One of the most famous bullfighters working in Spain today, a native of Valencia known as El Soro, recently stepped into a small, stone-walled ring on a ranch not far from Tecate. Two veteran Mexican matadors accompanied him, as did two promising Mexican novices, and the American restaurateur and bullfight lover Paul Dobson. None of the men wore a suit of lights. They would not be waving their capes in front of any half-ton monsters this day, but instead would be confronting two-year-old cows.
The matadors were there at the invitation of Hernando Limon, a Tijuana businessman who, together with his son (also named Hernando), aspires to create some of the finest fighting bulls in the world. Staging cow fights or, more precisely, cow testings is part of that enterprise. Private affairs, open only to the rancher’s family and friends and to bullfight insiders, these tientas have many of the same elements as the public spectacle. But the objective of the two couldn’t be more different.
While bulls in a bullfight face a predetermined death, the destiny of cows in a tienta depends on the cow. The most timid animals and the most savage ones get the mundane sentence that awaits every Hereford or Angus: slaughter for consumption by humans. The best ones win the pampered life of being mothers to fighting bulls.
Both Limons looked businesslike at the recent tienta at their Rancho Santa Alicia. Both have lost weight recently, but the father and son are still large men who look enough alike that they stand out in a crowd. Both are quiet, but while the father’s reserve suggests shyness, that of the son, known as Nando, seems more studious. Both have had to study bull ranching; they weren’t born to it, but to a printing business started by Nando’s great-grandfather back in 1922.
That great-grandfather had no particular interest in contests between men and bulls. But his son (Hernando Sr.’s father) loved animals, and he purchased the ranch in order to raise beef cattle and horses there. Hernando Sr. was the first Limon with a passion for the fiesta brava, and he married a woman whose aficion matched his own. They had five children; today all of them are aficionados, and one, the middle daughter, happens to be married to El Soro, the Spanish superstar.
The Limons finally decided to go beyond merely attending bullfights about 15 years ago, when they reacquired their ranch after having sold it for a short period. The interim owner had added a small herd of fighting cows, and an opportunity to augment that number arose when Tijuana businessman Alfonso Bustamante Jr. decided to close his fighting-bull ranch, Rancho Santa Veronica. In May of 1980, the Limons bought all Bustamante’s stock and moved it to their 2500-acre spread.
Hernando Sr. says that adding the fighting herd to the ranch wasn’t difficult; the basics of tending cattle, he implies, are similar whether one’s goal is milk or steak or a star performer at the plaza. At the same time, bulls and cows intended for fighting differ fundamentally from their bovine cousins.
The fighting species, Bos taurus Ibericus (or el toro bravo, in common Spanish parlance), “is to the domestic bull as the wolf is to the dog,” wrote Ernest Hemingway in Death in the Afternoon. “A domestic bull may be evil-tempered and vicious, as a dog may be mean and dangerous, but he will never have the speed, the quality of muscle and sinew and the peculiar build of the fighting bull, any more than the dog will have the sinews of the wolf, his cunning and his width of jaw. Bulls for the ring are wild animals.”
Authorities believe that these wild bulls descend from animals brought to Spain and Portugal from North Africa, particularly Egypt, in Carthaginian times.
The immigrant animals bred with wild aurochs, cousins of bison and buffalo, which roamed Europe and once were described by Julius Caesar as being as big as elephants.
Spaniards eventually husbanded the toros bravos, and today they exist only on ranches such as that of the Limons, both in Europe and the New World.
Breeders struggle with one of the thorniest challenges in animal husbandry. Instead of working exclusively to develop the animals’ physical characteristics — their size, say, or their ability to produce a certain quantity of milk — fighting-bull ranchers must breed for a certain psychological character — one that will predispose the animals to behave in certain ways under certain special conditions. Though the modern toro bravo is a creation of man, his creators also want him to be as unmanageable and as wild as possible. “It’s the most complicated and the most beautiful form of animal breeding,” asserts Nando Limon.
“There are books on genetics — but they’re for beef and dairy animals,” Nando continues. “This...you have to either learn by word of mouth or just by doing it. It isn’t a real science. You have to feel your intuition and go along with it.”
