February has ended and Colimenses can now close the book on one of the highpoints of the Colima social calendar. The city of Villa de Alvarez initiates the festival season with the 160-year-old “Festejos (festival) Charrotaurinos (rodeo competitors).” These quasi-religious festivals are one of the cool and charming aspects of Mexico. Practically every municipality in Mexico has at least one or more. Here in my adopted state of Colima, the fiestas start in February and end in November
Our bash, also known as La Petatera, features a formal corrida or bullfight. The Festejo Charrotaurinos began on February 5th and celebrates the life and martyrdom of Saint Philip of Jesus. An evangelist sent to Japan from Spain via Mexico City, Saint Phil, insulted local religious practices and was impaled on a couple of spears. In 1685, prayers to Saint Philip were credited with a speedy recovery here in Colima after an earthquake; ever since then he has been the patron saint of Villa de Alvarez.
Time to Party.
Our fete features rodeos and bullfights which take place inside of the ring or Petatera.
Constructed completely of palm fibers, parota wood and bamboo, this iconic stadium can easily accommodate 5000 spectators. I smirk when I see signs celebrating the fact that the Petatera bullfighting ring is 100% organic. Seems odd to me.
In the sunlight, the Petatera is otherworldly and beautiful. At first glance it appears to be a simple small outdoor arena built in the middle of a clearing. Then, as details emerge, you can begin to see the woven palm frond panels and the supporting tree limbs.
Declared part of the cultural patrimony of Mexico, the Petatera, has been constructed, dismantled and reassembled for the past 160 years. A single family is chosen to maintain and guard the instructions and materials. For the past fifty years, the family of Don Desiderio Contreras has been in charge.
Sitting in the cochera.
“Carlos, isn’t that Adela and Armando’s SUV?” I asked. It is always easy to identify Adela’s car. As the former presidenta of the Colima Lion’s Club she has an enormous stick-on crest on the hood of her car. I often tease Carlos telling him that that it’s not a car it’s the queen’s carriage. “Looks like Armando is driving, I wonder what they want,” Carlos said. “Prieto,” Adela lowered her window and shielded her eyes from the sun, “we have tickets to the bullfight; but Armando and I cannot go, we thought that maybe you and Sid might like to attend. Carlos looked at me, “What do you think?” he asked indifferently.
“Cool, I’d love to see the bullfight,” I replied. Adela reached into her purse and handed the tickets to Carlos. “Muchisimas gracias Adela and Armando,” I said. “Wow. A bullfight.” The SUV disappeared in a dust cloud as they drove down the street. “Have you ever been to bullfight,” I asked Carlos. He replied, “No, I think it’s cruel and disgusting. The animals are innocent.”
What have I Done?
Suffice it to say, I was starting to feel very uncomfortable about the decision I just made. I thought about saying let’s skip this, but I know it would mean breaking an obscure family rule. Carlos would in turn be upset and more annoyingly I would just confirm the perception that gringos are weak. Unfortunately, there was no way around it; Carlos and I are going to a bullfight – crap. Carlos looked at me, “You don’t want to go, do you? I knew it. I thought this is crazy. Sid doesn’t like bullfights. Why did you say yes and take the tickets?
“Because I felt like Adela was secretly laughing at me; giving me that poor-little-gringo vibe.” “Laughing at you?” Carlos asked. “Well, yes, it was sort of making fun of me; she doesn’t think that I am emotionally strong enough to watch a bullfight. Everyone thinks Americans are weak. “When did she say that?” he asked. She didn’t have to; I have been here long enough; I can tell.
Death in the Afternoon.
As we walked towards the Petatera its form and outlines became clearer. In sunlight, the exterior appears golden brown like a stadium made of sheepskin or parchment. There were two lines forming at our gate number. Security conducted a perfunctorily check of my camera bag and then ushered us towards two busty women offering free shots of Tequila. Carlos declined so I drank both shots. As I approached the entrance, I could feel the tequila shots starting to kick in. “What have I done?”
We found our seats…”good seats” second box – up close and personal. “Oye es de Cuba?” someone tapped me on the shoulder. Carlos smiled. It’s the ubiquitous are you from Cuba question I receive frequently in Colima. Here and throughout Mexico there is a tendency to associate the African diaspora with Cuba. It also comes from the fact that there are Afro-Cuban professors and doctors here in Colima. “No, I am from the United States, Chicago,” I replied. Howls and sighs went up as well as the name Trump and expletives. How embarrassing.
Que No Pare La Fiesta – Don’t Stop The Party.
“Hey you want a shot of Tequila, amigo?” Normally, I would look at Carlos first for approval or direction. This time I felt the situation required quick action. I slammed the shot without asking. The guys cheered and slapped me on the back and shoulders. “Otro! Otro!” they started to yell in unison. I looked at Carlos again. I did not want a fourth shot of Tequila. Seeing the panic in my face, Carlos said to the guys, “One is his limit. He doesn’t drink much.” My hero.
Down the aisle, people were dancing to Banda music, clowns were selling balloons and there were children running around in every direction. The group of guys behind us yelled out an order for drinks. A box filled with bottles of whiskey and tequila was passed back to them. Everyone was rowdy; the majority of men were drunk and I still felt like idiot. As the shock wore off and my tequila kicked in, I scanned the arena. Never having been to a bullfight, I didn’t know what to expect. The interior of the Petatera appeared stable and less like a giant floor mat. However, the stadium had annoying tendency to roll and undulate in long, slow waves. It was very subtle to the point of being almost imperceptible. Part of me wanted to flee before the torture began; another part of me tried to remain calm.
The Center of Attention.
“Feliz?” Carlos asked. “Yes, no one in Chicago will believe me when I tell them I attended a bullfight,” I said. I imagined myself being attacked by PETA animal activists as soon as I returned to the states. As ticket holders took seats in our section, I became a reluctant celebrity. Everyone wanted to drink with the Gringo Cuban. I had to turn down numerous offers of shots of tequila. I leaned in and whispered in Carlos’ ear and said, “Everyone is listening to us; it’s like we are the focus of attention.” He whispered back, “Yes, my Cubanito, everyone is impressed. We can leave if you like.”
“No, I am fine,” I smiled. I just wanted this to be over. Quickly.
I thought about writing the details of the formal corrida, but it would be overwhelming. If you are a proud bleeding heart liberal like me, a bullfight is as violent, horrible and bloody as you would imagine. I think bullfighting should be renamed the slow torture and death of a bull. The overwhelming majority of Colimenses are not big fans of bullfighting.
I will never forget the woman who sat alone sewing embroidered flowers onto a handkerchief hoop. She turned around nodded, waved and smiled at us. Later in the evening should would be screaming, Martarlo! (Kill him!) as they hacked away at the bull.
Carlos and I took off well before the bullfight ended. Next year I will limit myself to rides and food.