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Horns Aplenty: Living it Up with the Suicide Squad 

Wednesday, Jul 31 2013

Sporting crowds cheer. Sporting crowds boo. On rarer occasions, thousands of spectators simultaneously gasp in disbelief. On rarer occasions still, screams of terror follow.

And then there's the sound of everyone hustling to get out of the way of a rampaging bull mingling with the paying crowd.

Per Section 597(m) of the California penal code, it is illegal to stage a bullfight "whether for amusement or gain or otherwise." There is, however, one divine exception: "This section shall not, however, be construed as prohibiting bloodless bullfights ... held in connection with religious celebrations or religious festivals." Fortunately for the Gustine Pentecost Society, a Portuguese benevolence association, its Festa do Divino Espirito Santo was "commemorating 100 years of faith and tradition," a tradition that includes bullfighting. Neither God nor the law has much use for an atheistic bullfight.

And so, on a Monday in July in a small dairy town most city dwellers only know in the context of a rapidly receding highway exit sign, there is cheering and booing and gasping and screaming aplenty. As for men and women fleeing a wayward bull — that happens too.

Like many of the small, agrarian towns in California's midsection, Gustine is heavily populated by immigrants from Portugal's Azores archipelago, about halfway between Lisbon and Newfoundland. The chain of nine Atlantic islands is verdant and strikingly beautiful — but there's only so much industry that can be wrung from verdant, strikingly beautiful postcard photos.

Many thousands of impoverished Azorians made the long journey to the Central Valley. Tell one you're from San Francisco, however, and he shakes his head and acts as if you've made the long journey. But San Francisco isn't all that far from Gustine. It's only 104 miles on wide, interstate highways. When mandolins come on the radio, the odds are still good you're listening to A Prairie Home Companion.

Gustine feels like another world, however — perhaps Venus. The temperature regularly cracks 110 degrees and it's so profoundly flat that sharp-eyed people can spot the backs of their own heads. Venture off the major roads and you can poke around for days without hearing much English.

The bullring at Bella Vista Park is off the major roads. It's a sun-bleached red edifice miles away from the large water tower shadowing Gustine's one-block downtown, and isolated even by the impressive standards of the region. The stadium rises out of the fields like a monolith, and glows like a beacon after dark. Show up at midday at the intersection of Old Santa Fe Grade and Preston Road and you'll hear the unmistakable language of grown men happily busting each other's chops, identifiable in Azorian Portuguese or any other dialect under the sun.

Many of these gents are recognizable from the parade and festival downtown a few days earlier. Portuguese men in ballcaps, Wrangler jeans, boots, and short-sleeved work-shirts puffed cigars and mingled with dancers outfitted in medieval garb. A man with a red badge and a white cowboy hat orbited the crowd, doling out NyQuil cups of Hiram Walker apricot brandy. A dollar for eight raffle tickets could win a music box decorated with a picture of Mary and the Christ child. The staccato of an amplified cattle auctioneer shifting between Portuguese and English served as an ambient soundtrack. Eventually the cattle trailers pulled off, but the bidding continued: "Okay, we're gonna bid on some semen while they move the trucks. Do we have 380? Three-eighty, 380, 380, 380 — 380 we have!"

Now, on the day of the fights, it's almost 90 degrees, which passes for temperate. The men who worked all year behind the scenes organizing this event are enjoying their own little festa on the unshaded, fenced-in grounds surrounding the bullring before the crowds arrive and they go back to work. There's Joe Freitas and Joe Freitas Jr. — who calls Freitas "Daddy," but is actually the son of another Joe Freitas. There are chicken legs and barbecued quail and homemade linguisa sausages personally prepared by cook Gorge Costa. The men insist their visitor sample it all, along with Carlo Rossi white zinfandel out of the four-liter bottle and pint after pint of ice cold Bud. Afterward, Costa suggests we drink some Pepsi — which is his code for dark beer. They refuse to accept dollar one.

They treat a newcomer who simply walked through the gate with kindness and hospitality. For dwellers of our fast-paced, impersonal, and ephemeral city, it's tough not to feel a pang of longing for the group's overpowering sense of tradition and camaraderie. Yet men who grew up alongside each other and can trace their shared heritage to an island one-eighth the size of Alameda County are intimate enough to treat each other a bit more informally. Many Pepsis are quaffed and the friends laugh and joke and surreptitiously pour beer down the back pocket of anyone unfortunate enough to be distracted by a phone call. Then someone whips out a Taser, and Fernando Pinto — the lone mainland Portuguese in the crew — asks if anyone wants to give it a go. "It's no big deal," he says, a mischievous glint in his blue eyes. "You're on the floor 15, 20 minutes, tops." He sets down his can of Pepsi — a real Pepsi — on the table at a 45-degree angle and, somehow, it stays that way.

