How does a human being, or an animal, become God? Through the spontaneous will of self-sacrifice, or through suffering.
Originally, the goal was to ride the bull to death. How long this took, we don’t know. Days, perhaps, of relentless bucking and lassoing, cheering and drinking, waiting and then rising to attention with clenched heart, until finally the knees buckled, the horns tipped, and the enormous jowls sagged into the dust. How many jinetes maimed, killed, in a crude ring of hand-hewn logs?
But no one needs to be reminded that, as French anthropologist Frederic Saumade put it, “the ritual of jaripeo dramatizes the relationship with death.” That’s why everyone is there to begin with: for that horrific, mesmerizing possibility of hoof crushing skull, or for the transcendence of the Indian jinete with arms raised and head thrown back saying fuck-all to his conquerors and the daily toil of his fleeting life.
Jaripeo was born from resistance. The Spanish colonizers brought Mesoamerica its first bulls and horses, but such animals were reserved for the Spaniards, or “men of reason.” Indians and mestizos were forbidden from riding horses and from participating in Spanish corridas, the beloved bullfights imported from the home country and recreated in Nueva España. And so sometime in the late 16th century, on the outskirts of burgeoning haciendas or in foggy mountain towns, with a wry and deeply ironic sense of speaking truth to power, indigenous people got the idea to ride the bulls like horses.
Jaripeo has always been the popular, peasant sport. The corridas marked official celebrations and key religious events in the Catholic calendar, and eventually created both a fascination with the bull as an object of sacrifice and an intrinsic connection between bulls and the annual village fiestas honoring patron saints, but they were aristocratic affairs in which exquisitely dressed gentlemen fought with lances on horseback. A corrida was staged each year to celebrate the Spanish taking of the Aztec capital Tenochtitlán. The Spaniards rode: the Indians watched their story retold.
When the demand for manual labor in the 17th century did away with the prohibition of Indians riding horses, the sport of charrería became popular. Charrería was where rodeo originated: a charro would bring down a horse or a bull by lassoing its hind or front legs; jump from his galloping horse onto the bare back of another; scoop up a rooster while at full gallop, and perform any number of variations on the above. Charrería originated on haciendas and was dominated by ranchers, upper-class mestizos, and landowners, who The New York Times writer E.L. Yordan labeled “gentlemen cowboys” in his 1937 article “Horsemen of Mexico.” Very clearly a product of mestizaje and thus in line with the national ideology, charreria became Mexico's national sport long before fútbol. When you put on that massive, velvet, fake-rhinestone-encrusted sombrero at the Mexican restaurant to celebrate your birthday and eat fried ice cream, you are living charro culture. Still, while its trappings have become essential features of Mexican pop culture, charrería remains the province of the wealthy. As Yordon observed,
The modern charros drive American automobiles, live in modernistic homes and speak English and French besides their native tongue. But once a week, on Sunday, they go thoroughly Mexican and, attired in the gaudiest costumes imaginable, become reckless riders and artists with the rope.
He goes on to describe the charro’s elaborate dress, gleeful at these details of “thoroughly Mexican” exoticism: “His revolver, which never leaves him except when he sleeps, is encrusted with mother-of-pearl or silver.”
No, charrería is not your peasant sport. Jaripeo is not a corrida, it is not charrería, and it is not, its aficionados will remind you grumpily, U.S. rodeo. It is, to quote Fournier “the indigenous cultural expression of total disorder.” If charreria was the “official Mexican game reserved for the elite and marked by its formal rigor,” and the Spanish corrida was “the obligatory presence of Spanish power in all festive events,” the jaripeo has always been where indigenous people gather for reckless abandon, in mezcal and fried peanuts and the taunting of death.
Its only rule is to stay on the bull as long as you can.
The day I went to my first jaripeo was clear, a rarity in the Sierra: so clear that the 3,390-foot sacred mountain Zempoaltepetl was imposing and triumphant; the blue tips of distant mountains stretched on and on in long chains; and the Mixe valley could be traced in all its undulations to a faraway horizon.
This was the never-conquered land: la tierra jamas conquistada, as the Mixes called it. Although evidence of Spanish influence was everywhere—in the common surname Alcántara, in the church and the saint and the horses—the Mixes maintain that they were never truly conquered. Their region’s isolation and remoteness, as well as their famed bellicosity, prevented the Spanish and later, the mestizo Mexican state, from ever fully making inroads.
Bright boxes of text painted on the walls around town said things like, “Let’s put an end to illiteracy!—The never-conquered land” or “Help prevent AIDS!—The never-conquered land.” To a Mexican from Sonora or Mexico City or Guadalajara, Totontepec would still seem foreign, a throwback not to colonial times but to Prehispanic ones.
But for as much as the persistence of Mixe culture and tradition could be attributed to tenacity, bravery and remoteness, it was also in no small part the product of poverty and its sole escape valve: migration.
My husband Jorge and I were in Totontepec for the annual village fiesta, a three-day affair of jaripeos, basketball tournaments, dancing, mole-eating, mezcal-drinking, and patron saint-worshipping. The fiesta del pueblo, the single most important annual event in the Sierra Norte’s indigenous villages, is a tradition that originated with Oaxaca’s colonization in the mid-16th century, when Spanish festivals honoring Catholic saints merged with indigenous rituals honoring local Mixtec, Zapotec, or Mixe deities.
