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Los Matadoritos

Paul Cullum has contributed to LA Weekly, Playboy and Variety.

What wonders are conjured, what rough magic promised by the phrase “Mexican Midget Rodeo”? Let us pause to savor that more slowly: Mexican . . . Midget . . . Rodeo. That is to say, a touring troupe of little people, renowned in their native land but unheralded in our own, who face off against their equally diminutive bovine counterparts to ensuing mayhem.

At one such micro-spectacle staged several years ago at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena, deep in the sequined heart of southeastern Los Angeles, these genial ambassadors of human pathology, just by showing up for work in the morning, accomplished nothing short of a secular miracle. In one brief cultural elision, they managed to bring together an audience of Latino locals inured to that special strain of humor found on Spanish-language cable--men in bee costumes, baby diapers and so on--and drunken Anglos who saw the afternoon as something akin to dwarf tossing with a spicy flavor. And who’s to say they were wrong? In the simple act of attending an ecumenical carnival, our warring tribes were reunited, the neural clash of our Meltingpotamian origins quelled and the lurking schizophrenia of cultural miscegenation momentarily tamed--all through our common fear of and fascination with “the Other.”

Now, that very troupe is said to be planning its triumphal return to Pico Rivera this summer. For anyone who thinks of Los Angeles as a video mash-up of “The Day of the Locust” and “Freaks,” look no further: Here is empirical proof.

I first got wind of this dust-choked pageant from a poster in the Ranch Market, the meat emporium at Sunset and Western where they sell hamburger for $1.85 a pound and I try not to ask questions. Above a giant photo of an escaramuza team, recalling the distaff equestrian display in the film “Y tu Mama Tambien,” was a notice for the 3rd Festival Charro de Independencia, a Mexican Independence Day rodeo. Amid a long afternoon of singers, mariachis and comedians, there would appear the legendary Enanitos Toreros--the midget bullfighters of Mexico--like Sasquatch or Nessie, long-rumored in these parts, yet unsubstantiated. “La Entrada es Gratis! Gratis!” the poster gushed.

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Bursting with intrepid zeal, I set out on the hourlong drive through East L.A. Yet arriving at Pico Rivera, off the 605 just west of Whittier, I was distressed to learn that entrada to the sports arena required a special ticket--and was certainly not “Gratis! Gratis!” by any stretch of the imagination. As I was kept waiting for 45 minutes in the pitiless Southern California sun, giant humorless gentlemen with walkie-talkies amply demonstrated the folly of attempting subterfuge in a second language, even as they allowed large families all the entrada they wanted.

Eventually, I was escorted to the office of Leo and Fernando Lopez, whose La Noria Entertainment manages the arena. Leonardo, the patriarch of the family business, had been a concert and rodeo promoter for more than three decades, yet he graciously allowed his son Fernando to set the agenda and do most of the talking.

“This is the Staples Center of Mexico,” Fernando said. His family had booked Los Enanitos Toreros here for the last three years, and he agreed that between “Fear Factor” and extreme sports, their stature may indeed have been, well, growing. “They have a miniature bull,” he lectured. “It’s bred from one of those huge bulls they have in Spain that run in Pamplona, but it’s miniature. It has the same blood and the same anger, and it goes out there mad. At the shows in Mexico, they have everything back there--ponies, little motorcycles. Today, they just brought the miniature bull and all their costumes and everything. But you’re going to get a kick out of it. It’s a hilarious show.”

Leonardo looked on from one side, smiling. “A lot of white people come,” he said. “It’s good to see them.”

And in fact, thanks to a promotion by an L.A. radio station, a small but vocal minority of Anglos had made the pilgrimage that day, although their focus appeared to be limited. An on-air personality with a big burnished-chrome voice had run a live mic over to the corner of the stadium where his raucous drive-time demographic was ensconced, and they seemed thrilled at the prospect of the broadcast media straying beyond consensus boundaries of comportment and taste. This created an odd dynamic, as dueling announcers attempted to commandeer the proceedings and work their respective crowds. I could only assume that the Spanish-language commentator made use of a shared history and cultural identity to narrate the feats of strength and cunning before us. The gringo, by contrast, waited a few minutes into each new act to lead a spontaneous chant of “Mid-gets! Mid-gets!”

