English: Creative Writing and Spanish Majors
Universidad de Burgos, Fall 2017
I initially had no desire to write about this, because it’s a controversial subject; but it exists, and it’s part of the culture, and I went.
Hemingway, for all his masculine straightforwardness, was himself perplexed at how to approach the subject. There’s no way to justify it. In his book, “Death in the Afternoon,” he acknowledged that even back in the 20’s and 30’s bullfighting was a polarizing topic of debate. What’s even more unusual is that he said that there was no way to know if a person would enjoy it or not. Friends that he thought would surely have no problem would become physically ill at the sight of the carnage and those that he would’ve recommended never see it were completely unphased.
As a literature student, I felt an obligation to see the bullfights for myself. I felt that it was important, not just for understanding the Spanish culture, but my own, as well. I’d never even watched bullfighting online prior to seeing it in person, so my impression was, as much as possible, unadulterated. When I was invited to attend one of the events with my host mother, I accepted. This is my account of what I saw and what I learned:
I arrived in Santander, Spain on July 1st, one week before the festival of San Fermín, known most famously for “The Running of the Bulls.” It’s a week-long festival and the entire country takes notice. I tried my best to make it to Pamplona for the events. In an attempt to extend olive branches and make friends, I even made an open invitation to the class that anyone who wished to join me was more than welcome. Who knows? Maybe someone else had read ‘The Sun Also Rises.’
Only one girl accepted, and I, having no real experience navigating the bus system in Spain, and not much more in making travel plans, managed to do nothing more than inconvenience her into meeting me at the bus station at 4 a.m. so I could inform her that all the tickets were sold out, and had been for some time. Fortunately, she was able to get ahold of her ride to pick her up again before they had gone back to bed. I, however, couldn’t bear the thought of calling my host father, explaining myself, and getting him out of bed again. To me, it was much less painful to just walk the half mile home with my bags.
Santander didn’t feel different at night, but what I remember was how humid it was even so early in the morning. I was sweating just from the walk up the steep winding road, which I was sure was doubling the length of my trip. I could smell the salt of the Cantabrian Sea as I walked with my shadow, cast by the orange-yellow glow of the streetlamps. I was all alone, save for a few cats and the voice of my host mother in my head from the night before repeating, “what madness, what madness.” I had no idea what I had tried to get myself into, but I couldn’t overcome my regret of missing my only opportunity to see the city I had read so much about between the lunch and dinner rushes back when I was a broke and hopeless dishwasher.
The big, medieval-looking key clicked loudly in the concussive marble hallway as I unlocked the door to my apartment. I tried to sneak quietly back to my room, but I saw the living room illuminate as my host father opened the door to his study, investigating the intrusion.
“Hola,” I said, and he asked me why I didn’t get on the bus. I explained my mistake and he smirked and laughed a little. It was a smirk I’d get used to seeing.
Santander felt like a city where everyone was on vacation and I loved to meander the alleyways and side streets on my way to class in the morning. A Turkish poet once wrote that if you want the best tour of a city, follow a cat. Luckily, my sleepy city had no shortage of guides, and they showed me murals and graffiti from the city’s best artists, ushered me to invisible bakeries and cafes, and kept me company as I walked under towels and laundry gently flapping on clotheslines from the windows of laundry rooms.
One of the cafes they introduced me to happened to have a tv that aired the running of the bulls live from Pamplona every morning at 8 o’clock. So, there I’d sit, with the few Spaniards on their way to work, for five days, watching in an absolute trance as these men dressed in white sprinted and scattered through the ancient streets narrowly dodging death.
The second day, I almost saw a man die. As a group of men were neared by a bull, one of them in the front tripped and the several that followed fell with him. The bull ran past them and one man, on hands and knees, didn’t check his surroundings before standing up. As he lifted his head, another bull was coming along, and as if it were in slow motion, I watched the horn graze the back of his neck. I looked away. I considered for a moment that it passed through him like a spectre, but no, it was really that close. Another man was gored in the abdomen a couple days later, but the tv cameras weren’t filming that part of the run. Though, there is a website dedicated to injuries with daily updates where he was featured.