Nando, who speaks excellent English, says he began working part time with the fighting stock as soon as his father acquired the animals. The son continued to do so when he attended Tijuana’s CETYS University. “I wanted to be a veterinarian, but the nearest veterinary school was in Mexicali.” So he studied business administration, figuring “that if everything went well, I could always hire a veterinarian.” About ten years ago, Nando also began making pilgrimages to the Queretaro ranch of a renowned fighting-bull breeder named Javier Garfias. “I used to go there maybe two, three, four times a year,” Nando says. “I would go there and start analyzing the bloodlines....[Garfias] more or less guided me.”
The Limons finally decided to replace the line of animals they had bought from Bustamante with about 50 cows and two seed bulls (sementales) from Garfias. (Later, they added 30 more Garfias cows and another pair of sementales.)
Those original 84 animals have reproduced to where the Limons now own about 400 fighting cattle. Nando’s father helps to oversee them all, visiting the ranch frequently. But Hernando Sr. also runs Litografica I.imon, the business started by his grandfather, and which today operates out of a building on a congested street three blocks from Tijuana’s downtown bullring. It is Nando, now 30, who gives the ranch his full-time attention, making the hour-long commute from Tijuana up to six times weekly. About ten ranch hands also labor there, some living on the premises during the week, the others coming from nearby villages. But Nando himself is immersed in every facet of the ranch operations. His wife boasts, “He knows the animals like people.”
“If I see a cow, I remember the year she was born,” Nando acknowledges. “Sometimes I can almost have the whole pedigree in my head. If not, at least the father and the mother and some of the grandparents.” Although fighting-bulls have formal family names (derived from the maternal side), Nando generally refers to individual animals by their number — assigned to them at the time they’re branded. When they finally fight, the bulls do have a catchy public moniker that is presented to the crowd. But Nando explains that this public name is only bestowed on the animal by the bull rancher shortly before the corrida. “If it’s gonna be a real good animal — and you should know that in plenty of time — you try to pick a special name, maybe a famous bull." Some of the public bull names are artistic (Serenito, Mentiroso) or human (Bon-Bony, others evoke the place where the animal was raised, or the season of the year (Navideno). Sometimes a turn of events inspires a last-minute christening, as was the case with the Limons’ only bull thus far to have its life spared in the ring.
Such an event is referred to as an indulto — literally, a pardon — and Nando says these occur with different frequencies in Spain and Mexico. He says that whereas formerly they were given perhaps only once a decade in Spain, that has changed just in the past year or so. “I think there were close to ten animals [pardoned in Spain] last year, between bullfights and novilladas and festivals,” he says.
Nando says that in Mexico, on the other hand, pardons were long overused, and the Tijuana bullrings saw more bulls pardoned than anywhere else in Mexico. The border city has “a very special kind of a public,” he points out, “more tourists, and they really try to help out the matador.” If an exemplary bull turned out, Tijuana audiences were more accustomed to relieving the matador of the always dangerous task of killing it. “They were using the indulto more as a means of guaranteeing the matador’s triumph. If the bull’s life is spared, he doesn’t have the same chance to kill a man, and the man doesn’t have the chance to mess up (the killing].” In Tijuana, some seasons have seen the pardoning of a couple of bulls, Nando says, though only one or two have been pardoned in the past few years, a change that Nando sees as reflecting a general toughening of the pardoning standards.
The incident that involved the Limons’ animal occurred in August of 1988, at the bullring by the sea. The Limons had sent six bulls, the most common number used in a corrida, but a new veterinarian rejected one of them, number 47. “It had a tiny little problem with one of its horns,” Nando recalls. “One horn was slightly smaller than the other.” A substitute bull from another ranch was used, and it performed so badly for the matador assigned to it that he decided personally to buy the rejected bull (for around $3000) so that he could try his luck again in an extra, seventh fight. Such an animal is known as a gift bull, according to Nando, “because the bullfighter is offering the faena as a gift to the public. You’re paying for six and you get seven.” On the spot, the Limons dubbed this animal Malquerido — Badly Loved — it charmed the crowd sufficiently to win the pardon, and now it’s living out its days at Rancho Santa Alicia in the kind of studly luxury normally reserved for champion racehorses.
