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Portuguese Festas in California's Central Valley

Portuguese festas from Tulare to Thornton in California's Central Valley sport bloodless bullfighting, traditions like the blessing of the cows, and parades.

Bull fighter, Portuguese festas in Central Valley, California, picture
Photo caption
In far-flung towns, festas preserve Azorean culture and keep the bonds of community alive.

You can spend a lifetime in California—exploring its cities, driving its back roads, hiking its mountains, deserts, and beaches—and think you know everything there is to know about the state. I did. That is, until last summer, when I went to my first Portuguese festa in the Central Valley, an event so exciting and gorgeous and strange that I felt compelled to go to another, and another, and another.

I took my little daughter, who loved the Monday night bullfights; I took my mother, who loved the garlicky linguiça sausage. I took my sister and I took my husband. I've been to Asia Minor and Central America, but I've never been anywhere more magical or more exotic than Gustine—or Hanford or Stevinson or Crows Landing—when the Portuguese are throwing a party.

The vast majority of California's Portuguese trace their origins to the Azores, a string of nine volcanic islands 800 miles off the coast of Europe. Among the traditions embraced there are elaborate religious festivals and, on the island of Terceira, bullfights.

Azoreans began arriving in California on whaling ships during the 19th century, and they continued to settle here in large numbers through the 1970s. But the fact that the state has an active and deeply rooted Portuguese community is little known, perhaps because it is not concentrated in cities but scattered in small agricultural towns up and down the center of the state.

It is in these far-flung towns that, throughout the summer, volunteers from local Portuguese fraternal organizations and Pentecostal societies schedule the little-publicized festas and bullfights that celebrate the Holy Spirit, or St. Anthony, or Our Lady of Fátima—all events that have helped keep a widely dispersed community intact.

"The idea of the festa was to preserve the culture and religious traditions and keep the bonds alive, and they have become like big reunions," says the Reverend Dan Avila, a Catholic priest in Hanford who grew up in Gustine. "It's where people come and see all the people from the old villages."

At the Our Lady of Miracles Celebration in Gustine in the middle of last September, some 25,000 people descended upon the town of roughly 5,000 for three full days of singing, candlelight processions, folk dancing, prayers, parades, auctions, red wine, bullfighting, and fried sardines.

Gustine's shady, serene Henry Miller Park was over-taken by carnival rides and market stalls carrying lupini beans, salt cod, sacks of chestnuts, and pastel candied almonds. There was a stand that sold bowls of peppery red octopus stew and another that sold lovely cinnamon pastries. A building nearby had been converted into a gallery that exhibited big photographs of the Azores and blasted Portuguese music from dawn to dusk.

There were old women dressed in black listening to a priest over a loudspeaker, and there were girls in hip-huggers waiting to ride the Ferris wheel. There is something for everyone at a festa.

But it was the bulls that got me hooked.

Although Portuguese-style bullfights are advertised as "bloodless," detractors call the fights cruel and psychologically harmful to the animals. "The bulls are teased and tormented for entertainment," says Eric Mills, coordinator of the Oakland-based Action for Animals.

Matador Dennis Borba, whose family owns the Campo Bravo ranch in Escalon, Calif., thinks Mills is off the mark. It was Borba who, in 1980, developed the system of Velcro-tipped darts aimed at a Velcro shoulder patch to replace the traditional use of lances. He raises most of the bulls for Central Valley bullfights, and says the animals are of a special breed called touro bravo, or brave bull. "The bull is not teased to provoke its charge," he says. "This is a fighting bull, born with the instinct to charge." The animals quickly become savvy to the ways of the ring, Borba says, and so take part in a fight only once in their lifetime, for approximately 20 minutes.

Furthermore, he says, to help blunt any risk to the cavaleiros' horses, the bulls' horns are sheathed in hard leather caps, and the steeds are trained to avoid collisions.

But Eric Sakach of the Humane Society feels that such measures fall short. The horses still are sometimes sliced by spurs, he says, or otherwise hurt in a face-off with the bull.

Bullfighting has been illegal in the United States since 1957, but an exception was later made for Portuguese-style "bloodless" bullfighting, in which the animal is not hurt or killed. By law these contests must be held in conjunction with a religious celebration and there are about 20 bullfights staged annually in California, usually on the Monday night at the end of a major festa. One cool evening last June, my 5-year-old daughter, Isabel, and I drove to Stevinson (population 1,943) and made our way to the Praça de Touros—easy to find because it was the only place in town that showed signs of life. The bullfight, our first, was scheduled to begin at 8, and by 7 the dirt parking lot was jammed with Dodge Rams and Chevy Silverados and Isuzu Pups.

