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Last running of the bulls in Tecate

Replaced by a county fair in 1990

100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways.
  • 100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways.
  • Image by Natalie Fiocre

It was a noble experiment. For ten years, beginning in 1979, the city of Tecate, Baja California, sponsored Pamplonada, a running of the bulls, inspired by Hemingway's much-loved event in Pamplona, Spain. Pamplonadacan be roughly translated as "Pamplona-rama." Tecate, Tijuana's sweeter little sister, has long vied for a larger share of the tourist wealth that floods the larger city; for most of its modern life, Tecate has been known simply as the home of Tecate beer. Believing that an adventurous event would attract gringos and enliven Tecate's somnambulistic reputation, the town fathers chose a running of the bulls as the sure thing. It was doomed from the start. Not only is the Mexican border not Spain, but 100,000 drunk sailors, bikers, cowboys, and college kids is no army of Hemingways. The story of one of the last Pamplonadas shows something of what went wrong.

We saw a woman walking on the shoulder of the road. She was carrying the tiniest of babies, shielding it from the sun with a square of white cardboard.

We saw a woman walking on the shoulder of the road. She was carrying the tiniest of babies, shielding it from the sun with a square of white cardboard.

The pace is slow in Tecate, and the people are more friendly than in the bigger city. The small park in the middle of town has a tiled gazebo. The city fathers have rigged it with speakers that play music all day for the folks who loiter on the benches. This rural town is built in a hilly region long thought by local Indians to hold mystical powers. A conical hill nearby, Kuchaamaa, is greatly loved by UFO aficionados; one American cult believes the interstellar ships will touch down here, and they claim to receive mysterious emanations on the hill. Just south of town, past the Tecate beer plant, there is a small river that floods in winter and blocks access to the main street, frustrating ranchers in souped-up pickup trucks.

"We all know that only your lower classes do such things."

"We all know that only your lower classes do such things."

During the Pamplonada, this bucolic scene would be fractured by an army of gringos from San Diego and Los Angeles and swarms of louts from Tijuana and Mexicali. The prospect of seeing hundreds of drunks pursued by angry bulls appealed to me. The year before, an American had actually died (anticlimactically, from a heart attack), and street legend was full of unimaginably ferocious gorings and tramplings.

Pepe opened his wallet and whipped out a microfilm square with the entire Bible printed on it

Pepe opened his wallet and whipped out a microfilm square with the entire Bible printed on it

Evidence suggests that the bulls were in as much danger as the runners. On the same day the hapless gringo died, runners had been seen ganging up on the bulls, kicking their legs out from under them, and dog-piling on them. (As it turns out, the bulls were mostly rangy little yearling.) A couple of the bulls were kicked silly, and the drunks branded them with cigarettes.

A voice came over one of the loudspeakers: "Do not panic. Remain calm. Stay away from the area." Stay away?

A voice came over one of the loudspeakers: "Do not panic. Remain calm. Stay away from the area." Stay away?

In an interesting twist, the organizers of the Pamplonada had decided that for the protection of the animals, only older, larger bulls would be run. That did it; I was going, and I was rooting for the bulls.

I brought along my wild-eyed American friend Mike, a missionary who had been living at an orphanage south of Tecate. We drove from Tijuana to Tecate along the Mexican route, a two-lane highway that skirts the border and meanders through attractive backlands full of farms spread over low green hills. When we pulled into Tecate, a thin, pale rainbow was standing up from the brewery.

An orphanage in the interior had invited us to stay with them. It was one of my favorite spots — a wide valley nestled between mountains and high desert hills and a sprawling orphanage compound on a small farm tucked between a usually dry river and a cattle ranch. An Indian village had once been on the property, and the prehistoric grinding stones could still be seen, bowls worn into the sides of boulders.

The kids knew where to dig for artifacts. One boy showed me some pieces of clay pottery. "Can you find me some?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. "Will you pay me for it"?

"How much?"

"A dollar."

I gave him the money, and he ran up the hill. In about a half hour, he returned with a coffee can full of fragments.

Less remarkable but still of interest: a blue Ford Falcon station wagon half-buried in the river bed. The left front fender, half of the grille, and the driver's side of the windshield stuck out of the sand at an angle. One of the winter floods had dragged it out of the back country and buried it with powerful disdain. There had been a small house near this site, but the river washed it away.

Night was falling as we drove through the orphanage gates and the children stormed out of their building. Their eternal struggle with American names was evident as they shouted, "Mai! Mai!" Mike started cooking chili in his van. The children went back inside to eat their suppers. I could hear them saying grace. A group of Americans was camping above the orphanage.