But again, this is rare. And because their finest products usually don’t survive the occasions on which they prove themselves, the fighting-bull breeder must look elsewhere for potentially great genes. One option is to use the brothers and fathers of great bulls as studs. Another is to take young males and put them in a ring with a picador — a man with a lance, mounted on a padded horse. The point of this exercise is to see how readily the young bulls attack the equine target despite the punishing jabs — essentially the same challenge bulls face in the first “act” of the formal corrida.
What breeders never can do is test the young males with capes. “One of the immutable laws of the corrida is that a bull in a bullring must be encountering a dismounted man with a cape for the first time in its life,” writes Bruce Schoenfeld, a former sportswriter at the San Diego Union. Schoenfeld left here in 1985 to do other things, including following Spanish bull-fighting. Last year Simon & Schuster published his book called The Last Serious Thing, which not only describes Schoenfeld’s experiences at the 1989 bullfight season in Spain, but also deftly elucidates many of the fundamentals of bullfighting. “A quarter-hour of passes is enough to convince the bull that the man, not the cloth is the enemy; that’s why the longer a faena continues, the more difficult and dangerous it becomes,” he explains. “From time to time young [would-be bullfighters] are discovered lurking with cloth and stick in the pastures of a ganaderia, and when caught they are severely punished. It goes beyond trespassing and the fear of a damaged horn or hoof: bulls that have been fought, however primitively, appear just the same as pristine fighting bulls — until they arrive in the ring. Then, encountering a man for a second time, they become a mortal danger to the matador and a disgrace to the breeder.”
Schoenfeld points out that because of this limitation, there’s no way to know for sure how a bull will perform in the plaza, “and once you realize how good it is, it is too late to use it for breeding because it has about 15 minutes left to live and is otherwise occupied.” Thus, “bravery must be bred on the female side.” The proving ground for that bravery is the tienta, at Rancho Santa Alicia every young cow undergoes scrutiny in one. Some tientas are routine, while others are more social and festive. At the recent event that included El Soro, his presence imparted a special air to the proceedings.
The day began at the Limon residence, a walled compound set a few blocks up the hill that rises above Agua Caliente Boulevard. By 9:30, Paul Dobson had already arrived, clad not in his daily uniform, an impeccable jacket and tie, but in jeans, running shoes, and a white sport shirt. Dobson is 48 years old, and he’s a small man, trim and muscular. “I’ve known the Limons for years and years,” he mentioned. “I’ve probably killed 15 to 20 of their bulls over that time.” Although Dobson in his restaurants is a master of solicitous formality, here he seemed boyish and frank and filled with adrenaline at the prospect of the day. “Very few people can dominate the bull as well as Vicente [Ruiz — El Soro],” he said. “He’s one of the top paid fighters in the world.”
A few minutes later, Soro himself swept into the room, wearing the informal uniform known as the trajecorto—a brown, short-waisted jacket and matching brown pants so tight they revealed every curve of his lower body. Soro has a head of lustrous chocolate hair; creamy skin; dark expressive eyes; the haughty bearing of a famous ballet dancer. He’d met Dobson before, and now he greeted him, imperial but friendly.
The Spaniard’s entrance into the life of the Limon family was as dramatic as any bullfighter could want. It came eight years ago in Aguascalientes, where he was invited to fight in the annual bullfighting festival, an event that draws together widespread aficionados including, usually, the Limons. That year the family almost didn’t go, but at the last minute they relented and sat in the front row of the plaza. While Soro was fighting, his gaze fell upon 18-year-old Sucette, a slender brunette of striking beauty. According to her mother, Soro fell in love with the young woman on the spot. He courted her for two years and wed her in civil ceremonies in Tijuana and San Diego (the latter held at Dobson’s downtown restaurant). The entire family then flew to Spain for the religious service, accompanied by the bishop of Tijuana, who helped officiate.
Soro and Sucette have had two children since then, a girl and a boy, both as photogenic as their parents, and both of whom piled into the van that would carry their parents, grandparents, and several other relatives to the ranch. Dobson agreed to take a second group that included the Limon’s 16-year-old son Enrique and one of his friends. Dobson’s van also carried his bullfighting capes. He wasn’t certain he would get to use them; the Limons hadn’t said explicitly that they would let him fight one of the cows. But “usually they give me one or two,” Dobson said with a mixture of hope and diffidence.
