An Interview with the CTL’s Hon. Vice-President

(Introduced & translated by Brian Harding)

 

(The house magazine of Taurodelta, the current empresa of Las Ventas in Madrid, has improved beyond recognition this year. It is a glossy, well-produced collection of articles covering many aspects of the bullfighting world, well written and with outstanding photographs. Its art-direction (layout) rivals that of the standard bearer, 6 Toros 6. Members will already know about some of the articles with which the CTL has collaborated - a series of interviews with foreign aficionados - but I was taken by an extraordinarily honest interview with CTL Honorary Vice-President, José Miguel Arroyo 'Joselito'. José Miguel speaks frankly about the changes in his life since retiring from an active role in the ring; his tone is very personal, very relaxed. The interviewer is a member of the taurine family of de la Serna, is himself an ex-novillero, and has a reputation for being able to put toreros at their ease, so that they speak to him as an equal, someone who understands what it feels like to put your life on the line every afternoon, plus all the other special pressures of the profession. I look forward to reading more from his pen, but I doubt he will find as interesting a subject as our Hon V-P.

 

In translating the piece, I have tried to keep the colloquialisms that José Miguel uses, and where his expression was unusually direct, I have repeated it in the original Spanish. I have also respected the interviewer’s sometimes unusual punctuation. - BH)

 

INTERVIEW BY JOSE IGNACIO DE LA SERNA

PUBLISHED IN TAURODELTA MAGAZINE NO. 9

 

JOSELITO:

“Retirement is like taking a leap into the unknown”

 

He retired from the ring four years ago, and says that it has proved tough for him to adapt to the quiet life, away from the excitement of a plaza de toros. An ordinary life, like ordinary people. But it happens that José is not an ordinary sort of man. He is enigmatic and contradictory. And also brave, incorruptible, vulnerable and provocative. We meet in his house in Talavera de la Reina, and once we begin the faena, the maestro smokes like a chimney, and talks about toros with great common sense.

 

QUESTION: Don’t you ever miss the old days?

ANSWER: Much more than I ever expected. The profession of torero is so all-absorbing, that when you stop being a torero, you feel disoriented, and even worse - you don’t know what to do with yourself. You miss the excitement, the fear and the uncertainty which toreo gives you, because it makes you feel so bloody marvelous ('de la ostia').

 

Q: You never actually announced your retirement, did you?

A:  No never. I wanted people to have the opportunity to have a go at me ('cagarse en mis muertos') for as long as possible. So, no announcement of retirement, or any such thing. A torero should never cause people to feel sorry for him, or provoke laughter, for that matter.

 

Q: What did you feel like the next day?

A: I felt good. I felt that I had done the right thing, much better than leaving when the decline had set in. But after a few days I began to feel uneasy, a sensation of emptiness, that sinking feeling that all toreros experience when we retire from the ring. This year I have taken the decision not to appear in festivals, because when I agree to perform, I can’t think of anything else.

 

Q: And it was difficult to come to that decision?

A: Well what I really found difficult was to adapt to my new life. A normal life, like everyone else. It’s true that by then I had already started to raise a family of my own, I had my ranch and my ganadería, but even so I found it difficult to fill the void left by retiring as a matador. Fortunately, my wife was very understanding, and she knew what was troubling me. But I must confess that I found it very difficult to adjust to my new situation. I wasn’t comfortable within myself.

 

Q: I have always thought that it must be very difficult for a torero to get back into normal society.

A: That’s what it’s all about, getting back into a society that you’ve only ever been on the fringe of before, because you were living in your own private world, which is wonderful but totally engrossing.

 

Q: And also, at an age when others are beginning to become successful in other professions.

A: Exactly, exactly. That is precisely the problem. You retire as a top-flight torero, still young, loving what you do, and with a lifetime ahead of you. How are you expected to handle that?

 

Q: If you have decided not to torear this year, it must be because deep down you feel you have to.

A: I had taken that decision, but even so, a few days ago I worked a becerra in the open countryside. Do you follow what I’m saying? I’m the first one to feel uncomfortable about failing to do what you say you’ll do. But I’ve always been a funny, self-contradictory sort of guy.

