1 A Man, a Bull, a Small Town
Pozoblanco, September 26, 1984. They couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of them. Within the obsessive compass of the headlights the black road uncoiled, split by the white line, stretching and bending with the land. The BMW sedan was bone white, built heavy, well suited to drone out the thousands of miles a top matador must travel from town to town, from bullfight to bullfight, from February to October, through the eight-month marathon of the bullfighting season.
Sometime early that morning—later documents would differ on the exact time—the car pulled into a small town and stopped before a building with the words Hotel Los Godos spelled out over the doorway. The driver got out, opened one of the rear doors, and prodded the shoulder of the man who lay asleep in the back seat.
“Paco,” the driver said. “We’ve arrived.” His full name was Francisco Rivera y Pérez, but he was best known as Paquirri, a variant of Paco, which is a nickname for Francisco. This Paco, Francisco, Paquirri, whatever you wish to call him, was a bullfighter— in Spanish, a torero. More precisely he was a matador, the category of bullfighter who stars in the bullfight, employs a team of five assistant bullfighters, and finishes each performance by facing the bull alone, playing it with a red cape, and killing it with a sword. The most successful matadors are rich and famous entertainers, like professional athletes or movie stars. It is a hard trade. The elite minority of matadors who work regularly tend to end up in the hospital for a few weeks each season, but at least they work at their chosen profession. The rest of Spain’s matadors spend their time in cafés, waiting for their cell phones to chime with an offer of a bullfight somewhere.
Paquirri never had that problem. He spent many years at the top, as a sought-after performer who by the end of his career commanded ten thousand dollars a bullfight, more than any other matador of the time. Paquirri was also a celebrity to nonbullfighting fans, thanks to two high-profile marriages: the first to Carmen Ordónez, daughter of the legendary matador Antonio Ordónez; the second to Isabel Pantoja, a curvy pop star. Paquirri drove the women crazy. He was dark, with ice-blue eyes, high cheekbones, and dimples. He was also a classic tough guy. He could be private, stern, quiet, independent, and full of pride, but he also took pleasure in horses and running and open fields, and was a fierce and loyal friend. He adored each of his wives in her time and always adored his sons: Francisco and Cayetano from his first wife, and Francisco José from his second.
Paquirri’s life was a constant struggle. He was born poor in a small town at the southern tip of Spain, near the port city of Cádiz, and was given his nickname by his father, a failed torero who encouraged his sons to fulfill his bullfighting dreams. Lacking the natural grace that has been the basis of so many matadors’ careers, Paquirri worked and studied and bled, literally, until he had forged himself into a technical master of his craft. He took the alternativa—the ceremony that elevates an apprentice matador to full rank—on August 11, 1966, and sweated for years to gain and then maintain the respect of the small cartel of bullring operators, talent agents, and newspaper critics who control bullfighting, until the mid-1970s when his career came together and he rose to be Spain’s leading matador for six or seven years.
By 1984, however, Paquirri was slowing down. He would appear in just forty-six bullfights that season, a full twenty-six fewer than the most active matador of that year; he was not contracted for a number of the top bullfighting festivals, and to make matters worse he was starting to look fat. His own father had told him he was too heavy to be safe in the ring. “Next year I’m retiring to my ranch,” Paquirri had begun to say. “Then I’m going to invite my friends and cut the pigtail.” (Until the 1970s most matadors grew a small pigtail at the base of their skulls as a professional mark. Today they wear fake pigtails on bullfight days, but cutting the pigtail is still the final symbolic act of the matador’s career.) Paquirri had not planned to end the 1984 season in Pozoblanco. He was supposed to finish up the day before in the city of Logrono. Then in midsummer the promoter of the Pozoblanco ring called him up and twisted his arm and Paquirri agreed to appear there. As it turned out, the bullfight in Logrono on September 25 went well, and Paquirri drove all night too reach Pozoblanco and tumbled into his hotel bed. He awoke about noon and wandered down to the lobby, where he invited his assistant bullfighters for lunch. This was unusual. Paquirri tended to keep to himself before bullfights, but he was iiiiin an uncharacteristically good mood that morning. The work and worry of the season, and maybe of his career, were about to end. “What a great season we’ve had,” Paquirri was overheard saying. “Not one injury among us!” The bulls used in bullfights are descended from an ancient strain of wild bull that roamed Spain in prehistoric times.