A bullfighting arena looks like a rodeo ring, but there the resemblance between the two traditions ends. I bought a $20 ticket (children enter free) and when we stepped through the gate it was like crossing a national frontier. Inside, everyone was speaking Portuguese, everyone seemed to know each other, and everywhere you looked babies were being passed around and kissed. There were linguiça sandwiches for sale and beer and spicy cold lima beans.

As we entered the big red bowl of the arena, which seats about 3,000, Isabel was suddenly frightened by the crowd, the noise, and the impending man-beast confrontation; she clapped her hands over her ears. I found a spot on the wooden bleachers and she sat with her back to the ring. The woman next to us started speaking to me in Portuguese and did not, for the longest time, notice that I couldn't understand her. By the time the brass band had played "The Star-Spangled Banner," followed by "A Portuguésa," spectators were standing two deep around the perimeter of the arena.

A bullfight begins with the long, mournful call of a trumpet. Throughout the evening, a brass band both punctuated and commented on the action, signaling mounting tension with one melody and the end of an act with another. Unlike a rodeo, a bullfight is virtually wordless except for the cries of the men inside the ring. It is a handsome, ceremonious sport that is also crazy and exhilarating.

The first cavaleiro (rider) we saw was Pedro Franco of Portugal, who rode a pretty, dancing horse festooned with ribbons and plumes. Cavaleiros and matadors wear suits of scarlet, daffodil, royal blue, or mint green along with fuchsia kneesocks, ruffled shirts, and embroidered red coats or spangly gold jackets.

Once the audience had a chance to admire Franco's outfit, a swarthy 1,000-pound bull came hurtling into the ring, its long curved horns capped, its flesh jiggling and rippling, spittle flying from its mouth. After a few tours around the ring, during which Franco chased and was chased by the bull, he turned his horse to face the animal. Franco hurled a banderilla—a spear wrapped in bright tinsel and tipped with Velcro—at a pad attached to the bull's shoulders. The spear hit, the Velcro stuck, and the band struck up a triumphal tune.

Franco repeated this feat again and again with ever shorter spears. A cavaleiro "sticks" a bull six times, sometimes more. The climax comes when he drops the reins, nudges the horse to a gallop, takes two short spears in his hands, and throws them at the bull.

Some spectators have vehement and informed opinions about the qualities of the horses and the abilities of the cavaleiros ("We don't need . . . Pedro Franco when we have very good cavlerios [sic] here in California," was one recent posting on the contentious chat board.)

But it's easy to appreciate a bullfight, even if you don't pick up all (or any) of the subtleties. Toward the end of Franco's first round, Isabel seemed to realize that this was not turning into the gory spectacle she had feared; she climbed into my lap and began to watch intently.

Professional matadors from Mexico and Spain travel to these fights, sometimes bringing their coaches. These are the icons most Americans think of when they imagine bull-fighting—the taunting with a cape, the Gene Kelly footwork, the personal danger. True to form, the matador teased the bull with a flutter of the cape and, without moving his feet, swiveled his hips out of the path of the horns. He, too, claimed victory by sticking the bull with Velcro-tipped spears.

But the biggest crowd-pleasers were the forcados, or bull grabbers; they left me speechless. After the first round ended, a trumpet sounded and eight forcados, all members of the agile Turlock Suicide Squad, somersaulted over the wall and lined up, one behind the other, facing the bull. These Turlock forcados are a tight-knit group of truck drivers and dairy farmers who practice "catching" bulls every Wednesday night from February to October. "For some guys, it's a rush," says Tony Machado, captain of the squad. "For the older guys, it's just part of you now."

Dressed in a short jacket and knee pants, the first forcado in line placed a cap on his head and made long, slow, regular strides toward the bull, shouting. The beast stared at him and then charged, head down, and the forcado charged right back, throwing himself between the bull's horns. The other members of the squad rapidly piled on and, after a struggle during which men were tossed in the air, they wrestled the animal to a standstill.

What happened next was even more bizarre. Joe Martin, who sports a handlebar mustache, and has worked as a forcado for 27 years, wrestling more than 900 bulls, grabbed the animal's tail as his partners left the ring. When the bull spun around to chase him, Martins dug his heels into the earth and "skied" in a circle, towed by the bull. Eventually, Martins contemptuously dropped the tail, glared at the bull, and strode away. A herd of bony cows with bells on their necks trotted in and the bull meekly followed them out.

