This article is taken from La Divisa 139. It is reproduced by the kind permission of the author, Hugh Hosch, and the Editor of La Divisa, Jock Richardson.


The Suerte of the Banderillas, Mexican Style

Makin' 'Em Beg


By Hugh Hosch
"Hugo el Verdugo"

Occasionally, when reading reports of corridas by some British taurinos seeing El Juli for the first time, I am reminded that not everyone is accustomed to the Mexican way of carrying out the suerte of the banderillas. El Juli, as everyone knows, honed his style in Mexico in the days when he was too young to perform in Spain, and his normal version of the act of the sticks reflects his training of that period South of the Border. The basic difference in the modus operandi of the matadores of the two countries mentioned is of course that while in Spain the vast majority of diestros do not place their own banderillas, in Mexico they do.

But there is more to it than this and in an effort to get to the bottom of it all, I felt I must conduct a clandestine investigation. This reportage was, in fact, not only carried out sub rosa, the written notes had to be smuggled out of Mexico at great risk to your chronicler. I trust this heretofore unpublished material will be appreciated accordingly.

* * *

I made an unannounced appearance at a Mexican taurine school in a city which shall remain nameless, effecting a disguise so as not to attract undue attention to my person. As I am a rather big, blue-eyed fellow exceeding six feet by almost an inch and sporting a partial headful of blond hair, I would normally have had a bit of trouble "blending in" with the locals, but a little deception seems to have done the trick. First, I stained my exposed skin areas–hands, face and feet–a darker shade than my usual pinkish glow, then donned a set of baggy white cotton trousers and matching tunic of sorts, adding rope-soled huaraches and a huge, four-foot-wide straw sombrero with a long, pointed (if somewhat bent) crown. Lastly, I put on sunglasses and a bushy black Jerry Colonna mustache, making my disguise complete. Well, almost. As an afterthought I draped a colorful serape over one shoulder. I was ready!

When the main gate of the school opened to admit the small crowd of waiting students to the first day of school on a Monday morning, I inserted myself into their midst, proceeding inside with the others. I noted that I had miscalculated slightly on the matter of my attire, as the youngsters were all dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and teeshirts with logos of Adidas, Nike, the Dallas Cowboys and so on. And almost everyone was at least a head shorter than me. I felt as though everybody–students and school staffers alike–was staring at me, but I told myself such feelings were natural and merely born of apprehension, whereas in truth no one could possibly suspect me.

I decided to wait until the various classes had all gotten underway, and I killed the intervening time by pretending to drink water from a faucet protruding from a stone wall on the far side of the school complex's central courtyard. So engrossed was I in my observations as to where people were going and what classes seemed to be in which classrooms that I forgot myself and actually drank water for the entire ten minutes or so of my recce effort; my attention was belatedly called to this fact when I noted that my stomach felt ready to burst–and so did my bladder. About that time someone waiting against the wall to my rear–I hadn't known he was there–suddenly spoke in Spanish saying, "My God, are you going to drink it all? There won't be any left for the animals!"

I turned, wiping my mouth with a baggy white sleeve, keeping my big sombrero pulled down low over my face, and I beheld a grizzled old fellow holding two empty buckets in his hands. I mumbled something and shuffled away, dripping as I did so.

A doorway with a small card pinned to it which read Vestidor was shut, but a window a few feet away was open. I sidled over and slowly peered into a room where an instructor was telling several students seated at desks about a matador dressing for a corrida. On a table in front of him were several rolled socks ranging in size from small to humonguous; the man picked up the largest one, a rolled affair some twelve inches long and three inches thick.

"Forget about using the Siberian ice fisherman's hip-length wool sock until you have become a full-fledged figura," he said, waving the giant sock roll above his head. "You will not have earned the right before that. For your first appearance in a traje de luces you must wear–even though you will not like it–this rolled nylon sock." He held up a small, rolled-up sock perhaps an inch thick and three inches long. The students groaned and shook their heads–all except a single young girl, who blushed and looked away. I moved on.

At last I found the right classroom. A note on the door read, Banderillas. The door itself was shut and the nearby window was shuttered, so, using initiative, I grabbed a broom I found propped against the outside wall and I tried the door. It opened and I slipped into the room, quietly sweeping with my head down, but my ears alert for what was being said. The instructor was standing at the other end of the room, addressing a seated audience of perhaps a dozen students.

