Mexico, as it was and as it is/Letter 11

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Mexico, as it was and as it is  (1847)  by Brantz Mayer



I WAS told after my arrival in Mexico, that unless I remained some time I was likely to lose the three great "amusements" of Mexico, to wit: a Revolution—an Earthquake—and a Bull Fight. The two former I would gladly have dispensed with; and as to the latter, civilization had recently introduced the Opera, and the cadenzas of Italian vocalists had been substituted for the roars of the dying bull.

But I was to be gratified by the sight of at least one of these recreations.

A fight came off rather unexpectedly in the Plaza de Toros, an immense circus, erected when this sport was in its palmy days in Mexico.

It was Sunday, and the people were unoccupied. The idlers had a few spare medios, picked up by toil, beggary or pilfering, during the week, and, as to the rich, it was expected that of course they would be gratified by the sight of an exhibition from which they had been long debarred.

I have a great objection to all these brutal displays, but I hold it to be a man's duty to see a specimen of everything in the course of his life. In Europe I went to see dissections and the guillotine, and on that principle, in Mexico I went to a bull fight.

The expectations of the projectors of the day's sport were not disappointed. The two tiers of boxes and the circle below of this immense theatre, were filled to the very brim of the arena with not less than eight thousand men, women and children. The hour of opening was four o'clock—the day warm and cloudless—and the sun shone brightly over the motley assemblage in their gay and varied costumes. The sunny side of the edifice was devoted to the plebs—the other half to the patricians, or half-a-dollar payers, who thereby enjoyed the luxury of shade.

We arrived too late to see the entrance of the first bull—he was already in the arena, and the picadors were goading him with their long lances, while the six gayly-dressed, lithe and active matadors teased him with red cloaks, which they flirted within a few feet of his horns, and enabled them, as he sprung to gore the garment, to display their agility in avoiding the deadly blow of his horns.

After annoying him thus with cloaks and lances for about ten minutes, a trumpet was sounded; and immediately a dozen banderillos or small lances, covered with gilt and flowered paper, were stuck in his neck, making him bound with rage at the assailant as he felt every new sting of the cruel weapons.

This done, the crowd circled around, and he stood in the midst, snorting, pawing the earth, veering his head from one portion of the ring to the other, beholding everywhere an armed foe pointing at him with a lance, and howling as if to dare them to attack. But he was effectually tamed.

Another blast from the trumpet, and two of the matadors approached stealthily from the rear, and plunged lances surrounded with fireworks, into the skin of his neck. Snorting, roaring, blazing, cracking, he bounded over the arena lashing himself with his tail, and dashing, without purpose, at everything.

At the third blast of the trumpet, the chief matador, who now made his first appearance, stepped forth, and proceeded to the judge's gallery for the sword, to dispatch the animal. By this time the fireworks had burned out, and the bull had been teased toward the southern barricade of the theatre. Panting with fatigue, rage and exhaustion, he stood at bay. The matador (an Andalusian, in pumps, silk stockings, and a tight-fitting purple dress, embroidered with bugles,) was a person of herculean frame, and his manly form, in the perfection of human beauty and strength, contrasted finely with the huge mass of bone and muscle in the beast.

He wound his red cloak around the short staff which he held in his left hand, and approached the bull, grasping in his right his well-poised sword. The bull, worried by the red cloak, bounded at him. As the animal stooped to gore, the matador leapt to the led with the bound of a deer, and receiving the beast with the whole shock of his weight and spring on the point of his weapon, passed it through his heart, and laid him dead without a struggle at his feet. The circus rang with applause at the successful stroke. Drawing out his blade, black with blood, the matador wiped it on the cloak, and bowing to the multitude, restored it to the judge.

The trumpet sounded again; a rope was noosed around the beast's horns, three gayly-caparisoned horses were led in, the carcass was hitched to them, and, at another blast of the trumpet they dragged the body, at full gallop, out of the circus. A shovel-full of fresh earth was thrown over the pool of blood; the trumpet was again sounded; the eastern barricade thrown open, and in bounded the second bull.

Almost blinded by his sudden plunge into daylight from the utter darkness of his den, and astounded by the shouts and jeers of the spectators, he rushed to the centre of the arena, and paused. His head wandered from side to side, as if seeking for something at which to tilt. He pawed the earth, lashed his back with his tail, and was evidently "game."

In a moment, the three picadors were at him with their long lances; and, in the next, two of them were rolling in the dust, and trampled by the savage beast. This brought applause from the multitude; and an honest Irishman near me shouted, at the top of his lungs, "bravo, bull!"

The matadors, however, were instantly at him with their red cloaks, and distracting his attention from the fallen picadors, gave them time to rise and mount—at least one of them, I should say, for the horse of the other had been gored in the stomach, and as he rose, his entrails trailed along the ground!

The usual routine was gone through with this bull as with the first; and at length the trumpet sounded for the chief matador to receive the sword.

But this was evidently not an animal to be trifled with; and the courageous Andalusian approached him warily. As he came up with the bull, the beast was near the edge of the barricade, and foaming with rage. His hair was yet blazing from the explosion of the crackers. The Andalusian flirted the red cloak in his eyes, and, turning as usual to the right to give the blow as the animal sprang, he lucklessly missed his aim, and was caught at a yard's distance between the palisade and the beast. A bound over the inclosure saved him, while the bull's horns were driven against the boards, with a force that made the theatre ring and the strong timbers quiver.

