On The Border, A Family Of Matadors Tends The Bloodless Bullfighting Tradition

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.

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