"Very well, señores," he was saying, "let us assume you have now heard the toque announcing the suerte of the banderillas and you, the matador or the novillero, are going to place the sticks. What do you do first? Juanito?" He acknowledged a slim boy of about fifteen whose hand was raised.

"I take the banderillas from the mozo and ask el presidente for permission to carry out the suerte," young Juanito stated with confidence.

"No!" barked the instructor. "That is not what you do! Who can tell me?" He cast a glance about the class, and in a moment an older lad, seventeen perhaps, slowly raised his hand.

"Alfonso?" the teacher said.

The youth shrugged in a studiedly cool and nonchalant manner and said, "I make 'em beg."

"Correct!" cried the instructor, beaming. "You make them beg! Everyone knows that any matador worth his salt in Mexico places his own banderillas, but before he does so, the villamelones must be prepared!" In the back of the room I kept up my minimal sweeping act; no one had paid me the slightest attention. Until now: the instructor looked at me and spoke in a brusque, authoritative manner.

"You, there!" he barked. "Bolt the door and windows!"

These instructions, issued to one the teacher obviously assumed to be a janitor, were received by me with mixed emotions. I was happy to apparently be unsuspected and on the verge of learning the secrets of the placing of the banderillas, but my bladder felt as though it was in a stage preparatory to exploding–a consequence of all that tap water I had so regrettably guzzled earlier–and now there could be no easy egress for me from the room. I tenderly shuffled over to the door and the shuttered window facing onto the school's inner courtyard and bolted them both shut. Then I retreated into the furthest corner and stood, clutching my, ah, broom tightly as beads of perspiration began to pop out on my face and forehead.

"Now," the instructor resumed, "It is vital you understand that you do not acknowledge that you will place the banderillas until the very last possible moment. Anything and everything must be done to draw out the process, to make el público fear and finally become convinced that the suerte will, after all, be carried out by a subaltern. When the toque sounds, announcing the commencement of the second tercio, you the matador should be nowhere in evidence. You remain behind the barrera. You do not even look at what is going on in the ring. You might even squat down in the callejón. Pretend to sleep. Or read a comic book. Whatever, it must seem to the spectators that you are to play no part in the act of the banderillas." Some of the students smiled slyly, nodding and winking at each other.

"The crowd will of course object when one of your cuadrilla enters the arena with the pair of sticks. There will be pitos, and some people will shout and call your name; that is as it should be. But you ignore all this. Turn a page of your comic book as you squat in the callejón and pretend to be engrossed in the latest issue of Hombre Macho.

"You will have instructed your peón to drag out the process to the Nth degree; he should wander all over the ring over a long period of time, ostensibly searching for the proper positioning of man and bull, but in reality providing more time for the crowd to vent its displeasure and increase its demands that you assume the duties of the sticks. Always remember the immortal words of the great Fermín Espinosa padre, Armillito Chico's father: 'Drag it out, man, drag it out!' Now, repeat after me, class: 'Drag it out, man, drag it out!'"

The students chanted dutifully, "Drag it out, man, drag it out!"

"Bueno," said the instructor, walking over to a TV monitor in a front corner of the room and turning it on. "Now I want to show you how a knowing master does it. This is a videotape of Manolo Mejía. Observe."

On the 29-inch screen the clarines were sounding the start of the banderillas sequence, and everything went exactly as the instructor had described. The cameraman zoomed in on Mejía hunkering down behind the barrera, reading his comic book. It was all very realistic: Manolo's lips were even moving as he "read" the local literature, just as in real life. The noise of objections from the crowd got louder and louder as Mejía's peón de confianza monkeyed around in the ring, drawing it out as long as he could. The pitos grew in intensity as Manolo's name was repeatedly called, and soon the whistles were being drowned out by boos, jeers and shouts–the later progressing from pleas to demands to threats. The camera showed a closeup of a woman praying, tears streaming down her face; it was easy to read her lips as she repeated the words "¡Manolo, por favor! ¡Hágalo!" over and over. In three separate instances, men tried to clamber over the steel cables topping the wall in front of the barrera seats, bent on jumping into the ring and beating up Mejía if he did not place the banderillas himself–only to be thwarted in their efforts by police and others. In another zoom-in camera shot, a group of six Indians in the high andanada sol were doing a ritual dance while a seventh beat a tom-tom; this I recognized as the traditional banderilla dance, of the same genre as the rain dance, performed in order to (hopefully) produce the desired results.

