Seeing Red

March 6, 2020 / Valeria Chavez

All artists have rituals. Dancers stretch their bodies, singers run their scales — and a bullfighter dons his traje de luces, the suit of lights. Gold thread surrounds the image of La Virgen de Monserrat, illuminating her with a corona. He speaks to his patron saint, asking for the courage to fight with honor and the chance to be el Número Uno. He prays that this fight will not be his last.

Before stepping out for el paseillo, the parade, he performs one final ritual: liar el capote de paseo. A silk cloak, embroidered with flowers and religious iconography. It is the most intimate moment for the torero, as he delicately wraps himself in his beautiful shroud and mentally prepares himself for what he is about to do: take a life so his art can live.

A bullfight is not the time nor the place for introversion. Equal parts opera, fashion show and bloodsport, corridas are spectacle and sport rolled into one. It’s man versus nature in its most flamboyant form. The bull must be convinced the final torero, el matador de toros, is a worthy adversary.

Bulls are never taught how to fight. By regulation, a fighting bull must never charge at a man before entering the ring. Like humans, bulls learn from experience. If they were trained, there would be no fight. The bull would win every time. Although it’s rare, there have been occasions where, for one reason or another, the bull is declared the champion. A bull that wins a fight is destined to become a star. Names such as Islero, the bull that killed Manolete, the world’s greatest matador right as he was on the brink of retirement, and Murcielago, a bull so passionate the crowd begged the torero to spare his life, have been immortalized in the form of Lamborghinis. Like sportscars themselves, victorious bulls are rare, revered and expensive.


It’s one thing to control a bull, but the true beast is the crowd. The fans are not faint of heart, neither are they bloodthirsty. For them, bullfighting is a tradition, a way of keeping their culture alive. Where else will you see men dressed in 18th Century Andalusian garb in 2019? They expect a performance full of drama and action, to witness the macabre and elegant pasodoble that ends with only one winner. Fail to live up to their expectations, and they may begin to cheer for the bull.

The torero steps out onto the soft dirt, greeted by the cheering crowd. His suit, his shining armor, fits bien apretado, tight. It is imperative he looks his best. This could be the last thing he ever wears. Chest puffed, hair slicked back, he struts to the center of the ring, every step carrying an air of bravado, breathing out any semblance of fear. He takes his position, his sword at his side and cape flowing over his shoulders. The president of the ring orders for the bulls to be released. The band begins to play a familiar Carmen-esque tune. The spectacle has begun.

“He prays that this fight will not be his last.”

A faena lasts 15 minutes. Any longer and the president will declare the match over and the bull is proclaimed the winner and freed. But if the bull is hurt beyond recovery, he is taken out back and slaughtered. The matador is shamed for not fulfilling his duty and bringing suffering to the magnificent creature. He understands the responsibility of his job, struggling through the cognitive dissonance of his act. He must bring pain, but in doing so he must bring it to a swift end to limit suffering. He must bring dignity to the bull by delivering a clean kill or risk dishonor by hurting the animal he cherishes most. Bulls are his livelihood, his reason for being. Toreros have a deep respect for the animals and consider it a privilege to fight them in the ring.

The true matador de toros is the only person in the ring during the last third of the faena. He enters the ring with only his muleta, that infamous red cape on a cane, and a sword. It is the movement of the muleta that guides the bull, urging him to step in time with his bipedal dance partner. The cape hypnotizes the bull as he fights through his pain, having already been impaled with lances by the picadores and banderilleros from the first two rounds. The honor and responsibility of taking the bull’s life goes to el matador, literally meaning “killer.”

He swivels just as the horns graze his muleta, planting his feet firmly on the ground, a cloud of dust rising into the air. The matador’s movements are smooth and elegant, guiding the horns through his choreography. His arms are reminiscent of a flamenco dancer, replacing castanets with spears. On the surface, they appear to be leading, but any wild animal cannot truly be controlled. A matador only gets one chance to strike the bull directly in the heart, delivering a fatal blow and ending the bull’s life. He is fierce in every sense of the world. He has to be if he wants to survive.

Violent and passionate, gory and glamourous, complex and contradictory. The modern matador is an artist. He is a living historical artifact, keeping his culture alive. He is a romantic, in love with what bullfighting represents and what it once was. He is afraid of what will happen if the world fails to see what he sees. He does not pray for acceptance, only respect. ■

By: Valeria Chavez

Layout: Maya Shaddock

Photographer: Alissa Jae Lazo-Kim

Stylists: Jacob Tran & Kaden Green

HMUA: Andrea Sanchez & Monica Balderas

Models: Anapaula Guajardo, Cruz Rendon & Rodrigo Colunga

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 13 here.
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