 

Q: What can you tell me about your experience as the apoderado of César Jiménez?

A: Very positive, above all because I learned many things with him.

 

Q: Really?

A: When you are at the top, you think you know it all and you don’t listen to advice. But now I realise that some of the things people said to me had some substance. Even the advice of a complete twat ['julai'] can sometimes make sense.

 

Q: That’s what’s known as humility.

A: I am what I am, and I can’t complain, because things have gone well for me in my life and in my profession. But now I think that maybe if I had paid more attention to some of those words of advice, I could have achieved more.

 

Q: Materially?

A: No, no. It’s not about money or anything like that. It’s about being a better torero. I believe that I could have been a better torero than I was. I have feelings deep down inside me, small details, nuances which could have helped me do better with certain bulls.

Q: Such as?

A: Positioning ('la colocación'), how to enter and exit a pass, letting a bull get its breath back at certain moments... My style was to apply constant pressure , and force the bull to adapt to what I wanted to impose, and not the other way round. I now realise that there are times when it is better to torear with silken gloves.

 

Q: Are you telling me that the subject of this interview is not really a star torero?

A: (laughing) Well, take control for example - I don’t think I have ever really been in control ('mandar'). It is true that for several years I had a lot of pull with empresas and in taquillas, and I was lucky enough to do all right financially, but it’s also true that I am happy with what I have achieved.

 

Q: Once or twice, and I’m using your own words here, I’ve heard you say that you no longer have the “bottle” to face up to a real bull.

A: A real one, yes, and two real ones, even less. When I speak of bravery, I am talking about 100%, all-consuming commitment. I am talking about going all out for it. Tossing a coin so it comes down whichever way fate wills it. At times like that, experience counts for little, because you don’t need much technique to get a bull to charge, but you do need a lot of commitment when it does. And I don’t mind saying so, that really is difficult. You have to offer the bull the chance of catching you, of choosing between the muleta or your body. If you can get it right, you can be sure of a triumph, because the bull gains confidence, and charges better.

 

Q: So you don’t want to make a comeback?

A: My feet are firmly on the ground. And I don’t lack courage, but to psych myself up for it is something I no longer think is possible.

 

Q: Perhaps the public doesn’t expect you to.

A: But I do. I don’t want to make up weight in a cartel, and hope for a suitable bull to come out. It’s a nice story, but not for me. I was never a capon but a fighting cock. I can remember one castaño bull in Madrid, and I didn’t have the guts to take it on. It made me think. It was from El Torreón, and although it wasn’t fantastic, on another occasion I could have cut its ears. But I couldn’t handle it, and I was uncomfortable. No-one noticed, but deep down it sowed the seeds of doubt. I don’t want ever again to feel the impotence I felt with that bull.

 

Q: ‘Antoñete’ tells us that when he made a comeback in the 80s, it was because the bulls of that time ‘allowed’ it. Are the bulls of today more difficult than ever?

A: Without a doubt. Today’s bulls have a mobility [‘movilidad’] and a ferocity [‘fiereza’] which demands of the torero a high degree of physical and mental fitness. If you leave the profession, you can’t get back in shape.

 

Q: Then we must deny ourselves the exquisiteness of veteran toreros. From Rafael 'El Gallo' onwards, they have always held a place in toreo; for example, Antonio Bienvenida, Andrés Vázquez, Rafael Ortega, Manolo Vázquez...

A: It’s a shame, but that’s the way it is. This is a profession of eccentrics, but some stand out. The heart of a torero must resemble that of a child. Children react on impulse, on wishes, on desires. They don’t take into account the possible consequences of their actions - they just do something and that’s all there is to it.

 

Q: Nowadays technique has become indispensable in toreo. Is that because of the bulls?

A: Yes and no. Once you’re facing the bull, having learnt the necessary techniques, you shouldn’t think about it too much. If you start thinking, the public starts thinking, and the faena comes out cold and mechanical. People should feel, not analyze what they are seeing. Technique is necessary to torear, to solve problems which come up in the lidia, but feeling, intuition, and individual style [‘personalidad’] are also very necessary. Maybe I’ve gone soft [‘amariconado’] as an aficionado, but what I like now is an artistic approach, emotion, the good taste of good toreros.

