The Last Days Of The Santa Maria Bullring
From Texas Standard:
The line between sport and art has always been blurred when it comes to bullfighting. It's called the “ballet of death,” and matadors, like professional dancers, require immense athleticism, stage presence and talent to master a skill that goes back centuries.
In the U.S., where traditional bullfighting is illegal, bloodless bullfighting – known as the “ballet of life”– has connected two cultures along the border in the Rio Grande Valley for decades.
But the final curtain may be falling on this 20-year tradition, as the man who brought bloodless bullfighting to the Lone Star State takes his final bow – his despedida.
“It's got to be over”
In the unincorporated city of La Gloria in South Texas, there’s not much to see other than mesquite trees, brush and an occasional roadrunner. But just off Ranch Road 1017, red and orange flags line the fence of a 65-acre ranch. It’s the Santa Maria Bullring, the only place in Texas where there’s bloodless bullfighting.
Just inside the gates stands an iron coliseum-like arena about two stories tall. There’s a majestic bull painted on its side and almost every seat is taken. The audience is here not only to see the event, but to witness the despedida – the farewell tour, or victory lap – of its retiring host, 83-year old Fred Renk.
Though Renk is hanging up his cape after these last events, he’s still hands-on at the arena, wearing many hats. He’s host, judge and color commentator. Raw, genuine and unpolished on the mic, he leads the audience in "Oles" and deals out educational tidbits on bloodless bullfighting.
“That pass was called a ‘Valencia,’” Renk’s voice reverberates from the loudspeakers. “Now she has to go in for the flower.”
Traditional bullfights in Spain and Mexico end with the bull being killed. But in the U.S., it’s different — the bull remains unharmed. Instead, the matador must grab a flower that's Velcroed on the back hump of the bull. It’s quick removal is a symbolic kill and the fight is over.
Renk has dedicated his life to the fight and the bulls. But with no one to pass the cape down to, hosting takes its toll.
“You know, I get ahead of myself at my age. That's why I want to quit. That's why it's got to be over. You know? Tired, legs hurt. I mean, I just want to go in the back and fish,” Renk says.
It’s something Renk has been considering since the death of his son David in 2018. In his prime, the bullfighting world knew David as “El Tejano,” America’s youngest Matador De Toros.
“I built it for David and David is gone. So, I need to sell it so I can sit out there and enjoy it,” Renk says.
Los despedidas con amigos
Renk has invited old friends from this era and their children, now matadors themselves, back to the Valley to take part in these fights.
One of those close friends is seasoned bullfighter of 60 years, Jim Verner. In the cantina Renk built beside the bullring, Verner stands among countless photos of matadors, bullfights and memories.
“Well, I'm 77 years old so it's time I quit. And so I told Fred, ‘I've been with you 20 years. I need to do the despedida here too,’” Verner says.
Renk leaned on prayer in preparation for this special day. After being in the seminary for seven years in his youth, Rank says he knows he has a special connection to La Macarena – The Blessed Virgin Mary. Still, a bit of luck never hurts.
“You know, I've always been lucky like that,” he says. “And then today with the weather we had? I went down to the San Isidro Catholic Church, and I lit every candle that was in the place.”
Religion plays a significant role in a matador’s life. After all, they stare down death every time they step in the ring. By the gates of the Santa Maria Bullring is a tiny chapel, no bigger than a broom closet, that Renk built with just enough room for a prayer bench, candles and an alter.
Besides divine weather intervention, Renk says he was blessed with the one thing that can make or break a successful event.
“You know, the bulls were muy muy bravo and muy difícil. Very, very hard to fight,” he says.
Yet Verner knows, things can go very wrong, very quickly with one false step. He recalls a moment years ago when a bull caught him by the coast and tossed him in the air.
“When I landed,” he says, “I made a mistake. It was my mistake. I got up with my back to the bull.”
Bullfighters should never lose sight of the bull. Before he knew it, Verner was hit from behind, knocked out and in the hospital.
“It was about half of my ear that was off,” he says. “And so 15 stitches put my ear back on.”
Just three months after his trip to the hospital, Verner, who was in his late 60s at the time, was back in the same bullring. And as he and Renk take their despedida, Verner knows despite the dangers, it’s all worth it.
He says it best in a Spanish phrase known among matadors:
“La única, cosa más difícil de torear es deja de torear.”
He goes on to explain the full phrase in English.
“Bullfighting is dangerous, beautiful and difficult,” Verner says. “The only thing more dangerous than bullfighting is the war. The only thing more beautiful than bullfighting is the love of a woman. But the only thing more difficult than bullfighting is to stop bullfighting.”
Anyone walking into Renk’s ranch gets a sense of this struggle. The place is a museum dedicated to the sport and his family’s legacy. Once, it was even a school for young toreros hoping to become bullfighters. But those days are gone, faded in time, much like the surrounding photos.
Still, Renk knows when to take a win.
“Today was a phenomenal day. It really was,” he says, “You know, [the event] got so much accomplished because to have all these people show up and realize that I'm not going to be here anymore, I'm not going to do it.”
Annabelle Garcia is one of those people. She traveled almost three hours from South Padre Island to come to the event.
"I really wish that my first time wasn’t going to be a time where he’s going to retire," she says. “I really hope that they continue – that this isn’t the last time.”
Renk has his regulars, too.
Dallas Seeman is a winter Texan. He splits his time between the Valley and Alberta, Canada.
“We’ve been coming out here for 10 years. We were riding motorcycles one day and [saw the bullring.] And we met Fred and the rest is history. We haven't missed one bull fight.”
Twenty-seven year old Karla Sontoyo is a world-renowned Matador de Toros and one of the few women currently in the sport. Though she is from Aguascalientes, Mexico, she’s known Renk for decades. For his bloodless bullfighting era to be coming to a close, it’s bittersweet.
“It's the people,” Sontoyo says in Spanish, her native language. “They like everything – from the bullfighter suit – it's new to them. In Mexico, there are more opportunities to see bullfighting, but in the United States it is a new experience. I enjoy sharing this part of my life with people who aren't familiar with it.”
Renk calls it getting bit by the worm, and it’s kept him going his whole life.
“Well it’s a feeling, you know, like the gusano of the bullfight. It eats on you and never lets you, never lets you leave it,” Renk says.
Ghosts on the walls
The sun starts to set on the Santa Maria Bullring. The crowd heads toward their cars. Renk is relieved to have gotten through the day. In his home, just feet away from the bullring, he sits inside a small room which, not surprisingly, is covered in bullfighting posters.
It’s hard for him, living among these walls of memories, friends, matador memorabilia representing a lifetime – his lifetime.
“Look up and they’re all gone,” Renk says. “All my friends are gone. All my compadres are gone. But hell man, I want to join them, You know? ...yeah, up there. I'm ready.”
But tonight, singing, drinking and playing guitar around a poker table in the den of his house, Renk is surrounded by his compadres – the ones that are still alive and kicking.
He, of course, gets passed the guitar. Though Renk says it’s been a while, he begins to sing and play the song “Tu Solo Tu.” It means "you and you alone." It’s about love for that one special person. Though tonight, it’s easy to interpret it as an ode to Renk’s first true love.
The party, just steps away from the cantina, goes late into the night. Matadors, close friends along with new ones, all celebrating a good day and the man who made it all possible – Fred Renk, father of bloodless bullfighting at the Santa Maria Bullring.
See more photos here.