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Cape Crusaders Keep an L.A. Tradition Alive

Times Staff Writer

Ready to charge Bill Torres at Griffith Park on a Saturday afternoon is a man clutching a bar barbed with two bull’s horns. Torres, 65, holds his ground, feet together.

“Hey, toro, toro, toro, hey,” Torres teases. His adversary, Mario Orlando, 43, of Hawthorne rushes at a cape Torres is holding, turning the horns toward the cape as Torres skillfully maneuvers it out of the way. Orlando returns for pass after pass, and Torres sends him by with a series of practiced flourishes of the cape.

“Mario does the animal excellent,” Torres said later.

Torres isn’t a bad bull himself. “I do the snorting sometimes,” he said, and he is also careful to act as if he has four feet and a lumbering body when he takes the horns.

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Practices like this one have gone on for more than three decades at Griffith Park and generally draw half a dozen aficionados practicos, or amateur bullfighters, swishing capes and brandishing dummy swords.

Practicing in the tradition of matadors worldwide, some of the Saturday bullfighters are preparing to fight real bulls in festivals in Mexico or for visits to ranches where they practice with cows. Others come to watch or just to stay involved in a pastime from their youth.

On Saturday, bullfighting enthusiasts will gather at a ring in Artesia for a “bloodless bullfight,” one of about two held each year. In a colorful ritual expected to draw more than a thousand spectators, two bullfighters will face a total of six bulls, but instead of using lances to weaken the bull and spearing it with decorated banderillas, fighters will brandish sticks with Velcro on one end and try to attach them to a Velcro pad on the charging bull.

The Saturday sessions and this weekend’s event aren’t the only bullfighting Los Angeles has in its history.

Early Angelenos built a bullfight ring steps away from present-day downtown before the fledgling state of California outlawed the spectacle. The city boasts one of the oldest bullfight clubs in the nation. And a collection of 1,700 books on bullfighting at the Central Library is believed to be the largest in the United States. Still, few people are aware of the city’s bullfight history, say aficionados.

“Most people I run into away from the bullfight world don’t know much about it at all,” said Jimee Petrich, president of Los Aficionados de Los Angeles, the oldest bullfight club, which was founded in 1949 and now meets monthly on Olvera Street.

Some of the amateurs practicing in Griffith Park on weekends became interested in bullfighting as children. Torres’ father used to take him to bullfights in Mexico on his motorcycle, starting when Torres was about 3. David Aguilar, 74, lived steps away from a ring in Mexico. Paco Iniga, 55, saw his first bullfight in his native Ecuador when he was 7 and once sold his algebra book to pay for a bullfight ticket.

But Kate Leffler discovered bullfighting as an adult. The San Francisco artist, who attended a Griffith Park practice this summer, started bullfighting because she wanted to paint fights and found her drawings lifeless.

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Early accounts suggest that Angelenos began attending bullfights, or corridas, at an area near downtown that was fenced off for the spectacle in the early 19th century. By 1849 a permanent bullring had been constructed on Calle del Toro, now North Hill Street, on the current site of Pacific Alliance Medical Center in Chinatown. The weekly L.A. Star periodically reported gorings.

Not everyone agrees on the nature of the 19th century bouts, however. Early L.A. chronicler Horace Bell, writing in 1881, described an area bullfight with some of the trappings of a modern event: glittering outfits and specialized bullfighters. Other historians argue that Los Angeles bullfights probably were far less elaborate and perhaps milder, more akin to bull baiting, with the animals rarely being killed.

Bullfighting that harms a bull was outlawed in California after it became a state, though Portuguese -- or bloodless -- bullfights still take place as part of religious festivals. In the 1980s, Los Aficionados de Los Angeles installed a plaque on Olvera Street commemorating L.A.'s early bullfights, and the club keeps talk of bullfighting alive with monthly meetings at El Paseo Inn, where members watch bullfighting films or hear speakers.

The club is one of 12 in the country and three in California, including one in Chula Vista and another in San Francisco, and has 150 members.

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“I grew up going to bullfights like you would go to a ballgame,” said Dolores Merino Hofert, the club’s executive vice president, who grew up in Mexico and said she saw her first bullfight when she was 2. “I’ve always loved it. I’ve always gone.”

Rosita Morales, another member, was a professional bullfighter for nine years in Mexico. Tom Shea, 78, started going regularly to bullfights in Tijuana as a college student at USC. (“Aside from an SC football game, it was the thing to do on Sunday.”) Mike Schaefer, now a lawyer, was living in San Diego when he first went to Tijuana to see a bullfight in his early 20s and liked it just enough to go back -- then was hooked.

Club member Charlcie Zavala, meanwhile, hated the first bullfight she saw. But after reading more about the tradition, she came around, she said, and eventually co-founded a bullfight club in Texas, where she used to live. Now when Zavala and her husband vacation in Spain, France and Mexico, they sometimes see three bullfights, or 18 individual bouts, a day.

To get their bullfighting fix, many club members take frequent trips to Tijuana’s two bullfighting rings, where officials and some of the matadors are their friends. Others plan visits to Spain, France and Latin American countries where bullfighting is more common. And many surround themselves with bullfight memorabilia in their homes.

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One of the club’s early members, George B. Smith, was a Los Angeles schoolteacher. He took collecting bullfighting material so seriously that James Michener, writing in his novel “Iberia,” noted that the collection Smith amassed was “what many call the finest library of its kind in the United States.” Margaret Sewell, 85, his niece, remembered her uncle’s frequent trips to Spain and Mexico and his collection taking over his small downtown apartment.

“There were books lining the hallways, there were books in the kitchen, there were books on the back porch. Every room was full of books,” Sewell said. “Even in the bathroom.”

Before he died in 1986, Smith donated his bullfighting books and other memorabilia to the Central Library. Now, the collection’s 1,700 books -- about 950 of which are in Spanish -- take up about a fifth of the library’s appointment-only rare books room and about a tenth of the library’s rare books collection. Knickknacks collected by Smith are displayed in glass-fronted cabinets.

Daniel Dupill, who oversees the library’s rare books room, said he receives eight to 10 requests a year to use the collection’s books, the oldest of which is from 1747.

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Each volume contains Smith’s bookplate: “George B. Smith, Biblioteca Taurina,” or bullfighting library.

Aficionados, however, say book knowledge of bullfighting goes only so far. “You could talk about bullfighting for forever and a day,” says Bill Torres. “But there’s nothing like doing it.”


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