Ignacio Sánchez Mejías — sensationalist matador who brought celebrity to the corrida
- October 7, 2022
- Duncan Wheeler
Bullfighter, playwright and businessman — Ignacio Sánchez Mejías was constantly on the move.
Born into a large middle-class family in Seville on 6 June 1891, Ignacio Sánchez Mejías was active in the so-called ‘golden age’ of bullfighting, when aficionados were divided by their allegiance to two star matadors, Juan Belmonte (1892-1962) and José Gómez Ortega, aka Joselito (1895-1920). The rivalry and purported skill of the pair confirmed bullfighting as a cultural industry and national obsession. The period between Belmonte’s debut as a matador in 1913 and the fatal goring of Joselito in 1920 is still considered the apogee of bullfighting as a form of artistic expression. Despite ethical objections to categorising the torture of animals as art, it was undoubtedly classified as such by the leading poets, painters and intellectuals of the period. In taurine circles, Sánchez Mejías is not as revered as Belmonte or Joselito, but he was the most well-connected matador of his, and arguably any, time.
Sánchez Mejías’ father was a well-respected doctor who worked amongst the poor as well as for Seville’s most elite families. An ability to ingratiate himself in different social circles was key to the future matador’s character and success from an early age. As a young lad, he observed the inhabitants of local bullfighting-themed bars whilst playing at being a bullfighter in the bustling open spaces near his home. During his adolescent years, he told his father he was studying medicine when, in reality, he was trying to forge a career as a matador. There were no bullfighting training schools at the time, so it was a matter of sneaking into fields or hoping a local breeder might give one an opportunity to test one’s skills in front of a live animal. His family began to hear tales of his antics. In 1908, Sánchez Mejías, unable to maintain the facade, snuck off to Cadiz, becoming a teenage stowaway on a transatlantic vessel heading to New York.
Making his way to Mexico, there are reports of him appearing with a novillo (young bulls faced by aspiring matadors) the following year. From the outset, his bravery was noted. In Morelia, a former banderillero (assistant bullfighter) from Madrid turned businessman offered him a job on a ranch. The work was menial, but it gave Ignacio access to bulls and professional contacts. In 1911, Fermín Muñoz, aka Cochaíto, a matador from Cordoba, offered to pay for his return to Spain if he agreed to join his crew as a banderillero.
The doctor’s prodigal son was making his way in an unforgiving profession that drew overwhelmingly from the poorer sections of society, whose members had fewer life choices than Sánchez Mejías. In 1914, his father reputedly entered a bullring for the first time only to see Ignacio brutally gored by a novillo. Later that year, Cochaíto was killed by a fully grown-bull, leaving behind a young family. By 1915, Sánchez Mejías had secured contracts as a banderillero for both Belmonte and Rafael el Gallo, Joselito’s brother. In December, he joined the Gallo family through marriage to the matadors’ sister, Dolores Gómez Ortega. By 1916, he was hired as one of Joselito’s permanent banderilleros. Sánchez Mejías still harboured hopes of becoming a matador and, after appearing in front a novillo in Seville in 1918, planned to make his debut in front of a fully-grown bull in Madrid later that same year. A goring put paid to the plan.
His belated debut took place in the midst of a general strike the following year in Barcelona on a bill also featuring Joselito. A successful performance set him on the path to joining the upper-tier of matadors, a so-called figura. Tragedy hit in 1920 when Joselito was killed in Talavera de la Reina. Sánchez Mejías killed the bull before heading to the infirmary where his brother-in-law was dying. A photo of him cradling Joselito is amongst the most touching and famous in taurine history. Audiences paid to watch Belmonte and Sánchez Mejías dice with death on daily basis, but such was Joselito’s technique and knowledge that many believed him to be invincible – the writer, essayist and playwright, José Bergamín, had published a book in 1930 with the thesis that bullfighting was more of an Apollonian than a Dionysian art-form, finding its perfect exposition in the calculated quietude of Joselito. Bergamín contrasted this ideal form with the sensationalist style of Belmonte (and, by implication, Sánchez Mejías), which, he hypothesized, perverted its essence. Urban legend has it that when Belmonte and Bergamín next met in Seville, the bullfighter said his assessment was correct.
