From the center of the sandy ring, eight men take measured strides, closing the 15-foot gap between them and the half-ton bull that is pawing the ground and foaming slightly at the mouth.
Inside the packed stadium, 3,000 Californians of Portuguese descent watch the “forcados,” or bull wrestlers, in anxious silence, anticipating the time-honored spectacle that comes next.
“Oi toiro! Toiro!” calls out Junior Machado, stomping the ground and offering the gray bull his midsection, tightly wrapped in a long red sash beneath his blood-red jacket.
With a toss of his heavy head, the animal charges.
Machado charges back, reaching for the bull’s horns.
Members of the San Joaquin Valley’s bull-wrestling Turlock Suicide Squad may spend their days as dairy farmers, construction workers and truck drivers. But once or twice a week between April and October, they carry on a centuries-old Portuguese tradition when they literally grab a bull by its horns.
Unlike Spanish-style bullfights, where a bull has its neck muscles lanced to weaken its charge, the Portuguese way spares the bull’s blood. Instead of slaying the bull at the end of a run, the forcados execute a symbolic death by bringing the charging animal to a standstill with their hands.
“Sometimes we win, sometimes the bull wins,” said Jose Martins, 47, a wiry forcado who, like most of California’s 331,000 Portuguese, comes from the Azores, a string of volcanic islands in the Atlantic.
This night, the Turlock team wins every time. The other forcados aren’t so skilled. After several tries, the men have to give up, and the victorious animal complacently follows a dozen heifers out of the ring.
Great fighters are kept as studs, but eventually most bulls end up as beef.
Martins, a dairy farmer with a sunburned face and handlebar mustache, has been staring bulls in the eye for 27 years, practically ever since he landed in California at age 19. He’s proud of having grabbed more than 900 bulls, 50 of them last year, when his squad was considered the state’s best.
Along with Catholic “festas” -- celebrations of Our Lady of Fatima, the Holy Spirit, St. Anthony and Our Lady of Miracles -- bullfights form the living center of California’s Portuguese community.
During the fight, announcements are in Portuguese. The food, marinated pork known as prego and the spicy linguica sausage, are also Portuguese. Spectators share comments about the fight and assume that everyone there speaks the language.
Still, Martins wonders about the future of the sport in California.
“This is America, and parents worry about their kids doing dangerous things like this,” he said moments before the fight as the pent-up bulls pounded inside their trailers.
But within the close-knit Portuguese community, isolated in small dairy-farming enclaves such as Stevinson, Gustine and Laton, traditions from the homeland are handed down like heirlooms, and young men are eager to take their place under the bullring’s lights.
“They were afraid for me. But I think that deep down inside, my parents are proud,” said Carlos Vieira, a construction worker from Manteca. With only three years of experience, Vieira is working his way to the front of his team to be the first man on the bull.
Although the points of the bull’s horns are shaved and capped in leather, injuries happen. Martins has broken his knee and nose. Recently, in the town of Laton, a forcado from another team broke his leg “like this, in two,” said Martins, showing how a twig would be snapped in half.
A Sunday fight in May provides an ample demonstration of the sport’s risks.
When Machado has the bull by the horns, the animal lifts him off the ground. A teammate jumps on Machado’s back while the others lunge for the horns. The angry bull shakes them off and, in the dusty melee, a man gets caught between the pounding hooves.
The 50-person brass band explodes into a paso doble, traditionally played at bullfights. The packed crowd leaps up, screaming in guttural Portuguese as the forcado rolls out and vaults the wooden fence surrounding the ring.
The forcados want another chance to subdue the bull.
Men known as “bregas” maneuver their capes, their shoulders shining with embroidered epaulettes, and attract the animal across the ring.
The bull charges again, pounding Machado in the stomach before lifting him off the ground. The other forcados jump to their places -- one holds Machado, the next two hold the horns, and the rest push to stop the charge while Martins grabs the tail.
The bull slows down. All the forcados but Martins leap off.
The bull spins madly around, swinging Martins in circles, inches away from its horns. Finally it stops. Martins lets go of the tail, saunters out in front of the bull and glares over his shoulder at the vanquished animal. With a dismissive flip of the hand, the victor slowly turns and exits the ring.
The crowd roars and jumps to its feet.
“That was perfect,” said Amanda Machado, 17, whose father, Manuel Machado, was one of the co-founders of the Turlock Forcados (no relation to Junior Machado). “He had more rage than the bull did.”