But soon, such observations were rendered trivial, as I learned I’d been granted an audience with the little people. I was led through concrete corridors and cattle chutes to a small cinder-block dressing room where half a dozen athletic gentlemen between 3 and 4 feet tall--some with proper proportions, some with prominent heads and truncated limbs--struggled into tiny toreador pants and bolero jackets. There has been some controversy over the terms “midgets,” “dwarfs” and “little people” (the preferred designation, according to their domestic lobby and appreciation society, the Little People of America), with each phasing in and out of fashion over the course of modern history. I vowed to resolve this and other controversies, and to document the will, stamina and character required of this assembled crew to face their daily challenge.

Problem was--and I don’t know why this hadn’t occurred to me on the long drive out--they didn’t speak a lick of Ingles. These gentlemen, while appearing affable and eager to please, as the entertainment arts dictate, didn’t have a clue as to what I was asking them, and there was no one free to translate. From my observations, the performers fell into specialized categories: The bullfighters appeared to be in their 20s and in prime physical shape, although age among little people is deceptive. There were the actors--the show included a mock-Chippendale’s number and a comedy skit involving a giant inflatable bottle of Corona--who overlapped with the bullfighters, although a hierarchy began to emerge, with the front line in the mad-cow bulwark perhaps better termed “fresh meat.” From our limited back and forth, I could also glean that the bullfights would be done Portuguese style, i.e., the bull would be allowed to live (perhaps for fiscal as much as sentimental reasons), and that there is a rich heritage of midget rodeos throughout Spain, Mexico, and Central and South America. This troupe, Los Internacionales Enanitos Toreros de Aguascalientes, was apparently the first to tour the United States.

Later, distilling these findings into a coherent thesis, I decided it would not be an outright breach of my professional duties to perform a quick survey of the phenomenon on the Internet. Here I learned, for instance, that the Mexican Midget Rodeo tradition (according to documentary videotape) might feature flaming go-carts, female midgets--hot female midgets--dancing to “Baby Got Back” and, on occasion, a midget bullfighter being mounted by a vindictive bull. Through the use of a Spanish-to-English translation generator on the Los Enanitos Toreros de Torreon site, I was further able to determine the following:

“For more than 20 years, the Spectacle of the Enanitos Bullfighters of Tower has been characterized for being an amusing and healthy event of entertainment designed for all the public, but with emphasis on it children and girls. . . . The show has evolved with the step of the years, being returned more elaborate and with better characteristics than it have added emotion and admiration on the part of the assistants. Nevertheless, the main elements of the spectacle continue being the Laughter and the Healthy Diversion.” In conclusion, the website assured, “Whether facing to brave bulls, amusing bullfighting tasks, carrying out corrupt lucks and of American detour, performing daring acrobacias or representing the artists of the moment, the Enanitos Bullfighters of Tower continue being the Number One.”

But all of that paled before the spectacle itself, which indeed began with the gray-felt-skirted, broad-sombreroed women of the escaramuza (Spanish for “skirmish”), a competitive trick-riding sport akin to an elaborate equestrian ballet or Busby Berkeley choreography. As a palate cleanser between acts, a figure in a yellow chicken suit threw candy into the stands, the assembled children following him back and forth in tight arcs like a roulette ball being gamed by a croupier.

Suddenly the midgets took the field, wearing modified Dalmatian-print jumpsuits of the kind favored by male strippers, with their considerable guts jiggling. “Man tits! Man tits!” chanted the gringo parishioners, led by their on-air spiritual advisor. The midgets quickly stripped down to tiny pink Speedos, the contents of which briefly silenced their newfound fan base. This was followed by skits, musical numbers, musical numbers in drag, more synchronized stripping and a host of jokes that left one quadrant of the audience notably mystified. Eventually, they released the bull, or whatever they were calling it. It wasn’t really a bull--it teetered on spindly legs, and you could count its ribs from the upper deck--but it was a fair-sized calf, with 6-inch horns and a problem disposition.