Directly, however, was the stout-hearted fighter again on the sands and taunting his foe. Another spring—another wave of the cloak in the beast's eyes—and his sword was plunged up to the hilt in his neck, the point penetrating the skin and hair and shining out on his other side, just above the right shoulder. Yet the wound was not fatal, and the beast bounded on madder than ever. A picador came at him, and was trampled in the dust. Another came on, and his horse, too, was tossed in the air; yet, preserving his balance, he alighted on his feet, and as his horse rose from his fall, he rose with him, seated on his saddle; at the same time, with admirable presence of mind, slinging his lasso, which caught on one horn but unfortunately slipped off. Unsuccessful as was this act, the self-command, the horsemanship, and the graceful skill of the picador, brought down a storm of applause.

Meantime, the Andalusian had recovered his wind, and was ready for another assault on his unconquered foe; but this time he made the attack unarmed. Mad as the animal was, and goaded by the lances sticking in his back, his skin scorched, and the weapon thrust through his body, yet the matador approached bravely; he threw his cloak once more on the beast's eyes, and, with a leap over his horns as he stooped, caught the handle of the sword and drew it out streaming with blood.

What with annoyance, and exhaustion from the loss of blood, the bull's strength was by this time well nigh spent. He made for the door in the barricade whence he had been admitted to the arena. He paused at the gate—the blood pouring from his wound. It was evident he was dying, and all attacks were at once abandoned. He had fought so bravely that picadors, matadors, coleadors, and all the troop of the arena drew round him in a circle, as if to look on the death-struggle of a hero. All seemed struck with admiration! the léperos in the galleries, even, were hushed to profound silence.

The bull stood a moment as if uncertain what to do. I confess that the poor wretch seemed to me to possess intellect—an intellect, stung by the reproach of strength foiled by an inferior and despised foe.

He felt his limbs grow feebler. He attempted to run, but his legs refused to move. He lifted his feet convulsivly—waved his tail—opened his eyes as if alarmed by a sudden nervous fear, and fixed them with a fierce stare on the blood which was pouring in a stream before him. He tried to run; reeled twice, but recovered his balance. A matador then came again before him with his cloak and a short dagger, to put an end to the painful scene; but as he approached, the beast swayed himself forward with his lips drawn up, and the foam covering his teeth—drew himself up still and stiff as a statue, for a dying effort of power—then suddenly bending his head to the earth, sprang at the matador and fell dead—

"Foiled, breathless, bleeding, furious—to the last!"


This was the best fight of the evening. Five more bulls were brought out, but nearly all proved craven. None, however, were killed by the matador at the first blow, which rather lowered the mob's opinion of his skill. Some of the animals were caught by the tail, which, twisted around the high pommel of the saddles of the coleadors, while their horses were brought to a sudden halt, threw the bulls on their sides. These, however, were the utter cowards. Others were caught with the lasso around the horns or heels, and I had thus the first opportunity of seeing the perfection obtained by most Mexican horsemen in the use of this useful instrument. One of the bulls bounded over the palisade, among the spectators, within a few feet of me; but he was so contemptible a beast, that he seemed more pleased to get rid of the crowd than the crowd was to get rid of him. He was of course sacrificed in some very ignoble manner.

As the evening sports ended, and even before sunset, the moon rose in her calm majesty, casting her mild light on the multitude in that bloody circus. The towers and dome of a church overlook the walls of the arena on the east, and the bells called the crowd from that scene of carnage on the Sabbath evening, to the adjacent retreat of peacefulness and religion! As I went home, I could not help asking myself, if I had spent those hours profitably? It is true that there are "sermons in stones, and good in everything;" and the contrast of life and death—the passage of a creature from robust and active health, and the full enjoyment of every physical power, to death and utter oblivion—was, it is equally true, a sermon and a lesson. But to how many? Was there a lépero there, who went away taught, thoughtful or moralizing?

I must confess, that I can regard these festivals but with a feeling of unqualified disgust, both at the scene itself, and at the gradual destruction of the finer sentiments which such exhibitions, frequently repeated before all classes, must inevitably produce.

When the Romans had exhausted the whole round of natural amusements, they invented those of the circus; and, not contented with the civilized butchery of the brute creation, in process of time they matched man against beast, and man against man. It was the extreme of refinement—the height of expensive luxury—the termination of that vicious circle of society, where civilization merges into barbarism. It was an omen of the speedy decline of that mighty empire.

The exhibition of the slaughter-house, as a sport, can tend alone to foster à brutal passion for blood. Death becomes familiarized as a plaything to the multitude. They make a clown of the grim monster. They put him as a joker on the arena for Sabbath sports; and the day that is assigned as a period of repose, thankfulness, love, and remembrance of the blessed God, is converted into a school-time of the worst passions that can afflict and excite the human heart.

It may be said, that this is not true of all classes. I grant it, and reply that although all classes visit the circus, yet the majority of the spectators is doubtless composed of the lowest ranks, requiring most moral instruction, and least addicted to reasoning. With such a population as that of the léperos of Mexico, (men scarcely a remove from the beasts whose slaughter they gloat on,) these scenes of murder, in which bulls, matadors and picadors, are often indiscriminately slain, can only serve to nourish the most wicked passions, and to nerve the ignorant and vile to deeds of most daring criminality.

It will be a matter of sincere congratulation for Mexican patriots, when this remnant of barbarism is abolished in their country, and the thousands which are annually expended in bull-fights throughout the Republic, are devoted to the education or rational amusement of the people.