Originally published on April 10, 2019 at Texas Standard.
SANTA MARIA, TEXAS — It’s hard to miss the large colosseum-like structure off Ranch Road 1017 in the Rio Grande Valley. It’s the Santa Maria Bullring and it’s where Fred and Lisa Renk have been running bloodless bullfights for the past 19 years.
“Bullfighting in Mexico, it’s called the ‘ballet of death.’ And in the United States we call it ‘the ballet of life.’ Because the bulls live, we don’t injure them at all and they go on to the PBR and chase clowns the rest of their life. I probably got 300-400 out there on the rodeo circuit right now,” Fred Renk says.
82-year-old Fred greeted me at the front La Querencia Ranch where he lives and runs the Santa Maria Bullring.
We walked under a pavilion through a museum of sorts. Almost every vertical surface was covered with pictures, clippings and memorabilia of bullfighters —matadors from all over the world— chronicling a tradition that is centuries old. But here at Santa Maria, these bullfights break tradition.
“It ends with the removal of a flower, a symbolic kill. You’ve got to go in over the horns, just like you would with a sword, and you grab that flower,” he says.
But Fred’s wife Lisa says it’s not as mild as it sounds.
“It’s more dangerous because of the fact that we don’t shed the blood of the animal or kill the animal, which makes for a more dangerous animal,” Lisa says.
“It is really dangerous to fight a bull that way,” Fred says. “But we’ve been doing it. In 1986, I put on bullfights in the Astrodome, Madison Square Garden. I’ve been all over putting on bloodless bullfights all my life.”
Fred first became fascinated by bullfighting in 1952. He was an exchange student in Chihuahua, Mexico, studying to be a priest. He and a fellow seminarian decided to see a fight at the nearby bullring.
“I didn’t know anything about it. But I was sitting next to an old man and he started explaining it and I never forgot it,” Fred says.
He left the seminary, joined the military and in the years to come, wound up a salesman along the border. But something was missing. He just couldn’t shake his fascination with the matadors he saw. So eventually, he decided to study bullfighting. But by that time he was 28 years old—late to the game for a aspirante, or matador in training.
“After I got in and got hurt two or three times, you know – they say you should give up, but you don’t. Not if you really have the fever, the worm, they call it,” he says.
The life of a novice bullfighter, or novillero, is not glamorous. Most retire relatively young, with little money to show for the hours of training and dedication. And most never make it to the rank of matador de toros.
“Well, there’s not very many matadors in the world. There’s a lot that try and very damn few make it,” Fred says.
Fred didn’t make it. After several years of bullfighting on the border, fate, in the form of a bull, caught up with him.
He was gored in the stomach and tossed in the air. His in-laws, pregnant wife and young stepson, David were all watching from the stands. Fred’s bullfighting career was over, but little David’s was just beginning.
“He was born with crippled feet and everybody used to say, ‘you know, look at him. He just runs around with a napkin and that little stick and plays bullfighter all the time.’ Well he did,” Fred says.
When Fred met David, he was a small, blonde two-year old with clubfeet—symptom of a genetic disorder called Marfan’s Syndrome. At eight years old, David underwent corrective surgery and spent a year in a wheelchair, all the while dreaming of the day he could step foot in the ring as a matador. As soon as he could walk again, David and Fred got to work.
“Champions train, endure pain and never complain,” says Fred.
David became the youngest American matador in history, and the only American to fight in the world’s largest bullring, in Mexico City. He was known as “El Texano.”
Bulls were at the center of the Renk family’s life. After David retired from bullfighting, he and his younger brother, affectionately known as “Binker,” turned their attention to helping their father run the bloodless bullfights.
But in 2006, Binker had an accident with a bull.
“The horn hit him. The side of the horn hit him on the chest and knocked him out,” Fred says. “And we took him to the hospital and they X-rayed him and [found] nothing wrong. [There was] damage [to] the heart, they didn’t catch it. He lived six months later, you know. He passed away [at] 36 years old,” Fred says.
Then, last September, David, the small, skinny blonde kid who grew up to take the matador world by storm, died at the age of 55 from complications of Marfan’s Syndrome.
“It’s a funny thing about him. You know, I told you matadors train, endure pain and never complain,” Fred says. “The night before he passed away… he was sitting there with oxygen in his nose watching TV and I said, ‘how do you feel?’ He’s almost in the dark in there, you know and he says, ‘I’m going to break a rule. I feel like sh**.’ He says, ‘I need to go somewhere. I need to get up there with my buddies.’ That’s exactly what he said. He was gone the next morning.” Fred says.
Fred’s recent loss is deepened by thoughts of the future.
“You know, you lose two and either one of them could have taken over the bullring for me,” he says.
Fred’s losses seemed to pile up. Two rained-out shows in a row cost him financially and he was forced to end the season early. With no one to take over in his stead, Fred says he’s ready for the end of the family’s era at Santa Maria Bullring.
“Someone will buy this bullring and I’m gonna take my despecidas, you know, my retirement, so I’m going to quit. But I’ll always be around it,” he says.
Fred says he has one more season left in him and plans to host his last events early next year. Lisa Renk says they are ready to relax and enjoy the fights instead of working them.
“Well…” she says, “I’m looking forward to, I’m hoping that, uh, we don’t have to do it any longer because he’s getting older… and then if somebody buys it and they put on bullfights, that’s extra, we get in free,” she says.
The Santa Maria Bullring is one of only three bloodless bullfighting rings in the United States and the only one in Texas. In its rarity, there’s a truth Fred has long known.
“I have to explain it to you. An American matador is not accepted in Hispanic countries and misunderstood in his own country,” Fred says.
Some write off bloodless bullfighting as a novelty. It’s taken for granted in a state where bull riding is revered. Yet, it seems fitting that it’s on the Texas border, in the Rio Grande Valley, where the bicultural blend of Americano and Mexican manifests in the story of Fred Renk and his son David, also known as El Texano—matador de toros.