When Mike and I were ready to eat our chili, two of the older orphan girls stopped outside the van with a tape recorder, playing Mexican ballads for us and singing along with them.

Later.

I sat in one of Mike's lawn chairs under a light pole, bare feet in the gravel, digging with my toes. Immense black ants sauntered across my feet, pushing the hairs around. Some of the gringo kids from the campsite on the hill wandered around the farm in groups, afraid to go into the night alone.

A bunch of them collected at the leaky pipe near the chicken coops (where the boys kept ducks, too, and a pair of baby hawks, and an exhausted little rattlesnake). They went crazy every time one of the insatiable desert bugs got them:

"Ow! I just got bit!"

"Prob'ly a scorpion."

"Ow!"

"Not again!"

"Yeah! Like six times! It's all over me!"

"Is it, like, flying or ... crawling?" Ironically, within the hour, one of the adults at the campsite would step on a scorpion and get a very painful surprise.

A fantastic tilework of dark cloud, backlit by a full moon, spread across the high desert like a disk, a hinged lid closing. The bulb atop the light pole was attracting a swirling ball of desperate moths, crane flies, mosquitoes, and other frantic night-flyers. I could hear — or more likely, feel — the ping and tsch-tsch of bats homing in on the insects. They dove into the globe of light and pulled straight out in stunning power climbs.

This miracle was going on about ten feet above my head. The American kids never saw it. In the blue-gray haze of moonlight, the windmill looked capable of flight, a rugged gyrocopter on stilts. The clouds thinned out, and the moon seemed to pop through, hanging below them about a mile above the valley.

Saturday, August 15. We all rose to the million jangling sounds of a farm at dawn — cowbells and barking dogs, the arguments of crows and the mindless rusty squawk of roosters. A frog the size of my thumbnail policed the area, then flashed down a crack. Jose, one of the orphans, sang "Sugar Sugar" as loud as he could. That he didn't know a world of English didn't stop him:

CHOOGAR Da-da-da da-DAN-DAN O honi honi Jou arr mi CANDIGAR Ah jou gommi WANNAJOU!

Driving toward Tecate, we saw a woman walking on the shoulder of the road. She was carrying the tiniest of babies, shielding it from the sun with a square of white cardboard.


Tecate, in the park.

Porta-toilets had been set up around the edge of the grass. The runners were registered by age and gender: WOMEN 20-25; MEN, 25-30, and so on. Drunks were already picking fights — a fat vato in mirror shades shouted, "You scared of me? Are you scared of me?" Americans everywhere:

"I don't think this picture'll come out."

"Sure it will." "I don't think so."

"Sure it will."

"You think so?"

"Sure."

"Okay!"

A man without fingers on either hand was selling rubber joke items from a suitcase — green dog turds, whoopie cushions, small rubber chickens, bloody rubber thumbs. (What did he think of when he sold these? Did he remember his own thumbs? Did he hate his customers and long after their fingers? Did he wish they'd leave their fingers in his case?)

The lines at the toilets were long but not unmanageable. An unkempt Mexican man in his 30s, unshaven, his shirttails flapping, cruised the sidewalk and stopped to look at the lines of gringos waiting patiently to get to the toilets. He started to walk by but did a double-take. In retrospect, I believe this was where the idea hit. A stroke of genius, so fast, so sharp, that at first I wasn't sure I was seeing it.

He stationed himself before the door of one toilet. When the next tourist stepped up, he extended his hand officiously, palm up, and wiggled his fingers. The startled American didn't protest — he dug out a quarter, and the Mexican opened the door and let him in. This worked over and over. The man grew so bold that whenever a person seemed to be dawdling inside, he would pound on the door and scold him. When one of the passing cops slowed to look at him, the Mexican hurled his last customer out of the stall and locked himself in. He must have made a fortune that weekend.


Some friends of the orphanage lived in Tecate. They were charming people named Socorro and Pepe. Pepe was a huge man, with a walrus mustache. Socorro was dark and slender. Their daughter was named Yoloxochitl — a Nahuatl word meaning Flower of the North. Socorro had insisted we eat lunch with them, saying, "This is God's house. People know when they come here that they are home."

Over lunch, Pepe told me stories of Pamplonadas past. One year, he said, the lines to get into the toilets were too long, and one of the American women startled the Mexicans by dropping her pants and urinating in the street. Also, a friend of theirs was walking with her mother when a group of American men cornered her and began to fondle her, trying to get her clothes off. I asked him what the Mexicans think about gringos after such displays.

