In the heart of California, the Portuguese community keeps bullfighting alive, without bloodshed

As in any Portuguese bullfight, the elegant rider skilfully spins his horse around to dodge the horns of the charging bull, then bends down from it to plant a banderilla in his spine.

Except that no blood flows – the banderilla equipped with a velcro just hangs on a cushion fixed to the back of the bull – and that the majority of the spectators express themselves in English.

Because the scene takes place in the small town of Turlock, in the heart of rural California where tens of thousands of Americans of Portuguese origin have been established for decades and continue to keep their traditions alive, foremost among which is bullfighting.

Without any bloodshed, California law obliges.

“The first time I came to California, fifteen years ago, I said + wow! +. It’s incredible because they have everything like in Portugal”, tells AFP Joao Soller Garcia, professional rider came specially from Lisbon to bullfight in Turlock.

“Go to a bullfight in Portugal and you will find the same thing,” he said, shortly before entering the arena to be applauded by some 4,000 spectators.

A majority of them come from Portuguese immigration – mainly from the Azores archipelago – who began to settle in this agricultural area since the beginning of the 20th century.

The community has continued to grow since then, with newspapers, radio, associations, etc.

– The bull by the horns –

Nunes, Gomes, Martins, Oliveira… the names testify to this heritage to which some 350,000 Californians (out of a total of 39 million) proudly claim to belong, who often remain fiercely attached to their culture and their language.

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This is the case of José, 30, who came to watch the bullfight with a group of friends. The young man, born in California, switches from English to Portuguese without even realizing it. “It comes naturally to me. Many people here speak Portuguese in their daily life, even the youngest (…) For me it is sometimes easier to express my feelings or to joke in Portuguese”, explains- he.

On the Turlock arena, the Portuguese flag flies next to the American flag but when the party begins, the Portuguese anthem is played first, proof of the importance of Portugal in this small part of central California.

Former president of the religious association of Turlock which organizes bullfighting, Antonio Mendes is the one who revived this tradition in the city, in 1993.

“We are Portuguese and it’s part of our way of life, especially on the island (of the Azores) where I come from,” says the septuagenarian who, despite decades spent in Turlock, prefers to speak in his mother tongue. and be translated.

A cattle breeder, Mr. Mendes also helped create a line of bulls still used today in Portuguese bullfights in the region.

As in California the bulls cannot be stung by real banderillas, they do not weaken as much as in Portugal and it was necessary to develop specific lines, just as combative but less heavy.

“Here, the bulls weigh 400 to 450 kg, because it is bloodless. In Portugal, they are around 600 kg, they are big”, explains George Martins, captain of a team of “forcados”.

These “forcados”, which always go in teams of eight men, all amateurs, are responsible for immobilizing the bull with their bare hands, thus symbolically administering death to it. Because unlike Spanish bullfighting, in the Portuguese style the animal is never killed in the arena.

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These reckless people are nicknamed the “suicide squad” for a good reason: one of the “forcados” literally has the mission of being charged by the bull and taking it by the horns, receiving an impressive headbutt in the process. stomach, before his companions seized the beast.

“It’s not just brute force, it takes a lot of technique,” notes George Martins.

– “All his strength” –

A bullfighting enthusiast since childhood, Joao Soller Garcia says he enjoys the classic Portuguese style as much as its bloodless Californian adaptation. But “compared to Portugal, it’s a little more dangerous because the bull is not injured (…) He has all his strength”, insists the rider.

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Maxine Sousa-Correia, whose family of breeders has been producing bulls for Californian bullfights since the 1970s, deplores the use of Velcro on banderillas, made necessary by law.

“Unfortunately, it’s only an imitation but it’s the best we can do (…) But we do not do justice to this animal”, annoys this passionate about bulls.

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“It sucks!”, slices her husband, Frank Correia.

“We should do it like in Portugal. But we can’t, because we’re in the United States and they don’t know how to appreciate this art,” grumbles the cowboy-like man.

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