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