He pursed his lips, a sure sign of approaching diplomacy. "We all know," he crooned, "that only your lower classes do such things."

I looked at him.

"The problem," he continued, "is that people are starting to think that all Americans are like this."

Yes, but what do people really think?

"Gringos," Pepe said, "act like they've been in a box all year. Crossing the border makes them think they have an excuse to run wild. But you know what? I can complain all I want. If you were to ask a merchant out there about the Pamplonada, he'd say it was the greatest thing to every happen to us."

Sunday, August 16

Drinking coffee in Pepe's house. All the heavy traffic bound from Tijuana to Mexicali had been rerouted down Pepe's street to free the main drag for the bull run. Periodically, conversation halted, battered into silence by the roar of big trucks. We had started out the day at the orphanage's prayer service, led by the farmer's wife. Though he is officially the director, she runs the place and directs the religious activities. While she preached, he milked the cows.

After breakfast I had found him in the kitchen, pouring the fresh milk into pails, straining out the curds with a cheesecloth.

"Buenos dias, Don Victor."

He nodded, offering me a clot of pale curd. "Have some!"

"Is it good?"

"Well," he said, "it makes a good laxative."

We laughed.

We drank the milk and ate animal crackers.


Paramedics had come to Tecate from all over — there were crews from Tijuana, Ensenada, and Mexicali. Their blocky ambulances lurked at all the side streets. A double fence of steel bars ran down the center of the main road, Juarez Street, forming a metal corridor to hold in the bulls and the runners. There was plenty of room underneath for people to dive out. A wooden bridge was built across the run for the TV cameras and the press.

I could hear the unmistakable sound of a raucous Mexican marching band; skwonking trumpets not quite in sync with the tubas, and the drums keeping time to a tune of their own. The sound was deafening. A surfer next to me said, "Cheeziz Crize!" And the parade was upon us. Men wore hats made of beer cans; one of them simply wore a beer carton over his head; clowns, cops, mariachis. Among the spectators, a Mexican motorcycle gang in full colors sat astride their hogs. "Los Vagos, MC — MEXICALI." (Vago means vagrant, tramp, wanderer, loiterer. However, among Mexican hard-guys, to be a vago is to be macho, like a human alley cat. And since this is Mexico, the word has yet another meaning — "vague.")

Suddenly, panic! The Club of Spain's float was taller than the press bridge. The entire parade came to a halt when the turret of the float's papier-mache castle banged into it. The engine raced, then died. Very Important Officials followed their stomachs around, shouting orders.

Pepe and I discovered a snake charmer.

"Damas y caballeros" (ladies and horsemen, literally), "this serpent is the only serpent on Earth trained to do card tricks!"

"This looks good," I said.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you will see my works! I don't ask you for money — I don't care about money! I am not a witch, I am a parapsychologist!"

Pepe guffawed.

The snake charmer pointed to a box. "Within, the deadly boa constrictor. An educated serpent!" He pulled the snake from the box — an apathetic four-footer — and waved it at the crowd. Girls jumped back; drunks called insults.

"Money?" he insisted. "I don't need money! If you have it, praise God! It was hard to earn!"

Pepe whispered, "Watch your wallet. These guys have partners who go around the crowd picking pockets."

"Do you comprehend what I'm doing?" cried the parapsychologist.

"Talking too much!" one of the drunks shouted back.

"You in a big hurry?" snapped the snake charmer. "If you are, then leave! This is a street. You can walk on it!"

It turned out that he had a magic and sacred Rosicrucian cross made of parapsychologically effective magnets. For only $29 U.S. cash money, we could have his special powers too. The only power he was demonstrating, though, was a fabulous gift for B.S.

As we walked away, he was yelling, "I will now show you a card trick invented by the one and only ruler of planet Earth — Napoleon Bonaparte!"


Pepe is a Charismatic Catholic. He continually amazed me. At one point, he opened his wallet and whipped out a microfilm square with the entire Bible printed on it. It measured two inches by two inches. "English or Spanish?" I asked.

He looked stricken. "Uh ... " he said.

As we walked, he asked, "How do you feel about smoking?"

"I don't do it."

"Yes, but what do you think of it?"

"It's bad for your health!" I offered.

Exasperated, he said, "Yeah, yeah. But do you think it's a big sin?"

"No..."

"Good!" he sighed, pulling a pack of Camels from his pocket.

Pepe went home. I went back into the park. It was jammed with bodies. Words rose like bits of meat in boiling soup — "I take your picture!" "More beer, dude!" "Mami, mira la bomba!"

