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Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney - October, 2005

Traveling Texas with Nancy Deviney              October 2005

When our twin sons were young, the Banker spent untold hours in our backyard playing baseball and football, teaching them the basic skills to excel in each sport.  They both lettered in football during high school, and our son, Jason, played on the award-winning 1990 AAA Freer High School State Championship Baseball Team.  And you can bet their daddy was very proud of both of them.

I recently met another proud daddy whose son overcame severe physical disabilities to become the seventh and youngest American –born matador in history.  This son didn’t exactly pick up his skills in their backyard, but he was a champion and fought in bullrings all over the world and now teaches others this time-honored sport.

Santa Maria School of Bullfighting…

My friend, Bill Hellen, gave me a book about South Texas called The Llanos Mestenos a few months ago, and in it I found information about a bullfighting school located way down in southwest Texas, not too far from the Mexican border.  Boy, was I curious!  I contacted a couple of people I know down that way, and it wasn’t too long before I was headed for a new adventure.

The Santa Maria School of Bullfighting is owned and operated by Fred Renk and his son, David Renk.  The school is located at Fred’s La Querencia Ranch in La Gloria, Texas, approximately 30 miles northeast of Rio Grande City and 60 miles northwest of McAllen. Both father and son serve as instructors at the school.

The school opened in 2002 and has several classes each year with one to three persons per class.  The Santa Maria School of Bullfighting is one of only two such schools in the United States.  Students have come from San Francisco and New Jersey and places in between.  Tuition for the five-day course is $1,150.

In addition to teaching the art of bullfighting, the Santa Maria Bullring is also home to an annual season of bloodless bullfights, open to the public. 

Tyrone Power and Chubby Checker…

In 1952, 17-year old Fred Renk was a student at a seminary in New Mexico with a questionable calling for the priesthood.  During the summer of that year, he and some of his classmates were sent to Chihuahua City, Mexico, to learn Spanish.  One day he found his way to the local bullring and sat through his first bullfight.  The pomp and circumstance of the meeting between the brave bulls and the matadors fascinated the impressionable young Fred and soon set his life on a new course.

Fred left the seminary and returned to his mother’s home in Raton, New Mexico.  He worked odd jobs to support the two of them but just couldn’t forget those matadors in Mexico and watched bullfighting movies, starring such movie greats as Tyrone Power and Gilbert Roland, as often as he could.

Reality finally caught up with Fred, and he and a group of friends enlisted in the Marines in time to get shipped overseas for the Korean Conflict.  Time flew by… the conflict ended; Fred left the Marines, got married and settled down in sunny California working for the Singer Sewing Machine Company. His career as a salesman began in Santa Ana, California, and the Singer Company soon rewarded his management and sales efforts with promotions and a trip to Mexico City. 

He once again found himself seated in a bullring. This time it was La Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bullring.  His wife was with him and seated down the row was one of Rock n Roll’s hottest musicians of that day and age…Chubby Checker.   On this particular Sunday in 1959, Fred’s life was again about to change.

 Flamenco Guitars and Suits of Lights…

La Querencia Ranch is located on Farm to Market Road 1017 about halfway between La Gloria and San Isidro in Starr County.  As I drove through the ranch gates that hot, sunny August morning, I saw the Santa Maria Bullring off to the right and a herd of cows to my left.  I was about a half hour early for my appointment, and the ranch looked deserted except for the grazing cows.  As I parked and walked around to the back of the ranch house, I noticed a handsome, young man with a red bullfighter’s cape and a sword concentrating on a bale of hay in front of him.  So intent was his concentration that he didn’t notice me until I quietly called “hello”. 

He quickly composed himself and went inside to get his instructor, Fred Renk.  Fred invited me into his home and told me I had just met his current student, Jorge Luis Valcarcel…photographer, high school chemistry teacher, flamenco guitar player and bullfighting student from Verona, New Jersey.

Fred and I settled ourselves around a table in a room that can be best described as a trophy room, game room and bar complete with mounted bull heads, a pool table, scores of bullfighting posters and a couple of matador costumes that I learned are called a “suit of lights”.  It was here that I heard Fred’s story and watched as he demonstrated for me the intricate moves of a matador.

An Aspiring Matador…

For several years Fred played the part of the bullfighting groupie, traveling all over northern Mexico to the bullrings in Tijuana, Nuevo Laredo, Juarez, Monterrey and Ciudad Acuna.  At the hotel bars in Mexico, he rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars Gilbert Roland, Anthony Quinn and Ricardo Montalban.  One day in Nuevo Laredo, Fred threw caution to the wind and decided to begin a new career as a novillero (an aspiring matador).

Somewhere along the way, he and his wife parted company. Fred bought his own suit of lights, swords, capes and other bullfighting paraphernalia and made his professional debut in 1961 in Ciudad Acuna.   And then one day in Las Cruces, New Mexico, he finally met a woman who shared his passion for bull fights and adventure.

Fred’s pretty, blonde, new wife, Barbara, brought with her to their 1965 marriage a young son named David. He was born with two crooked feet, a condition known as clubfoot. Although he found it almost impossible to stand straight or walk, he was a regular, along with Fred and Barbara, at the bull rings in Mexico each Sunday.  While other little boys were playing cowboys and Indians in their backyards, David was mimicking the moves of the matadors.