They are bred for beauty, size, strength, speed, and ferocity, and raised semiwild on special ranches whose names and reputations are well known to bullfighting fans. The six bulls used in Paquirri’s bullfight in Pozoblanco came from the respected Sayalero y Bandrés ranch, but they were a scrawny group, the end-of-season dregs of the herd. One of them in particular looked awful. This bull’s name was Avispado, and twice that season it had been shipped to a bullfight somewhere, only to be rejected by local bullring veterinarians for being too small and too ugly to appear in a professional bullfight.
Like most bulls who fail to make it into a bullfight during their fourth year of life, Avispado was headed for the slaughterhouse. Until Paquirri called looking for some animals for a last-minute gig he’d accepted in Pozoblanco. Normally the bullring promoter selects the bulls. But when there is a star matador involved, he also has a say, and Paquirri liked Sayalero y Bandrés bulls because he’d performed well with them in the past. So Avispado and five others were set aside.
Then, a few weeks before the bullfight, the Pozoblanco mayor’s office intervened. Pozoblanco’s bullring was city-owned, and town officials had to approve all bulls presented there. But when the officials visited the Sayalero y Bandrés pasture they were displeased by the look of the bulls, declined them, and reserved animals from a different breeder.
There were many ways that Paquirri and Avispado might have avoided each other. Paquirri might have refused the Pozoblanco contract, or chosen other bulls, or allowed the officials to turn down the bulls he had chosen. Avispado might have been killed in an earlier bull- fight or sent to the slaughterhouse. Instead Paquirri said that either he got the bulls he wanted or he wasn’t going to perform. So little Avispado and his fellow Sayalero y Bandrés bulls were shipped to Pozoblanco. The morning of the bullfight, representatives of the three matadors performing that day met at the corrals to divide the bulls. Each bull had a number branded on its side, and the men wrote these numbers on slips of paper, balled the papers up, and tossed them into a hat. This was when the last piece of luck fell into place. Paquirri’s assistant reached in and pulled out the piece of paper with the number 9 on it, Avispado’s number.
Pozoblanco begins all of a sudden out of the rolling plain at the center of a valley called Los Pedroches. The twisted medieval alleyways of the older part of Pozoblanco are lined with the one- and two-story whitewashed dwellings that are typical of southern Spain. Up a hill is the newer section of town, which has wider and straighter streets and modern buildings. The main highway runs through here, heading south across the Los Pedroches plain and down out of the mountains into the big city of Córdoba, about fifty-five miles away as the crow flies. In recent years the government has spent millions to make this route easier to drive; in Paquirri’s time it was a hellish mountain road of hairpin turns, unnerving to traverse by day, terrifying by night.
There is now a hospital in Pozoblanco, but in Paquirri’s day the only medical facility was the bullring infirmary, a rough room with two tables, a sink, and a shrine to the Virgin Mary.
It may seem odd that Pozoblanco should have its own bullring, but many small Spanish towns and even some villages do, and those that don’t can rent a portable ring or close off a public square for bullfights. One way or the other, many places in Spain of any size or importance will hold at least one bullfight or bull event a year, usually during the local feria. A feria is like a civic festival or celebration. The Spanish are mad for local traditions of this sort and maintain them with a fervor that is unmatched in Europe, and there is a feria somewhere in Spain most days of the year. Ferias differ from region to region, but most are dedicated to a local patron saint, and most include religious processions, an outdoor market, and some kind of bullfight or bull-related event.
By the time Paquirri arrived in Pozoblanco, the town was well into its feria. The municipal fairground on the outskirts of town was full of people eating, drinking, dancing, shrieking on amusement park rides, and riding horses. As afternoon became evening a crowd began to assemble at the town bullring, and by six P.M. the ring was packed under a strong evening sun. A trumpet sounded, the bullfighters marched in, and the festivities began. The first half of the bullfight went smoothly and each of the three matadors killed his bull with minimum fuss. Then it was time for Paquirri to face his second and final bull of the day. The gate opened and Avispado spilled into the ring. Paquirri came out, planted his feet, and swung his cape, using the cloth to lure the bull into charging back and forth across his body, and each time the bull chugged safely past Paquirri’s legs, the crowd chanted “Olé!” in approval.
