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Bloodless bullfighting in Thornton could end after neighbor complaints

Bloodless bullfighting attracts thousands of spectators each October to the tiny town of Thornton, in San Joaquin County, as part of a yearly celebration hosted by the town’s Our Lady of Fatima Society.

The celebration marks the time in 1917 when three children in Fatima, Portugal, said the Virgin Mary had appeared to them in the spring and predicted a miracle that fall. In October 1917, numerous people in Fatima claimed to have seen the sun dancing around the sky.

“Bloodless bullfighting is a symbolic Portuguese tradition that comes with a huge celebration,” said Marilia Wiget, director of the Sacramento Portuguese Historical and Cultural Society. “People start celebrating the miracle of Our Lady of Fatima in May, and Thornton’s October festival marks the end of the season.”

The festival is now being criticized by some neighbors, who say they’re tired of the noise and trash generated by thousands of people descending on the normally quiet community of 1,100, which sits beside Interstate 5 about 25 miles south of Sacramento.

San Joaquin County planning commissioners are scheduled to consider revoking the society’s permit to hold special events at their hearing on Thursday.

“We have determined that they are violating their approved permit,” by holding too many events each year, said Senior Planner Mo Hatef. Commissioners could also find that the events are a public nuisance, a staff report says.

County staff members have recommended that commissioners revoke the society’s permit to hold eight events per year at its property in central Thornton. The Our Lady of Fatima complex includes a church, a 12,000-foot dining hall and a bullfighting arena that seats hundreds.

The October celebration features religious services, a parade and bullfights that last into the night. The bulls wear Velcro patches on their backs; the matadors stick them with Velcro-tipped spears. The bloodless bullfights attract a wide audience.

“The annual festival is not just a Portuguese event anymore,” said Rich Edwards chairman of Thornton’s Our Lady of Fatima Society. “This is part of our heritage and culture, and people absolutely love it.”

Not everyone is a fan.

Two Thornton residents, Ken Lee and Omar Shakir, complained at the planning commission’s meeting in January that the events are a problem for neighbors, especially elderly ones.

“This is elder abuse,” said Shakir, who lives across the street from the bullfighting arena. “Most of the citizens in the community are elderly, but the society members just don’t give a damn about it.”

Shakir, 63, said his mother-in-law, who has dementia, had to move away because the noise and commotion worsened her symptoms.

Lee, 63, said litter is another problem.

“Everybody gets drunk, and they start throwing trash around everywhere,” he said. “We are just asking them to be responsible and respectful.”

Other neighbors said the society and its events are important to the community.

“We are proud of our Portuguese tradition,” said Maria Tristao, 68, who has lived in Thornton for 13 years. “The society made us feel like this place is a second home away from home.”

Leo Vasconcelos, president of the annual festival, sent out fliers in May asking residents to show the community’s support at Thursday’s hearing.

“The only way we can fight this action is by making our voices heard, and we need a large group of supporters at the hearing,” the flier read.

The society’s lawyer, Michael Hakeem, is preparing a mitigation plan to bring before the five members of the county planning commission.

“We read the letters from the complainers and we understand the neighbor’s concerns,” the attorney said. He declined to describe details of the plan.

Walter Ko: 916-321-1436, @juntaeko

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