26 October 2010

La Corrida de Toros

Two days ago, I had the privilege of attending my first bullfight, known in Spain as a corrida de toros. I say privilege in italics because I am still not sure how to view my experience, and at this point I prefer to give it the benefit of the doubt. Bullfights are something that happen all over Spain, except in the Canary Islands, which banned bullfighting in 1991 (note that Catalonia, the northeastern region of Spain adjacent to France, has voted to ban bullfighting, as well, but the ban does not take effect until January of 2012).

In the next several paragraphs, I am going to describe to you the history and the process of the bullfighting tradition in Spain. If you would rather just read about my experience, skip past this italicized section. If you wish to know what exactly happens at a bullfight, continue here...

The tradition of bullfighting dates back as early as the 8th century and has been heralded in the works of several authors including Ernest Hemingway and Federico García Lorca. For many people in Spain, the tradition is alive and well, and if you attend a fight, you will hear and see the enthusiasm of the crowd as the bullfighters dance with the bulls. For others, the spectacle is a bit outdated, barbaric, even grotesque. Some traditionalists even fear that modern activists will eventually vote to have the events banned across Spain, the votes in the Canaries and Catalonia only a preview of what is to come. But, for now, the tradition continues.

The first recorded bullfight in Spanish history took place in 711 A.D. as part of a celebration to mark the crowning of King Alfonso VIII. Although altered in its process over the years, the general concept has remained the same, with man showing his dominance over beast, marking his ultimate domination by slaughtering the animal. Originally, the bullfights were executed by men on horseback, and only the rich and privileged were able to participate. Fearing that such a barbaric practice would prove to be a bad example to the public, King Felipe V banned the aristocracy from participating in bullfighting during his reign as king. As a result, everyday common people adopted the sport, and because horses were not readily affordable to this demographic, they began doing the bullfights on foot in the early 18th century. Since then, bullfights have followed the same general pattern, and while style and flare make every fight a bit different, there are very specific aspects of the fight that are always followed.

The parade of participants before the bullfight begins.
Before the fight begins, the matadors (bullfighters) and their assistants parade out into the ring, waving to the crowd and paying their homage to the president of the activity who presides over the fights. Along with the matadors, picadores (men on horse back carrying spears), and the ring cleaning crew make a ceremonial lap around the ring. All of these men are accompanied by 3 mules, which are decoratively dress and harnessed together. (These mules will serve as the hearse for the bull once it is killed.)

After the ceremonial parade, the matadors and their assistants take their place inside the ring while the others exit. Once the ring is clear, a trumpet sounds and the bull enters the ring...

(The following takes place 6 different times during the entire event. 3 matadors take alternating turns fighting and subsequently killing 2 bulls each.)

The chief assistant of the matador begins waving a yellow and magenta cape in order to attract the bull. While he does this, several other assistants hide behind boards on the edge of the ring. Seemingly at random, these other assistants leave their proverbial foxholes and yell at the bull waving similar capes as the one held by the chief assistant. For several minutes, the assistants take turns waving their capes around and yelling at the bull, which over time serves to not only confuse the bull but also to piss it off royally. During this time, the matador is reading the bull, seeing how he reacts to the cuadrilla (entourage of assistants), what his temperament is, what his style is. At the end of this first stage of the fight, the matador comes out from his hiding spot from which he has been observing and performs a few tandas (passes with the cape).

A picador stabbing the bull with his spear.
After the matador performs his initial tandas, a trumpet sounds and the second part of the first third of the bullfight begins. At the sound of the trumpet, a gate opens and two picadores emerge. These men are armored with protective gear from head to toe and they are each atop a horse that is also protected by a large, supposedly impenetrable decorative cloth. (In previous times, the horses were not protected and were often disemboweled and killed during this stage of the process.) The cuadrilla now direct the attention to the picadores who are sitting horseback with spear ready. Eventually, the bull attacks the horse, attempting to gore it with its horns. While the bull futilely tries to kill the horse, the picador atop the horse jams his spear into the shoulder blade region of the bull's back. Once the spear is removed, blood spurts up a few inches high from the animal, splashing on the ground and creating a steady stream that runs down the side of the injured bull. Once more, the bull's attention is directed towards one of the picadores, and upon the bull's second attack of the horse, another spear is stabbed into the other side of its shoulder blade region. After two picador attacks have been successfully executed, a trumpet sounds, the picadores leave the ring, and the second stage of the bullfight begins.

During the second stage, three banderilleros (flagmen) each attempt to insert 2 banderillas (barbed flags with decorative shafts) into the back of the bull, following the same general technique of standing in a sort of praying mantis position then running at the bull, jumping and stabbing it with the banderillas. With the 6 barbed flags sticking out of its back, the bull is now very angry, tired, and bleeding heavily. After the banderillas are successfully inserted into the bull, the second stage of the bullfight is complete.

The third stage is known as the faena and is considered to be the most beautiful and artful part of the whole tradition. During this time, the matador must prove his dominance over the animal, but he must do so very gracefully and with precise technique and flare. First, the matador switches his yellow and magenta cape for his muleta (the traditional red cape). Then, with sword in hand (always in the right hand), the matador begins his dance with the bull. The matador executes several tandas with the bull, which serve two purposes. The first is to show the matador's dominance over the beast, getting as close as possible to the bull, often brushing up against his body and covering himself in the animal's blood. The second is to tire the bull some more, readying him for the kill. During the progression of tandas, the matador often stops, yells ¡vamos! (let's go), and looks to the crowd for approval. Finally, the matador goes to the side of the ring, switches swords, and prepares to kill the bull.