After months of hardship and quiet–the village streets emptied by migration, the few returned or remaining men working in the fields and the women in the dark general stores and kitchens–the fiesta is an eruption of celebratory indulgence People from Totontepec who've moved to Oaxaca City or Mexico City flood back to the pueblo. For three days, the village is transformed: its small adobe houses packed with people and the herbed smoke of clay comales; its streets heady with music and parades and firecrackers.
And then, on the fourth day, it all slips back into silence. The burnt ends of fireworks are swept from the church plaza, the bands and bulls and riders return home, and the small chirps of sparrows echo off the basketball court roof.
All year, families save money to prepare meals that will feed the entire pueblo as well as hundreds of visitors from nearby pueblos, and a special committee goes about collecting money for candles, parades, food, mezcal, bands, musical groups, beer, bulls, prizes, basketball uniforms and trophies, flowers, and fireworks. The vast majority of this money for the fiesta comes from migrants in the United States; without migration, there would be no fiesta, or at least nothing of comparable scale and intensity. Behind the slaughtered bulls, the rodeo ring, the saint's new clothes are busboys in San Francsico and potato pickers in Idaho.
These traditions, and the villages themselves, are kept alive because of the more than 1 billion dollars of remittances flowing into Oaxaca each year.
Totontepec had just constructed a new rodeo ring. It was sunk into a hillside below one of the main roads, and other than the basketball court and the church was the largest and most significant space in the village. It had curved, spacious stands that wrapped around a large central ring, which was bordered by metal gates instead of the tightly bound wooden beams of yore. Just to the left of the two ringside chutes where bulls were prepared and released was a stage: this was not for the local bandas that came to the fiesta, but rather invited musical groups. While bass band music reigns in the Sierra and accompanies any significant event, it is a point of village pride to be able to bring in an outside Norteño group for the fiesta (paid for, of course, by a migrant in the U.S.). Hanging from the center of the new roof was a small effigy to the saint and, dangling beneath it, a plastic bull and rider.
When we arrived the stands were considerably full, though not packed. As usual, there was no real set time for the jaripeo to begin: it happened whenever it happened, whenever some supernatural force seemed to converge on the milling- around riders and bulls and organizers and pushed them just beyond the shuffling interminable waiting into action. The announcer was warming up. He paced around the ring, stirring up flirty little dust clouds with his cowboy boots.
“They’re selling popcorn to benefit the reconstruction of the Catholic temple,” he said, warming up his ringmaster’s flair. “Microwave popcorn to benefit the reconstruction of the majestic Catholic temple!” On his hat was a pin of the U.S. and Mexican flags, their poles crossed. The announcer’s Western-style shirt, with a high starched collar and delicate ornamental piping, had embroidered on the back “Los Pecadores del Norte”: The Sinners of the North. In the ring with him, in another corner, was a young wannabe announcer, a precocious kid around 7 or 8 who was miming the announcer’s every move, ducking his chin and furrowing his brows to suggest the deep-throated golden-tongued fluency of the ringmaster at full throttle. The ringmaster let him practice briefly with the microphone and he was good, his “damas y caballeros” mellifluent and pitch-perfect.
Lassoed bulls were being coaxed into the pens, delicately at first, then with prods in their flanks if they failed to cooperate. The bulls were criollos, mixes of Swiss bulls and Zebus, coaxed from their lazy grazing in mountain pastures into the rattling backs of ancient Fords and driven along slow winding roads to the clamor of the fiesta. Oaxaca’s indigenous towns take pride in the fact that their bulls are wild, untrained. As Mixtec journalist Juan Gomez Bravo, one of jaripeo’s foremost chroniclers and defenders, puts it, U.S. rodeo bulls are “raised, in a stable, by a computer, with doses of food...if they're too brave, they're rejected for rodeo.” The Sierra’s jaripeo bulls are occasionally tethered, but mostly roam free on remote mountainsides, and are thus completely unpredictable in their reaction to being lassoed, held in a pen, and then loosed with a rider on their huge humped backs.
They weigh up to a thousand pounds, and their downcast glances; their dull munching of grain and extenuated pissing in the dust behind the ring; the slow plod of their short legs, belied the terror unleashed when they grew furious.
More and more people piled into the stands, eating fried pork rinds, fried homemade potato chips, fried bananas, microwave popcorn. Groups of people filled the ringside tables, which cost 100 pesos each. They brought their own six-packs of Negra Modelos and gargantuan bags of garlic-fried peanuts and limes. The Xoxocotlán brass band, twenty-some school-age kids with hair braided or gelled to a gleam, took its place towards the right side of the ring to provide the obligatory musical compliment to the action.
“Welcome to the Professional and Ranchero Jaripeo in Totontepec, 2012!” The announcer boomed. The applause rose loud and vibrant. Jorge and I were standing just before the stage, towards the back of the ring, where we wouldn’t block anyone’s view but could get an immediate close-up sense of the action.
