This page is taken from La Divisa 152. It is reproduced by the kind permission of the author, Bill Lyon, and the Editor of La Divisa, Tristan Wood.

Talking with Paco Aguado

Bill Lyon

Recent years seem to have brought a revision of "official" taurine history: a re-examination and even rejection of much received doctrine, the canons and "truth."

One of the most significant factors in this trend was the publication in Spain in 1989 of José Alameda’s magnificent El hilo del toreo (re-issued last year, together with his Los heterodoxos del toreo, by Espasa Calpe). It has had a huge influence on aficionados (at least those who read) and taurine writers in Spain, not only for its presentation of the concept of "linked" passes but for its implied rejection of the Domingo Ortega version of cargar la suerte, and for its rehabilitation of Manolete, who was usually vilified by the purists even though he developed toreo in essential ways like staying still and linking passes. Even an old-timer like Cúchares is redeemed: Alameda presents him not as the usual Sevillian trickster but as a matador who extended the range of toreo beyond the purely functional and laid the foundations for eventual "art."

Alameda’s influence is obvious in newer books, notably Domingo Delgado de la Cámara’s aptly titled Revisión del toreo. And recently we’ve been inundated by articles and Internet messages in praise of the great left wrist of El Cordobés and —in view of today’s sluggish, overweight bull— nostalgia for the shaved, fattened-up novillo of that period, a time when most of us were slimmer and had more hair and all of us were younger. The past decade has also brought much food for thought from the videos, unfortunately few, of toreo in the first half of the 20th century, which have been a rude shock for many aficionados, to some almost a betrayal: those guys didn’t stand still, control, link. Revision indeed!

Now the turn for examination has come to the Joselito-Belmonte period, the so-called "golden age" of toreo, about which probably more has been written than any other in history. We grew up being told these two men, especially Belmonte, invented it all; that "art" sprang full-blown from Belmonte’s cape and muleta; that they fought huge bulls without taking a step back. The revisionist work in question is Joselito, el rey de los toreros, by Paco Aguado (Espasa, 1999), already reviewed in these pages (La Divisa 147, July 2002) but which I think deserves even closer attention.

Part of Aguado’s stated aim was to rescue Joselito out from under that mountain of literature about Belmonte. Thus we see that Belmonte didn’t pull that daring technique out of the air (his predecessors were Espartero and Antonio Montes) and that his graceful "art" had antecedents in El Gallo, Antonio Fuentes and Lagartijo. Yes, he was "The Earthquake," standing still and imposing a magic temple, but obviously in comparison only with what had preceded him; it would take years before all this was refined.

Aguado also wants to demonstrate the importance of Joselito. Technically (as Alameda has already shown), Joselito would recover those tentative attempts by Guerrita to link a series of passes, something that had been lost during the intervening Bombita-Machaquito period, and brought it off with increasing frequency and grace, thus paving the way for its later development as a key element of modern toreo. Joselito soon saw that the "old" way, in which he had been trained and which he had mastered at an early age, was becoming outdated.

He was also fundamental in convincing the ganaderos to produce a braver bull with a nobler, more sustained attack, a more "modern" animal to replace those that largely spent themselves against the pic. Finally, he realized that Spain was becoming more modern and that in toreo tastes were changing; the corrida was evolving into a mass spectacle, and Joselito encouraged the construction of the plazas monumentales that would bring the fiesta to more people at lower prices.

Thus, as Aguado shows, this period was less a sharp break with the past than one of essential and rapid development of already existing elements.

Much of this was known before by many aficionados, but Aguado’s book says it best and most succinctly. In addition, it’s extremely well written, with none of the baroque, self-indulgent prose so common to bullfight books. He gives us detail, but also summary and interpretation that put it in perspective. As there were some intriguing elements that, for me, raised interesting questions, I wanted to consult the author personally. We recently met in Madrid for an interview.