It was after the first series of passes that something went wrong. It might have been a miscalculation on Paquirri’s part, or it might have been the bull that tripped or swerved unexpectedly. But as Avispado charged past Paquirri one more time, it bumped into him, spinning him around, sending his hands, still holding the cape, into the air. As long as Paquirri had the cape between himself and the bull he was relatively safe. Suddenly he found himself unprotected and with his back to the bull. He staggered around to face the bull again and yanked the cape out of the air, sliding it over to get it in front of his legs. Had he been a beat quicker he might have gotten the cape down before the bull had a chance to react to it. But Avispado was following the cape, and as Paquirri swung it over, the bull pursued the cloth straight into the matador’s right thigh, sinking the horn deep into the flesh.
Somewhere in the audience a woman shrieked. Avispado thrust its head upward, flipping Paquirri feet-first into the air, the horn still in the leg. Four bullfighters ran up to Avispado, but the little bull was too fast and too strong and all they could do was watch.
Avispado rushed forward. In a desperate attempt to extricate himself, Paquirri swung himself upright, which only made matters worse, causing his full weight to bounce up and down on the horn, producing more damage. After nine full seconds, Avispado wheeled, lowered its head, and Paquirri fell away. He stood for a moment, then collapsed. Several bullfighters picked him up and ran him from the ring. A matador named José Cubero, El Yiyo, stepped onto the sand. By law it was now his responsibility to kill Avispado.
As soon as Paquirri was tossed, Dr.
Elíseo Morán left his place in the callejón and rushed to the bullring infirmary. Dr. Morán had a thriving surgical practice in Córdoba, but he spent summer weekends as the chief of the medical team in small bullrings around the province. By the day of Paquirri’s goring, Morán had treated dozens of horn injuries, and was confident he could open and clean Paquirri’s wound, stop the blood flow, and stabilize Paquirri so he could be taken to the hospital in Córdoba, where the proper facilities existed to help doctors reattach any severed blood vessels and close the wound. “Let’s go,” Dr.Morán told his fellow surgeons when he saw Paquirri in the air. “We’ve got a big one.” The infirmary was silent as the doctors scrubbed up, laid out needle, thread, anesthesia, and bags of blood. “Where are the toreros?” they asked themselves. “Why haven’t they arrived yet?” No one spoke, and their eyes flicked to the room’s glass doors.
Then the doors flew open, shattering the glass. In came Paquirri, borne on a litter of hands and arms, and in his wake a small crowd of bullfighters, entourage members, and gawkers. They laid Paquirri out on the operating table. His thigh was sliced open like a Sunday roast and blood pooled on the table beneath it. The doctors trained their strong surgical lights on the wound and cut Paquirri’s pant leg off, exposing his leg to the hairy genitals.
Among the people at the periphery of these events was a video cameraman from TVE, Spain’s national network. Shooting under the surgical lights, he was able to capture a few minutes of Paquirri’s agony. This footage would be shown again and again around the country in the weeks, months, and years that followed. As one writer described it, this video footage would become the Spanish equivalent of the Zapruder film, which captured the second when the bullet struck John F.
Kennedy. The film begins with the camera at Paquirri’s feet. Then the camera pans up his ruined thigh, his torso, to his face. Paquirri flinches now and then, but he is calm. His voice is firm, his face impassive. He takes control of the room, making sure everything is done right. This is his ninth serious goring.
“A moment please, Doctor, I would like to talk with you,” Paquirri says. “The gring is a deep one. It has two trajectories. One through here and one through there.” Paquirri gestures up and down, showing the paths of the horn inside his body. “Open me where you need to open me,” he continues. “I place my life in your hands.” The din in the room increases. “Quiet, please,” the matador says. “Please wet my mouth with water.” He drinks and then spits. The tape ends.