“Arriba la region Mixe!” the announcer bellowed. “From all of us who’ve had to migrate to another state, or to the other side, Arriba Totontepec!” The cheers were wild, reverberating off the roof. “Thank you to everyone based in Mexico City, based in the United States, who has made this rodeo happen!” A detonation of applause. Then the announcer carefully laid out how the professional rodeo would go down. There would be four judges. The judges would qualify the rider and the bull; there were elements of both luck and talent involved. If a rider got a laidback bull, he was out, no matter what. He had to get a feisty fired-up beast and ride it fearlessly and well for at least five seconds to have a shot. There would be first, second and third place winners, who would win 3,000, 1,500 and 750 pesos, respectively. José Alcantara from Los Angeles was sponsoring these prizes; thanks to José Alcantara! Aplauso! The consolation prizes, put up by the village, were bottles of tequila and used kitchen appliances.
And now began the introductions of all the village authorities: the President, his Vice President, and all the members of the Village Fiesta Committee. They arranged themselves in a semi-circle in the dust to the polite applause of the crowd, which was eager to get to the riders and the show.
One by one, the announcer called the names of the jinetes, his voice ramping up and rocketing off an incline like a runaway car each time:
“El Niño de Oro!”
“El Niño Fantasia!”
They solemnly shook hands with each of the village authorities, and as they assumed their places around the ring, cool and badass and immune to the adoring crowds as the true macho must be, I read their chaps and their elaborately embroidered vests.
My passion is legendary.
Baby Jesus, nobody loves you like I do.
My light is the purest.
If you’re with me, I have no fear.
I always want to be in your arms.
I earn my living riding.
And my personal favorite, a kind of rodeo koan:
The only thing that lives in me is that which does not exist.
When all of the riders had been introduced and were lined up beside the village authorities, the announcer thundered,
“And now, for the Oración del Jinete ” It was time for the rider’s prayer. The riders got down on one knee. All of them held a small paper card of the virgin, which they kissed and rubbed on the dusty earth. Some pinched dust between their fingers, brought it to their lips and kissed it. Some crossed themselves and squeezed their eyes shut.
We the jinetes aren’t asking for special favors
Nor that you give us a bull that’s impossible to ride
We only ask that you give us courage and skill to realize our mounts
In each of the rodeos in which we risk our lives
Señor Dios, you made me a rider and I am happy.
Señor Dios, when the bull punishes me and you see me lost and there is no salvation,
Give me your hand; show me the way and forgive me.
Ah, but my beloved Dios, in this afternoon I only came for a few pesos,
I’ll finish my mount and I’ll go
But, may the light of your eyes shine forever on my soul and my humble heart
My loving God, leave your door open, it could be...it could be that I visit you today there
Where all the afternoons will be of triumph and glory
Where the water is more transparent than crystal
You tell us, “Open the gates, take off your hats!
Come my valiant riders, your mount is ready.”
The riders stood up firm and resigned to the soaring applause and walked out, and the games began.
Just before the bull was released, there was a hush, a scuffle of preparation in the bull’s holding pen, the crunch of homemade potato chips, and then that fleeting held breath of anticipation which I came to understand drew people back to the rodeo: in the following seconds anything could happen, triumph or disaster.
The chute was opened, the first bull came out charging, and the jinete couldn’t keep the stomach-dropping shock off his face but still he clung with naked, terrified determination. The crowd thundered. The bull heaved and surged his way through the ring, a ballistic thousand-pound seesaw. The possibility of the jinete’s head being crushed was manifest in his squeezed-shut eyes, the grimace of his exposed teeth, but he held as the bull reared and bucked until he was thrown, violently, to the left, and he scrambled lizard-like through the dust and under the first metal rung. My heart was racing. I applauded stupidly. I now understood the rapture of witnessing someone else’s near death experience. It was horrifying, and it was glorious. The jinetes all had different styles: some went for the thuggish, with backwards baseball caps and a gelled swagger; some looked as if they had just finished eating memelas in their grandma’s kitchen. But the expressions they wore once that chute had been opened were all the same, surging from them without their control, the denuded expressions of the most elemental fear.
In Death in the Afternoon, Hemingway writes, “The only place where you could see life and death, i.e., violent death now that the wars were over, was in the bull ring and I wanted very much to go to Spain where I could study it. I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. It had none of the complications of death by disease, or so-called natural death, or the death of a friend or someone you have loved or have hated, but it is death nevertheless, one of the subjects that a man may write of…I thought [the bullfights] would be simple and barbarous and cruel and that I would not like them, but that I would see certain definite action which would give me the feeling of life and death that I was looking for.” Hemingway discovers that the Spanish bullfights are far from simple: he goes on to write a sometimes riveting, often tedious 300-page book about them. The Mexican jaripeo is barbaric, and simple, and cruel, and yet for me it possessed the same mesmerizing power Hemingway found in Spanish aristocratic ritual. Here that ritual was bastardized, shot through with U.S. spectacle and indigenous superstition and pure defiance, and more magnificent for it.
“Hijo de la guayaba!” the announcer shouted. “Hijo de la mañana!”
“What does that mean?” I screamed in Jorge’s ear over the crowd, the band, and the announcer.
“Son of the guava!” Jorge shouted back.
“But what does that mean?” I yelled. He shrugged, and maneuvered his way to the right to take pictures. The announcers were masters of improvised slang, and their preferred phrase was “Hijo de la _______.” Son of the blank. At first I tried to parse out precisely what it meant to be the son of, say, the morning, vs., say, the son of a guava. But then I gave up. I did put together, though, that the more hard-core a rider was the more figurative mothers he would garner. A rider who lasted ten seconds was the son of the devil, the moon, and his mother.