A bull, just killed, is dragged out of the arena by mules.
Standing 10-12 feet from the bull, the matador holds up the sword, seeming to line up his aim for the estocada (the stabbing of the bull with the final sword). In one swift move, the matador runs at the bull and slices through the back of the bull at a vertical angle, almost perpendicular to the ground. The goal here is to stab the bull through the heart and/or aorta, making the killing more humane. After the bull has been successfully mortally wounded, it stumbles around, attempting to still put up a fight. The assistants run out from behind their hiding walls and wave their capes at the bull simultaneously, confusing the bull to the point at which it lays down and surrenders to its inevitably impending death. Once the bull has laid down, an assistant walks up and places a dagger in the base of the skull, severing the spinal chord and ultimately killing the bull. Finally, the band of 3 mules comes out and an assistant attaches the bull to the mules which then drag it to the depths of the stadium, away from the view of the crowd. A cleaning crew runs out into the ring, scoops up the bloody dirt, and then runs back out of the ring.

My experience at the bullfight was a bit intense, and it definitely bothered me more than I expected. Parts of the process truly are beautiful. The costumes are extravagant, the technique is almost romantic, and the ancient tradition surrounding the whole thing is difficult not to respect. On the one hand, I understand the tradition and the want to keep things from the past, and as I have stated in previous posts, one of the things that intrigues me most about Spain is its ability to allow the old to coincide with the new, not always mandating that newfangled advancements take over what was already in place. But, there is something about watching grown men confuse, torture, and then kill a basically helpless animal that will make you think twice about tradition. While the bull does weigh anywhere from a few hundred up to 2000 pounds and it has immensely sharp horns that if used would kill a man with very little effort, the technique of the toreros (general term for bullfighters without distinguishing between matador or assistant) is so precise that the bull doesn't really stand a chance. The nimble men are able to stay out of the bull's way for the most part, confusing him with the tandas and exhausting him from the chase.

When the first picador stabbed the first bull and removed his spear, I immediately realized that I was not going to like what was about to transpire. The initial spurt of blood jumped several inches from the bull's back, leaping out like a fountain, splashing the horse and the ground. I winced, and a girl two rows back began to cry. Not phased by the wound, the bull continued to attack the horse and the caudrilla, but I was not sure that I wanted to see more. The insertion of the bandilleras, while undoubtedly painful for the bull, was somehow less disturbing than the picador to the spectating eye. The final encounter between bull and matador, however, was the part that has stayed with me the most. When the entirety of the sword was slid into the back of the bull, leaving only the handle showing atop the shoulder blades, I could barely watch. As the bull stumbled around, fighting for breath and challenging the men to one last stand off, there was a mixed reaction from the crowd. Some were cheering on the toreros, chanting for them to finish the bull and complete the faena. Others, like myself, were cringing and wincing, hoping that somehow the bull would escape or at least take one of the toreros down with him. The insertion of the final dagger into the base of the skull was nauseating as all 1000+ pounds of the bull twitched and stiffened, jerking around and gyrating as the body reacted to the trauma of a 6 inch blade slicing through the spinal chord and the brainstem. In a matter of seconds, the bull was dead and the fight was over, but the images remained. After the first, I contemplating leaving, believing that I had probably seen enough to have a decent understanding of the process and not quite sure that I wanted to see the gruesomeness 5 more times. For some reason, I stayed. Maybe it was because I paid albeit not very much, or maybe it was because I was strangely intrigued. I am not sure if I will ever or even if I can ever decide which it was that kept me in my seat, as either leaves me with a bit of explaining to do and deciding upon one would force me to contemplate the possible morbidity of my inner self.

For now, all I know is that I went. I saw a bullfight. I witnessed the tradition, the beauty, and the horror, but I do not in any way think that I am scarred or tangibly traumatized by my experience. The majority of the night definitely was grotesque and unpleasant, but while it teetered ever so carefully on the line of inexplicably intriguing and conscientiously unbearable, it was not so bad as to be completely intolerable, and while perhaps some will take offense to that statement, as is their right, I would like to emphatically restate that I did not in any way find what I saw to be pleasant. Explaining my reaction is difficult, as there were several ideas and emotions racing through my mind as I watched the ceremonial murder of an animal in front of an encouraging crowd. My appreciation for the art and my humanitarian heart battled each other throughout the entire event, neither coming to any sort of appreciable conclusion.

I definitely do not regret my decision to attend the bullfight. There are several things that are Spanish by their very nature, and bullfighting is at or near the top of that list. Living in Spain, I knew that I would attend a fight, and until I went, I was unaware of how it would affect me. Well, now I know. I know that there are things about it that can be appreciated. I know that there are things about it that are disturbing. I know that I am not a fan of watching a bull be killed and that I will leave that viewing experience for other tourists and loyal Spaniards. I have been to a bullfight and seen the outcome, and as disturbing as it may have been, I feel as though I can confidently place "attending a bullfight" on my increasingly long list of things in life that I have done and would never take back but that I would never do again.

Click here to see the rest of the pictures and video from the bullfight.


  1. That was scary to read. Momma told me I don't want to watch the videos, so I haven't brought myself to do it yet. Glad you went, and glad you're not barbaric like the others.

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