“I haven’t killed a bull for two years,” he confided as he threaded the van through the streets of eastern Tijuana. Though he runs and skis, “Your arms have to be in great shape [for bullfighting] because the equipment’s very heavy,” he noted. “If I’m training seriously, I like to work out with two or three other bullfighters every day for a month.”
He does this rarely; Dobson is quick to point out that he’s not a professional matador and never dreamed of becoming one, though he’s been going to bullfights ever since he was a child. His parents were aficionados who drove from their home in Los Angeles to the corridas in Tijuana. Dobson started attending them on his own, accompanied by Mexican friends, when he studied literature at San Diego State. After graduation, he got a job managing the Bratskellar Restaurant (on Prospect Street in La Jolla). The first restaurant he ever owned, the Restaurante Espaha, he eventually sold “for a ton of money,” enabling him to retire to Spain. There he lived for a year, and “I pissed it all away,” he says of his windfall, so he returned to San Diego to open other restaurants — among them, Dobson’s, La Gran Tapa, the St. James Bar and Grill, Triangles. He and his first wife often returned to Spain for a month or two at a time, but Dobson, now remarried and the father of a three-year-old girl, says, “with the new life, [dashing off to Spain for weeks at a time] doesn’t work out anymore.”
It was in Mexico, not Spain, that Dobson crossed the barrier that separates fan from participant. Dobson says this happened 13 or 14 years ago. He had become friends with Adrian Romero, a Mexican torero who had retired from professional bullfighting after a promising start. “Adrian was doing a comeback, fighting a lot. I was just paling around with him, and we decided to go to Mexico City together.” Before long, Romero pressed Dobson into service as a training assistant. “I’d run the horns. I went to a number of tientas with him.” One day the matador announced that he’d signed Dobson up to fight at a little festival at La Mision del Sol, near the beach in Tijuana. “I went out and I thought, 'Holy shit, what am I doing?’ I took about 30 tosses.” Dobson says the experience made him realize how hard bullfighting is, but “I just kept doing it any time I had a chance. I’ve had pretty good days. And some bad ones.”
Once on the two-lane highway to Tecate, Dobson headed east for perhaps 20 minutes, then turned off onto a side road that very soon became unpaved. Within minutes, all the urban artifacts outside the window disappeared, replaced by scrubby fields and hard-crusted hills. Dobson’s van soon was speeding past expanses of grass upon which grazed dozens of animals — the Limons’ fighting stock.
It’s not obvious when viewed from a fast-moving vehicle, but these toros bravos don’t range freely. Nando says the ranch isn’t large enough to permit that. The Limons still maintain a herd of about 100 beef cattle, and those animals do survive by foraging, but it takes about 1000 acres of the ranch to sustain them. The 400 or so “brave cattle” (as Nando calls them in English) instead are kept in a number of potreros, pastures, segregated according to age and sex. Their food must be supplemented about six months out of the year with hay, alfalfa, and straw grown on the ranch, as well as with grains that the Limons purchase. Nando says one of the ranch hands delivers the latter every day to individual pans in the animals’ enclosures. Whenever they see this man coming, the cows and bulls race toward him — but not to attack. “They want the feed,” Nando says. “I’ve seen [the feed hand] almost touch the bulls from a distance of about a meter.” No ranch hand has ever been injured by one of the fighting animals, according to Nando. “They don’t get tame, but if you have a routine, they more or less get accustomed to it.”
The brave cattle also have a herding instinct, Nando says. “And if the herd is eating quietly and calmly, they’re probably going to go along with that, unless you provoke them.”
In a group, they’re not homicidal. But the breeder adds that they’re also less tractable than dairy cows, even under the best of conditions. The older the males get, the more they tend to fight, sometimes daily, hooking at each other with their horns, incited by the smell of cows in heat or driven to struggle for dominance. Even the cows are harder to herd. “Just to get them into a corral sometimes you can be almost a whole day rounding them up,” says Nando.