A commotion broke out on the other side of the ring. There were people crammed onto a driveway that dropped from the street down to the grassy stretch behind the ring, and they were now stampeding backwards, fleeing a massive escaped bull. The bull was lassoed, but with one nice swift haul had escaped the grip of its handlers and gone charging into the gathered crowd. People were throwing themselves to the side of the driveway like leaves being husked; others bled out into the street above, running. The announcer brayed “Catch him! Catch him! Catch him!” The men who’d lost their grips scrambled rapid-fire uphill, dove at the loose ropes and regained leverage, turning the bull around, steering it back down to where it would wait to create another kind of ordered spectacle. The bull gave a few more petulant tugs backwards, enough to stir collective gasps from the audience, but then cowed, outnumbered. An ambulance nudged its way through the crowds onto the driveway and a few people in white coats jumped out to attend to writhing bodies on the ground.
“People,” the announcer said. “What are you doing standing in places like this? This is why we can’t have people standing right there next to the bulls. It’s dangerous. Of course, we can’t be responsible for any damage caused by people being irresponsible.” His tone was admonishing, as if he’d been warning people for years about these things, as if there existed any sort of code or regulation whatsoever for whom could stand where or go walking around near the loosely tethered bulls. “Kids, come down off those rungs!” he declared, taking some authority to prevent further damage. Kids, four and six and ten-year-olds, climbed down from where they’d been perched on the top metal rungs of the ring just above the passing thousand-pound hulk of pissed-off bulls. When the ambulance had left a man drove an ancient-looking Ford, the kind featured in Hollywood movies about the South or the depression, down the driveway and parked it sideways so that it could ostensibly block an angry escaping animal. Problem solved.
Two minutes later, the kids were back up on the rungs again, people had flooded the driveway around the Ford once more, and the announcer was asking,
“Dónde están los ricos?” Where are the rich people? A mild rumble from the crowd.
“Dónde están los pobres?” Where are the poor people? An empyrean roar.
“Dónde están los ricos y guapos?” Where are the rich and the handsome? A few spare sarcastic whoops.
“Dónde están los pobres pero guapos?” Where are the poor but handsome? A salvo of heartfelt cries.
“Ricos mas fuerte!” Tepid cheering.
“Pobres mas fuerte!” Uproar.
The next bull was ready. The announcer moved out of the way, the rider poised just above the stilled bulk, and then the signal was given and the rider dropped down as the chute was opened and the bull came surging out. The bull bucked, and bucked again, and the rider’s hair flipped up like a corona around his head but he held, and held, and then with one ardent sideways jerk he was thrown beneath the bull’s feet. The crowd hushed.
“Get him out of there, get him out of there!” hollered the announcer. The bull pranced over the rider, who had covered his head and curled up like an inchworm. The lassoes were thrown and the bull’s head dropped as it was yanked back towards the ring’s edge, but the rider was already thrashing around in agony.
The doctor moved in quickly and dragged the rider out of the ring right in front of me and Jorge. He ripped open the rider’s Western-style sparkly plaid shirt and took his heartbeat; he tore off the rider’s chaps and checked his legs for wounds. The rider’s face was contorted, his eyes squinched stars of pain. His stomach was light brown and fragile-looking, exposed. People from the 100-peso table nearby leaned over him; the crowd craned from above. The doctor palpated the stomach and the neck and then nodded and stood. He helped the cringing rider up, the rider’s cowboy boots scuffing up dust.
“I’m taking off my sombrero so that you’ll give him applause with heart, with good faith, with love and feeling!” the announcer boomed, lifting his sombrero and lowering it dramatically to his thigh. The applause rose relieved and exhilarated, higher and higher, but the jinete ignored it completely. He shuffled off behind the ring to where the bulls were munching their grass, back to his stoic tribe of riders, with the Sierra unfolding still and sunlit before him and the crowd muffled behind him.
I turned around to see a little girl pulling a toy monkey on a bike. The monkey kept hitting bumps or discarded pork rinds and falling over; she would feel him dragging, stop, right him again, and merrily continue on her way.
That night we cocked our expert ears towards the hubbub of bandas, following the music around corners and up a cobblestone alleyway to the house where we now knew dinner would be served. Where there was a banda, there was food, there were people, there was dancing, there was fiesta.
On one side of a wide earthen yard, before a narrow house, the band from Tepantlali sat in folding chairs playing sones y jarabes. Petates—bamboo mats—had been set out before them and were agleam with the instruments of another band, which was inside eating. Between the band and the house honey-colored single bulbs illumed streamers of papel picado and beneath them people dancing, chatting, holding beers and copitas de mezcal. The space was so full that the men of the house had to hoist their cases of beer above their heads to maneuver through it, lowering them delicately between the heat of bodies to hand out beers. Señoras hustled at barely contained sprints between the kitchen—an outdoor kitchen with bamboo walls a short alleyway from the house—and the tables set up inside and outside. They carried trays covered to the last square inch with large clay bowls of mole; small bowls of huddled jalapeño rajas and salsa made in a molcajete; warm cloth-bundled tortillas; and pitchers of steaming amber-colored coffee. Men elbowed their way through the crowd in jerky precipitous zigzags, burdened by enormous buckets full of dishes.
