By Jean Miller Spoljaric
[GoNOMAD Writer Jean Spoljaric just returned from Valencia, Spain. Her trip was magnificent, and she loved it all except for the time she spent in a corrida de toros watching a series of bullfights. Below is a reflection on this cruel yet very popular part of Spain’s culture.]
For the Spanish, bullfighting is a part of their culture, but it has been criticized by many people, including many Spaniards, who refer to it as a cruel, barbaric bloodsport in which the bull suffers severe stress and a slow torturous death.
Other people question how much worse the welfare of the bull’s life is compared to the life of beef cattle in commercial farming. So why do I feel the way that I do?
Cultural Aspects of Bullfighting
In his 1932 non-fiction book, Death in the Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway said of the Spanish spectacle: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
In Spain, when the bull charges, the crowd cheers “Ole!” And, if the bull’s performance was exceptional, the crowd will applaud as the dead bull is dragged once around the ring. And the matador is praised for his courage. Throughout Spain, matadors are seen as national heroes.
Spanish style bullfighting is called Corrida de Toros, the “Race of the Bulls.” In a traditional corrida, three matadors (killers) each fight two bulls. Each Matador has six assistants; two picadors (lancers) mounted on horseback, and four banderilleros (flagmen). Together, they collectively comprise an entourage. The modern corrida is highly ritualized, with three distinct stages of the kill, with each stage announced by the sound of a trumpet.
Phases of the Fight
First, the participants enter the ring accompanied by band music to salute the presiding dignitary. This is called a Paseillo. The matador is easily distinguished by the gold on his traje de luces (suit of lights).
Next, the bull enters the ring to be tested for ferocity. The matador confronts the bull with his cape, observing the behavior of the bull while performing a ‘tanda’ (a series of passes) to impress the crowd.
Then a picador enters the ring on horseback armed with his vera (lance). To protect the horse from the bull’s horns, the horse is surrounded by a peto (a protective mattress-like covering).
Prior to 1930, the horses had NO protection and the bull would usually disembowel the horse during this stage of the kill.
Until this change was instituted, the number of horses killed during a bullfight outnumbered the dead bulls. At this point, the picador stabs the bull behind the morillo (a mound of muscle on the back of the bulls neck), weakening the animal, and leading to the first loss of blood.
The manner in which the bull charges the horse provides important clues to the matador about which side the bull favors.
If the picador is successful, the bull will hold his head lower during the following stages of the fight. This makes the bull’s charges less dangerous and more predictable, enabling the matador to shine.
During the next stage, the matador re-enters the ring armed with his cape and sword.
It is a common misconception that the red cape is supposed to anger the bull, but bulls are in fact colorblind. The red cape was really supposed to disguise the color of the blood, but now it’s more of a tradition.
The matador uses his cape to attract the bull in a series of passes which serve the dual purpose of wearing the bull down and of producing the display of the dance.
‘The dance’ ends with a final series of passes in which the matador maneuvers the bull into position to stab it between the shoulder blades and through the aorta and heart.
If the matador has performed well, the crowd may wave white handkerchiefs to petition the award of the bull’s ear. If his performance is deemed exceptional, he will be awarded two ears and, in certain more rural rings, he may be rewarded the tail.
Very rarely, the president of the plaza is petitioned by the public or the matador to spare the bull’s life if either believes the bull has fought bravely.
When this event occurs, the bull is allowed to return to the ranch where he will become a stud to live out the rest of his life.
A New Generation
There’s a new generation of matadors in Spain and they are bringing more spectators to the ring than ever. Somewhat of a super star, known only by his first name, is ‘Cayetano.’
He’s the kid brother of Francisco Rivera Ordonez and the grandson of the late Antonio, the greatest matador of the last 50 years.
Antonio had notable people such as Ernest Hemingway, Orson Wells, Rita Hayworth, and Grace Kelly come out and pay homage to the maestro.
Cayetano is deemed a rookie at his game, yet he is the highest paid matador in the country.
Born in Madrid in 1977, he’s an accomplished Armani model who became the face of Vogue and was on the cover of Elle Magazine; today he’s a Spanish rock star!
His dark hair, green piercing eyes, and handsome features make him the darling of matadors as he ascends past his older bullfighter brother, Francisco. Together, they are the most eligible bachelors in all of Spain. As Cayetano blossoms, Francisco thinks about retirement. Each brother has about 60 fights per year, sometimes performing at the same corrida.
It’s all in the Blood
Both are competing against the ghost of their father, Paquirri, a legendary matador in his own time who was gored to death in Madrid in 1984.
Bull fighting is the family business and the family tragedy. Paquirri’s widow, the boy’s mother, tried everything to lure her sons from the ring after the death of her husband.
She enrolled both of them in a summer camp in Maine. The older Francisco was sent to a military academy in Indiana.
