Mexico of the Mexicans/Chapter VIII

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CHAPTER VIII

SPORTS AND PASTIMES

It has often been said that in nothing does a people exhibit its true character so much as in its amusements. If this really be the case, then the Mexicans are not free from the charge of inhumanity and callousness to suffering. But the best in Mexico does not countenance brutality in sport any more than the thinking portion of Britons countenance prize-fighting or ratting.

The average Mexican is more a gamester than a sportsman. Sport and the sporting spirit, as we know it, is almost altogether lacking in Mexico, and that fine and generous spirit of chivalry which informs those manly British games of ours. But that is not to say that the Mexican is wanting in pluck. A pluckier man, a greater dare-devil, than the average young Mexican does not breathe. He cannot abide the idea of defeat; but at the same time he will do nothing dastardly to fend it off, and he is not "slim" like the Yankee "sport." The difference between him and the British sportsman is that his pride renders him obviously uneasy and vexed at defeat, whereas the Islander takes his beatings lightly. Again, when the Mexican wins, he rather likes to parade his triumph; while the victorious Briton usually sneaks off, looking decidedly sheepish.

Most Mexican sports are, naturally, of Spanish origin, but some are universal. Of the former, bull-fighting, the ball-game, and "bear" are all Castilian; horsemanship, hunting, and cock-fighting are, however, of world-wide occurrence—and the latest importations such as golf, football, and tennis are distinctly British.

But of all national sports, that of the bull-ring is by far the most popular. Large sums of money are annually squandered upon it, and its patronage by the highest in the land as well as by the lower classes ensures its continuance and "respectability." Sunday is the day par excellence for the Mexican bull-fight. The
Bull-fight.
The ring, which is capable of containing a very large audience, is divided into two principal sections: the Sombra, the shady part, where sit the élite; and the Sol, or sunny portion, where crowd the groundlings. An animated hum arises from the roofless arena, which is soon to become a volcano of human passions.

On no occasion is a Mexican so "taken out of himself" as during a bull-fight. The peon, usually so grave and reserved, the aristocrat, so proud and dignified, display more animation during a corrida than at any other Mexican social function. He expands, becomes intensely, indeed wildly, excited, and beneath a seemingly civilised exterior are seen flashes and glimpses of that brutality or callousness to pain which is perhaps more obviously evident among the peoples of Latin-America than among other peoples, even those lower in the scale of civilisation. To the question "Is this people cruel?" the answer must be in the affirmative. The ancestors of the greater portion of them, the Aztecs and their related stocks, were people who in the name of religion perpetrated the most ruthless barbarities. Can it be expected, then, that their admixture with the white race which introduced the Inquisition and the bull-fight has softened them at all? But we must remember that it is not so many years ago that bull-baiting was carried on in our own land!

The spirited animals baited to death in these orgies of a sanguinary-minded people are reared and fed in extensive, wild prairies. They graze in herds, and are tended by vaqueros, or herdsmen. Special attention is paid to their purity of breed, and great care is exercised in the record of their pedigree, which is always advertised in the bills, and forms a chief feature in the programme of the bull-fight.

The bulls do not take part in a corrida until they are about 4 years old, and not even then unless they have passed through two or three severe tests of their courage and fighting propensities. They are first submitted to a trial when a year old by the chief herdsman, or conocedor, who charges them on horseback with a long spear. The young bulls who show fight are branded and reserved for another test of their disposition, while the fainéants are fattened for the market. If they pass a last trial, they are considered fit for the arena. They are then driven to the town, where the fight is to take place, in a herd. This perilous journey is always undertaken at night to ensure greater safety from accident. And to obviate the possibility of an unusually fierce animal breaking loose from the herd, tame oxen of great size, that have constantly grazed in the same prairies, are driven in front of them to act as leaders.

When they arrive at the plaza, the fighting bulls are first shut up in the corral, a kind of yard or pen; and, just before the course, each of them is driven into a little stall, called the toril, which is connected with the arena by a door. Here they await their turn to be killed in fight.