We were integrating ourselves into the fray when Pedro, a man we’d met the day before at another dinner like this one, emerged and grinned at us. “Incredible, isn’t it,” he said.
We walked over together to peek into the kitchen. It was some thirty feet long by ten feet wide, and smoky. It was filled with women: women washing, women chopping, women stirring, women scurrying in and out with heaped trays, as if this were a live shoebox diorama of the Mexican village woman’s many tasks. The diorama’s centerpiece was a massive—and when I say massive, I don’t mean as in considerable, as in large, as in, oh-that’s-a-big soup massive, but rather as in big enough to hold a Mama goat massive—pot. It was filled with swirly yellow mole, galactic-looking.
To the señora stirring it I said,
“That’s a huge pot.”
“Esta chiquita,” she said affectionately. It’s little.
We stood backed up against the corrugated tin kitchen door, which was wallpapered with the wrappers from 1 kilo cans of jalapeños: an undulating spectrum of pickled peppers. Every few moments Pedro would say “Cuidado!” and we’d duck to avoid being whammed by ingoing or outgoing trays. The smoke burned my eyes. I coughed, felt guilty at the luxury of my awe. I stepped outside. To the left, at the end of the alleyway between the kitchen and the house, old señoras, the ones whose skin sags from their bone-thin arms, were heating tortillas on a series of comales, nearly hidden in the dark of charcoal and smoke and night.
Back in the open space of the yard the dancing was in full swing. Here, roles were reversed: the kids played, cheeks puffed and faces furrowed around the reeds of their instruments, while the adults relaxed and cavorted. An old drunken woman with disheveled hair grabbed a handsome young guy in a crisp white shirt and dragged him away from his well-groomed partner. The crowd cheered, “Be-so! Be-so! Be-so!” Kiss, kiss, kiss! But the guy politely extracted himself and returned to his pretty companion, who was laughing. The crowd booed, hissed. “No vale!” a man behind me cried. Not fair! This heckling continued, rising to fever pitch while the old woman stood with her hands on her hips, until the guy once again abandoned his lady and took the old woman in his arms. Cheers rose like swirls of smoke.
A woman’s hand landed on my shoulder; I turned. “Pasé,” she said. It was our turn to eat. Walking inside we passed the state police, called in for a few days just in case something would get out of hand during the fiesta, who were eating at the outside tables. Their semi-automatics lay on petates before them.
Inside the space was tiny but accommodating, cast red by the red-flowered plastic tablecloths and red papel picado strung across the ceiling in honor of the blood of San Sebastian Martir, the pueblo’s patron saint. In an instant the señoras were feeding the new crop of us, setting down the individual clay dishes of mole, big communal bowls of rice and of beans, tortillas, El Rey sodas, and asking in low voices, “Mas comidita? Mas arroz? Mas frijoles? Todo bien? Mas tortillas?”
Across from us was a young guy with an oval face and tidy, fine Indian features. His skin was smooth copper. He was wearing a neat white guayabera.
“De dónde son?” he asked Jorge and me: both of us, as a sort of intentional etiquette, which was unusual. He had a unique air about him: confident, purposeful, self-possessed, like the wise king in a Hollywood fantasy.
“Los Estados Unidos,” I said, in Spanish.
“Eres Mexicana o Americana?” he asked.
“Americana,” I said.
“Si, verdad,” he smiled. Then he held up a finger—“Oh, yes.”
He was a jinete, from a village named Santiago Camotlan. Camote means turnip: he was from the land of turnips. They called him seven lives—siete vidas—because in a year of riding he had not once managed to stay on a bull. He always fell, and most of the time he was knocked out. But he hadn’t died. Not yet, at least. That day he’d fallen and been kicked in the ribs; it still hurt to stand. In the last rodeo he’d fallen and been trampled; he spent twenty days in the hospital. He said this matter-of-factly, without drama.
“Why do you do it?” I asked. He liked the question, smiled a bit, and started out answering with confidence, but then stumbled. It was hard to define.
“It’s like a sport for us, for those of us who ride. There’s something, like destiny, that brings you into it…we do it with a destiny. It’s what we have to do… even if you don’t want to, it’s what you have to do.” He paused. “And if you die in a jaripeo, pues, ni modos.” He was flippant in the macho way about death, and here, at the table with warm tortillas and a bowl of mole that flippancy made sense, was reaffirming.
“I’m not going to stop,” he said plainly.
“Do people get killed?” I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Oh, yeah. Last year, Callejero. I think it was in October, sometime. He fell and died. Tons of people saw it. They still sell the video everywhere. You can buy it and watch it.”
“How did he die?” I asked. Siete Vidas shrugged.
“He fell badly,” he said. “On his neck.” He munched a tortilla.
“He was good. He was a legend.”
The bull that killed Callejero was named Peor es Nada: Better than Nothing.
Siete Vidas continued, “A guy from over there wanted to take me with him, you know.”
“Como,” I said. Como functions as a sort of catch-all: how, why, what do you mean.
“His name is Richard Vick,” Siete Vidas went on. He pronounced it Ree-chard Veek. “He has some land in Camotlan. He wanted to take me back to Michigan with him.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Who knows,” Siete Vidas shrugged. He was not one to interrogate himself about such things. His forearms rested sturdily against the table. He had strong pueblo hands and scooped up mole with tortillas. “He likes me, I guess.”