Isabel was rapturous. She's a princess-loving, purse-toting girl, but I have never seen her more fascinated by anything than she was by the bullfight. We had a long drive ahead, and at 10 p.m., before the last of the six bulls, I pleaded with her to leave. We found masses of people watching the action on a screen outside; hundreds of teenagers were milling around like it was a Friday night dance.

As we got in the car, Isabel said, "I wish we lived right next door to a bullfight."

I wouldn't have put it exactly like that, but I knew what she meant.

For some people a festa begins and ends with the bull-fight. But don't tell that to girls like Melinda Duarte, a 17-year-old queen's attendant from Lemoore who has been to dozens of festas but never to the bullring. For her, a festa is about dresses and parades, about dances and honoring Queen Isabel, the 13th-century Portuguese monarch famous for her charity. Melinda's festa is, in short, the frilly, feminine counterpoint to the Monday night machismo.

I met Melinda at the Sunday coronation of new queens (who model themselves after Queen Isabel) at the August St. Anthony festa in Hanford, just southwest of Fresno. She was busy studying the outfits of other girls."I'm planning to be queen next year and I'm looking around to get ideas for my cape," she said.

Although queens aren't important to the Azorean celebration, they have become the sine qua non of the California version. Each year, Portuguese groups appoint teenage girls and children to be queens and queens' attendants, ambassadors from the local organizations who march in festa parades all over the state. The parades and regal courts encourage a sense of Portuguese American community statewide, and have become a particularly effective way to get a new generation of girls involved with their culture.

Melissa Lopes, a high school sophomore and queen from Visalia, has wanted to wear a crown since she was 3 years old. "Melissa's grandmother was the first Fátima queen of Visalia," said her mother, Lori. "Her aunt was a queen, her sister was a queen, and now she is. This means a lot." The scene at the Hanford Fraternal Hall, where the queens were dressing, was frenzied, as dozens of girls were attended to by mothers wielding hot curling irons. The queens' gowns, purchased at bridal shops, are often supported by wooden hoops; their extravagant capes are of purple velvet or peach satin or pink silk, bejeweled or embroidered or screen printed with the image of a saint. The most dazzling capes are often those sewn by elderly women from the Azores who perform incredible feats of handiwork, like stitching 200 tiny pearls onto a puckered cape at the rate of, say, nine pearls per hour.

There are people who dislike what they perceive as the creeping materialism of the festas—the fact that some parents spend thousands of dollars on clothes and travel for their daughters. They complain that the true meaning of the festa is lost; that Queen Isabel stood for piety and compassion, not fashion. Melinda Duarte's mother, Ella, for instance, insisted on sewing Melinda's dress and cape herself. "It bothers me," she said, "the competitiveness about the clothes."

But festas do maintain many of their sweetest traditions, like the Bodo de Leite (blessing of the cows), which involves a procession of children in peasant costumes, goats, squeaky oxcarts, and Holsteins garlanded in flowers. In old times, or so the story goes, Azorean carts groaned when they were overburdened with milk, and today the screeching of the wooden carts is meant to suggest bounty. The Bodo de Leite is a celebration of prosperity, a kind of Thanksgiving. This is where you will hear haunting old Portuguese pezinho music, improvised singing accompanied by a violin. Come hungry and you will be treated to a late-morning meal of wine, milk, bread, and cheese.

The food at Portuguese celebrations is hearty and wonderful—roasted pork, fried fish, fresh bread, spicy beef stews—and meant to be shared. The Hanford St. Anthony festa began in 1981 to honor the patron saint of both Portugal and the poor. In the custom of Queen Isabel, and in commemoration of St. Anthony's affiliation with the poor, a free communal meal has become a tradition at Hanford. In a primitive kitchen at the Fraternal Hall one Sunday morning, I watched men stirring barrels of beans and hacking up links of linguiça. At noon they began serving lunch to all comers, some 5,000 people in all. They dished up salad, sweet bread, beans, 2,200 pounds of tri-tip, 1,200 pounds of linguiça, and countless pitchers of wine, all of it donated or financed by contributions from Hanford's Portuguese community. For dessert, splendid home-baked pineapple tarts, meringues, and cakes were being auctioned off nearby.

There is virtually no mainstream publicity for these warm, generous events. There are no posted ads for the parades, no radio commercials for the bullfights. Everyone who needs to know about them seems to know. But everyone else is welcome. "The Portuguese don't discriminate," said Tony Furtado, a high school Spanish teacher from Hanford who, as a lay priest, also helps administer Communion at the festa's religious services. "Black, white, Mexican—anyone can come. You get a good gathering of people and even if they don't go to church, it's still a fellowship of the Holy Spirit that's bringing people together."

This article was first published in May 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.