Perhaps the best indication of the Limons’ dedication to the fighting-bull ranch can be gotten by seeing what the family has built there in the past few years. The ranch house erected by Hernando Sr.’s father looks old and weatherbeaten, and the Limons talk about one day replacing it — but in the meantime they’ve constructed an amazing central complex for the animals. Its focal point is the circular plaza where the tientas take place. Crowned by a shaded concrete viewing deck, the eight-foot walls have been built from stone quarried on the property and suffused with color that ranges from creamy tans through apricots and peaches to the deepest shades of rust. Off the plaza extends a maze of chutes and corridors and trapezoidal holding pens, all built from the same warm rock and separated from each other by a system of green-painted metal gates. “With this, we can have six bulls ready for a corrida in 15 minutes,” one family member asserted as the travelers from Tijuana disembarked and fanned out.
In short order, Nando and his assistants were giving the facilities a workout. Some of the ranch hands had used eight beef cows to herd 40 of the two-year-old fighters from their pastures into two of the innermost enclosures. There’s nothing ponderous or stolid about the heifers. Though they weigh between 200 and 300 pounds each, they look petite, all twitching ears and glistening noses and big dark eyes. The Spanish language contains at least 59 terms to describe the coloring of fighting bulls. English lacks the words for all the combinations of shades found in their coats. Those coats have a mussed appearance; no 4-H-er will ever brush away the dishevelment. Even at this age, and even though they’re cows, they have sharp, thin, six-inch-long horns that stick out from the sides of their heads, bowed only slightly. With these they can kill a man. From time to time they bolt, bristling with nerves. But they spend most of their time in the pens giving a comic demonstration of the herd instinct in action: trying to cram themselves into a wheeling circle of cow flanks and loins and necks compressed into one mass.
For the tienta, Nando wants to extract ten animals; this requires the patient efforts of several men. Nando positions himself next to one stonewalled corridor holding a rope connected to one of the green metal gates. Four or five assistants each control other gates farther down the corridor, leading into the adjoining enclosures. Sorting the cows thus is a process of inciting them to move through the channel, edging the gates closed before the whole pack can get through, then shuttling the reduced group back and forth between the barriers until one that Nando has chosen is isolated. She’s directed into a holding section to await the start of the tienta.
It’s 12:30 p.m. by the time the ten cows have been mustered, and everyone is eager for some action. Finally the gate leading into the plaza opens, and an inky black female gallops across the dirt, then slows to a trot. She freezes, jerking her head in both directions. When she starts to move again, she catches sight of the picador on his horse. Making a beeline for its bright yellow padding, she smashes into it, trots away, then circles the ring emitting a throaty bellow.
One of (he veteran Mexican matadors has emerged from behind a harrier, and he offers the cow his large pink cape. She makes one or two passes at it, hut seems to check herself, veering away fractionally at the last moment. However she’s more than ready to cross the plaza to attack the horse again, and despite the picador’s metal lance digging into her, she doesn't hack away for a long five seconds.
"Toro! Toro! Nando frowns on idle chatter during these events; he doesn’t want the animals distracted. At times the sound of the young cow panting carries across the plaza; the spectators can hear each other breathing.
Nando sits with a clipboard, watching for a half-dozen things. First there’s the way the cow reacts to the horse. “You’re trying to test that which we call voluntad,” he explains later. “It’s the willingness to go — and from the farther the distance, the better.” Cows that cross the entire width of the plaza are the best, as are the ones that choose to return and attack again and again, even in the face of pain.
Nando says that even more important is the cow’s reaction to the muleta, the small red cape used in the bullfight’s denouement. Here the breeder wants to see not only how many times the cow will charge, but also the quality of those charges. He says, “There’s a term right now — fija — which means she’s going to be focused on whatever is in front of her, and she isn’t going to lose that focus.” Matadors love bulls that go into the capes with their heads down, continuing “as if on rails.” They don’t like bulls with sentido— literally sense or judgment. No one wants to sec the human being killed in a bullfight, and though the animal's brute force makes this a constant possibility, it shouldn’t also have obvious intelligence or cunning on its side. At the same time, it shouldn’t be too cowardly— manso—shying away from the fight or stalling into immobility.