One thousand registered runners were in the bull run, joking, limbering up like joggers on a track. I squeezed through knots of people, working my way between the back of an ambulance and the steel fence, only a foot from some of the runners. They were talking big, acting fearless. The ambulance crew stood on the back bumper, their rig's doors open. They leaned on the top rail. I stuck my head through the bars and craned to see down the run: solid bodies.

A string of firecrackers went off, and a surge went through the crowd, like a small wave in a bay. The runners giggled. Then a cannon blast. A roar came from the end of the run, growing louder and louder, the sound of pounding. One runner turned to look, glazed over for an instant, shouted, "Oh, my God!" and scrambled up the fence, eyes screwed shut.

The bulls were almost too fast to see. They were past in a blur of horns and flanks. One man tried to grab a bull and was tossed aside, bouncing off the rails and back to the ground. The ambulance crew from across the street rushed in and put him on a stretcher.

About a block away, there was a 5&10 store. It was directly behind the grandstand, and a crowd of spectators had climbed on the roof, hoping to get a better view. Smoke began to snake up behind them. The street was still full of antsy runners, waiting for a second charge. The smoke blew across the roof, enveloping the spectators. They began to scramble, trying to get off without breaking their necks. We watched the smoke rise. Then I realized the building was burning.

One of the ambulance crew said, "The taco stand next door caught fire."

A breeze caught the smoke and looped it down into the grandstand and over the runners. They began to churn. There was a dull, repetitive thudding.

The crew chief said, "Something in the store's blowing up."

Sirens wailed, and the ambulance and fire truck lights jumped to life. The crowd, instead of dispersing, seemed to clench, to draw tighter. I couldn't move. The air stank of sweat, smoke, excrement from the bulls. A man near me vomited; a group of men cheered him and applauded. Crashing glass. A voice came over one of the loudspeakers: "Do not panic. Remain calm. Stay away from the area." Stay away? We were jammed right into it. The smoke was turning chemical, burning my eyes.

Two establishments had caught fire — the store and the taco stand. Then the house behind them. No one had the keys to unlock the bars of the gates in the street, so the fire trucks couldn't get down the block to fight the flames. I helped a cop crawl through the fence.

Loudspeaker: "Please clear the area. Move away. You are in danger. Get your children away."

I followed the cop, watched them pull a woman out of the smoke; she was limp. The ambulance couldn't move. They hauled her through the bodies, and the last thing I heard the driver say before I lost track of them was, "We'll have to lay her on the roof," as they lifted her.

A gang of drunken vatos marched through, elbowing people out of the way, chanting, "Tecate's burning down! Tecate's burning down!"

The cop had vanished in the smoke. There were whistles bleating, the sound of cans crunching. A bottle flew over my head and broke in front of me. I climbed through the fence on the other side and saw a man propped against a pillar. His face was burned. One of the fire fighters was draping gooey white cloth over his eyes.

Loudspeaker: "There are propane tanks in the store. You must move at least two blocks away."

Mike ran up to me with a camera. "I'm taking pictures!" he shouted, diving into the smoke.

A cop came up to me, watched me write notes. "Press?" he demanded.

Instead of answering, I said, "Officer, how did it start?"

He puffed up, hand on hips. "This is not known," he said.

The nephew of the store owner ran up to us. He grabbed my arm. "Americans threw matches!" he cried, then ran back to the store. Another man passing by said, "Four dead."

"No!" the cop said to me, very intently. "No dead. No hay muertos."

There was no way to know if anyone was hurt or not. In fact, later that evening, at Pepe's house, we would watch the whole thing over again on the San Diego TV news. They reported a quaint and boisterous day, with a cute little fire, entertaining and benign. Yet we had seen burned people being carried away. They were taken down the street and into an alley, the mouth of which was blocked by police. There was also much talk on the street of a woman badly burned and carried off in a blanket. "It makes you wonder," I said, "if they were in the same city."


A group of gringo college boys stood next to the Mexican firemen, wrestling with fire hoses.

The store owners — I saw the nephew in there — were tossing clothes out through the broken plate glass window, trying to save them from the water and smoke. Spectators were running to the window, punching each other, fighting over the T-shirts. A drunk challenged every male to a fight, calling each one "Pinche buey!" ("fucking water buffalo," a popular curse). I was astounded to see a woman pushing through the crowd with a video camera on her shoulder. In an educated voice, she narrated into the mike. "They don't want to leave, the people begging for a thrill." Behind her came a woman wearing a red satin baseball cap with devil horns on it. From a nearby roof, speakers crackled to life and blasted Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock."