Meanwhile Back at the Ranch…

Before Fred took me outside to tour his ranch, he stood in the center of the room and demonstrated, with cape and sword, the beautiful, almost sensual, dance-like movements of a matador in the bullring.  He went through the three acts, or stages, of a bullfight, explaining his every move. I could almost hear the roar of the crowd and see the charging bull.  You can bet I’ll be at the Santa Maria Bullring next spring to see this real-life action…

Once outside, we toured the 1200-seat bullring, including the chapel.  The United States prohibits the killing of a bull during a bullfight.  The alternative, practiced in the Santa Maria Bullring, is called bloodless bullfighting.  Six fights, featuring at least two matadors each, are on the 2006 Winter Schedule beginning on January 15 and running through March 5.  These Sunday events last a half-day or more and always begin with a complete explanation of what is to come, very similar to the demonstration Fred performed for me.

There is plenty of music, food and cold beer on hand throughout the afternoon, with a choice of sitting on the sunny side or on the shady side of the ring.  Reserved box seats are sold up to a year in advance.  Sunny seats sell for $15 each, shady seats for $20 each and box seats for $25 each.  The fighting surface of the ring is 90 feet in diameter.

The Brave Bulls…

Brave bulls used in bullfights originated in Spain, and La Querencia Ranch is in the business of breeding this select bloodline. Fred says it is an art and science to create an animal that can grow to have the great nobility and stability necessary to be a brave bull. The cows I saw as I drove up to the ranch were actually the breeding cows of this operation.  In a back pasture, I saw the young bulls being groomed for the ring.

Following a time-honored tradition, bulls used in a bullfight, even a bloodless bullfight, are fought only once.  Once fought, the best bulls are put out to pasture for breeding purposes.  Others are sold for use on the professional rodeo circuit.

Are you wondering how a bloodless bullfight ends?  In the Mexican bullrings, the matador sinks a sword between the bull’s shoulder blades.  The brave bulls of the Santa Maria Bullring come out with a silk rose high on their shoulder blades, secured with Velcro tape.  The object is to pluck that rose off the bull’s back without harm to bull or matador.

From a Wheelchair to the Bullring…

Throughout the late 1960s, young David continued to perfect the art of bullfighting, keeping company with some of the world’s greatest matadors while his adopted dad, Fred, worked the bullrings.  Barbara made a sword and cape for David and the matadors taught him to stand erect and move the cape, without moving his still-deformed feet.

For years he wore corrective shoes and slept in braces, all the while still playing at being a matador.  In 1972, when David was nine years old, an orthopedic surgeon was finally found to do the necessary remedial surgery.  The successful surgery resulted in months of being in a full body cast, then leg casts, then a wheelchair. 

In 1978 David was given his first opportunity to fight a young bull at a private party on a ranch in Reynosa, Mexico.  The seed had been planted; he was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Artists, Dancers and Marines…

The mission of the Santa Maria School of Bullfighting is to provide sound instruction and training in the art of bullfighting to students of all ages in a comfortable and safe environment.  The five-day tuition includes transportation from the nearest airport, lodging and all meals, an orientation package including a tee shirt and bullfighting glossary, use of all necessary equipment, training photos and videos, instruction from current and retired matadors and bulls, of course.

A lovely young lady named Kate Leffler from San Francisco came to learn bullfighting and, before she left, painted bullfighting murals around the bullring.  A fellow from Wisconsin who owned an Arthur Murray-type dancing studio attended the school to perfect his dancing moves.  A Marine Major in California comes down regularly because he enjoys the sport.

Fred has also opened his bullring and ranch to area junior high school students from Roma, Rio Grande City and San Isidro to give them the opportunity to see a bullfight and be exposed to their culture and heritage.  These school-sponsored trips are available for a nominal fee.

A Doctorate of Bullfighting…

Under Fred’s tutelage, David rose through the ranks of the bullfighting world fighting in the bullrings of Mexico City, Tijuana, Acapulco, Reynosa and Seville, Spain. The Mexican press called him “El Texano”, and his name began appearing regularly in the bullfighting news sections.

In April 1981, even before graduating from high school, David mastered the one goal his adopted dad longed for and never achieved…. he earned his “alternativa”in the Plaza Monumental in Juarez.  At long last he was officially recognized as a full-fledged matador, the youngest American-born in the history of the bullring.

David’s honors in the bullfighting ring didn’t stop there.  In October 1983 he “confirmed” his alternativa in a second ceremony held at La Plaza Mexico in Mexico City.  This is said to be the “doctorate of bullfighting”. Only one other American-born matador has ever reached this pinnacle in the bullfighting world. During his professional career, David fought over 400 brave bulls in 175 bullfights.  The three mounted bull heads in Fred’s game room are David’s kills from Mexico City, Tijuana and Reynosa.

He officially retired from bullfighting in 2000 but continues to perform at the Santa Maria Bullring each spring and is the lead instructor at the bullfighting school. Today David, a soft-spoken man, is 42 years old and lives down the road from La Querencia Ranch.  His daughter, Christina Renk, is the reigning Miss Starr County and his son, David John Renk, attends Texas A&M University-Kingsville.

For More Info…

I don’t think I’m interested in being a student at the bullfighting school, but I certainly look forward to a ride down that way with the Banker one day next spring to see David in action.  For more information about the school or the 2006 Winter Season Bullfighting Schedule, visit their web site at www.fredrenk.com.  You can also reach Fred by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it of by phone at (956) 481-3300. 

Don’t you think David’s story would make a great movie?
 
 


 

 

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