Somehow Nando manages to size up each animal in two or three lines of cryptic notes recorded in a small, precise hand. He watches the first cow for 20 minutes, and gives the second about the same amount of attention. Then the breeder signals for EI Soro to take charge of the third animal. She’s the color of amber glowing in the sun, and she runs not as if fleeing something, but rather seeking it, in a hurry. She doesn’t seem to love attacking the horse; within minutes after entering the ring, she finds a spot, right in the center, from which she won’t budge.
The picador yells at her, grunts, brandishes his lance, inches his mount ever closer. A full minute passes. The cow finally goes for the horse from a distance of maybe 15 feet. Then Soro is ready to face her with his blood-red muleta.
Within seconds he’s luring the animal past him, arcing his body into the still, graceful lines that’s the stuff of bullfighting posters. He looks masterful, showing none of the scary, sensationalistic moves that have made him controversial in Spain. Critics there and fans of classic toreo “just hale him,” Bruce Schoenfdd, the bullfight writer, stated in a recent phone interview. “People roll their eyes.” At the same time, Schoenfeld says Soro unquestionably ranks among the most popular Spanish matadors. “He’s kind of carved out a niche for himself as the Michael Bolton of bullfighting. He’s contracted a lot by small towns because they know he’ll be entertaining. He’s got no pretensions about being an artist. He just does all his tricks.” His performances occasionally even seduce the stuffiest of El Soro audiences, if Schoenfeld’s book is to be believed. During the season recorded in it, Schoenfeld happened to see Soro’s debut in Sevilla, one of the most conservative and formal of bullfighting centers. That performance began with a maneuver legendary for its riskiness, the so-called faro de rodillas, the “kneeling lighthouse," in which the matador greets the emerging bull on his knees, waving the cape over his head. “The bull charges directly for him,”
Schoenfeld writes of this occasion, “and we all stop breathing for a moment but when it approaches it springs for the cape and actually leaps over the kneeling matador, something I have never seen. There is an audible gasp from the crowd but EI Soro has quickly scrambled to his feet and is making a dizzying series of passes of all sorts, seemingly inventing them as he goes along. The bull is never more than a few feet away from him and he seems in constant danger of a goring. Soro winds the cape over his head, flings it to the sand, and has the bull bucking and hopping and at one point nearly standing on its hind legs to reach the cape. It is all happening at the mouth of the toril, for the bull hasn’t yet advanced any farther into the ring. The crowd is awestruck by this display, its aversion to this sort of bullfighting momentarily forgotten, and the Oles are coming one after another. Soro’s miracle passes are happening so quickly that one Ole is hardly finished before the next begins. I haven’t decided if this if valid bullfighting, but it is certainly dangerous and exciting.”
Perhaps these little cows don’t inspire that sort of show, perhaps the Spaniard feels no pressure to put his in-laws on the edge of their seats. For whatever reason, he leads the amber beauty through series after series of passes that are calm and fluid. As they unfold, the cow seems to fall into a trance, one that draws the man and animal ever closer, until they’re moving like partners in a sensuous dance. Soro holds the cape inches away from the cow’s nose, then moves it side to side, and her head follows the motion. She watches as the bullfighter swings the muleta around in back of his body, but still she doesn’t charge until he moves the red cloth back to his side, gives it a commanding shake, and grunts his permission. Then she glides by him, as if trained to do so. By the end, Soro has his hands on her neck, on her rump. He owns her.
Nando judges this cow to be above average with the cape. But she’s not the best animal of the afternoon. That turns out to be the one the Limons bestow upon Dobson. The color of cinnamon, she blasts into the ring just before 3:30 and heads for the picador like a heatseeking missile. Once, twice, a third time, she digs into the yellow hunting. One of the Mexican matadors draws her off, but she returns to the horse unhidden, attacking again and again.
Nando’s wife whispers that this is the full sister of Pelancho, one of the Limon’s seed bulls. She seems intent upon bashing the horse into pulp, though it’s several times as massive as she is. Finally Dobson dashes out with the big pink capote., and she rushes at it three times to cries from the crowd of Bien! Paul! Bien!
