Horns Aplenty: Living it Up with the Suicide Squad

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.

A "Suicide Squad" member from the "Amadores de Merced" takes a charge.
John Freitas
A "Suicide Squad" member from the "Amadores de Merced" takes a charge.
The Aposentos de Turlock ready for action; below, cavalleiro Rui Salvador demonstrates his skills.
Photograph by Joe Eskenazi
The Aposentos de Turlock ready for action; below, cavalleiro Rui Salvador demonstrates his skills.

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.

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mblaircheney topcommenter

The 'Humble Narrator' has had to deal with San Francisco Bull for some time, Gustine must have been a nice change of pace.  At least these are easier to spot than our locals, though some of ours sport horns from time to time. '...homemade linguisa', the breakfast of champions, along with sunny side up eggs and crispy hash browns, one of California's best features in off the road towns. This piece brought up many old memories, gave the writer a few to remember for sure.

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