Paco Aguado is 38, the son of a mozo de espadas, so he has been in the taurine world all his life; he saw his first corrida in 1969, in Aranjuez, when he was just five. Following graduation from journalism school he has supported himself as a taurine critic and reporter in a number of different media, and is currently assistant editor at 6TOROS6, where he writes a regular column, usually about the fiesta’s less-than-savoury business side. After his Joselito book, he wrote the excellent two-volume Figuras del siglo XX (Ediciones El Cruce, 2002) which comprises brief sketches of the styles and contributions of matadors from Antonio Fuentes to El Juli, and he provided the prologue to the new edition of Alameda’s book I mentioned earlier.

Naturally we spoke a good deal about the bulls. Aguado confirmed an impression I had gotten from his book: that in the period before Joselito and Belmonte there was much greater flexibility in organising corridas than nowadays. The bulls for Madrid were usually on exhibit across town before a corrida was even announced, and aficionados seeing them might say "That’s a beautiful string of bulls, it would be great if so-and-so could kill them," and pretty soon the aficionados were "demanding" this, and the empresario, and the toreros, bowed to their wishes. A big difference from today, when the programs seem to be locked in months in advance and the stars avoid Madrid, and then appear only with hand-picked animals.

There also seems to have been a wide range in the age and presentation of the bulls, in part because there was no television to give people all over the country comparative ideas, in part because in the smaller plazas there was little control. In fact, Aguado cites a conference the empresario Eduardo Pagés gave in Bilbao in 1931 in which he claimed that most of the bulls fought in Madrid during the Largartijo-Frascuelo period (1868-1890) rarely reached 500 kilos in live weight. It would be interesting to know where Pagés got his figures and if they have been confirmed by anyone.

Joselito, who had a hand in everything, pressured the breeders to produce a bull more in accord with the linked toreo that he was developing and the more graceful, closer, slower style that Belmonte had brought. "Those were radical times in the ganaderías," Aguado writes. "In a single decade [1910-20] brave bulls underwent more changes than in the previous two centuries." At the start of the Joselito-Belmonte rivalry, most ganaderos were just interested in the number of pics their bulls took and how many horses they upended and killed; a half dozen years later, when the rivalry ended with Joselito’s death, many breeders —with much greater attention to the testing of the prospective stud bulls— were producing an animal more apt for the new style, one that lowered its head and went all the way through the pass and kept attacking for a longer time. For many of the old-timers, raised on that style of defensive fighting up front with few actual passes, this was merely a lowering of standards; Joselito would have claimed he was only seeking a more brilliant fiesta, with longer, more controlled faenas.

To what degree did Joselito go too far, not only limiting the range of ranches he fought but imposing a smaller, younger animal? (He was the first torero to regularly use the veedor, the man who goes to the ranches and helps select the corrida and ensure there are no nasty surprises). Joselito "took advantage of his acquired rights", Aguado told me while also recognising that, in fact, the matador sometimes abused these rights —even though, through his great power, he could handle any kind of bulls. Thus the complaints, and sometimes escándalos, over some of the animals he and Belmonte faced. (Belmonte, who wasn’t interested in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering, often said, "Whatever José says is fine with me").

Aguado said any diminishing of the bulls during this period was also an example of that up-down theory (espoused by Cossío, Corrochano and Alameda) by which, when there is an overwhelming figura —in this case, there were two of them— the public gets it emotion from the star torero and pays less attention to the bull, whereas, when there is no figura, the people demand excitement from a larger, older, more formidable animal.

Licenses in this department, Aguado told me, were probably what led to the order of 1917 that imposed, for the first time, a minimum weight: 500 kilos in first class plazas during most of the season. (The figure rose in 1923 to 570 kilos). While this measure proved problematical to apply (Aguado referred to it as "not a realistic weight"), I would be interested in knowing exactly what the figure was based on. Was 550 kilos an average minimum weight —weights were not posted then— during the Bombita-Machaquito era? In 1931, the 570 figure was suddenly lowered by 100 kilos, under pressure from the ganaderos. And Aguado writes that, as early as 1910, the Unión had moved to have animals that were a full three years old be considered as full-grown toros! So there still seems to be a lot of study to be done about the bulls pre- and post-Joselito.