The protests were reaching fever pitch now. In a barrera sombra seat in the area of the capotes a distinguished looking elderly gentleman wearing a pearl gray suit suddenly lurched to his feet, an expression of extreme anguish on his face; he pulled a small pistol from his pocket and prepared to blow his brains out, since Mejía was apparently not going to place his own banderillas. Elsewhere, furious aficionados were beginning to tear the bullring apart, ripping up sections of the wooden fence dividing different areas of the tendidos and throwing the fencing into the ring.

At this point, with the crowd on the verge of a nuclear explosion, Mejía apparently decided it was time to end the farce, for although I could not detect a signal from the matador in the callejón to the peón with the banderillas out in the arena, there must have been one. All the circling and repositioning finally ceased and the subaltern began tracing an elipse in the sand as he neared the approaching bull, the two gaily-festooned sticks held high above his head. By now the pitos, boos and shouts of "No! No! No!" were deafening, hysterical, apocalyptic. The two figures, man and beast, closed on each other; the peón was apparently going to place his pair al balcón.

And then, as the banderillero leaped high into the air, his back arched, his arms extended straight up and the rehiletes poised in a coordinated downward attitude, everything suddenly stopped. Events were frozen in time and space. Next came the really amazing part: as though it were all a videotape suddenly clicked into reverse, the man, paused in midair, now went backwards and down to earth, while the bull likewise trotted backwards a few steps. But the instructor of the class had not caused this phenomenon on the TV monitor; the remote was not even in his hand. What we were watching was what had actually happened, not electronic trickery. Mejía had truly, in every sense of the term, waited until the very last possible moment to avoid having his subaltern place the banderillas. And as the peón and the bull each backed up a few steps and then froze–for all the world like a freeze-frame except that it was "live"–Manolo shouted into the ring, waving violently and imperiously for the fool to get out of the arena and to give him, Mejía, the sticks. He would place the banderillas.

The crowd went wild. The roar of appreciation could surely have been heard miles away. And as Manolo accepted the banderillas from the relieved peón and walked out into the medios with the sticks held high and a big smile on his face, the villamelones expressed themselves with such demonstrations of relief and happiness that one might have thought the world had just been saved from some cataclysmic disaster at the last second.

Spectators who did not even know each other embraced and shed tears of joy.

The distinguished gentleman with the pistol removed the barrel from his mouth and hurled the gun into the ring with a cry of unrestrained ebullience.

The Indians in the high andanada sol ceased their dance and began salaam-ing on their knees in Mejía's direction.

In the barrera sombra seats a group of politicians instantly launched a Mejía for President campaign, chanting his name.

A woman on the sunny side gave birth at this moment to a baby boy, and before the stranger in the seat next to her even had time to cut the umbilical cord with his switchblade, the mother had named the child Manolo.

The villamelones were in ecstasy. Nay, nirvana.

The instructor switched off the monitor. "There you have it, señores," he said. "The secret of the banderillas, Mexican style. By the time you finally accede to do the job yourself, the crowd will be so relieved and so grateful that it really doesn't make much difference how well or how poorly you perform the task." The students looked enthusiastically at each other, smiling and nodding their heads vigorously.

In the back of the room my head was swimming. Sure, I had seen many performances of the type just displayed by Mejía in the videotape–but I hadn't realized just how time-managed and orchestrated the whole business had been. Now I knew. But that wasn't why my head was swimming. That was because the water level in my body had now reached my brain, and when I thought, I sloshed.

True, I told myself, some Spanish matadores such as Esplá have through the years made a practice of placing their own banderillas most of the time, and the public always seems to enjoy it. But while most spectators in Spain may be disappointed if el alicantino from time to time elects to let one of his cuadrilla do the deed, there will generally be no mass outburst of violent indignation from the tendidos. In Mexico, on the other hand–ah, things are different.

As unobtrusively as possible, I let myself out of the classroom and quickstepped my way to los sanitarios. Minutes later, a new hombre, I exited the escuela taurina and ducked into a nearby cantina where I jotted down all the notes I could call up from my clandestine adventure, using a boligrafo and a tiny notebook. Then, finished, I tore out the several small pages of writing, rolled them up and stuffed them deep inside my right ear. With my research thus secreted, I left Mexico and returned to El Coloso del Norte to prepare this revelatory journalistic work.

* * *

If by chance your taurine experiences have all been in Spain or southern France and the Mexican way of doing things is unfamiliar to you, perhaps this revelation will be of help to you when the time comes and you do see that first instance of the process so eloquently referred to as "makin' 'em beg."