I stood in the flow, writing, being jostled. Suddenly, a man ran past, pursued by police. They caught up to him about ten feet away and bludgeoned him to the ground. People cheered them on. The man began to scream; the sound scratched down my spine. Juarez Street was full of violence: we were hysterical as chimps, throwing punches at anyone who came too close.

Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. The whole thing collapsed in on itself, and I found myself in the park, sitting on the fountain, hanging my head. Exhausted people were scattered everywhere, sleeping off the fire as though it were a huge meal.

The cops loitered in packs, eating little vanilla ice cream cones.

One skinny officer was telling his pals about a drunk American woman he'd caught taking her clothes off in the street. She was a redhead. He said he told her to stop, but she refused. He said, "I told her, if you want to put on a show" (he said the word in English: un show) "I'll lock you in a truck with a bunch of my boys, and then you'll really have a show! Otherwise, get off the street!"

They laughed.

Kids were playing with foam rubber lizards attached to coat hangers. The little beasts swirled around our legs, between the cops' feet.

An officer, listening to a walkie-talkie, jumped to his feet and shouted, "Un trientaisiete!" (A 37!)

About 100 Mexican cops stampeded across the park. They were yelling back to the stragglers, "Hurry up! A 37!"

Two cops were hustling a shirtless Mexican out of the crowd. They twisted his arms up behind him. It hurt — he was up on his tip-toes. Two American women came after, held tightly by grim women officers.

One of them was shouting, "Oh, God! Don't fight! Take my hand!" She was trying to reach back to her friend.

Her friend was too busy to notice. "Don't I have any say in this?" she demanded. The cop acted deaf.

"Don't fight them!"

The mass of cops followed in a tan wave. I ran around them and caught up with the women as they left the park. The second one was shouting into a male cop's face, "No fuck! What the fuck do you mean, no fuck?"

The skinny cop from before nodded at me. "She was putting on un show," he said.


Mike found a kitten on a window ledge beside the fire. Someone had put him up there, and he'd been too small to jump down. He'd taken the brunt of the spray from the fire hoses, which probably saved him from burning to death. But his nose was cooked and his throat was so wrecked from the smoke and from screaming that he had no voice left. The smoke had made his eyes leak goo, and they were glued shut. I dipped my handkerchief in water and wiped them clean, but they'd fill up again. I wrapped him in my T-shirt. He gripped my knuckles with his tiny claws and purred.

Socorro cooked us a huge supper.

As we left, Pepe said, "Most people call this thing a Pamplonada, but I call it a Simplonada." (This was quite a joke — Simplon means idiot. Nada means nothing. And as a suffix, -nada is similar to "-arama.")

I held the kitten in my lap as Mike and I drove out of town and up the hills toward the orphanage. We pulled in at Los Encinos to watch a country dance. Somber cowboys shuffled slowly around an open concrete slab with girls in hand-sewn dresses. There were booths selling tacos and fruit. Paper lanterns wobbled in the breeze. During the fast songs, the ranchers clomped their boot heels, arms aflap like crows.

Monday, August 17

The kids woke me up at six. They wanted to know all about the Pamplonada. They loved the ugly little kitten and carried him around like a baby. He was still voiceless and blind, but his purr was startlingly loud. One of the girls got so excited that she danced all around me, accidentally kicking my big toenail loose. We all stood there watching my foot squirt blood.

Don Victor, the orphanage owner, wouldn't take the cat. He said he'd drown it if we left it with him.

Mike and I named the cat Bruce Springsteen, A Cat from the Street.

We expected trouble with the border guards over Bruce. I half considered hiding him — he would almost fit in my pocket. He kept his nails hooked in my skin, even in sleep, and purred constantly. He was very weak, though I had been able to get a little milk down him.

We finally decided to be honest and show them the cat. We were lucky; our guard was a young woman who took pity on Bruce. She petted him and said, "Poor little thing." She even gave me some tips on trying to revive him before she sent us across. When I got home, I fed Bruce warm milk with a spoon, then tucked him in a box full of underwear.

Wednesday, August 19

Little Bruce went to sleep last night and never woke up. I buried him under the jade trees in the back yard this morning.


Tecate ran the last Pamplonada in 1989. The quiet city, its resources finally overwhelmed by the great adventure, canceled future events. On July 13, 1990, city fathers ceremoniously opened a two-week-long country fair as a replacement for the annual running of the bulls.

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