Maverick Matadors

American men and women buck the system to risk life and limb in the bullring

Believe it or not, Nogales, Sonora was once a hotbed of bullfight afición. For decades, the Nogales Plaza de Toros hosted the world's best toreros, who performed the corrida for large enthusiastic audiences. Aficionados from both sides of the border, including such celebrities as John Wayne and Lee Marvin, regularly packed the Plaza to watch performances by the great Carlos Arruza, local boy Diego O'Bolger and others.

Sadly, things have changed. After lying unused for years, the Nogales Plaza hosted a passionate but poorly attended corrida in 1999 and quickly fell back into disuse. That same year, in a questionable business decision, a second bullring was built. An elaborate but unwieldy domed structure possessing none of the old Plaza's charm, the new ring hosted only a handful of fights that attracted disappointingly small audiences.

Now, for aficionados, Nogales is a ghost town. The lovely, decrepit old Plaza lies dormant, as does the newer, much less romantic indoor plaza. Gone are the cheap, charming bullfight posters that once plastered every wall in town. The rubbish blowing through the streets includes no bullfight boletos, no programas de la corrida.

Alas, for those of us with a jones for the bulls, the urge now requires a trip to Juárez, Tijuana or Mexico City. Thank goodness for books. When travel is impossible, aficionados can seek solace, albeit meager, in books about the bullfight. Unfortunately, in a reflection of the decreasing popularity of the experience itself, literary depictions of the corrida are few and far between. For that reason alone, the publication of Lyn Sherwood's Yankees in the Afternoon is cause for celebration in the taurine world.

That the book is so nicely done, and that it presents a topic never before explored in such depth, is pure lagniappe. If this book were a matador, it'd get two ears, a tail and a hoof; if it were a bull it would score an indulto.

A noted taurine writer and photographer, Sherwood has compiled the most comprehensive volume ever published on the curious, sometimes odd subject of American matadors. Traditional bullfights are illegal in the U.S., of course, and Americans who have ventured to Mexico or Spain to pursue their passion are an interesting, indeed peculiar, lot.

Battling not only the bulls and a subjective, traditionally corrupt business, American matadors must also contend with cultural and ethnic obstacles. These concerns are magnified substantially when the athlete is a woman, as Sherwood makes clear in his revelatory profiles of Conchita Cintrón, Patty McCormick, Bette Ford and others.

Of special interest to Arizona readers is the chapter on Diego O'Bolger. Raised in Tucson, James Bolger saw his first bullfight in Nogales. After graduating from Salpointe High School, he rejected a scholarship to the University of Arizona, hopped on a motorcycle and headed south to Mexico City. There he changed his name, married a Mexican beauty, lived next door to Frida Kahlo and became a matador. Inactive for quite a few years but never officially retired from the ring, O'Bolger plans to someday return to the corrida.

Arizona readers should also note that some of the book's photos were taken by Dick Frontain. A Tucsonan, Frontain is well known in bullfight circles for his many years of experience as a taurine photographer and journalist. He also compiled much of the research on female matadors presented in Sherwood's book.

As if being an American matador weren't weird enough, Sherwood also offers capsule profiles of lesser known madmen and mavericks. This wackpack of misfit matadors includes a Chinese, a black guy, a woman who quit the ring to marry an astronaut and a goateed nut who rode the subway with a sign protesting the anti-American policies of the Mexico City bullfight mafia.

Also Robert Clayton Buick, who supported his career in the bullring by robbing banks. Buick's "most wanted" dossier reports that he once escaped arrest by biting the hand of his captor and speeding away in a Buick station wagon. Later, Buick gave bullfight lessons to his fellow inmates.

Yankees in the Afternoon is a joy, a font of interesting facts and a delightful evocation of a time gone by. Reading it makes me wish for the old days of packed border plazas.

Today in Nogales, the lovely, historic Plaza de Toros sits empty, its parking lot filled with ghetto housing, its dank corridors and dusty ring given up to the ghosts, its adobe walls turning to dust in the sun and wind.

That same wind rattles the steel and plastic of the new domed bullring south of town, where the owners have given up the corrida in favor of more lucrative concerts and, perhaps as a sop for those of us who like a little silliness with our sangre, midget carnivals and cockfights.

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