“What’s he do in Camotlan?” I asked.
“He’s always looking for metals in the mountains. Researching, I don’t know exactly.”
“But you didn’t go,” I said. He shook his head. His parents hadn’t wanted him to. He was too young, only 17. But his brother had left even younger than that, and was now settled in Columbus, Ohio.
“Columbus!” I said. “I’m from there! Where in Columbus?”
Siete Vidas thought a moment. He craned his head at the ceiling.
“I don’t remember,” he said finally. “It’s a street that starts with M. In the center.” His brother had a wife and two kids who’d been born in the States. He worked at a restaurant and things were going well for him; he kept putting pressure on Siete Vidas to come over.
“But you don’t want to go?” I asked.
“It’s not that, exactly,” he said. “I’m in the middle of thinking about it right now. My brother’s tugging me really hard towards there. But I don’t have anyone to go with me. And my parents really don’t want me to go. They’re scared, because a woman from Camotlan was just sent back from over there. She drowned in the Rio Negro. She was just about to arrive. She came back, but dead. Ni modos,” he shrugged. “She was 27.”
“You know,” he continued, “There was another woman who wanted to take me, too. She was from Laredo. She wanted to take me but it’s really difficult to adopt a Mexican. She couldn’t. But we’re still in contact: she helps me out, sends me food, clothes. It’s just that it’s really difficult to adopt a Mexican.”
“Have you told her about the jaripeo?” I asked.
He smiled into his mole, held up a finger, wagged it back and forth.
“Tienes hijos?” he asked. “You have baby?”
“No,” I said. “We’re married, but no kids.”
“Me neither,” He said. “I’m single. It’s difficult, isn’t it?”
We both nodded yes, although I wasn’t quite sure what was difficult: being single, or being married, or having kids, or just life in general.
An explosion rocked the room. The roof shook with metallic reverberations and the walls seemed to rumble. Several men stood up, perched crane-like above their seats, waiting. The band played on.
“Firework,” someone said, with a mouthful of tortilla. And then everyone went back to eating.
A group of young guys came in and sat around the table against the back wall. I recognized several as riders from earlier. They nodded curt hellos to Siete Vidas. Soon after they sat down, everyone turned at what they thought was the sound of another firecracker going off right there in the room. But it was only the riders: two of them could do a perfect imitation of a cuete. One did the whistle, and one did the pop.
Outside, on the plaza in front of the church, bulls were riding men. Toritos, dozens of small firecrackers twisted and glued together in the shape of bulls, were being pulled over men’s heads and shoulders and lit. The men would go charging into the gathered crowd, shedding exploding veils of sparks, leaping and bounding under their blazing bulls. People would scream and scatter, duck and shriek. Eventually, the bulls would fizzle and fade and the men would remove them, smoking, from their heads.
In the not-so-distant background we heard whines and smacks and fizzles and whips and roars and crackles: in front of the church, the firework castle was burning.
The next afternoon we returned to the jaripeo. It was packed: people pressed thigh to thigh into the stands, people at the 100-peso ringside tables, people lining the poured concrete entranceway, people lying on the grass above and peering down over the cascading heads to the ring, little boys perched atop the metal rails like birds on a wire. Their silhouettes were iconic, recalling so many border photos of young men balanced between worlds. It was impossible not to see them in that context, their short legs dangling, the vastness of the Sierra going on and on beyond them.
The jaripeo that day would begin with a brief children’s competition on bull calves. The announcer called all of the boys—unsurprisingly, it was niños only—who wanted to participate into the ring, and as if a dog had been sent in to flush out the grouse they came rushing down from the stands and wriggled through the rungs of the fences. The precocious boy announcer from the other day was there, standing tall with swaggering nonchalance in his blue Western-style shirt and jeans and boots, as were a smattering of other boys, some prepared for the occasion in ironed guayaberas and others in ratty sweatpants and secondhand t-shirts. One by one, the announcer interviewed them.
“Where are you from?”
“D.F.” Mexico City, often refered to as D.F. or Distrito Federal.
“No, where are you really from?”
“D.F.” The kid, skinny and much taller than the others, with a rough crew cut and a plaid shirt, was not backing down.
“Ay, niño! No vale! Where are you from?”
“Where are you from, guey?” The kid caved.
This repeated itself several times.
“Apparently everyone’s from México!” the announcer shouted, México being the metonymic way of referring to Mexico City, as if Mexico itself were a foreign land embodied by that distant capital. The announcer was skeptical and admonishing, although his own U.S./Mexico pin glinted when he stepped through the dust-flecked sun. “I don’t believe it! Que barbaro!”
One boy was no older than three or four. He was a chubby little thing, a head shorter than the rest.
“Tu sombrero, guey?” The announcer asked him.
“I don’t have one,” the little guy said, and the crowd gave a collective awwwww. This kid was leagues ahead of the rest from the beginning.
“You’ve gotta have a sombrero, guey,” the announcer told him. “It’s what makes you a man.”
The announcer went around asking for nicknames, an essential part of the process. The boys chose the names of famous rodeo riders, cloaking themselves in the triumphs of their idols: Callejero, whom Siete Vidas told us had died last year, was a popular one; then El Niño de Oro; El Cascabel (the rattlesnake); El Zorro (the fox); El Apreciado (the appreciated); El Panicado (the panicked); El Taco (the taco.)