The arena is circular in form, and sprinkled with sand to prevent those engaged in the combat from slipping. It is enclosed by a strong wooden palisade or barrier, some 6 to 7 ft. in height, towards the bottom of which is a step to enable the fighter on foot to leap out of the ring in case of danger from the infuriated bull.

The Plaza de Toros, or amphitheatre, is generally the property of the town, and is let out on hire for bull-fights very much in the same manner as a concert hall in England is let for concerts. In many cases, however, the plaza belongs to the hospital, and is made a source of considerable income by the authorities towards the upkeep of their institution.

A bull-fight may be conveniently divided into three distinct parts, the duration of which is decided by the Señor Alcalde, the president of the course. His decision is proclaimed by a loud fanfare of trumpets.

The principal actors in the first part are the picadores; in the second, the banderilleros; and the third and final act is monopolised almost entirely by the espada. There is no necessity for a description of this sickening "sport." But in justice to the Mexicans, perhaps I should state that I have as much contempt for the Briton who goes out to slay wantonly "the beasts of warren and chase," as I have for the Mexican who sits in sun or shade to witness a bull-fight. Let us remember when we denounce the brutalities of other peoples the proverb that has arisen regarding ourselves: "With the Englishman it is always—'What can I kill?' "And can barbarity go further than the slaughter of hand-fed deer or the shooting of half-domesticated ducks that takes place in the Scottish Highlands every season?

Many espadas or toreadors, like Fuentes, have a reputation extending from Seville to Mexico, and draw a salary as large as a British premier. The espada shines supreme after the fatal stroke which lays the noble toro low. Gifts of every kind from cigars to gold and diamond bangles are showered upon him by the excited onlookers, to whom he bows sedately and with the princely demeanour of a great tenor or pianist conscious of his worth.

A sport once popular in England, and now dear to the hearts of Mexicans, is that of cock-fighting, which is regarded as an exciting and pleasing spectacle. The Cock-fighting. Mexican name for a cock-fight is Los Gallos, and Sunday is the favourite day for this amusement. A cock usually makes its debût (if such it can be termed) when about two years old, and sometimes does not survive its first battle if opposed to an opponent of superior fighting powers. As in horse-racing, bets are placed upon the various birds, and these sometimes reach $100 Mexican.

The birds, which are sometimes valuable and cost from $12 to $50, are specially trained and have separate stalls, each of which has the name of the bird placed over it. The fighters are of different breeds, some being Japanese, but many are bred in the Republic; while a certain number of them hail from the United States.

The actual battle is sometimes held in a cock-pit, but in many villages takes place at the humble street corner. When the fray commences, there is great excitement; and cocks, which to begin with are perfectly quiet, have their fighting weapons affixed, and are tormented by being placed near their rivals and suddenly taken away. This performance has the effect of infuriating them; and when they are thoroughly alert with the desire to fight, they are released, and fly at each other. The weapons they fight with are sharp, curved blades, which are affixed to the spurs and protected with a leather shield till the proper time, when they are uncovered. While in training, these birds clean themselves by taking a dust bath every morning. They are secured to the floor of their stalls by chains attached to their legs, and are fed sparingly on wet corn once a day, although before fighting they banquet sumptuously on many luxuries, including raw meat and sherry to inspire them with "Dutch courage."

It is amusing to see the peculiar manner in which fighting-cocks perform a journey by train. The brim of a cheap sombrero hat is doubled together basket-wise and the cock is placed in it feet first, the edges of the brim being fastened over his back, so that only an inquiring head and the tail are visible, while the edge of the hat is nailed to a board.

The great Spanish game of frontons, or "Spanish ball," is immensely popular in Mexico, and in the capital is usually played in an arena in the Calle Iturbide, Frontons. called the "Fronton Nacional." The favourite days for play are Saturdays and Sundays, and a good deal of money changes hands on the result. Frontons is really of Basque origin, and is a variety of pelota. It is played against a front wall (fronton) with a leather or wooden protector strapped to the wrist, or else a clustira, a sickle-shaped wicker-work "bat" about 3 ft. long. The ball is caught in a narrow groove of this implement, from which it can be hurled with great force against the wall. The side that wins the toss has the privilege of first service, the object being to strike the wall within prescribed limits and see how far the ball will bounce backwards. The score is announced by a score-keeper called the cantara, who chants the tally in a quaint and amusing manner.

