California Has the Most Peaceful Bullfights on Earth

Here, the bullfighting is bloodless. Bulls wear a Velcro patch on their shoulders while men on horseback try to tag them with Velcro-tipped darts.

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Nov 4 2015, 7:00pm

All photos by the author

I've lived in California my entire life and never knew there was a vibrant tradition of bullfighting in the Central Valley. And for good reason: The brutal sport is banned in California on the basis of animal cruelty. No animal deserves to die that way, spears jammed into their neck until they're too tired to struggle against a knife dragged across their throat. But here in the Central Valley, where there's a sizable population of Portuguese immigrants, that's not how the bullfighting is done. Here, it's bloodless; bulls wear a Velcro patch on their shoulders while men on horseback try to tag them with Velcro-tipped darts.

My friend Angela, who grew up deeply involved in the California's Portuguese community, invited me to see the bullfights for myself at a festa. It's a weekend-long gathering of Portuguese immigrants and their families, complete with parades, dancing, a Catholic mass, feasts of traditional food, and of course, the bullfights. There are multiple festas throughout the summer in towns up and down the state, but the one Angela brought me to in Thornton, California, is among the largest.

Thornton is a rural town with a population of 1,131, but it swells to a massive 30,000 during the festa, when everyone fills what seems to be the only street in town. Most of the people there when I visited spoke in Portuguese, and everyone seemed to know each other. It would've felt like trespassing on the world's most gargantuan family reunion had everyone not been so welcoming, offering up blood sausages and sweet rolls without hesitation.

Within moments of our arrival, Angela and her young daughter ran into people she hadn't seen in over a decade—old friends, cousins, great-uncles, and a lot of people who, like Angela, hadn't come to a festa since they were much younger. Now that they had kids of their own, they were back to expose the next generation to Portuguese culture.

Angela is a third-generation Portuguese-American, and the festas are where she learned the most about her heritage. California is home to the nation's largest population of Portuguese immigrants, with some 330,000 Portuguese-Americans in the state, but Angela's family was the only Portuguese-American one in her Sacramento neighborhood, so the festas and related events were it for her.

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As kids, Angela and her peers discovered solace in the festas because they were free to be themselves. They were all-American in school, but here, they were free to worship in their Catholic traditions, to eat Portuguese food, to dance uninhibited while other American teenagers struggled to peel themselves away from the walls of high school gymnasia. It was like a Fourth of July parade and a school dance and a family wedding, all rolled into one.

"My great-grandparents initially had planned to go back to Portugal, but like a lot of immigrants, never did," Angela told me. "So then this becomes a way to hold onto something familiar."

Like many celebrations, festas are rooted in the stories of old—in this case, Our Lady of Fatima, a title given to the Virgin Mary when she appeared to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal, with messages from God. Thornton has a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, which has been rumored to cry actual tears, and is considered a miracle among the Catholic community.

To honor these old stories, there's a parade, with floats paying homage to traditional food, dance, and Portugal's Queen Isabel, known for her extreme charity. Her sacrifices are commemorated through countless forms of symbolism, some of which go beyond metaphor and literally just provide free food to the poor during the celebrations. When Portuguese immigrants game to the States, they gathered in farming communities, and the parade honored that legacy too. Cows bigger than I've ever seen waddled down the street, drool lazily dripping from their mouths. A young boy stopped to pose for my camera, a bullfighter's hat on his head and a goat at the end of his leash. It all seemed to evolve from Portuguese roots, but with American sensibility. Nowhere was this clearer than in the bullfighting ring.

The main attraction in Spanish and Mexican bullfighting (by far the better-known version of the sport) is the matador, which translates to killer. But in Portuguese bullfighting, you watch a cavaleiro, a word that means something more like a horseman. Portuguese-style bullfighting is performed on horseback, and when all's said and done, the bull is just an excuse for the rider to show off his riding skills. The bulls leave the ring alive, although in traditional Portuguese fights, the cavaleiro wields several small spears and jabs the bull repeatedly in the back.

But at the festa, the bullfighting was entirely "bloodless." Each bull that entered the ring left not only alive, but wholly uninjured. There were no spears; instead, the bulls were adorned with a small cloth on their back, onto which Velcro "spears" could be attached, and the object of the performance was to wrangle them, not to stab them.

I had never been to a bullfight before, but it was easy to get caught up in the electricity of the crowd. Every time a cavaleiro successfully caught his Velcro spear onto the bull's cloth, narrowly avoiding a charge from those leather-capped horns, I leapt out of my seat, cheering with everyone else.

Six bulls in total entered the ring, one after the other, but not before facing the pega, a team of young men lined up behind their main man, who dons a silly green hat that betrays the severity of what follows. He stamps and taunts the bull, which charges him. He has to catch the bull between the horns, and ride him face to face as the rest of the men latch onto him, slowing the bull until he stops.

Three of the cavaleiros had traveled from Portugal to take part in the bullfight. There are only about 20 bullfights in the US annually, so they're a relatively big deal, and the safety of everyone involved—human and animal alike—depends on the skill of those involved, so it's worth it to have the best. One of the cavaleiros who'd flown from Portugal, Alberto Conde, told me this, to him, was his heritage. "There's motion, color, music, art... This is Portuguese culture."

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When it was over, teenagers ran around wrapped up in their budding love lives, eagerly awaiting the upcoming nighttime dance—the same one where Angela met her husband. Thousands gathered for the outdoor mass and candlelight vigil, accompanied by busloads of Filipino-Americans who came to join in the major Catholic celebration. Old friends reconnected and introduced their kids, who began to form relationships like the ones that their parents built over the course of many festas.

"My father told me, 'You're American first and Portuguese second. Never forget that," Angela recalled to me. "And I never have."

Follow Ali Wunderman on Twitter.

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