Dairy owner Tony Martin nods as the day's cavalleiros — mounted bullfighters — ride resplendently into the ring. Outfitted in forest green coats with gold trim and matching three-cornered hats, they are the stars of the show. Using only their legs, the cavalleiros pilot their dancing steeds backwards, sideways, and forward. The hands must be free to plunge a bandarilla into a pad on the back of the bull. (Event organizers insist the staves are tipped only with "industrial-strength velcro" — yet politely but adamantly decline to allow one to be inspected).

These are educated horses, and they don't come cheap. Martin knows this — he and his brothers own them. Asked if this is a profitable venture, he laughs: "Not at all." Bullfighting, for him, isn't about the money. That's why he paid 120,000 euros for one of the horses.

A fantastically skilled rider mounted atop a $160,000 Lusitano is a sight to see. But the biggest cheers are reserved for the chain-smoking local boys milling around the side of the ring. Outfitted in striking uniforms slit beneath the arms for increased mobility and looking like they were cut from the same material you'd use to upholster grandma's sectional, the official Portuguese title for these troops is "forcados" (which roughly translates as "pitchforks," based on the implements their forbears carried into the ring). Every last spectator has a more colorful term: the Suicide Squad.

While the cavalleiros tangle with the bull, the captain of the Suicide Squad takes mental notes. He observes the bull's tendencies and chooses the seven men best fit to the task. He designates the man to lead them — the one to induce the bull into charging at him. Tony "Doogie" Machado, the captain of a local troop called Aposento de Turlock (loosely, "Straight Outta Turlock"), drafts 23-year-old Darren Mountain to take on the second of the night's six bulls. Mountain crosses himself profusely, kneels, and prays. In unison, he and his seven colleagues hurtle like Marines over the chest-high wall separating the bullring from the spectators. With Mountain at the helm, the Aposentos form a single-file line, methodically advancing on the bull as it's distracted by a bullfighter waving a fuchsia cape. The crowd hushes, and, soon, the only noise to be heard is the creature's heavy breathing and Mountain's shrieks and claps.

The bull takes Mountain's bait, lowers its horns, and charges. Mountain backpedals sharply, reducing the impact of the pending collision, and receives the blow in his chest. As the bull rears its head, the soles of Mountain's shoes point skyward — but he never surrenders his grip around its leather-sheathed horns. His seven colleagues rush in, immobilizing the standing bull in the corner of the egg-shaped ring. And then, in unison, all break away — except for a sole forcado, grasping the bull's tail. The animal chases him in tight circles, and he glides over the dirt like a water-skier.

The bull grows tired and dizzy and, with great fanfare, the "tailing" forcado strides away without a backward glance, hopping the wall to the 4-foot-wide walkway separating the bull from the 3,200-odd delirious spectators.

Mountain receives slaps on the back and long, emotional hugs from, as he calls them, "my 30 brothers." It's difficult not to envy the men's ironclad camaraderie. But, once again, it comes with a price, and one far steeper than a Pepsi down the pocket. After all, the Suicide Squad's bond is forged by collectively choosing to engage in behavior worthy of the title "Suicide Squad."

The bull is shepherded back to his pen. (A bull will never see the inside of a bullring twice; they learn the bullfighters' tricks and become that much more unpredictable.) As another bull is summoned, the brothers proceed to eviscerate a pack of Marlboros and puff deeply. The Surgeon General's warning doesn't mean so much when you've just been trampled.

And then, not long after everyone wanders back in from the dance at intermission, it happens.

A brown bull who'd heretofore expressed little interest in chasing the horse or engaging the cape finds his second wind and barrels over the short wall, breaching the space between the ring and the stands. He charges through the walkway, and VIP spectators and Suicide Squad members stream, one after the other like divers in an Esther Williams movie, over the wall into the ring — now a 100-percent more bull-free environment than where they just stood.

From across the ring, all you can see of the approaching bull behind the chest-high wall are the bandarillas protruding from its back; it looks like a Jaws puppet show. Your humble narrator figures he has five to 10 seconds to vacate the walkway before the bull is upon him. Instinctively, he pulls himself through the bars and up into the seating area shortly before the bull thunders by.

So, yes, Gustine feels far away. But it's not. You drive fast on the trip home. The car is fueled with Rotten Robbie's gasoline and you are fueled with an adrenaline charge so potent it echoes in your ears.

It's not a bad feeling, come to think of it. You could have been dead. But, instead, you're alive.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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