I went to a bull fight last night. Honestly, as an individual and a traveller, I have been a terrible researcher and historian. Before attending the fight I did not look up any of the history, procedures, watch any films, or try to anthropologically place the event in a realm where I could understand. Instead, I simply bought a ticket from a friend and showed up. I should probably work on that.
First things first, the Plaza de Torros is beautiful. It’s a large structure with red beautiful brick, carved statues, and contrasting white and yellow hues on the inside. The seating is simple, concrete or stone shaped into an arena that looks down upon the ring. Although large, there isn’t a bad seat in the house—from every angle of the large circle, the “fight” can be seen in gory detail.
There is a little pomp and circumstance before the match where the Matadors are presented and welcomed by live music and an adoring crowd. Although it is widely held that bull fights are a tourist attraction, at this particular fight, I dare say the majority of the crowd were Spaniards and tourists (including my group of 8) held a smaller portion as evidenced by the chanting, ooohing, and ahhhhing of familiar fight goers. After the toreros are presented, the “fights” begin. Spoiler alert: the bull always loses.
To clear up a little confusion, a bull fight is between a torero (what we know as a matador) and a bull (so between a bull and an ornately dressed man–this clarification is specifically for my mother and maybe anyone else who thought the fight was between two Bulls). The fights are staged in three parts. First, the bull is allowed into the arena where there are six toreros that taunt it with pink capes and then hide behind big wooden walls so the bull cannot actually hurt them (read here: adult v. Bull hide and seek). After this goes on for a while and as we watch the bull get more aggressive, two horses are then brought out wrapped in steal padding. Upon the horses are riders (picadors) hoisting spears. The bull (without fail) charges the horse and is aggressively speared in the back or spine region two separate times (I’m sorry about this graphicness, I’ll try to be quick). The horses are protected with steal padding and are also blindfolded during this part so they are not scared. After the spearing, the horses leave the ring and it is once again 6 toreros vs. one bull. In the next stage the bull is then adorned with barbed flags called banderillas. When the bull charges it is stabbed in the back with two banderillas by three different banderilleros, so six barbed flags in all. At this point the bull starts to bleed from its wounds and breathe heavily and becomes a bit more aggressive. Then, the real showmanship begins. The matador (the master or head torero that will actually perform) enters adorned in a brilliantly colored sequined suit with a hand for flair a red cape in tow.
One thing that I was amazed by was how intently focused the bulls are on the pink and red cloaks. Although already stabbed 8 times by people before the fight begins, at no point does the bull ever really try to charge at the person, it is most specifically aggressive towards the color itself.
The matador is by all means an entertainer. With his red cape (for lack of a better descriptor) he begins the dance between man and bull, getting so close the blood of the bull glides onto his suit of lights as we watch the bull fruitlessly lunge at the cape again and again to no avail.
Now, let’s pause here for my personal commentary. The first fight freaked me out. The first time the bull was stabbed by the man on the horse I immediately couldn’t watch. I turned my head and made my friend tell me when it was over. I also began commenting on behalf of the bull, “poor bull, he has no way out.” “Poor bull is being jumped by 6 men in capes!” “Stupid bull, don’t go for the cape, get the person, toss his ass! It’s not the cape that keeps stabbing you!” Without regard for the elegantly dressed human, I was decidedly “team bull.” I actually audibly cheered once when the bull went for the cape and then ended up bucking the person. (Not because I like animals better than people–but maybe I do—but mostly because this fight is very clearly unfair).
To finish the match, once the bull is adequately tired and probably saying to itself, “man f this cape and this dude” the matador makes a show of stabbing the bull with his sword in the spine. The other 6 toreros then return using their capes once more to make the bull dizzy. When the bull finally collapses from dizziness and exhaustion, it is quickly and with one very fast stab killed and put out of its misery. A team of horses decorated in bells then drags the dead bull out of the arena. Each matador fights two bulls. There are 3 toreros. 6 Bulls are killed in the exact same scenario.
Again, the personal commentary. The very first fight is difficult to stomach. As a person who goes weak in the knees for animals, watching them stabbed and taunted is not fun. The second fight I made a conscious decision to suspend judgement and watch the fight for what it was. I listened to the Spaniards cheer and root for the matador, I watched the fight as sport and athleticism and training, I tried to enjoy the show like Americans enjoy football and baseball. The sixth bull I allowed myself to authentically feel and empathize.
In the moments where the bull charges and gets very close to the matador, the bull “fight” is thrilling. My heart stops when the torero is hit or nearly hit by the bull, I watch with the fascination of Serena’s last point in Wimbledon as the bull is about to be stabbed once more–quiet and attentive–waiting for the final point. I see the torero get back up after being struck and the fans cheer like you root for an underdog in a pee-wee basketball game. At other moments I am really sad; I think of the bull being taunted as a means of entertainment–outnumbered, trapped, injured preceding its imminent death, the unfair fight that it will not and cannot win. I think of my years studying anthropology and I try to use a different lens of understanding as the Spaniards around me cheer. It is that–it is a sport and I understand the fascination. However, I am very much tied to my animal lover and sensitive lens that cannot bear to repeatedly watch the bull be taunted or cheer when the bull eventually dies. So, I came home and I had to read the history. “Bullfighting on foot became a means for poor, able-bodied men to achieve fame and fortune, similar to the role of boxing in the United States. When a famous torero was asked why he risked his life, one man reportedly answered Más cornadas da el hambre (“Hunger strikes more painfully”, lit. “Hunger gives more gores”). Today, it is now common for a bullfighter to be born into a family of bullfighters.” <–thanks Wikipedia. And then my brain goes wild–making loose correlations of bull fights to Roman gladiator competitions to the death, to the most dangerous game, and public punishment of hangings and public shame. We must be careful what we consider sport and entertainment. We must be careful of what we preserve as cultural and historical. I understand and acknowledge that the lives of Bulls are different than those of people and for those reasons and a few more I am not joining the picket lines protesting bull fights, however, when my next friend asks me to attend, I think I’ll pass.