One by one, the mini-Manoletes engaged the baby bull in ritual public humiliation: roping and riding it backward, dancing with it upright, crawling underneath it (it summarily peed on them) and taunting it with a bright red capelet. After one or two good passes, the bull knocked down one of the matadoritos, and then, to add insult to injury, stood on his capelet. Two makeshift picadors swept in from the sides and diverted the would-be bull’s attention with the aid of plastic hammers. I was put in mind of my favorite capsule review from Leonard Maltin’s eponymous movie guide, for the David Cronenberg horror film “The Brood”: "[Samantha] Eggar eats her own afterbirth while midget clones beat grandparents and lovely young schoolteachers to death with mallets. It’s a big, wide, wonderful world we live in.”

Following each altercation, another midget limped from the arena, and the field risked disappearing through sheer attrition. Finally, one last defender unsheathed a plastic sword and squared off against the cartoon bull, now snorting and pawing the ground, expelling cartoon steam from its nostrils. For his trouble, he was butted a third of the way across the arena before being flipped over the bull’s head. He called it off then and there and was rescued by one of the charros, the full-size career cowboys on horseback. This effectively ended the competition. Final score: Bull 6, Midgets 0.

What is the enduring appeal of the Mexican Midget Rodeo? Is it the outre, the extreme, the Other, marshaled in traditional contests of skill and daring? A parody of an insular macho culture, nurtured from within? The simulacrum of defenseless children thrust into unspeakable danger, as we sit and smile helplessly? Or is it something deeper, primal, the stuff of myth and fairy tales--Rumpelstiltskin assailing the Cretan Minotaur, Taurus the bull engaging the Lollipop Guild, leprechauns at the Augean stables impeding the 12 labors of Hercules? And if such spectacles are predicated on our fears, then why would these participants sanction them, validating them with their presence?

Such suppositions are raised in the incubator of privilege. They do it because it’s a living.

And so I find myself winging south of the border toward Aguascalientes, Mexico, capital city of the state of Aguascalientes, where Los Enanitos Toreros live, work, train, love and no doubt try to avoid just these sort of intrusions, to find out what constitutes ordinary life for these figures of legend.

We meet at the impressive multitiered bullfighting ring that anchors one end of the Plaza de Toros San Marcos, the promenade of colonial architecture that dominates the center of this dusty city of nearly 1 million people. Beneath a statue of famed matador Fermin “Armillita” Espinosa, who trained future film director Budd Boetticher in the art of the Veronica and doubled for Tyrone Power in “Blood and Sand,” I am introduced to manager Alfredo Rocha, a translator and seven of the eight working members of the troupe--five men and two women, ranging in age from 19 to 40, all dressed in identical red T-shirts.

After a brief tour of the ring, replete with onsite infirmary and chapel--a contingency plan for both before and after--we pile into a van and drive several blocks to El Cortijo (The Farmhouse), a bar and restaurant frequented by the bullfighting crowd--or as the proprietor takes pains to elaborate, “the bar for bullfighters to make party.” Out back is a private patio and a small bullring where the troupe practices, and where they will later insist on staging a minor exhibition as a gesture of hospitality for the distance I’ve traveled. But for now, with the morning light refracted through the colored glass set into the stone walls of the open-air cantina, an enormous cauldron of paella simmering in one corner, they gather over chilled orange sodas to try to articulate what it’s like to be them.

Juan Lopez is the ranking elder, trained in all parts of the show--bullfighting, impersonations, comedy skits. He started as a clown in a children’s circus at 25, and has been with the Aguascalientes troupe, one of a handful operating in Mexico, since its inception in 1991. He appears sanguine about the attention, but admits that it comes at a price.

“When we do the shows, people come down afterward and want to take pictures with us,” he says. “They’re excited to see us. But outside the show, if we’re walking down the street, for example, they might cross the street to avoid us. We get ridiculed by kids who have never seen someone like us--we look like them, but we’re older. And the parents maybe even encourage them to make fun of us. ‘Hey, look at the little midget.’ It hurts when people do that.”

