9 Days of Spain #3: Bullfighting (Part 1)

Warning: this series contains descriptions and images of graphic violence

Bullfighting is not an easy topic to cover, but it is also not an easy issue to sort through, which makes blogs like this necessary. While studying abroad in Seville, I attended a corrida, a sequence of six bullfights in one night, and asked for opinions from four local Sevillians on the sport. I will cover the three things I found out: the structure of the bullfight, the experience of attending one, and the politics surrounding the ancient and controversial tradition. This is not a persuasive essay, and you’re free to form any opinion of your own. But that won’t keep me from being a little romantic in my descriptions: that was just what was going through my head at the time, and you deserve to know the real experience of the bullfight. So please take my more sensational sentences to be just that: my thoughts. They’re not an opinion, because I don’t have one. I feel utterly ambivalent after having attended one.

If you don’t know what I mean by “sensational sentences,” I’ll start off with one: life is not guaranteed to anyone, or anything, that enters the bullfighting ring.

Bullfighting in Spain is quite different from what you’ll see in a Looney Tunes cartoon, where one man (or bunny) and one bull square off, with the matador aided by nothing more than a red cape. In reality, the Plaza de Toros (Bull Plaza) is abuzz with different traditions, animals, and players.

You enter in on stone streets, past pristine white walls and the occasional beer salesman. The plaza itself brings to mind both a colosseum and a baseball game: long, stone benches with modern seat numbers attached circumscribe an ovular arena. Though the corrida will last well into the night, some people with cheaper tickets still fight away evening sunlight from where they stand in the nose-bleed section. The wooden walls of the pit contrast with golden, dusty earth below. A couple of buglers stand above the gate to the holding pin opposite our seats, and a band fiddles with their instruments high up in the stadium rows, shaded by an awning.

It begins with a small parade as the participating humans all file into the ring at once: all three matadors walk side by side…followed by their teams (called caudrillas). Every matador is assisted by two picadores (picadors, more or less spearmen) on horseback and a team of banderilleros (the men who will wield the banderillas, a pair of colorful sticks) on foot. Every person is clad in expensive, shiny outfits called a traje de luz (suit of light), which are normally golden, blue, and pink. Even the horses are dressed up: from their ankles to their backs, they’re covered with heavy golden sheets. At first, we thought they were for decoration.

You’ll see what they’re really for in a minute.

Charging the wall

The entire procession parades across the dusty pit of the plaza, finally settling in front of the judges. Yes, there are two respected judges in charge of moderating the fights and occasionally handing out a trophy. The corrida will be some mixture between a three-way sports match and an Olympic competition where no one is keeping score but the audience. Up until now, the band has been blaring happily. But then the entire stadium pauses and stands for the wordless national anthem.

The Plaza de Toros in the evening light
Plazade Toros
The opening procession of the corrida


The matadors and their caudrillas then exit. The ring is empty until the first team’s toreros (unmounted bull-fighters), the matador and his banderilleros, come back onto the field. While the matador, or “killer,” is the star of the show, in charge of delivering the final blow, the picadors and banderilleros are in charge of helping to wear out the bull—or tear its attention away if it knocks a man to the ground. The mounted picadors only take the stage for a moment, but the banderilleros will be with their matador until the final, one-on-one showdown. Until that showdown, they’re nearly indistinguishable from the star of the show.

Each team is expected to kill two bulls, and there are three teams, making for roughly six bullfights in the entire corrida. When I say “expected” and “roughly,” I mean that anything can happen. A matador could die, a bull could be pardoned, a bull could be recalled… In my corrida? Seven bulls entered the ring, and six corpses were dragged out.

Now, this was more or less an “amateur night,” meaning both the bulls and toreros were relatively young, the three matadors inexperienced. But the first matador to fight was the most experienced. A matador’s goal is not to kill: that’s the easy part. His goal is to impress, to entertain, to win a trophy from the judges. Matadors to this day remain celebrities, arrogant hunks on par with quarterbacks. Many young boys dream of being toreros, many young girls dream of marrying one. They have Twitter handles. They spend half the time in the arena strutting in tight, sparkly pants, chins high and heads thrown back. My host mom, whose nephew is a matador, told stories of young men leaping into the arena during a bullfight in the hopes of proving themselves, often to a beautiful lady. That doesn’t often end well.

