Soccer and wrestling may be more popular, but there is no event more quintessentially Mexican than the bullfight. Rooted in Spanish machismo and imbued with multiple layers of symbolism and interpretation, it transcends a mere battle of man against animal. If you don’t mind the inherent cruelty of the spectacle (essentially you’re watching an animal being artfully tortured to death), it’s worth attending a corrida de toros to see this integral part of the Mexican experience. It is a sport that transcends class barriers; every Sunday afternoon during the winter season men and women from all walks of Mexican society file into the stadium – though some admittedly end up in plush sombra (shade) seats while the masses occupy concrete sol (sun) terraces.

Each corrida lasts around two hours and involves six bulls, all from one ranch, with each of three matadors taking two bulls. Typically there will be two Mexican matadors and one from Spain, which still produces the best performers. Each fight is divided into three suertes (acts) or tercios (thirds), each announced by a trumpet blast. During the first tercio, several toreros with large capes tire the bull in preparation for the picadores who, from their mounts atop heavily padded and blindfolded horses, attempt to force a lance between the bull’s shoulder blades to further weaken him. The toreros then return for the second tercio, in which one of their number (and sometimes the matador himself) will try to stab six metal-tipped spikes (known as bandilleras) into the bull in as clean and elegant a manner as possible.

Exhausted and frustrated, but by no means docile, the bull is now considered ready for the third and final tercio, the suerte de muleta. The matador continues to tire the bull while pulling off as many graceful and daring moves as possible. By now the crowd will have sensed the bravery and finesse of the matador and the spirit of the bull he is up against, and shouts of “¡Olé!” will reverberate around the stadium with every pass. Eventually the matador will entice the bull to challenge him head-on, standing there with its hooves together. As it charges he will thrust his sword between its shoulder blades and, if it is well executed, the bull will crumple to the sand. However barbaric you might think it is, no one likes to see the bull suffer and even the finest performance will garner the matador little praise without a clean kill. Successful matadors may be awarded one of the bull’s ears, rarely two, and perhaps two or three times a season the tail as well. An especially courageous bull may be spared and put out to stud, a cause for much celebration, but this is a rare spectacle.

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