“There are more of us now, so people don’t look at us as much as they used to,” adds Tomas “Tommy” Emmanuel, the barrel-chested master of ceremonies who also emcees local wrestling matches, and once wrestled under the name the Little Savage. “When someone does offend me, instead of getting mad, I try to explain to them how we feel. I tell them we’re not just little people that they see on TV or in shows, and that the myths surrounding little people aren’t true--even the silly ones, like we eat people, or eat each other.”

Hector Miguel (aka “Chiquito”), Ricardo Reyes and Audelio Miranda are known as the three bullfighters, and seem to be in the best shape, although none of them claims to work out.

“It’s genetic that we’re like this,” says Audelio. “We don’t do much in terms of training.”

“We just eat and sleep,” says Erika Amescua-Flores, Audelio’s wife. Erika is one of two female members of the troupe, along with Elizabeth Medina, both of whom perform impersonations of famous singers such as Ana Barbara and Thalia.

The eighth member, Jose Chipa, will join us late from his second job at an orange juice concentrate cannery. About half the troupe carry a second job: Juan works at a restaurant, Ricardo stocks shelves at the Super XX grocery and Audelio occasionally moonlights as a mechanic and electrician.

“At first, I lacked confidence,” says Audelio, when pressed on his experiences. “I couldn’t even look at my own kind. I was ashamed. They disgusted me. . . . I still don’t like midgets, but I’m not ashamed of being one now. They’ve got a lot of attitude, and they’re difficult to deal with. There’s always some kind of drama happening. They’re eccentric. Stubborn. They just seem to have a lot more problems to deal with.”

“We’re not all the same just because we’re little people,” counters Tommy. “It depends on how we were raised. Some of us aren’t happy; some of us are happy all the time. We have good days and we have bad days. But it’s not because we’re little people.”

For Jose, who has a family to support, the rodeo has provided security and even a certain stature, and he doesn’t have ambitions beyond it. But most of the others still hold onto larger dreams. Ricardo would like to be a doctor. Juan would like to have his own restaurant. Audelio might return to being a mechanic full time. Tommy is content in his career, but would like to have a family.

“I’d also like to have a family,” says Elizabeth. “But I’d like to put on my own show.”

“I’d like to be a teacher,” says Erika. “As long as they were small kids.”

Suddenly, trumpets ring out over the patio’s loudspeakers. This is “Los Gallos” (“The Cockfight”), the mariachi ballad and official bullfighting theme of Aguascalientes. As we collectively make hardly a dent in the surfeit of paella, Alfredo and his helpers try to coax two recalcitrant bulls out of a trailer and their inimical adolescent funk and into the open arena. As they pass through chutes as confining as the streets of Pamplona, they dig in every few feet. At one point, a bull reverses field and makes a sudden rush for the backstage holding pen, narrowly missing one of the charros, who is just then relieving himself, scaring the . . . well, let’s say suitably alarming him, much to the delight of a couple on the balcony just overhead.

Los Enanitos perform their stock moves, going through the motions yet again, until finally one bull wanders back into the holding pen and the other apparently goes dormant, standing immobile across the arena for a good 10 minutes. I lean against the wood slats of the arena wall, arms resting on the 8-inch banister that serves as a makeshift countertop for a notebook and half-eaten plate of paella.

“The strength is in the neck,” Audelio is explaining to me. “The legs are tiny, but the shoulders and neck are where all the power is.”

As he moves to demonstrate, I see a blur over his left shoulder. The look on my face causes Audelio to spin around and, in the same motion, to step sideways into a foot-wide enclosure built into the arena wall for just this sort of eventuality. With no backup plan of its own, 140 pounds of infuriated veal slams headfirst into the wall I’m leaning on. I suddenly feel like a human tuning fork, as my bones and teeth absorb the shock wave of mass times speed. I am covered in a light mist of paella, and everything moves in excruciatingly slow motion, like something out of--well, out of “Raging Bull.” And I am finally granted the one clear revelation I came all this way to find:

Whatever these people are being paid, it’s not enough.


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