Most of the popular European games have found a footing in Mexico of late years, and this is probably due in large measure to the Anglicisation or Americanisation European
Games.
of the country. Association football, even, has been taken up in Mexico city and, golf has won a wide popularity. A tournament is held annually at Mexico city, to which there journey practically all the players in the Republic, as well as many from the United States. Local players are pitted against those professionals regarding whom they have heard and read so much, and interest and enthusiasm run high. Bowling is also patronised by British and American people in Mexico.

The Jockey Club encourages racing at its track at Peraluillo, but its efforts have by no means met with success. It is strange in a country like Mexico, where horsemanship is of such vital importance, that this sport has encountered such lukewarm appreciation. A new track was in course of erection at the beginning of the Revolution; but under the present rather melancholy conditions, and the necessity for prudence and privacy on the part of English-speaking people, it is probably as yet unfinished and unopened.

Opinions differ regarding sport in Mexico, some regarding that country as a veritable sportsman's paradise, while others Sport and
Shooting.
bewail a lack of game and excitement. This Sport and disparity of conviction arises in a great degree from the unequal sporting resources of the Republic, some vicinities displaying wonderful fields for the activity of the hunter, whilst others again are almost barren of possibilities for him.

The Mexicans themselves do not affect the hunting of big game, which is to be found principally in the Northern and Southern extremities of the country. In the North, the brown bear, grisly, and cinnamon are not numerous; but, occasionally, deer and antelope abound, and the mountain lion is frequent. In the tierra caliente, or hot lands, the jaguar is common as is the wild-cat; and further south, on the isthmus, the tapir—sole representative of the American elephants—is to be encountered.

Wild-fowl is most abundant, geese, swans, duck, and pelican swarming in some States, the lake districts attracting water-fowl of all sorts by the hundred thousand. Duck-shooting is a favourite sport, the birds being stalked from a canoe from the cover of the rushes which deeply fringe every Mexican lake. In the hills close to the east coast, pheasants are extremely numerous. There is no close time in Mexico owing to the regular breeding of the birds; no shooting licence is necessary, and guns and ammunition are permitted to enter the Republic duty free. Fishing, too—especially the gentle art of catching, or rather battling with, the gigantic tarpon, is pursued with great success—the tarpon fishing being accounted the finest in the world.

The gilded youth of Mexico city are reckless motorists, and the Governor of the Federal District found it necessary some years ago to introduce some specially Motoring. strict legislation regarding speed-limit, and the allied delinquencies of the automobilist on account of the very large number of accidents. It required a lot of really rigorous police supervision to ensure that all cars should carry number-plates, the Mexicans objecting strongly to this by-law. Conviction frequently brought with it imprisonment without the option of a fine, and this sometimes for fairly long periods; and no proxies were permitted to save the "bacon" of the real offender, whatever his station

Perhaps the favourite and most generally indulged-in amusement among the Mexican dwellers in cities is the afternoon or evening promenade, which is Promenade. usually taken in the public square when the band is playing. Troops of sprightly and daintily-attired maidens and fashionably-dressed youths are wont to make this a place of rendezvous, and dark eyes flash greetings and signals as the gay crowd promenade to the strains of the orchestra. The Mexicans are extremely sensitive to the influence of music, and under the excitement which it produces are apt to forget or throw off that gravity of demeanour, that staid courtesy, which usually characterises them. There is an intensity of charm in the environment of a Mexican moonlight promenade. The flood of soft radiance, celestial and artificial; the suppressed chatter of the easy-moving crowd; the melodious orchestra; the arch and smiling countenances of the dark daughters of the old valley haunt the remembrance and long survive other and perhaps more serious recollections.