None of the diversions worked for Francisco and he returned to the ring. Cayetano, on the other hand, found short-lived happiness in Santa Monica, California where he worked on becoming a television producer.
By the young age of 27, he became disinterested in producing and yearned to be in the ring. Although considered too old to start training as a matador, he announced he would answer the call of the bulls and pay his debt to the deadly family game. His friends and family thought he was crazy; it can’t be the fate you want for your loved one.
He left California and returned to the family ranch where he immersed himself in training with the bulls, learning about the cape and the kill.
Cayetano has been severely injured several times, has a bum knee, and a chronic injury to his wrist. In 2009, in the small town of Palencia, Cayetano had drawn a very large, 1,300-pound bull.
In a routine maneuver, he tripped, fell backwards, and found himself under the massive bull. He suffered a serious injury to his liver, was hospitalized for four days in ICU, and took several months to fully recover. It may have been worse had it not been for his older brother, Francisco, who ran into the ring to fend off the weakened bull and protect his little brother.
Yet the injury has not deterred him. He still enters the bullring, adorned in his Armani suit made of glimmering lights as the crowd cheers. They rise to their feet waving their scarves and hats in the air, many hoping they might get the chance to lock eyes with their hero.
When in Spain, do as the Spanish do. During my recent visit to Spain I wanted to immerse myself in the culture. I agreed to attend a bullfight, something that I believed might be less of a fight and more of a ‘killing’.
The Corrida de Toros at the Plaza De Toros in Valencia may have been one of the worst days in my 43 years! As the music played and the sun faded,
I sat in my 32.00-euro seat, my heart beating faster, and I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing here inside the walls of the Corrida de Toros? It chaffs against everything I believe in.”
I reminded myself that I was the person that stops my car to remove road kill just so it doesn’t have to get hit again. That’s the kind of person I am.
As an animal lover, I couldn’t help but focus on the bulls. They really don’t have a chance, I thought. They can’t even hide behind the little wooden barriers like the sissy in the tight pants.
As Cayetano entered the ring, his tight pantsuit glittered like ripples of water in the fading sun.
Perhaps, I thought, I can try and enjoy the pageantry that the Spanish people enjoy. It was not to be. Pagentry or not, I decided to make my exit after Cayetano’s ‘kill’ and wait for my friend at the bar.
Before I exited to the bar, I watched with spontaneous inner glee as Cayetano was gored once again. He was tossed in the air like a rag doll. As he spiraled down towards the ground, the mad bull gave him a shot to his gluteus maximus!
I rose from my seat and threw my hands in the air and shouted “Toro!! Toro!!!”
Understandably, my cheering of the bull puzzled the crowd and, fortunately, they ignored me as a spectator who just didn’t understand. I understood perfectly! Seeing the blood of the matador was justice for me.
Out of sight at the bar, I ordered a cerveceria with a vodka and lemon-lime Fanta soda chaser. Out of sync with the crowd, I felt saddened and defeated. I reached for my Blackberry to FaceBook my thoughts, as I needed comforting comments from my rational friends back home.
If I could have figured out a way to help the bulls escape from their certain doom, I would have. I felt like a hypocrite on this day for taking part in such madness and for witnessing such horror.
Ban on Bullfighting?
On December 18, 2009, the parliament of the economically powerful northeast region of 7.4 million residents took a stand against bullfighting. Catalonia approved by majority vote a law that would ban bullfighting in Catalonia, as a response to a popular initiative against bullfighting that generated over 180,000 signatures.
The Canary Islands were the first Spanish region to ban bullfighting in 1991, however they still allow cockfighting. Catalonia’s regional capital Barcelona declared itself an “anti bullfighting” city in 2004. Now, instead of three rings, there is only one in operation.
According to a recent poll, 81 percent of those under 34 had no interest in bullfighting. Perhaps, we need to wait for the older generation to pass before we see a real change throughout the country regarding bullfighting.
Many parts of Spain take you back many centuries, but don’t be misled, as Spain is one of the most modern and progressive countries in all of Europe. Half of the government cabinet are women, including the defense minister, and even the mayor of Valencia is a woman.
There is gay marriage, quickie divorce, and legalized abortion. WIFI is abundant. How the archaic, horrendous, ancient, blood sport of bull fighting fits in, I’m not exactly sure. The best answer is probably history, tradition and culture.
For me, it’s not a sport at all and is simply nothing less than animal cruelty; barbaric, cruel and ignorant! Altogether, six bulls lost their lives that day. I refuse to share details of the actual death of these poor innocent animals, but I will tell you that it will stay with me forever. Fortunately, this is an experience that is overshadowed by everything else that is lovely in Valencia.
Jean Miller Spoljaric has a great time when she travels, and it really shows in her stories and her eye-popping photos. She brings her unique brand of enthusiasm to the art of travel writing. She lives in New York’s Dutchess County.