protect the
horse, yet the charge was still fearsome. Miguel waited until
the bull was almost upon him before he skipped away with a quick
kick of his spurs.

The merry chase was on. Around and around they went, with Miguel
teasing the bull and letting the horns nearly graze his saddle
before he galloped on. Every narrow escape would boost his
confidence, and he would push himself a little further, leaning
back to brush the bull's massive head with his fingertips. His
riding was fluid and exemplary. He could turn on a dime, and he
placed three pairs of banderillas with amazing accuracy. When he
was done, the forcados jumped in and subdued the weary bull,
while Miguel took a lap around the ring to wild applause. He
would be a hard act to follow, as Vitor Mendes surely knew.

Mendes, alas, drew a terrible bull. The animal was clumsy and
dull, so the matador, who was a veteran of such trials, did what
he could to make things interesting. He offered exquisite
capework at close range, for instance, but there were still
problems. The bull kept stopping halfway through each pass,
forcing Mendes to move even closer as he tried to produce a
thrill. His frustration was evident, and perhaps it caused him
to be careless, allowing the bull to lash out in a fury and
catch him with a horn between his legs.

Down went Mendes in a heap. He lay motionless. The bull
continued its attack, butting and trampling him until the
cuadrilleros provided a distraction. A team of paramedics
assisted Mendes to the sideline and tended to his injuries. This
was the first sign that the damage wasn't serious. In a short
time Mendes reappeared in the ring, as his code of honor
dictated. His forehead was bruised, and he walked with a limp.

He was determined to finish with a flourish, but his trousers
were in tatters, and his genitals popped into view. Poor Mendes
had to work the muleta while his nether parts flopped about in
the open air. Some spectators laughed at his plight, but most
were impressed by his nerve and tenacity, and they applauded him
as loudly as they had Miguel.

On Monday, Joe Correia woke before dawn at the ranch in Madera
and began preparing for the show in Thornton. He had a case of
butterflies, as he usually did before a fight. "Let's go to Las
Vegas," he joked, suggesting he'd rather be anywhere than in a
bullring. He put in eight hours of honest toil before he left,
making his own banderillas and grooming the three horses he'd
ride, braiding their tails and threading ribbons through their
manes until they looked ready for a parade. The drive north took
another three hours. Joe pulled into town at twilight and
dressed inside his father's RV. The surroundings were scarcely
elegant, but he was upbeat. "I don't do this for the money,"
said Joe. He would earn about $2,500, a pittance compared to the
fees of Mendes and Miguel.

Again the Azores Band struck up a paso doble, and Joe joined the
formal procession into the ring. He did not ride Temperal, his
favorite stallion, who is black and strong and has a stormy
disposition. He chose a lesser mount instead, in case the bull
inflicted harm. The first horse was his designated stalker, used
to test the bull's fortitude and its mode of attack. Once Joe
had established those factors, he would switch from stallion to
stallion depending on his purpose, asking for speed or toughness
or a superior ability to maneuver.

In the saddle Joe lacked the feathery finesse of Miguel. He was
much older, 33, and bigger and heavier, but he demonstrated the
same fearlessness when his bull erupted from the corral. It was
a decent bull for a change, too. The charge was straight and
true, with no surprises. Joe spun his stallion with a sharp cry
and forced the bull to pursue him. At the appropriate time he
placed the banderillas with pinpoint accuracy, then followed
with another pair as he worked dangerously close to the horns.

He had just one disturbing moment. It came while he was basking
in adulation, paying more attention to the crowd than to his
job. The bull appeared to be defeated, gasping and dribbling
urine, but all at once the animal roared back to life and
crashed toward horse and rider. Only at the last instant did Joe
wake up with a start, booting his stallion to safety. He grinned
and shook his head, as though the mistake amused him--as though
no one could ever learn all the lessons of the ring--and broke
two banderillas in half, in a crowd-pleasing gesture that would
force him to work still lower in the saddle and nearer the horns.

The stunt went without a hitch, and Joe let the cheers wash over
him. Astride his horse, he cut a heroic figure, his
transformation complete. Manuel was happy for him, and Joe's
mother, who'd been very anxious and had sometimes looked away
from the action, was overjoyed. Her boy had survived! Joe stayed
around to watch the other fights on the card and didn't load his
van until midnight. He wasn't the slightest bit tired, though he
knew he'd be exhausted the minute he hit the road. That was a
small price to pay, because his good performance had moved him a
step closer to his goal of the alternativa.

He would keep working at the ranch until then, schooling his
horses and doing the usual chores. The Correias had a new crop
of calves to brand, about 40 between six and eight months old.
You might imagine that it would be a rough business to round
them all up, scattered as they were over 516 acres, but Joe made
it sound easy. "We'll be done before noon," he said, "unless
somebody breaks out a jug of Portuguese red too early."

This branding would be an auspicious one, because the date
coincided with his father's 60th birthday, and if Manuel's luck
continued to hold, the fates might yet present him with the
brave bull of his dreams.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL Cavalier treatment Guiding his horse out of harm's way, Miguel teased a bull before deftly placing the banderillas.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL Code red Mendes made the best of a dull bull with flashy capework, but one moment of carelessness would leave him painfully gored.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL Body blow Luckily for the "forcados" the bull is usually weary when they challenge it to wrestle.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL Crowd pleaser For outmaneuvering a game bull, Joe enjoyed the adoration of the fans and of costumed participants in the pageantry.
Fighting bulls learn quickly. "It takes a man 20 years to become
a matador," Manuel Correia says, "but a bull can master him in
20 minutes."
The world of California bullfighting is shadowy and mysterious,
half hidden from public view, and some participants want to keep
it that way.
Joe Correia was often the lead "forcado," the guy who taunts a
bull into charging and then grabs it by the neck while the
others pile on.
Manuel's goal in staging bullfights was to re-create the village
scene in the Azores. He dedicated his second corrida to the Holy