Blood and Sand

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
Marina Molarsky-Beck

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE, Mexico—The legendary matador Manuel Benítez Pérez, better known as El Cordobés, trained by sneaking on to the land of local breeders and challenging the bulls under cover of night. For Benítez, who grew up an orphan in Franco-era Spain, bullfighting was a chance to catapult himself out of crushing poverty and into a life of wealth, fame, and glory.

The young toreros at the Plaza de Toros Oriente in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico on Friday seemed a world apart from the moonlit pastures where El Cordobés practiced.

A mariachi band perched at the top of the arena, providing a soundtrack of popular tunes to the night’s entertainment. Vendors hawked beer and popcorn, pausing in their cries of “Cerveza! Cerveza!” only when a torero raised his sword to deliver the fatal blow.

One novillero, or novice bullfighter, Hector de Avila, had his whole family in attendance. They sat in the front row, smoking cigarettes and snapping photos of him on their iPhones.

Avila was light on his feet, making swift passes with his scarlet muleta. He took one false step, though, and was down in a flash, white suit against the sand. The bull thrust downwards; the crowd went silent with fear. Then the other toreros were distracting the bull with the flapping of yellow capes, and Avila scrambled to his feet. Minutes later, Avila thrust his sword between the bull’s shoulders and ended the dance of death.

According to legend, El Cordobés once told his sister before a crucial fight, “Tonight, either I’ll buy you a house or I’ll dress you in mourning.” Half a century later and clear across the Atlantic, the stakes are the same.