It was taking liberties like this that got Joselito in trouble with the critics. While Aguado tells how many publications and journalists were permitted their preferences in toreros and made far less of an effort then to be "objective," he also documents how most of the important ones were on the take —receiving money, tickets or gifts— although this did not prevent them from often attacking Joselito, especially in his later years. (A supporter told him that "the highest mountain always gets the lightning," but that wasn’t much consolation). Among his more vociferous detractors was Gregorio Corrochano, originally a great supporter. I have always been an admirer of Corrochano’s three books, but as a person and a daily critic he could evidently be a pain in the neck.

"He was dogmatic, set himself up as something of a guru, infallible, and wanted to be a star," Aguado told me. He was especially hard on Joselito in his later years, and the two only reached a cautious peace around 1920. In fact, the corrida in Talavera of that year in which Joselito died was in part organised by Corrochano —a native of the city and nephew of the ganadera— as something of a reconciliation between them. (When Joselito was killed, some of Corrochano’s rivals in the press attacked him bitterly. I’ve seen a copy of a taurine journal called The Times that accused him of having Joselito’s blood on his hands; jealousies and hatreds among the critics in those days make today’s envies seem rather tame).

The book is full of fascinating personal information about Joselito: about his impossible love affair with the daughter of the Pablo Romero family, who would never marry; his relationships with his brothers, especially El Gallo, who often drove him to distraction, and with his brother-in-law, Ignacio Sánchez Mejías; his psychological and even physical decline in later years, when he was depressed about the death of his mother and his inability to find happiness outside the ring.

The book also brings some wonderful social observation. For example the way Sevilla was split between supporters of two different toreros, two different football clubs, two rival Virgins, the Germans and the Allies in World War I. And the way the Sevilla establishment opposed Joselito’s eventually successful project to erect a plaza monumental in the city, which they saw as an affront to everything the Maestranza represented; they did much to bring it down, at first figuratively and then literally. Aguado said Corrochano, backed by his powerful, monarchist newspaper, ABC, was involved in the opposition to this project. The establishment was shocked that a torero, and a half-gypsy at that, should have a funeral in their cathedral.

Aguado gives a description, considerably abbreviated here, of Sevilla a century ago:

"In 1898, the city had some 150,000 inhabitants. Its growth was slow due to the high levels of death and emigration, and life expectancy was just 40 years… It was also the third city in the world in infant mortality rates, after Bombay and Madras in India, because of the very deficient public health facilities, no sewer system and the constant threat of flooding from the Guadalquivir River… At the turn of the century, Sevilla was a center of unemployment, poverty and misery, and over 60 percent of the population were illiterate. In that city that was closer to Africa than Europe there were pawn shops and child labor, and life in the unhealthy tenements, without drinking water, reached subhuman levels... [There were] chronic illnesses such as tuberculosis and rheumatism. The men worked from sunup to sundown for a miserable salary."

Thus Espartero’s observation, when asked why he risked so much to be a torero: "Hunger wounds worse than the bulls."

After reading the book and talking with Aguado, I again considered the question of how we are to view all this recent revisionism. Some aficionados take it badly: they have seen too many of their firmest beliefs under assault. This is silly: their best ally is the truth and there is still plenty of taurine orthodoxy to cherish and defend. Other readers, for whatever triumphalist, snobbish motives, clutch at the recent approach to justify the sins and corruptions of the present and reject any denunciation of them. Allá ellos.

A final word on bullfight books in Spanish… Many Club members do not read them because they simply do not have the Spanish. Others have the language but are lazy, and for this there is no excuse. Those who have not read Corrochano’s books by this point deserve a faena de castigo. As for Alameda, I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of aficionados: those who have read him and those who have not. To this list we could easily add Aguado’s book on Joselito. As he seems to be a friendly fellow, I’m sure he’ll autograph your copy.