When I arrived at the bullring in Tlaxcala, one of the most beautiful and oldest in the world, it was empty. A five-minute walk from the quaint main square—a plaza so teeming with lovers, musicians, and small-town charm it almost felt staged—the Jorge "El Ranchero" Aguilar arena sits below a 16th-century convent, with its medieval bell tower casting a welcome shadow on the stadium exposed to the sun.
By 10 AM, the temperature had reached 100 degrees. The night before, my wife and I had gone out dancing, the effects of which I felt acutely while waiting for one of a handful of female matadors in Mexico, Karla Sanchez San Martin, known professionally as Karla de los Angeles, to finish changing in the arena's bathroom. I scanned the bullring, riddled with rows of dried limes, empty tequila bottles, and patches of blood, as de los Angeles walked into view.
Before I commented on the heat, in the hopes of initiating some small talk, I noticed her heavy, gilded traje de luces (suit of lights) and the globes of sweat dripping from beneath her montera, a black hat topped by two rounded points. I decided against opening my mouth about the weather.
De los Angeles doesn't live in Tlaxcala, though a placard by the main entrance honors her for pardoning a bull here once. She'd driven from Apizaco, an industrial city 20 miles away, with two boyish novilleros, amateur bullfighters who also help de los Angeles train. There, on the outskirts of Apizaco, other matadors live and practice on some of the country's best ganaderías, or cattle farms, which attract aficionados throughout the bullfighting world. I was interested in learning about Mexican bullfighting, and just as curious about this part of Mexico: what life is like in the country's smallest state, its colonial history, and the story of a young, ambitious single mother participating in what some consider the planet's most maligned and violent preoccupation.
In the ring, I watched as de los Angeles began her first exercise, a warm-up in which a novillero held a pair of horns and weaved around the matadora, who used her pink capote, a bullfighting cape, in a series of deceptively simple motions. Stripped down like this, I could see bullfighting in its balletic grace; I focused on de los Angeles's feet instead of the looming threat of a bull.
An "Olé!" echoed through the arena. On the hill above, a group of teenage boys had gathered to taunt us. De los Angeles continued her exercises unperturbed. Eventually the boys stopped laughing and stood still, as if transfixed. Perhaps it was the proximity of the church, but there was something reverential about their silence.
For her next exercise, Bernardo, another novillero, rolled out a small wheelbarrow with a bull's head affixed to the front. A bale of hay sat on a small platform just behind the head. De los Angeles performed the volapié—the signature fatal attack in which the bull, hypnotized by the cape, lowers its head for the bullfighter's sword. She rushed toward the wheelbarrow while Bernardo charged toward her. She dove with suicidal commitment, managing to plunge the sword into the dummy head while pirouetting mere inches away from the horns. She turned and offered a grin to the boys on the hill.
She repeated the move a dozen more times with a mechanical efficiency. How many bulls has she killed? "Two hundred," she told me. "And, God willing, I hope to kill 200 more."
"I would never let my daughter do this. The pain is too much."—Karla de los Angeles
In Tlaxcala, de los Angeles is something of a celebrity. On the way to meet her that day, I walked into a large, bullfighting-themed restaurant connected to the bullring. One of several loitering servers raced to greet me. I asked if he knows Karla de los Angeles, if she's well known, and he responded by screwing up his face and said with a small laugh, "Claro," or "Of course." He studied my face and clothes for some trace of my origins before abruptly turning and walking away.
But the day before I made it to the bullring, I spoke to some locals and got the sense that bullfighting, though it's one of the city's main attractions, isn't so popular. Tourists—mostly Mexican—fill its stands during the season. In a rock club where patrons order entire bottles of tequila and scream Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots songs in broken English, the lead singer of a grunge cover band intimated to me that the people there care little about bullfighting, and that it's a Spanish thing. He hocked a loogie on the floor, narrowly missing my shoes.
Another local man told me that he believed the bullring to be a monument to a time when their ancestors had been duped into helping the Spanish fight the Mexicans.
Tlaxcala's history stands at odds with much of Mexico, thanks to an early alliance with the Spanish. In pre-Hispanic times, the rival Aztecs surrounded the fierce Tlaxcalans, a situation that the conquistador Hernán Cortés exploited in his quest to conquer what is now Mexico City. First Cortés fought the Tlaxcalan. Then he convinced thousands of Tlaxcalan to join his ranks against the Aztecs. To symbolically commemorate their friendship—and physically cement Spain's presence—Cortés ordered the construction of the first church in the Americas, Tlaxcala's Iglesia de San Francisco, which is right against the bullring. Most structures, and many traditions—bullfighting included—are fraught with some historical burden.
When we met in the bullring, I asked de los Angeles what drew her to bullfighting, a sport in which she's endured not only the abuse of the bull, but also the machismo attitudes of the culture that surrounds it. "One day I went to see a corrida [bullfight]," she said. "And I don't know what it was—the aroma, the adrenaline, or maybe even the music—but it felt magical to me. It called to me." I nodded my head vigorously because, for some reason, her response partially got what I too find semi-appealing about bullfighting: the aesthetic spectacle of it, which has no parallel in modern sports. That was especially clear, standing in the ring in Tlaxcala. Baroque and melodramatic, everything about bullfighting—the absurd seriousness of it—bears a faint trace of humor, which immediately evaporates when you witness the wavering, frustrated bull collapse to an undignified death.