The bull calf was brought out, a scrappy, gangly-legged animal that had acquired none of the bulk of its foreboding lineage. The precocious boy announcer wanted to go first, of course. He affected an exaggerated strut across the ring. He clicked his heels and flicked them out slightly to the side to stir up poofs of dust that hovered in his wake. He swaggered with his hips, swayed his hands. Someone in the crowd hooted and cheered.
“Give a sexy spin for the ladies!” the announcer goaded. The boy spun, slick and low like a figure skater, a dervish of dust enveiling him.
The applause soared. He worked it.
The man holding the calf tightened his grip and steeled himself against the drive of the calf’s obstinate head, preparing for the boy to mount, and the announcer shouted, “Here we go, here we go, pretend it’s your papa, remember all those times he hit you!”
In one fluid move, the man boosted the boy onto the calf and then leapt out of its way. The calf surged forward and the boy flew instantly backwards onto his back in the dust.The laughter was a detonation. The boy lay unmoving for a moment, stunned. His sombrero rested upside-down behind him.
“Que barbaro! Hijo de la guayaba! Hijo de la mañana!” The banda broke into a diana. The announcer couldn’t help himself. He was laughing into the microphone, the kind of halting inadvertent laughter of both pity and satisfaction. The boy got it together and scrambled up, wiping off his jeans furiously with both hands, standing tall and shaking himself out.
“Aplauso, aplauso!” the announcer beseeched and the crowd obeyed. The boy did not slink away, did not wither, but walked steadily out, heel to toe with no wise kick of dust to the side, until he slipped through the metal rungs and disappeared into the crowd.
“Ay mamacita!” the announcer was still laughing, slapping himself on the thigh. “Ay mamacita compra cervecita!” Hey little mommy buy a little beer!
And then, just as a precaution, he added, “Of course, we’re not responsible for anything that happens here, no. Not responsible for any accidents. Bueno! Next!”
The next boy up made it nearly halfway around the ring before he was ditched, and the one after him held on for almost a full circle before he was chucked to the side. The terror on their faces was even more candid, more flush than that of their adult idols, and made my throat clench in sympathy. They picked themselves up shakily, so rocked by those moments of primal fright that they no longer cared about feigning an air of insouciance beyond their years. One fell off before the calf had even taken a step, and the announcer guffawed into his microphone and urged the kid to go at it again.
The kid refused. Categorically. No.
“So you’re scared,” the announcer said.
“I’m not scared.”
“If you’re not scared, ride.”
“I don’t want to.”
“So you’re scared.”
A wave of laughter.
“If you’re not scared, then get on,” the announcer said. It was the most obvious thing in the world.
“I don’t want to,” the kid said, trapped but firm.
“So you’re scared.”
“I just don’t want to.”
“If you don’t want to, you’re scared.”
The kid crossed his arms on his chest, silent.
The announcer relented.
“A round of applause for this one! Que barbaro!” The r in barbaro rolled heavy, long, and exaggerated. The kid shook the announcer’s hand and took his grateful leave.
“Cada chango a su mecate and cada mujer a su petate!” offered the announcer. Every monkey to its leash, every woman to her bedroll. The petate, an all-purpose fixture in rural households, figures into many Mexican sayings, including “Mujeres, para el metate y para el petate”—Women, for the mortar and pestle and the bed. Or, “mal para el metate pero bueno para el petate”—bad with the mortar and pestle but good in bed.
And then it was the little guy’s turn. The crowd melted before he’d even spoken, his little gut protruding from his little buttoned shirt, his hair ruffled, his sweet light skin.
“Ay, hombre,” the announcer said, leaning down for a man-to-man chat. “Men are faithful from birth, aren’t they, but the vice that betrays us is the body, isn’t it?”
“Si,” the little guy said, confident.
“Muy bien!” said the announcer. “Muy bien. Now, we’re going to play a game where you can only say ‘si,’ okay? No matter what I say, you say ‘si.’ If you mess up, you’re out.”
“Si,” said the little guy.
“Muy bien!” said the announcer. “Are you from the Sierra Juárez?”
“Are your parents here with you?”
“Are you handsome?”
“Do you like men?”
“Muy bien! Aplauso!” The audience whooped.
“Here he goes, ladies and gentlemen, risking his life, where’s the applause?” The audience roared.
The little guy walked up to the calf, and the man holding it helped him up, smiling. Then the man let the calf loose and the little guy held on for a second, two seconds, and…womp. He stood up quickly, brushed himself off, and soaked in the audience’s deafening love.
He won. It was no contest. Winners were decided by the decibels of the audience’s cheering when the announcer held up each finalist’s hand, and the little guy, cute and plucky as a puppy, was a shoe-in.
He won a blender.
There was a brief intermission between the kid rodeo and the adult rodeo in which the announcer led the crowd in a wave.
“La ola la ola vamos a ver la ola!” It went back and forth through the stands, save for three people eating chile-covered mangos.
“Everyone! Everyone now!”
The six chile-covered hands joined the fray.
“Muy bien, ahora—donde hacen mas escandalo se tiran mas dulces!” Wherever there’s the biggest roar we’ll throw the most candy!
