Bullfights and Sword Fights

Mexico at the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition

“Two Mexicans fought a duel with swords over a pretty girl who is one of the cashiers of the Mexican village. The fight took place by moonlight. One of the principal’s was badly wounded.”[1]

On August 22, 1895, Dr. R. D. Spalding traveled to Mexico City with a committee representing the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition. Upon entering the Mexican palace, the vice chairman presented an invitation to President Porfirio Diaz requesting his personal attendance to Atlanta’s event. In a speech given by Dr. Spalding, President Diaz was urged to contribute an exhibit representing the nation’s products and raw materials, that they, being sister republics, might grow closer in trade. The President was so ecstatic with the manner of the Americans that he interrupted Dr. Spalding mid-speech exclaiming, “I have fallen in love with you already!” A couple days later, Dr. Spalding traveled about 400 kilometers to San Luis Potosi where Governor Carlos Diez Gutierrez invited the Americans to view the city’s massive silver smelter, enjoy several concerts, and discuss the exposition. Dr. Spalding and a senior committee comrade attended a properly executed Mexican bullfight, reportedly, to their incredible enjoyment.

World’s fairs were massively popular, large, and expensive events enjoyed and pursued by people from all across the globe. Not only a great source of fun and excitement, but fairs gave various organizations, states, and countries an opportunity to present their cultures, resources, industries, and architecture for the rest of the world to see. One such fair was the Cotton States and International Exposition of Atlanta, Georgia held at Piedmont Park from September 18, 1895, through December 31, 1895. Stated in the Official Guide to the Cotton States and International Exposition, “the prime object [of the exposition is] to cultivate closer trade relations with South, Central, and Latin American republics.” In the late nineteenth century, the South underwent massive political, societal, economical, and industrial transformations. Some southern leaders and capitalists worked to embrace these shifts and build a New South, which would gain trade relationships with the North, as well as internationally. They wanted to sell the raw materials their land provided: cotton, tobacco, lumber, and coal being at the top of the list. The New South believers had two, most-recognized goals for hosting their exposition: boosterism and increasing trade relations with Mexico, Central, and South American markets. Upon researching Mexico’s role at the exposition, some fascinating information is revealed. Yet little is discussed about how the Mexican government took advantage of this particular world fair. Instead, despite the intensity with which southern and Mexican diplomats and capitalists pursued each other, scholars find a plethora of stories about bullfights and sword fights. [2]

President Diaz promoted the Cotton States and International Exposition around his nation and alerted the committee that a large space would be needed for a planned elaborate Mexican Village. Indeed, a map found in the Official Guide reveals that the Village sat on the largest parcel for an individual nation at Piedmont Park. Drawn on the map are the bullpen, the music stand which would host the Mexican Eighth Regiment military band, a cathedral, and theater. It is apparent by the many newspaper articles printed in Georgia that Mexico was of great interest to southerners, however, not much was found about the particular products and trade ventures resulting from the exposition. Instead, an incredible controversy reveals itself. That is of the proposed bullfights.

Folks all across the nation apparently took issue with the idea of watching bulls be tormented by waving red flags and metal lances, with the potential for ultimate death. This common source of entertainment in Mexico was suddenly under intense scrutiny, including by a southern public who ironically had been forced to cease torturing a whole race of humans just a few decades earlier. On July 25th, the Christian Index published an article disgracing the exposition board for deciding to compromise, allowing the fights if the bulls were not harmed or killed during the show. They referred to the event as being an example of “Mexican barbarism” and claimed that it would be “a mistake to offer such things as educational features.” These harsh accusations reveal judgement and prejudice toward Mexico. Rather than embrace the fights, under the compromise of bull safety, as an acceptable contribution to the exhibit of Mexican culture, many southerners used the example to demoralize Mexican culture. Several times, variations of the word “barbarian” were used. The fact that the Mexican commissionaires were willing to move forward with the bullfights in a softer depiction was not enough to satisfy the naysayers. The exposition President, C. A. Collier, wrote a letter which was partly published in the local newspapers that in order to protect the board’s image, it was decided that the bullfights would not be permitted. This letter was printed just a few days after Dr. Spalding’s splendid experience at the Mexican bullfight he attended in San Luis Potosi. [3]

As the story develops, we see that on September 18th another article is published. Prior to exhibit preparations, Mexican Village commissioner Mr. J. M. Porteous, had agreed to a contract with exposition authorities which stated that the bullfights would be allowed, and he had moved forward under this assumption. When questioned on the issue, Porteous asserted that if the committee did not allow him to carry on with the shows, he would sue them. On September 23rd, five days after opening day, a resolution still had not been made. The reality was that both the exposition committee, and the Mexican Village manager had widely advertised the bullfighting as a main attraction of the exposition, and it seemed a difficult decision to make with the public demanding that the barbaric torture of bulls be erased from the program. [4]

Less than two weeks after opening day, the frustrated Mr. Porteous had another debacle to face. It appears that two Mexican men engaged in a violent fight for love. It was said that the two men involved, one being a matador (a bullfighter), the other a “lazador” (the person who lasso’s the bull), were vying for the same lady’s attention. When one succeeded in taking her on a romantic walk, the other proposed a duel. The Macon Telegraph claims that one man had been badly wounded in the side, “blood spurting,” when Mr. Porteous arrived, just in time to save the lover from a “death-dealing stab.” Despite some journalists embellishing otherwise, no one was severely injured, nor was anyone arrested. Yet this sword fight made it into various newspapers for several days. Amongst tens of thousands of people, hundreds of displays, and innumerable opportunities for entertainment, a brief fight between two Mexican men was of great amusement and mockery to the general southern public.[5]

Finally, by November 2nd, Mr. Porteous and his fellow commissionaires won, sort of. A month and a half after the fair commenced, visitors would be welcomed to see the highly controversial bullfight show. Compromises were made; an arena was quick-built just outside the fairgrounds and the bullfighting was to be of the “sham” version. Journalists claimed that the fights were still very exciting despite the taming of “the horrible spectacle that characterizes” a true Mexican bullfight of the day. The potential for the fighters to be hurt ensured the attraction would still be one of the most talked about of the exposition, despite its final place outside the exposition walls. 

On October 3rd, after visiting a few other cities along the way, Governor Gutierrez arrived at Atlanta to be welcomed by the exposition board, as the man who would be the most important Mexican attendee to the exposition. The governor was overwhelmed with the honor and friendship he received on his tour of America, never having been there before. The expectations he had of Atlanta were exceeded. Publicly, he had nothing but gratitude and hopeful anticipation for relations between the sister republics, although the newspaper could not even bother to spell the prominent governor’s name correctly. The ironic truth that the Governor so innocently described was that until the railroads had been built connecting the South to Mexico, to him, a place like Atlanta might have been as distant in geography and culture as Africa. Of further irony is part of a speech he gives concerning his American welcome where he claims that there is “no knife” that could sever the friendship between Mexico and America. Despite such obvious communication and desire for Mexican/American trade relationships, very little seems to have come from this particular fair in terms of Mexico. Nor were any stories printed about Mexico and the Cotton States and International Exposition more superfluous than those about the bullfights and sword fights. It seems that no matter how the Mexican and American governments wanted to partake in respectful and mutually beneficial relationships, some American people would only ever view their sister republic as “barbaric.”[7]

Thank you to History Librarian, Kristina Claunch and Newton Grisham Library at Sam Houston State University for the help in securing great resources toward this research project. Further mucho graçias to History Professor Dr. Charles Heath. Your encouragement, recommendations, and academic support have been so meaningful.