The question of who might occupy Joselito’s place resulted in Sánchez Mejías’s bitterest professional rivalry. The Mexican Rodolfo Gaona (1888-1975) had appeared in Spanish bullrings from a young age. His most fervent followers in the cheap seats of Mexico City heralded him as the greatest matador of all time. Pitting him against Sánchez Mejías was good copy, instrumental to bullfighting becoming a major social phenomenon in Mexico, with Ignacio securing lucrative contracts for publicity campaigns for cigarettes, shaving razors and alcoholic beverages, among others. On being asked who he believed to be the better matador, Joselito or Rodolfo, Ignacio replied: ‘I’m better than Gaona and I was nothing more than a banderillero for Joselito.’ Given the regularity with which Sánchez Mejías was gored, Gaona said he wouldn’t kill his bulls (as is customary) if his rival were injured, unless he was paid extra — when the occasion arose, the Mexican was true to his word and simply left the bullring, not ever checking if Ignacio was alive. When in the infirmary, the Spaniard was paranoid the doctors tending to his wounds were supporters of his rival, thinking they might seek to finish the bull’s job off. Given that Gaona’s followers had once riddled Sánchez Mejías’s car with bullets, such a fear was not altogether illogical.
In Spain, Ignacio’s principal rival was Manuel Granero (1902-1922). When the young Valencian sensation was fatally gored in Madrid (an event depicted by Georges Bataille in his 1928 novella Story of the Eye), Sánchez Mejías became the undisputed number one box office draw. As president of the Association of Professional Matadors he sought to liberalise the ‘national fiesta’ and fought for an end to fixed pay-scales. He briefly retired in 1923 but was soon tempted back with a string of lucrative offers in both Spain and Latin America. Following a successful performance in Valladolid in 1925, he swapped the matador’s suit of lights for a smoking jacket to attend the city’s Athenaeum to read from a novel he was in the process of writing. Although unpublished in his lifetime, The Bitterness of Triumph was published posthumously in 2009 by Andrés Amorós, Sánchez Mejías’s most authoritative biographer, a bullfighting critic and a professor of literature. With ostensibly fictional characters, Sánchez Mejías draws on personal experience, referring to the psychology of the press and audiences as being tyrannical. It is indicative of his psychological make-up and celebrity profile that he was hired to write newspaper columns — in which he sometimes even wrote reviews of his own corridas.
During this imperial phase, Sánchez Mejías accepted acting roles and participated in celebrity car races and polo matches. Having long spent time with the young poets in Seville who circulated around the magazine Mediodía, he became increasingly attracted to literary circles. Through José María de Cossío, a writer who would later publish a remarkable multi-volume encyclopedia of bullfighting, Sánchez Mejías entered into regular contact with the country’s intellectual elite. During this period, 1927 marked the fourth centenary of poet Luis de Góngora’s death. The baroque genius is now considered by many to be the greatest poet in the Spanish language, but was largely disregarded by establishment intellectuals at the time. A new generation of artists and thinkers — including Sánchez Mejías— nevertheless identified a formal artistry behind his convoluted word-play and sometimes obtuse diction, which offered an antidote to sentimentality to which depictions of Andalusia, even by native poets, were susceptible. Sánchez Mejías funded commemorative acts for the poet in Seville whose attendees constituted a who’s who of fresh Spanish poetic talent. The resonance of the homage to Góngora resulted in poets including Rafael Alberti, Dámaso Alonso, Gerardo Diego, and Federico García Lorca being brought under the collective nomenclature of the ‘generation of ‘27’ for the first time.
If Sánchez Mejías’ 1923 retirement was nothing more than a brief parenthesis, his decision to stop bullfighting in 1927 appeared to be permanent — he had found a substitute passion in literature. He may not have been the first bullfighter to write plays, but he was the first not to trade primarily on bullfighting experiences. His first, and most important play, Sinrazón [Without Reason] was inspired by his experiences of visiting an asylum near his home in Seville due to his friendship with its director. A case can be made for Sinrazón being the first Spanish play to take on board psychoanalysis. Freud was rapidly translated into Castilian on the insistence of José Ortega y Gasset, a philosopher and editor who first suggested the need for Cossío to write a bullfighting encyclopedia given its centrality to understanding Spanish culture and society. Sinrazón premiered in Madrid in 1928, before touring Spain and subsequently being staged in Buenos Aires and Havana.
