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Bullfights celebrate Portuguese tradition
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The front man from the Amadores suicide squad holds on for dear life as the bull lifts him high into the air on Monday. - photo by FRANKIE TOVAR / The Journal

The Turlock Pentecost Association wrapped up its 100th anniversary celebration with a Galla Traditional Portuguese Bullfight at the Stevinson Pentecost Bull Fighting Arena on Monday. Those in attendance were treated with a taste of 18th century Portuguese culture as Cavaleiros (horseman), Matadores and Forcados (suicide squad) battled six bulls in the center of the ring, risking injury for the sake of entertainment, pride and tradition.

Although many individuals in today’s society hold negative views towards bullfighting, the tradition has held strong among the Portuguese community in the Valley. The bloodless sport is a far cry from the Spanish style many are familiar with and is considered to be an art by aficionados and supporters around the world. The Portuguese style of bullfighting is held in two phases, as the horseman battle the bull in the first phase and the suicide squads enter the ring in the second phase.

Horseman sport 18th century costumes atop specially trained horses as they attempt to attach small javelins to the back of the bull. The rider maneuvers his horse around the ring, taunts the bull into chasing him, and attaches one javelin at a time to the crowd’s amusement. This opening phase accounts for the much of the art associated with the spectacle as it requires a high degree of skilled horsemanship and agility.

 Suicide squads consist of eight men who form a single file line and challenge the bull without weapons or protection. The front man must perform a face catch as the bull charges his team, absorbing the bull’s impact and holding on to its head as his teammates surround and subdue the animal.

Suicide squad members must be fearless and tough. Injuries are a constant threat and a common occurrence but come with the territory and are expected. Fernando Machado Jr., front man for the Aposento team, competed in the ring on Monday despite suffering a broken leg 11 months ago. His resolve was celebrated by the crowd who tossed flowers and other symbols of respect into the ring after his performance.

“He hit me good. It was definitely a fight,” Machado said of the bull. “This is like an extension of my family. We’re just trying to keep a tradition alive.”

While every fan has their favorite part of the tradition, the suicide squads, a unique Portuguese staple, have prevailed as the most popular and crowd pleasing performers. To mark Monday’s celebration, the Amadores and Aposento suicide squads from Turlock were joined by the Ramo Grande suicide squad from Terceira, one of the Azores islands.

“It’s part of our culture and it was something that always intrigued me; man versus beast in a humane way,” Aposento’s captain Tony Machado said. “It’s about being competitive with your team and other teams. It’s just like any sport. You want to win, and what we win is self satisfaction.”

Prior to Monday, the Galla Traditional Portuguese Bullfighting style had never been performed in California. It is typically performed in specific and very special locations and for significant cultural events only.