This is Dobson’s second turn with the cape this afternoon. He has been leading the cows out of the plaza when each is done, dancing them into an adjoining enclosure. In all these maneuvers, his pluck has been obvious. Sometimes the Mexicans suck in their breath, watching him, but then they laugh, delighted by his eagerness. His lack of preparation does show with his first animal in movements that look abrupt and jittery; when the cow makes lightning quick jabs at him, Dobson’s feet scramble in an awkward flurry and the cow eventually succeeds at throwing him upside down, then kicking him. But with this ninth cow of the day, Pelancho’s sister, Dobson finds a rhythm that makes both of them look good. She takes pass after pass without hesitation, and the Mexicans cheer. Nando offers an occasional directive, such as telling the American to offer the muleta with his right hand, and one of the older Mexican matadors sings out, “Relax, relax!”
It’s all going so well, the cow is so spunky and reliable, that Dobson stops working with her at one point to call up to the Limdns. “Thank you! This is great!” He finishes the workout to applause. He later comments, “Usually, I have the reputation for being all balls and no brains.” But with this cow everything came together perfectly.
When the last cow has been tested, Dobson hurries over to watch Nando supervise the animals’ medical treatment. All the day’s performers have been herded into a narrow enclosure and ranch workers standing on the walls are pouring hydrogen peroxide on their cuts and filling giant syringes mounted on the end of long sticks. “Look at them,” Dobson marvels as the animals endure the antibiotic injections. “They’re so goddamned brave, aren’t they? They don’t even flinch.”
Nando says it will take a week or two for the wounds to heal. During that time, he and his father will reflect upon what they’ve seen. There are times when they’ve decided to breed all the animals tested on a given afternoon; at other times they’ve rejected all of them. The immediate fate of the rejects depends upon the market for beef. When the price is down, as it has been recently, the Limons are likely to introduce the unwanted animals into the beef herd. There they may grow for a year or two before being killed. They never get as big as the beef cows do, reaching only 300 kilos 1660 pounds] or so, versus 400 for a full-grown beef cow. (Brave bulls in Mexico top out at around 600 kilos, whereas beef bulls sometimes get as big as 1000 kilos.) But the brave cattle tastes better than ordinary beef, Hernando Sr. contends, “because they get better food and vitamins.” Even the bulls that make it all the way to the bullfight are sold to regular meat markets, Nando points out. “The corrida does damage the better quality cuts of meat — the loins and all that.” But the rest of the meat is fine, he says.
Brood cows, on the other hand, are usually not eaten. “They die of old age,” states Limon Sr. “If they’re real good and you take care of them...they can calf up until 15 years old,” adds Nando. “We’ve had some that [were] 20 years old. But 20 is tops.”
The females mate for the first time between three and three-and-a-half and should produce a baby a year thereafter. Herd bulls live with them in the four to six months starting with April, when the pastures should be the lushest. Gestation takes nine months, so the busiest time for births are the months from January through April. During that period, “We have to check them almost daily,” Nando says. “They’re pretty rugged. They deliver unassisted.” But each newborn must be given a vitamin shot and tagged with a number. After that, the babies have little contact with humans until they’re weaned (between four and eight months). A week or two after the weaning, they’re branded.
Nando now believes that his family’s herd has reached a level of quality and consistency high enough to enable him to concentrate on increasing the number of bulls available for sale. So far his father — who handles most of the negotiations with bullring impresarios — has been able to sell all the bulls the Limdns have wanted to place. Last year eight bulls fought in Tijuana, eight novillos (three-year-olds) fought in Ensenada, and six bulls fought in Mexicali early in December.
This year the Limons supplied seven bulls for the benefit fight held February 13 to aid Tijuana’s flood victims, and six more of their animals will appear sometime during Tijuana’s regular bullfight season this summer. But as yet the Limons still haven’t scaled the most important pinnacle in Mexican fighting-bull ranching — seeing their livestock in the Plaza de Mexico in Mexico City.
“That’s the highest you can get here,” Nando says. Mexico counts something like 200 ganaderias (fighting-bull ranches), and “the illusion of everybody is to go to Mexico City and to have everything turn out right.” Such an accomplishment brings the highest financial rewards (though bull ranching is not known for being very profitable). Whereas six bulls in Tijuana, itself a significant plaza, might command a total of between $12,000 and $20,000, “the minimum in Mexico City would be about $20,000 for six bulls,” Nando says. “And last year I was hearing numbers like between $20,000 and $30,000.”