 

Q: Was your thing an approach of ‘purity’?

A: That’s what I tried for.

 

Q: Was there a relationship between what you felt, and what you expressed?

A: Not always. Sometimes I felt misunderstood.

 

Q: Such as?

A: When I was pleased with the 15 passes I gave a bull, and no-one noticed. At times like that, I just wanted to die. To show something as intimate and personal as your inner feelings, and to realise that you have failed to communicate, that’s the worst thing that can happen to an artist. When that happened to me, I thought to myself  “Am I really so bad, and do I express myself quite so badly?” I was crushed. A torero needs to communicate what he’s trying to say.

 

Q: Why was it that, despite your natural abilities, there were some afternoons when you drifted around aimlessly in the plaza, like a soul in torment. Was it because you didn’t feel up to it, or because you didn’t want to be there?

A: Perhaps a bit of both. Sometimes, when I had a series of triumphs, I got bored. I needed stress, pressure, I liked to have a good row. I felt like a phoenix that needed to arise from its own ashes.

 

Q: On more than one occasion, you had confrontations with the public.

A: I enjoyed it, it was like a drug, and I couldn’t avoid it. The public was the same. Sometimes I would hear a voice from the tendidos, which might or might not have a point, and that got me going. I would get closer and closer to the bull. A display of macho toreo like in the old days.

 

Q: You didn’t have a lot of laughs as a torero.

A: I kept myself to myself, and never tied up with anyone. When the time came to make demands and to protect my own interests, I did so, accepting responsibility for the consequences.

 

Q: And what does that signify?

A: Sometimes it meant staying at home and giving up fat purses. But that wasn’t important. What was important was keeping my own self-esteem and defending my standing as a torero.

 

Q: Was it always so?

A: Since the day I went out by the Puerta Grande of the plaza de Las Ventas in the festival for the victims of the volcano Nevado del Ruiz in 1986. I remember that I was to take the alternativa a few days later, and a group of empresarios offered us 20 novilladas in their plazas, and the alternativa in Burgos in the month of June. They said: “Don’t worry about your alternativa in Málaga - what’s done can be undone.” I turned them down.

 

Q: Did they make you pay you for it in the long run?

A: I don’t know if it came to that, but on the day of my confirmación, on 26th of May in that year, Enrique Martín Arranz, my apoderado, told me that we didn’t have a single contract lined up. Maybe it was the rashness of youth, but I told him not to worry, and that, whatever happened, I wouldn’t sign a contract for less than one million of the old pesetas.

 

Q: That’s what I call having faith in one’s self.

A: I had nothing. I was skinnier than a slice of mojama, and if I couldn’t make it in this business, I wouldn’t be around for long. But I had one thing in my favour: I was going out into the plaza to put my life on the line. On the day of my confirmación, I cut an ear from a murteira grave. That fact, plus my triumph in the festival, caused me to take off like a rocket. That year I had more than 50 corridas, and I didn’t look back.

 

Q: I remember you in Valencia, in a suit of white and gold, giving a pedresina pass to a terrifying bull of Peralta, with a muleta no bigger than a newspaper.

A: Yes, yes. But also I was very lucky. That season I got so close, I was like a madman. I was caught every afternoon, but I never had a cornada. But you wouldn’t believe the knocking about that I got! I used to get up from the sand, shake off some of the dust, and get stuck in again.

 

Q: What went on between you and Chopera in 1988?

A: Well, after the triumphs in Madrid, in San Isidro and La Beneficencia, the time came for Bilbao, and don Manuel Chopera had the bright idea of putting me with the Murteira Graves, and another corrida dura. I wasn’t too pleased with the idea, but I said that I would accept it with one condition: that I should go on with Rafi Camino and Litri, and that the second corrida should be of Torrestrella or Jandilla. Apparently, he didn’t like that idea, and he didn’t beat about the bush, saying bluntly that I could either take it or leave it. He told me that if I didn’t do as he said, I wouldn’t set foot in one of his plazas that year. And so it came to pass. I lost more than 15 corridas that year, but I was not prepared to be treated like that.