Believing that I had missed out on my chance to see a bullfight, I pressed on, reassuring myself that it was somehow for the best. I tried not to think about it when I saw my copy of ‘Death in the Afternoon,’ on my dresser or when I saw a figurine of a matador in a gift shop, but the truth is that I had disappointed myself, and it gnawed at me. I sat alone with the vacuous displacement of regret, until I heard a knock at my door.
My host mother entered my room and told me that there would be a festival in Santander and, since she enjoyed bullfighting, she would be willing to take me to my first. “It’s better this way,” she explained. She would be able to introduce me to the sport and explain what was happening. I could tell from her voice that she had some reservations, not knowing how an American would react to it. She continued to tell me that this would be a particularly good festival to attend, because “El Juli” was going to be there; a notably valiant torero. I graciously accepted and felt a relief wash over me knowing that I would be able to check off one of my three required visits in Europe.
My host father dropped us off in front of the police barricades a few blocks away from the stucco coliseum. The street was packed with people and I understood why my host mother told me to wear something nice. The bullfights were a real event; a place to see and be seen. Men wore nice linen suits and the women wore blazers or sevilliana style dresses, complete with wooden fans to keep the heat off. In the distance I could see a group of protesters, all with black pants and black t-shirts, chanting about egregious something-or-others and torture. But, I didn’t have time to listen to them because I was rushed off by my host mother to the ticket window to pick up our tickets. We would be sitting in the shaded section, she told me, which I knew was a good thing, but couldn’t remember why. Bullfights almost always take place in the evening during the summer and, because of the setting sun, half of the plaza cooks in the heat while the other half stays cool and one can see everything that’s happening. The seats are more expensive there, but it’s always worth it. That’s where the aficionados sit. As for the those that sit in the sun section, let’s just say I’m glad I only saw them from a distance.
We entered the plaza and took the stairs up to the second story where the seats could be accessed. The architecture was foreign, though, not entirely unfamiliar. It reminded me of something you might see at the Holly Renaissance Fair. The interior had a strange feeling, because, since it was built in 1890, it felt old, but had a fresh coat of paint with yellows, and white, and bright red paint on the seats, which were long bleacher-style seats, but thinner and very closely packed in. Being 6’2”, I knew immediately that it would be a long 3 hours.
The rest of the people filed in, and the aficionados crammed in next to us. Spaniards are much more comfortable with personal spaces and I make no exaggeration when I say it was shoulder to shoulder. Another thing I hadn’t expected is that people were smoking. Not cigarettes, which are very common in Spain, but cigars. I distinctly remember a man about my age, late twenties, sitting just upwind of me, dressed in ivory colored pants, a nicely tailored blue blazer and sporting a vintage Omega Seamaster, blowing plumes of smoke luxuriously into the air. He and his friends gave me the impression of a bachelor’s party the way they spoke and cackled until the ceremony began.
The ring was wet and the chalk circles perfectly drawn, surrounded by the red and white wall. The sand was course, almost gravely, and reminded me of the baseball diamonds I used to play on in little league. Old men working the event stood around in their white uniforms with red berets and sashes, checking their cell phones. Then, an explosion of horns rang out and the opening ceremony began.
The crowd began cheering as the matadors entered the ring, ushered in by two men on horseback in clothing styled from the 1800s. They stood there valiantly with their capes draped over their shoulders followed by the picadors atop their horses, lances in hand. Once all the men were inside the ring, they marched in formation to the other end of the side where the local bullfighting president and over-seer of the events was seated to salute him before they faced what could be the last bull they ever saw. This ceremony resonated with me. It felt as though I had gone back in time. Finally, the men took their places and waited for the first bull to enter the arena.
The men took their places and the picadors went back behind the entrance gate. Then, the gate to the bull pen swung open and the first bull emerged. He tore across the ring searching for something to attack as if he had done it before. I’d never seen an animal behave like that. My host mother began to explain to me what made a Spanish fighting bull.