A good showing in the capital also can significantly boost demand for a given breeder’s products. “The fighters are a small group, and they’re in touch with each other more or less,” Nando explains. “Either they or their people are going to accept your bulls for a certain type of plaza or they won’t want to fight them at all. It’s the impresario’s decision, but he will get what they want, basically.”
All this means that “you have to be very prepared once you have the opportunity to go [to Mexico City],” Nando says. “You have to turn out the best_ animals you can. The distance is going to affect you a little, so you have to send out at least eight of your top animals” in case one or two become ill during the travel. Nando and his father are moving cautiously; they say they may begin by supplying animals to a Mexico City novillada (an event pitting novice bullfighters against three-year-old bulls) “maybe this year, maybe next.”
When Dobson loads up his van for the ride back to Tijuana, the conversation turns to more immediate concerns. “You gonna have good dreams tonight, Paul?” Nando’s younger brother, Enrique, asks.
“Yeah, I’ll go through it a few times.” Dobson is still smiling. His cow was “very, very easy. Very brave, but easy. Right away she hooked into the cloth. She was smooth. She was very aggressive.” Enrique and his friend assure Dobson that they’ve never seen him perform better. A few minutes later, as they begin the drive back, the talk turns to a comparison of bullfighting in Spain and Mexico.
“So many more people are fighting in Spain,” Dobson comments. “Mexico has kept it so tight that only the top few get good money. Nobody else is gonna break in. You could fight here all your life and lose money.”
“In Spain, being a bullfighter is the equivalent to being a movie star," Enrique jumps in. “Everybody wants to be one. Bullfighting is a ritual. It’s almost a religion. Whereas here it’s more like an attraction. People say, ‘Oh, it’s Sunday. Let’s go to the bullfights.’ ‘No, let’s go to the circus or to the movies.’ It’s viewed more frivolously.” Enrique’s young friend, who, like the other two, knows the mores of both countries, prefers Mexican corridas. “It’s more artistico, and you see 80, 90 passes. There’s more variety.”
Dobson mentions that he just made a quick trip to Spain, in the course of which he happened to watch a televised corrida from Sevilla. “And it was pretty cool. Huge bulls, and they did a lot of passes, and it was very, very exciting."
“I like ’em both,” Enrique states. “For instance, which crowd responds more to the bullfighter?”
“Spanish,” says his friend.
“No. In my opinion, it’s the Mexican,” Enrique counters. “Because it’s more of a lively crowd. The Spanish crowd is so serious. For them, it’s a very serious thing. But since we [Mexicans] take it more as a distractive thing, we get more lively, and ‘O-O-O-O-le'! Lots of enthusiasm! In Spain, you don’t see that.”
“I’ve been to 80 fights in Sevilla,” Dobson says. “You can go there and sit through six bulls and not hear one Ole or one clap. Silence. They sit there. They have their Popsicles or their ice cream or their Coke. And the only thing you ever hear is, ‘Euugghhh.’ Somebody’ll screw up and you hear this moan. On you imagine being down there and hearing that? It’s like blowin’ a high C at the opera!”
The truly exquisite faena does stand out more in Spain, everyone in the car agrees. But Enrique pronounces, “They’re too perfectionistic.” Enrique brings the talk around to bulls, Spanish and Mexican. Eighty to 90 percent of the fighting bulls raised in Mexico today descend from one strain imported from Spain early this century, the so-called Marques de Saltillo line. These animals fall on the small side of the taurine spectrum. It’s not uncommon for Mexico bulls to weigh less than 550 kilos, whereas creatures in that weight elicit grumbles from Spanish aficionados. But the Mexican bulls are generally acknowledged to have more stamina, charging more often, running for longer.
“I was in Valencia last summer,” says Enrique, “and a problem that everyone has noted is the weight of the bull. In all of the corridas I went to, the bulls were very big — but they were too clumsy.” If breeders tried to reduce their size, “everyone would complain. But the bulls in Spain are getting too big for the enjoyment of the whole tradition.”
No one in Dobson’s van seems troubled by this. Outside the sun has set and a penetrating chill has settled upon the night. Not far from this road, Mexican bulls slumber, and they are full of vigor, full of promise.