by Richard Chacon

Boston Globe Staff, 01/04/99

MEXICO CITY - Pepe Serrano stared straight into the bull's dark marble eyes. Keeping his ankles together, he rolled slowly onto the balls of his feet. His tense muscles twitched beneath his skin.

Holding a red cape in one hand, Serrano carefully raised a long, thin dagger with the other, pausing only when the handle reached his nose and the point aimed at the beast.

Then, in one explosive burst of energy, Serrano dropped the cape to the dirt, let out a deep, mournful groan, and lunged toward the animal, plunging the sword between the bull's shoulders.

This time, however, there was no blood. This was a practice session for aspiring young matadors like Serrano, 23, and others who train at a small Mexico City park. The "bull," in this case, is a painted plaster replica set on a wheel and controlled by a teacher.


"These are kingly animals that are born to fight," said Curro Segura, a 50-year-old matador, as he watched his apprentices. Bullfighting, Segura added, is an allegory of "the struggle between life and death. It's not about violence."

A growing number of Mexicans, however, are beginning to disagree. Fueled mostly by animal protection groups and small political parties that argue that bullfighting is nothing more than glorified cruelty, a movement is percolating to alter a centuries-old tradition.

"When you ask people what they thin, they will tell you that they don't like the violence," said Gerardo Huerta, president of the Latin American chapter of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which launched similar campaigns several years ago in Europe and Russia.

The battle in Mexico - which is second to Spain in its passion for bullfighting - has intensified over the past year. Last spring, near the end of the five-month bullfighting season in Mexico, the animal protection group and Mexico's Green Party polled about 120,000 Mexicans. Eighty-four percent of the respondents said that the cruelty in bullfighting was unnecessary.

Six months ago, both groups introduced lessons in several states to teach elementary school students the importance of respect for animals. They have also sponsored large demonstrations outside the 50,000-seat Plaza Mexico, the world's largest bullring, and paid for a large billboard along the Anillo Periferico, Mexico City's main highway.

And in an effort to get support form the Roman Catholic Church, which has been closely identified with the sport, Huerta said opponents plan to flash pictures of bullfighting scenes on the sides of buildings during Pope John Paul II's visit here later this month.

Bullfighting appears to be muddling through an identity crisis in Mexico. Purists, who consider the activity an art form rather than a sport, say the overall quality of bulls and matadors has diminished over the last generation.

Although more bullrings than ever exist today in the country, the number of "corridas," or bull festivals, has dropped from 500 a year in the 1970s to 362 in 1998. By comparison, Spain holds about 900 festivals a year.

"There is a crisis in values today because there is so much money and a lack of artistic ambition," said Luis Ruiz Quiroz, 72, one of Mexico's most renowned bullfighting experts. "These protection groups are making more noise than ever, but they don't hurt us as much as the absence of well-trained and talented matadors and noble bulls."

Nevertheless, bullfighting remains a deeply embedded tradition in Mexico, which has more than 300 bullrings and millions of fans. The highlights of Sunday afternoon corridas are replayed on network television. Sports sections of newspapers give them regular coverage.

The most popular matador today is Julian Lopez, a 16-year-old from Spain, nicknamed "El Juli," who packs rings around the world and makes more than $60,000 every time he takes on a bull.

Corporate sponsors ranging from soft drinks to hard liquor compete for advertising space. And politicians use the events as ready-made photo ops, as Mexico City's embattled mayor, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, did at the beginning of the season. (He was greeted by a chorus of boos.)

Observers say that tourists - most of them from the United States, where bullfighting is outlawed - have also contributed to the sport's recent surge in popularity in border cities such as Juarez and Tijuana, and in resort cities like Cancun and Puerto Vallarta.

Bullfighting in Mexico has changed little since it was introduced to Latin America soon after the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1519. Alone, fierce bull is brought into the ring and surrounded by "toreros" on horseback, who wound the animals with rainbow-colored wooden spears called "banderillas."

Eventually, the battle is left to the matador, who uses a red cape to tease and lull the bull in a dance. The bull's sharp horns often brush dangerously close to the matador's body. The fight usually ends when the matador thrusts the sword between the animal's shoulder blades. A "clean" kill will sever an artery to the heart or puncture a lung; a poor kill will cause the sword to stick in a bone or a muscle.

Animal protection activists say they don't want to eliminate bullfights, just the brutality of them. They want bullfighting coordinators to adopt Portuguese-style events, in which the animal could be wounded but not killed. So far, their requests have been roundly rejected by the major organizers.

Animal-rights groups have won some minor victories. Three years ago, the Mexican congress passed a law requiring the use of special pistols to finish off the bull immediately after a fight to reduce the animal's suffering.

Still, bullfighting critics recognize that it may take several more years before they win the larger battle to persuade a 20th century audience to change a 400-year-old tradition.

"Those who control these decisions don't want to recognize the violence that they're producing, especially for children," said Robert Garcia Noriega, a Green Party spokesman who supervised last year's poll. "At the very least, they can reduce the violence and stop sacrificing bulls."

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 01/04/99

Copyright 1998 Globe Newspaper Company

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