Q: But then, the next year...

A: I cut two ears from an Atanasio Fernández in San Isidro, and I was confirmed as a figura. From that day on, I resolved not to appear in any of his plazas until I knew exactly what I would be paid, what bulls I would face, and whom I would be appearing with on the cartel.

 

Q: If only everyone did the same...

A: If they did, many things would change for the better.

 

Q: At one time you had a legion of followers.

A: I think it may have been because I wasn’t the top dog. I had my good points, and my peculiarities. And that gave rise to a certain expectancy. I never covered up my doubts or my insecurity. People could see that I was for real, and they liked what they saw.

 

Q: Self-doubt seems to have been a constant in your life.

A: I still have a problem with it. Sometimes I feel so unsure of myself, and so off-key that... but then again, some days I get up in the morning and feel the most optimistic guy in the world.

 

Q: What have you got to say about television?

A: That I don’t watch it much.

 

Q: But seriously, though.

A: That I was unhappy about them televising me without so much as a by-your-leave, and they just imposed it on me anyway. And I can assure you that it wasn’t about the money, because sometimes I have appeared and waived my fee, as a favour to a friend. Also, at that time there were so many events being televised that people preferred to stay at home in front of the TV, rather than going to the plaza and paying for a ticket. That didn’t do anyone any good.

 

Q: I hear what you’re saying, but what about the thousands of aficionados who couldn’t travel to an important feria or a plaza de toros?

A: Don’t think that didn’t affect me too. That’s why I agreed to do things I didn’t like doing, for those same people.

 

Q: 1996 was your best season. It began with you cutting a tail from a Pepe Garfías bull in Mexico, and then there were the six ears in the historic corrida of 2nd of May, and in San Isidro you went out the Puerta Grande again.

A: And the following year I went out the Puerta del Príncipe in Seville.

 

Q: And then on 26th September 1998 you retired as a matador, killing six bulls in that same plaza.

A: I had been thinking about it since the year before. Then on that afternoon I realised that the time had come. In ‘97 I had a terrible time, I was unhappy in the ring, and I let the pressure get to me.

 

Q: That day you really suffered.

A: And in the plaza I was full of enthusiasm, but nothing worked out right. I remember that the fourth bull carried off my capote, and I was so screwed up ['jodido'], I just wanted it all to be over, and instead of jumping the fence, I just stood there, waiting for the bull to hit me ['me partiera por la mitad']. I was a sorry sight that day, but no-one had a go at me, even though I knew that I had held back - I didn’t go for it ['no puse un alamar'].

 

Q: You came back in Castellón in April 2000.

A: I came back in order to take away the unpleasant taste of that farewell appearance. During that time, there were a few good things. On my last afternoon I cut two ears from a nice little bull in Zaragoza, and I was happy to leave on that note. What really upset me - and you can put it like that in your interview - was to appear so many times with José Tomás. That monster ['cabrón'] is the bravest torero that I have ever seen in my entire life. He would take up his position, and it was impossible to make him move. With a good bull, by my standards, I knew that I could do well, but for him it made no difference if it was good or bad. Not long ago, he killed a bull in private ['a puerta cerrada'] on my ranch, and I said to him: “If I had just one hair from your testicle, I could make a comeback tomorrow.”

 

Q: If he didn’t exist, would you return to torear?

A: Just knowing that there is someone out there who works more closely ['se arrima'] than you can does your head in ['es jodido'].

 

Q: I know that you have two lovely daughters, Alba and Claudia, but if one of them said to you: "Daddy, I want to be a torero"?

A: I can promise you that if she was up to it, she would be the best there is.

 

Q: Artistically, or the bravest?

A: My daughter? As an artist, an artist. But with true grit ['con muchos cojones’].

 

Q: How can that be?

A: You can’t really perform good toreo, the way it should be, without being extraordinarily brave.

 

And also by speaking from the heart. Thank you, maestro.

 

[The photos that accompany this article were taken on Joselito’s final appearance in a traje de luces at Zaragoza, 13th October 2003.]