Handfuls of dulces pelted the crowd. This went on for some time until the first bull in the professional rodeo was ready, and the rider, Alacrán Vagbundo—the vagabond scorpion—was poised above him. Then the announcer shushed the titillated and sugar-stoked crowd and redirected its energy towards the ring.
The rider kissed a prayer card of the virgin, pressed it to his forehead, closed his eyes….and dropped down. The chute was open and the bull was off, heaving, bucking, storming. The rider slipped down the side and held on with his face contorted into agonized red muscles. His arms bulged veins. He held, He held.
And finally, with one swift buck, the bull shed him, and he scrabbled just like a vagabond scorpion through the dust out of the ring.
The afternoon went on and on, timeless, the cheers, the riders, the bulls, the ritual, the monkeys on bikes, the men selling chile-rubbed peanuts and pistachios, the men selling Little Mermaid and Sponge Bob Bubble Guns, the banda, the “Hijo de la mañana que barrrrrrbaro!” the riders kissing their tattered images of the virgin.
Until the arrival of The Fresnitos.
They were the grupo—the musical group, as distinguished from the band, or banda—invited to the fiesta, and they were making an entrance. The crowd was hushed. The stage lights behind the rodeo ring lit up.
“From the Central de Abastos, where they were cargadores"—lifters, the guys who hoist on their backs huge burlap sacks of beans and vegetables and corn husks in Oaxaca’s sprawling central market—“to great musical stardom, Los Fresnitos, Fresnitos, Fresnitos!” A cosmic repetition echoed through the speakers, as if the Fresnitos were being beamed to us directly from their planet of stardom.
“To infinity and beyond, they will be passionate about their music! Banda Fresnitos, Fresnitos, Fresniiiiiitoooooos!”
Fresnitos translates as little ash trees. In demeanor nor dress, however, did the boys who then made their entrance—in their teens or early twenties—evoke in any way the natural world.
They were wearing snug, neatly creased white pants. Polished white shoes. Pink collared shirts: bright pink, cotton candy pink. Turquoise jackets embroidered with pink faux diamond flowers. And on the back of the jackets:
Los Fresnitos: Los chicos que tocan en grande. The boys who play big.
They came out playing “Clave Privada,” Private Key (referring to the pin number or “private key”for a bank account): a classic narcocorrido sung by Norteño grupos all across the country.
They tell me they’re looking for me and they want to grab me
They pray to God not to find me because it will weigh on them
My people go crazy when I order them to kill
For so long I was poor, many people humiliated me
I started earning money, and now things have changed
Now they call me boss, I have my own private key
I drive around Tijuana in my brand-new Cheyenne
Two men in the trunk and a cuerno in hand
Two cars watching to see if anything strange happens
I’m going to keep working as long as I have buyers
In the U.S. are the best
They buy 100 kilos of powder, just like buying some flowers
I want to propose a toast
To all those friends who are with me, and those who are absent
Let’s toast to women
I’ve always got them in mind
The crowd fell all over itself. There was a colossal crescendo of applause and girls’ screaming, and the Fresnitos’ handlers began throwing CD’s into the crowd. Eddies of people formed where they landed. The Fresnitos did their trademark slick strut up onto the stage, and started right into their first song smooth as butter. They moved in unison, forward and back, in their taut white pants, shaking their hips salsa-style, their shiny white shoes stepping in crisp triangles, their elbows working by their sides. The crowd heaped squeals and cheers upon them. The music was deafening, trembling through the speakers down to the bone. Our eardrums were rattling out of our heads. Girls’ faces were wrought in ecstasy.
In the dust behind the ring one of the Sierra’s emaciated dogs, its ribs neat notches in its thin fur, slept through it all.
The Mixtec journalist Juan Gomez Bravo says, “Jaripeo is the use of other types of luck, the practice of other types of luck.”
Once, in the village of Talea de Castro, I watched a local guy in a white t-shirt—lithe, muscular, skin a burnished brass, hair steamrolled flat by gel—step up to ride a goliath of grey muscle named Granizo: hail. When the gates were opened and Granizo came out charging I saw that the guy had a lollipop in his mouth. For more than ten seconds, he rode with a phlegmatic calm, the ball of sweet candy in his cheek and the white stick emerging from his puckered lips, languorously waving a hand above his head from time to time as the bull furrowed like cresting whitecaps beneath him.
Sarah Menkedick is the founder of Vela, an online magazine of creative nonfiction inspired by travel and written by women, where this story originally appeared. Her work has been published on Amazon’s Kindle Singles, The Common, World Hum, Perceptive Travel, and a number of other online and print publications. She recently graduated from the MFA program in creative nonfiction at The University of Pittsburgh. She is currently at work on a book of narrative nonfiction about Mexico’s returning migrants.
Jorge Santiago is a documentary photographer from Oaxaca, Mexico, whose work has been featured or is forthcoming in The New York Times Lens Blog, Cuarto Oscuro, Luna Zeta, Smithsonian Magazine’s Photo of the Day, and a number of other online and print publications. His work has been shown in group and solo exhibitions in Oaxaca, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Madrid, and Bratislava. He was the recipient of a 2012 Jovenes Creadores Fellowship from the Mexican Foundation for Culture and the Arts (FONCA).