Out in the arena, El Yiyo killed Avispado. Then bullring servants attached chains to the bull’s horns and a mule team dragged Avispado’s carcass from the ring and into the bullring butchery, across an alley from the infirmary where Paquirri was being treated. A short time after the butchers had turned Avispado into cuts of meat for local markets, about eight o’clock, Paquirri was carried to a waiting ambulance, and the big white Citroën pulled out of town, siren yowling, and flew down the highway, careening along the twisting mountain roads. Around fifteen miles from the gates of Córdoba, Paquirri cried out, “Help me, I can’t breathe.” The ambulance screeched to a stop and a doctor worked on him by the side of the road. When Paquirri looked a little calmer, he was put back in the ambulance, which reached the hospital shortly after nine o’clock. It had taken less than an hour to get to Córdoba, but Paquirri was all but dead on arrival. He was thirty-six years old.
In the weeks that followed, Paquirri’s death would remind many writers and commentators of some lines in “The Song of the Rider,” a short poem written in the 1920s by Spain’s best-known poet, Federico García Lorca, who was himself a bullfighting aficionado.
Through the plain, through the wind, Black pony, red moon.
Death is watching me, from the towers of Córdoba.
Oh what a long road!
Oh my brave pony!
Oh that death awaits me, before I arrive in Córdoba!
Spain plunged into frenzied mourning for Paquirri. Newspapers picked over the grisly details of the goring and the race to Córdoba until the entire story took on the quality of legend. Many people second-guessed the doctors, wondering whether they had handled the wound in the right way. Strangely, amid all the fuss, it was never made clear just what had killed Paquirri, shock, loss of blood, or something else. The funeral took place in Sevilla. The prime minister was unable to attend, but sent his wife. The crowd that assembled in front of the apartment building where the body was laid out stretched for five miles. When the coffin was brought out, the massive throng wouldn’t let it be placed in the hearse.
Instead Paquirri was carried to Sevilla’s bullring, where it was marched around and around to chants of a single word, “Torero.” In certain parts of Spain there is no greater compliment.
Paquirri was buried in the cemetery of San Fernando, where his tomb faces the mausoleum of José Gómez Ortega, Joselito, perhaps the best bullfighter of all time, who was killed by a bull on May 16, 1920. Buried with Joselito is his brother-in-law, the matador Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, who killed the bull that killed Joselito.
Fourteen years later, another bull killed Sánchez Mejías. Killing a murderous bull had brought bad luck to Sánchez Mejías (or so it was said), and this same misfortune pursued those who performed with Paquirri in Pozoblanco.
In 1985, a bull gored El Yiyo in the heart, killing him instantly. He was twenty-one. In 1985, a gunman marched into the office of Avispado’s breeder, Juan Luis Bandrés, and shot him to death. That case was never solved. In 1994, third matador on the card that day, Vicente Ruiz, El Soro, injured his right knee. It ended his career, leaving him with a deformed leg.
Though it might have been bad for his fellow performers, Paquirri’s death was a good thing for bullfighting.
By the mid-1980s the bullfight had been losing ground as a popular spectacle for years, to soccer, television, and movies, in part because people believed bullfighting was fixed, that the matadors weren’t really risking their lives. Paquirri’s death changed that. Not only did it legitimize bullfighting as a serious thing, but it brought newfound admiration for matadors. Paquirri wasn’t the first prominent matador killed by a bull. But he was the first one killed during the television age, and what was seared into the Spanish consciousness was not so much his death as the composure and humble bravery he showed in the infirmary video.
In the 1990s bullfighting would undergo a strong revival, driven in part by a new generation of young matadors who remembered Paquirri’s death as a formative event. One of these was his own son, a ten-year-old named Fran, who went to bed that night thinking he had a father and was fast asleep when his mother came in to tell him he no longer did. Fran says he can’t recall how he responded to this news. His mother remembered, however, and so did another person who was in the house that night. Apparently, when Fran heard what had happened, he looked up at his mother and said, “I am going to be a bullfighter.”
Copyright © 2005 by Edward Lewine.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.