In his personal and professional life, Sánchez Mejías was constantly on the move. Business ventures included the development of a sports complex which had been used for aeronautical displays into Seville’s first airport. He also became increasingly interested in football. In June 1928, two months prior to the premiere of his second, this time bullfighting-themed, play, Zaya, he was appointed president of Real Betis Balmompié, the top football club in Seville and Andalusia. Adopting similar tactics to those applied throughout his bullfighting career, he spent the summer trying to tempt leading players away from rival teams such as Real Madrid. He was part of the conversations that led to the creation of the Champions League, and the training regimes instigated during his time at the helm, involving such novel exercises as rowing and swimming, were instrumental to Betis entering the national Premiere Division in 1932 and winning the League in 1935. Ignacio continued to enjoy a traditional family life with his wife and children in Seville, but his infidelities were legendary. His most significant extra-marital affair was with the singer and dancer Encarnación López Júlvez, aka La Argentinita
They lived as a couple during his extended residencies in Madrid and in 1930 travelled to New York to have an opportunity to spend time alone and enjoy their love freely. La Argentinita was prone to bouts of depression. Understanding work to be the most effective antidote to melancholy, Sánchez Mejías encouraged her return to the stage and they began collaborating on a musical play. He accepted an invitation from Lorca, who had been in New York since 1929, to lecture on bullfighting at Columbia University in exchange for the great Andalusian poet writing some musical numbers for the play, Las calles de Cádiz [Cadiz Streets].
Like rock stars, bullfighters rarely age well: they become parodies of their former selves or struggle to adjust to everyday life. Following years of depression, for example, Juan Belmonte committed suicide in 1962. Sánchez Mejías appeared to be doing better than most, but the temptation to return to the ring in his forties, and carrying excess weight, was not a rational compulsion. A combination of bravery and technique sometimes allowed him to disguise his physical limitations. A triumphant appearance in Santander, witnessed by Bergamín as well as members of the generation of ‘27’ watching him for the first time, prompted Cossío to shout ‘That’s how Joselito fought.’. Sánchez Mejías, like his brother-in-law, faced his last bull in a provincial town, accepting a last-minute substitution to appear in Manzanares. After being gored by his second bull, the severely injured matador did not trust the local doctor and insisted on being taken to Madrid. He died there two days later after contracting gangrene.
Dolores Gómez Ortega, whose brother’s suit of lights was paraded around village fairs, made sure to have her husband’s suit returned. He would be remembered more eloquently, imbued with a mythical status through Lorca’s Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. Arguably the finest elegiac poem ever to have been composed in Castilian inspired a multitude of other works of art, such as Francis Bacon’s bullfighting paintings from the 1980s. In Manzanares, the memory of the matador lives on through the Ignacio Sánchez Mejías Club, established in the 1960s. Having long maintained a carefully curated room in his honour within the bullring, their lobbying led the local council to open a more formal exhibition space next door to the Manchego Cheese Museum in 2018. The Ignacio Sánchez Mejías Museum provides an institutional home for the correspondence long kept in boxes by different family members
Highlights include a letter from 1929 sent by a leading public intellectual of the time, Miguel de Unamuno, offering support after Sánchez Mejías was censored for challenging the pro-Germanic trend of the time by railing against suggestions that bullfighting ought perhaps to be banned to avoid offending tourists from the more civilised European country. Sánchez Mejías wondered whether, when Black men were still being lynched in the United States, corridas genuinely figured amongst the world’s ills or if towing an anti-bullfighting line was necessarily proof of a more civilised society. Irrespective of the extent to which we embrace his line of reasoning, debates of this kind intimate that those with no interest in or sympathy for Spain’s ‘national fiesta‘ might still want to learn more about the man behind the myth.