The Spanish fighting bull is its own unique breed. Characterized by strength and aggression it has become revered and respected as the unofficial symbol of Spain. There are figurines in gift shops, t-shirts, postcards, and even billboards in the shape of a bull’s silhouette; advertising nothing, displaying only pride. They are also treated differently from regular cattle. Fighting bulls are pampered and raised with tremendous care. It’s for this reason that people question the cruelty of the ring. By comparison, it has a fantastic life before it meets its end, and the sentiment is that it’s not such a bad way to go. When a cow is killed, at best it’s just a number. Its only purpose is food. But, the Spanish fighting bull is loved, truly loved, and the toreros show the world the spirit of each animal before they take its life. Understanding this difference is crucial to understanding the difference between old Spain and modern Spain.
The bull made several passes with the first torero to gauge its spirit and behavior. Then, the horns blared again and the gates opened for the two picadors to enter. My host mother, Rita, leaned into me and laughed as she told me that picadors are always fat. They serve a purpose, though, and it’s one of the aspects of bullfighting that has been changed due to public scrutiny. The Picadors ride out with a long spear to stab the bull between his shoulder blades so the loss of blood will weaken the bull more quickly. But how does he get so close to the bull? This is the segment that used to be referred to as “the goring of the horses.” The bull would attack one of the horses and as it sank its horns into the horse’s side, the picador would make his counter attack. Sparing the further horrific details that followed, I’ll say that the horses are blindfolded so that they don’t spook and are wrapped with an impenetrable Kevlar blanket, so that, at the worst, the horse only receives minor bruising.
The picador, having successfully made his attempt, exits the ring so the second act may begin.
The banderillero. Nothing about the bullfights impressed me as much as the banderilleros. He is tasked with taunting the bull so that it will charge him. As the bull closes the distance, he runs in a large arc and, just before the bull gets him, he sticks two small decorative spears between the bull’s shoulders and narrowly dodges death. This is done three times for a total of six banderilleras (flags). After the flags have been placed, it’s easy to see from the stands that the bull’s fur is wet with blood and is panting heavily to accommodate for this.
The third act is called “the third of death.” The matador for this bull was a seasoned and respected professional. However, with age comes perspective, and that perspective had given him fear. The crowd around me began to grumble as his passes with the bull did not reflect the standards that all matadors must live up to: the pinnacle of masculinity.
This is the heart of bullfighting. To understand this is to understand the soul of Spain: Death is the salt of life.
The bullfights always and only coincide with the festivals of different saints. Spain and the Iberian peninsula have been home to humans for at least 35,000 years. In this time, the inhabitants of this region have seen war and many occupations come and go. The sentiment is something like this: No man asks to be born. And all men will die. The only thing one can do in their final moment is stand up straight and face death valiantly. If you can do that, then even though Death took you, it did not conquer you. There is honor in that.
This is why it coincides with the festivals of the different saints. It gives them teeth. In the U.S., we celebrate holidays like St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo for no discernible reason. It means nothing to us other than a cheap superficial party and excuse to get excessively drunk. But, there’s nothing at risk. In Spain, the torero serves as a bastion of hope that, though we will die, it is possible to die honorably.
This is why, when the first torero, sword aligned at eye level as the bull made its final charge, failed to sink the sword less than half way into the bull’s back, the crowd became furious. The bull trotted around the ring in pain as the arena erupted in jeers until the sword actually fell out of the wound. Rita shook her head disapprovingly. But, he had to finish the job. He retrieved the sword and stared down the bull a second time. The crowd fell silent as he shook his cape to make the bull charge. When the bull made another attempt, it found itself staring at the crowd once again; its attacker having vanished once again. The final blow was executed properly and the bull behaved differently. I wouldn’t say that it knew it was going to die, but it seemed to be surprised by a sense of passiveness that visibly washed over him. I watched as the bull staggered listless and bleary-eyed toward the wall until it collapsed. The men surrounded it. I prepared myself to watch it fall gently into its final sleep. The torero accepting cheers from the crowd. The moment felt heavy for me, but I accepted it.
But, then, one of the other men, I believe one of the banderilleros, walked behind the bull and pulled out a small knife. It looked like an oyster shucking knife, but decorative. He lined up a shot and stabbed the bull where the spine meets the skull with a swift blow. The bull reared back in a fit of nerve spasm and collapsed lifeless on the gravel and, in that moment, I became a child.
