The 2007 NATC convention, held this time in Tlaxcala and Mexico City in late October/early November, was, as always, a big success. On the last day, in the capital, we saw José Tomás make the temporada opening day crowd in the great embudo which is la Plaza México delirious with joy, performing some of the prettiest capework I have ever seen (oh, those lances!), and cutting a plethora of ears (well, okay, three - with the single one off a terrible bull of Barravla which El de Galapagar mastered, anyway).
But most of the time, nine days, was spent in the lovely old Spanish colonial city of Tlaxcala, with the snowcapped mountains of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl looming in the background, beneath a cerulean blue sky. The temperature at corrida time was usually about 65 degrees or so, very pleasant. While there, mixed in with three ganadería visits - including one to the ranch of our host, NATC Regional Vice President Sergio Hernández, ganadero of the highly respected Rancho Seco hierro - we saw several bullfights in the pretty little Plaza de Toros Rodolfo Rodrígues ‘El Ranchero’. I know, I know – ‘bullfight’ is a bad word among purists, but it does manage to say ‘corrida/novillada/ rejones’ with only one term, making it useful.
One of the events was a novillada sin pics, with six kids (four boys and two pretty chicas) from various taurine schools participating. The girls were by far the best, especially one Karla de los Ángeles, who earned two ears. The other niña was pretty good, but she made the mistake of trying to place her own sticks; her timing was nonexistent and the results were unfortunate, as was her kill. The males were all disasters of one degree or another. Flailing human forms filled the air like goony birds and furrowed the sand like moles. Fortunately, no one was actually gored.
The main event, heralded as the despedida of César Rincón, took place on 3rd November and was a strange corrida in many ways. First of all, the banda taurina, which on previous days had been quite impressive, on this day simply no-showed. The corrida's start was delayed for 25 minutes or so, then finally begun sin música, therefore presenting el público with the rather bizarre spectacle of a silent paseíllo. At least the trumpeter appeared, providing the necessary toques for the various acts. Then someone apparently went out and hired a mariachi band off the street; the grinning musicians, their instruments in hand, made their way to the band's palco during the second bull of the day. The crowd cheered.
The senior matador on the cartel was the superannuated Rodolfo Rodrígues ‘El Pana’; the youthful José Mauricio was last. Bulls were from the nearby and fairly young ranch of don Hugo García Mendez.
César Rincón's goodbye was frustrating for the colombiano. Neither of his bulls was good, and he had big problems with the sword, especially on his second toro. Even so, after his last, the crowd, appreciating the veteran matador, virtually forced him to take a vuelta while the mariachi band played La Golondrina and the crowd showered him with hats, etc. Very emotional.
José Mauricio, who looks more like a Spaniard than a Mexican, gave a fantastic performance with his first bull, eliciting ‘olés!’ from the crowd on every pass: two ears. On his second, more difficult, bull, he couldn't do much.
But the story of the day was that of the gray-haired geezer, El Pana, who claims to be 56 or so, but who looks much, much older. At times, he hobbles like Rafael de Paula, but, as he proved, he can do a form of a sprint on occasion. With his first toro, he showed some very nice capework, but he had trouble killing. His second effort, however, was, well, almost indescribable. He started by indicating that, even at his advanced age, he would place his own banderillas. The crowd was aghast. The first two attempts were miserable failures which he barely survived, but his third pair he placed al violín, two sticks in one hand, done backward over his shoulder, and perfectly placed. The crowd went wild. And so did El Pana: he began jumping up and down, pumping his arms and shouting with glee, in the center of the ring - like Jimmy Connors winning Wimbledon. Then, on his own volition, he commenced on a trotting vuelta of the ring. Hats, coats, canes, etc., were thrown. I glanced at Rincón, behind the barrera, and he was loving it. Everybody was.
When E1 Pana finally went out into the ring for his faena, he electrified el público with a performance that could not possibly have been better. He had Hemingway's Bull on Rails, and he made the most of it. The faena went on and on, better and better; the crowd was hysterical. El Pana was happy as he could be, but he looked very tired. Could he kill well? And then it occurred to me: should he have to kill? If ever I saw an indulto warranted, it was for this cárdeno of don Hugo's. And so, just on the spur of the moment, I became -- as far as I could see - the first person to pull out his pañuelo and begin waving it for an indulto. But regardless of whoever started it, the idea quickly caught on, and soon the plaza was a sea of white. Finally, the president, who had been slow to make his earlier award of one ear, pulled out his own handkerchief and made it a reality. The toril gate was opened, and the bull docilely trotted back out through it. The crowd was in pandemonium.
El Pana took a first, slow vuelta, then a second along with ganadero don Hugo, followed by a third, lone, self-decided vuelta - and then a fourth, this time running as fast as the old guy's wobbly legs would go. I was, in fact, amazed his old pins lasted all the way around el ruedo. By now, the plaza was a manicomio. El Pana was presented with a tail and two ears by the charro (presumably from a different bull), and he was the happiest codger on earth. I loved it.
Afterward, some of my fellow aficionados huffily expressed disdain for the indulto, I suppose because there had been levity involved as well as artistry. But I have always said that, while I go to the plaza hoping to see good toreo (which we certainly saw), I also want to be entertained. And I was, big time. It was a performance I will never forget.