I: Twenty-One


Almost every week-end that winter, now that I was earning my own money, I went to the bullfights in Mexico City. Rudolfo Gaona was the famous Mexican matador of the day, a stocky Indian of great art and bravery. Sanchez Mejias was there from Spain that season, greatly acclaimed, as well as Juan Silveti, and a younger fighter called Juan Luis de la Rosa, who did not win much favor with the crowd. One afternoon, in the sunset, at the end of a six-bull corrida, (bulls from the Duque de Veragua) I saw de la Rosa trying to kill his final bull amidst a shower of cushions, canes, paper bags, and anything else throwable that an irate crowd could hurl at him. But he stuck it out, and finally the enormous animal slid to his knees, bleeding on the sand. But the matador was soundly hissed as he left the ring.

At the annual festival bullfight for the charities of la Cavadonga, when the belles of Mexico City, in their lace mantillas, drove about the arena in open carriages preceding the fight, and the National Band played, and the Presidente de la Republica was there, and Sanchez Mejias made the hair stand on your head and cold chills run down your back with the daring and beauty of his veronicas, after the fight there was a great rush into the ring on the part of many of the young men in the crowd, to lift the famous fighters on their shoulders or to carry off a pair of golden banderillas as a souvenir, with the warm blood still on them. I dived for the ring, too, the moment the fight was over. In leaping the barrera, I tore my only good trousers from knee to ankle—but I got my banderillas.

After the fights, I would usually have supper with the three charming and aging Mexican sisters, the Patiños, friends of my father’s, who lived near the Zocalo, just back of the cathedral, and who always invited me to vespers. To please them, I would go to vespers, and I began to love the great, dusky, candle-lighted interiors of the vast Mexican churches, smoky with incense and filled with sad virgins and gruesome crucifixes with real thorns on the Christ-head, and what seemed to be real blood gushing forth from His side, thick and red as the blood of the bulls I had seen killed in the afternoon. In the evenings I might go to see Margarita Xirgu, or Virginia Fabregas in some bad Spanish play, over-acted and sticky like the cakes in our Toluca sweet shop.

Meanwhile, ambitiously, I began to try to write prose. I tried to write about a bullfight, but could never capture it on paper. Bullfights are very hard things to put down on paper—like trying to describe the ballet.

Bullfights must be seen in all their strength of vigorous and graceful movement and glitter of sun on sleek hides and silken suits spangled with gold and silver and on the sharp points of the banderillas and on the thin blades of the swords. Bullfights must be heard, the music barbaric and Moorish, the roar of the crowd, the grunt of the bull, the cry of the gored horse, the trumpet signalling to kill, the silence when a man is gored. They must be smelt, dust and tobacco and animals and leather, sweat and blood and the scent of death. Then the cry of glory when a great kill is made and the flutter of thousands of handkerchiefs, with roses thrown at the feet of the triumphant matador, as he is awarded the tail and ears of the bull. Or the hiss of scorn when the fighter has been cowardly or awkward.

Then the crowd pouring out into the sunset, and the fighters covered with sand and spattered with blood, gliding off to their hotels in swift, high-powered cars; the women on the street selling lottery tickets; beggars; and men giving out cards to houses of pleasure; and the police clearing a passage for the big Duesenbergs of the rich; and the naked bulls hanging beneath the arena, skinned, ready for the market.

A bullfight is like a very moving play—except that the fight is real, unrehearsed, and no two corridas are ever the same. Of course, the bull gets killed. But sometimes, the man dies first. It is not a game or a sport. It’s life playing deliberately with death. Except that death is alive, too, taking an active part.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.