I felt a pang of ice run through me and a sense of vibration in my body, though I could not move. I had only experienced that sense of fear one other time in my life.
Growing up in Toledo, Ohio, during the summer time, my friends and I would attack hornet nests for fun. It was common to find them building homes in the poles of basketball hoops, so, we would take brooms and hockey sticks and bang on the pole until the whole hive came out and we would swing wildly knocking them out of the air and stomping on them. The truest thing I can say is that I had a compulsion to kill them. The fear I felt before and during made surviving the assault without a sting feel euphoric.
One day, while I was cleaning the garage, I noticed a wasp flying around. I grabbed a broom and waited for a chance to strike. I followed it patiently as it inspected the garage until it found itself trapped in a spiderweb. It seemed comical to me at the time and I enjoyed watching it flail and protrude its stinger in vain. Then, the spider came out to investigate. I thought to myself, “this is going to be good.” Quickly, and without any of the hesitation or caution I had expected, the spider attacked. I saw it bite the wasp, injecting its venom. My blood went cold as death. I was horrified. It was the feeling of pure terror. The wasp struggled harder, panicking for its life and the spider would attack and retreat several more times. I watched this for probably no more than a minute until the venom finally subdued it and the spider set about preparing its next meal. But, in that moment, I learned something about nature by witnessing her in such a brutal and unflinching form.
As I watched a pair of horses drag the bull’s corpse out of the ring, I thought to myself, “What makes us do this?” I still don’t know. I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I looked around to see if people were leaving yet, and then Rita told me that there were five more bulls to see.
I began to realize that a bullfight is like a play. There is a three-act structure beginning with the matador, which includes the picadors, then the banderilleros, and finally, the torero again to bring about the conclusion. El Juli entered the ring before the next bull was released and it was clear that he took the stage like few other matadors could. He grabbed a handful of dirt and kissed it. He didn’t do it for the crowd. It was a personal ceremony.
The next bull entered the ring and El Juli performed valiantly like a true torero should. To see him interact with the bull was a very different experience. Watching him was like art. He made it easier to understand the beautiful tragedy of bullfighting that I couldn’t put into words. The crowd loved him. After he had dispatched the bull, the crowd rose to its feet, waving white handkerchiefs in the air as a sign of respect and admiration, cheering. The president gave a nod and El Juli was gifted the ears of the bull. He walked the perimeter of the ring picking up flowers and gifts thrown from the stands, receiving the love and adoration of the people he did not disappoint.
It is a primal sense that exists within us, the awareness of death. We don’t know what it is, nor the best way to compose ourselves in the anticipation of it. Bullfighting has been around for a thousand years as a way to comprehend it. In order to understand bullfighting and the Spanish people’s passion for life, we need to accept some darkness within our humanity. I think that this is one of the ways this process has manifested itself. Many critics, of which there are many, call it a blood sport. Many of the Spaniards I spoke to, however, had never actually gone to see a bullfight in person. After having witnessed this ritual for myself, I would disagree. Though there is blood, it is definitely not a sport. What it is, is a spectacle… and it is spectacular. Is it torture of an animal? Undoubtably. Yet, if I had gone to Pamplona, I don’t think I would’ve learned the true spirit of bullfighting. It is the most complicated thing I’ve ever experienced because its source and satisfaction come from someplace that we do not know, a void that we do not understand.
In the weeks that followed, I spoke with older Spaniards and told them that I went. They all immediately asked me if I liked it. When I told them I did, they seemed pleased like someone that was finally able to share a secret. I was welcomed into a deeper cultural circle for having gone. Did I enjoy it? That’s difficult to answer. I took no joy in watching it. I don’t believe that it’s meant to bring joy. As an American, my concept of entertainment was never something that left a bitter taste in my mouth. However, what I can say is that I understand it. I understand it, and that’s all.
Ultimately, bullfighting is going away because it’s brutal, and antiquated, and cruel, and because it’s the right thing to do… and that’s a shame.