Before we left the ring, de los Angeles changed into street clothes: a T-shirt that read spain, with the country's flag on the back. I asked her, carefully, about the Spaniards' influence and whether the bullfighters of Spain look down upon those of Mexico. "When they are here, they want to bullfight a lot. They are kind and polite. But when Mexicans go to Spain, [the Spanish] are racist."
It might be tempting to see bullfighting as a pernicious colonial import, especially with its baroque, gilded costume and symbolic theatricality. However, pre-Columbian Mexicans also celebrated aspects of ritualized violence and were known to sacrifice animals. Bullfighting could be seen as a continuation of preexisting traditions.
There is another other obviously European influence: the Catholic Church, one of Spain's most enduring contributions to the New World. In the 18th century, as bullfighting became a standardized sport with rules and regulations, the Inquisition was very much in effect across Spain and its empire. As the semiotics professor Beatriz Penas Ibanez noted in a companion essay to Hemingway's "Death in the Afternoon," bullfighting evolved to be a form of "public trial," a reflection of the unity of church and state against a common enemy—the heretic—which employed gruesome, performative violence as punishment.
Somehow I expected, maybe even wished, that de los Angeles would be more reflective or even interested in such things. But, as with many things in modern Mexico, past and present have intermingled to create something radically different. The consequences of colonialism—like intermarriage, language, culture, and religion—have left their mark. Perhaps it's unfair of me to have expected one person, already fighting so many other struggles, to take on the added burden.
When we parted ways, I made my way outside to the main square, the Plaza de La Constitución, flanked by rows of pastel-colored buildings with classical archways, taking in the quintessence of colonial Latin America. Between our time in the ring and these small, almost satirically historic buildings, I felt I'd been transported to the past. It had already been made clear to me that in some ways, the fights, and probably this square, were ready-made for tourists like myself to feel connected to the ghosts of Tlaxcala—to come and take in a fight, smoke cigars, and drink pulque, an elixir made of the fermented sap of the local maguey plant. (Tlaxcala even boasts an official Pulque Route.) So I felt conflicted. As someone who has long been fascinated by the history of this region, I was attracted to this scene, but it also felt wrong knowing that what had brought me there—a curiosity about Mexican bullfighting—carried significant moral and historical burdens.
I walked to the nearby Museo de Arte de Tlaxcala, a tasteful and welcoming museum that showcases regional and international art—most notably work by Frida Kahlo. In the museum, a former mansion once owned by Kahlo's good friend, the poet Miguel N. Lira, I took in the artist's work in what may be its proper context: a temple to rural Mexico situated amid monuments of the dark parts of its history. I stood in front of a self-portrait painted by Kahlo, her mestiza features further illustrating the country's history (her maternal grandmother was Spanish and her maternal grandfather of Mexican and Native American descent). The expression on her face appeared to me like irritation, and it reminded me of looks that had crossed de los Angeles's face earlier that afternoon.
A little girl in the gallery approached the painting, and from behind me wondered aloud in Spanish why Kahlo was hurting. Kahlo was an artist who wore her suffering openly; much of her art thrived on it. In some ways, this is true of parts of Mexico—a country that bears pain from which springs beauty.
De los Angeles has experienced her own pain and suffering. In 2014, she received a vicious cornada, or goring, twice by the same bull at an event in Mexico City where two other matadoras were on the bill. Interviewed at the hospital, de los Angeles regretted her failure to kill the bull. Such devotion could be interpreted as the inner workings of a sociopath. But it's also possible that de los Angeles views killing bulls as a deathblow to machista (macho) culture. In the short time that we were together, de los Angeles revealed that the men in her life, professional and personal, had not been supportive of her fighting career and that she'd faced sexual harassment. She told me that her former manager has been abusive. And she said that while her daughter's father didn't like de los Angeles spending so much time with matadors, "he was cheating with ten girls." De los Angeles got tired of it and left him.
Knowledge of a difficult personal life won't necessarily engender sympathy. For some, these facts stand as evidence of karmic justice. Still, I couldn't help but somewhat admire this woman, who confronted misogyny by placing herself in situations that put her in constant threat. But to deal with this, she herself becomes a threat and, paradoxically, resembles the machista she disdains.
"I would never let my daughter do this," she told me. Come again? Is this not the very thing de los Angeles fights for for, the right for any woman—even her own daughter—to enter the labyrinth and slay the proverbial minotaur? "No. The pain is too much."
On the bus ride back to Mexico City, I thought of de los Angeles and all she'd been through to get to succeed in the bullfighting world, her contradictions, and the more unknowable story about how a country plagued with fear—the fear of corruption, of crime, of sexism—moves forward.
I hadn't thought to ask de los Angeles about how she personally deals with the last point. I suspect she wouldn't have told me. Because to answer that question, she would have to concede that pain was an obstacle. Through de los Angeles and Tlaxcala, I came to see it as being something else entirely.