One of the unique and dubious experiences of Spain, for all of its cruel glory, is the Bullfight. Most of us are familiar with the tradition, at least in so far as it’s pageant of death. (For those of you who don’t know, the bull is killed in the end of each match with the bullfighters, not to ruin the surprise) The question is, “Do I pay for the ticket to see this spectacle of brutality?”
In Sevilla, on a warm yet hazy day we did. We bought our tickets from scalpers outside the arena; they were cheaper than the box office and are even recommended by the ticket salesmen at the arena.
The arena itself is beautiful, a legacy of community much older than any of our sports arenas of America. Brick and stone outweigh steel and plastic and the Sevillanos (each carrying their own seat cushion) enter through wide wooden doors. This is a community event, families and friends gather in the glow of the setting sun to watch this event that feels something like a return to the days of gladiators.
There are six bullfights, two for each matador. In truth, the bull faces not only the single matadors, but also their “entourage”. This is a group event.
The door opens, the crowd waits in a hush and then the bull explodes upon the arena in a mad rush of rage, eliciting a cheer.
After a little taunting of the bull, two “armored” horses and riders enter with long lances to give the bull a few good stabs on the crown of the back. This is in part to weaken the back and neck muscles.
Infuriated, the bull tries to gore the horse and rider but to no avail against the armor (a sort of modern kevlar blanket on a horse whose eyes are covered to keep it calm). This armor is relatively new, before this century, the number of horses killed outnumbered the bulls.
Now the banderillos have a dangerous task ahead of them. Without the safety of their pink capote (cape), they must stab two barbed sticks called banderillas as close as possible to the same spot the bull had already been injured in, in order to further weaken the neck muscles and lower the bull’s head. With its head lower, the matador will be safer in his coming dance with the beast. However, it is currently dangerous for the banderillos as they have to rush the bull head-on, plant the barbs and avoid the very dangerous horns of an understandably upset bull.
Both of these stages weaken the bull and allow the matador to “learn” about the animal. In very real danger from this massive beast, the matador must try to understand how it will react because he must now face it alone.
The matador must be the ultimate crowd pleaser, dancing close to death showing grace and control of the animal. In the finale, the coup-de-grace, the matador must stab the bull through the hunch of the back into the heart.
From a land of safety, we had never been to such a spectacle. Families and friends gather to cheer on this bloody event. We are, as they are, awed by the danger and the gore. The Spanish cheer as the entourage tire the animal, yet turn on the matador who cannot accomplish a clean kill. We have seen freshly killed animals in many South America markets; the visceral nature of this feels strangely like we are experiencing the moments before the market. What is more humane, giving the animal a quick death by assembly line or the bull’s chance to gore a few of its captors before a death in the open air? Maybe the latter, since some bulls at a bullfight are set free if the crowd thinks that they have fought exceptionally well.
Interestingly, some of the restaurants around the arena bid for the bull meat. We can eat the competitor in a fine stew the day after the fight.
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