Our first matador oozed confidence: he started off the night by getting on his knees in the middle of the ring and waiting for the bull’s entry. Every other matador let the bull charge, baited by assistants near the gate, into the arena to look around in confusion before spotting somebody to gore. With this guy? The black bull came out running straight toward him, and he didn’t move out of the way. At all. He trusted the bull to follow the cape instead of him, and he flourished the cape up and around his head, the bull missing him by mere inches.

The first matador
The first matador fearlessly calls a bull to him while on his kness.

Then, the banderilleros join their matador in baiting the bull. Each of them has a cape—pink on one side and yellow on the other—to bait the bull with. Almost every time, the bull would knock down some torero and begin head-butting him in an attempt to gore him with its horns. But that’s why there’s more than one torero on the field: if one goes down, or if the bull keeps chasing after one, the others always run right up to the bull, waving their capes in its face and yelling at it to lure it away. And, to our amazement, the torero that had just been knocked to the ground by a full-grown bull gets back on his feet, grabs his cape, and sets back to work baiting the bull. A good baiting comes from a torero who yells at the bull from across the ring and lets the animal pick up a lot of momentum in its rush to attack. But most of the time, unlike what you see on TV, these men are about two feet away from the bull as it charges.

Toreros wear the bull down in an unreasonably blurry picture

You may be noticing a trend here that differs from the one-man-one-bull ideal expressed in cartoons: the humans in the ring are given more and more advantages, more safeguards. In this stage of the fight, one of those safeguards are small portions of the wooden wall just barely apart from the rest of the ring’s wall. You can barely distinguish these wooden shields, these breaks in the walls, until you see a torero slip behind one to escape a charging bull. This wooden barrier is just out far enough from the rest of the wall that a human can slip behind it, but a bull can’t. Some bulls don’t care that their targets have apparently disappeared and charge the wall. The loud thud of their horns hitting the wood can be heard halfway across the Roman-style stadium. Many bulls lose interest as soon as their brightly-colored tormentors have disappeared behind an innocent wooden wall; but these bulls are quickly seduced into turning their attention to the toreros behind the wall, who will hold out their capes and wave them in an attempt to call the bull back. One bull was smart enough to curve its horn in around the side, but this only led to several other toreros running over to it, desperate to grab its attention. One bull was so agitated that, after charging and hitting the wall once, it gored it again. And again. And again. Each time chipping off a little more wood.


Charging the wall
Toreros hide behind gaps in the wall as the bull charges


That bull was returned. Overaggressive, crazy, or “deformed” (ex. if a horn is missing) bulls are returned upon request by the audience, who boo and jeer at the judges to get the defective animal out of the plaza. This happened during our corrida: a blonde-furred bull with curly patterns around its neck charged into the ring, only to go straight for a wall with no one behind it. It chased a torero so adamantly that he had to leap over the wall to avoid being impaled. That was the bull that mercilessly tore away at the wall the toreros were hiding behind. Whether it was scared, bred from an aggressive line, or just crazy, I don’t know. But that was the bull that survived: the judges called the entire caudrilla out of the ring and ordered the release of full-grown, castrated bulls into the plaza. My friends and I thought these were longhorns by their color patterns, but by their horns they were just normal cattle. They were larger than the fighting bull, who turned to charging them in its rage. Of course, the fighting bull couldn’t out run other members of its species, so it quickly stopped when it saw that its target had gotten the message. The fighting bull’s efforts became less and less urgent, and it finally stopped, looking around the arena in confusion. The handlers then called the castrated bulls (calm this entire time) back into the holding pen. The fighting bull, by herd mentality, followed them in, and the arena was empty until the caudrilla was given a replacement bull.

Returning The Bull
The fighting bull (center) follows the docile, castrated bulls by herd mentality

What they do with returned bulls, I have no idea. Will they use it for a future fight? Will they kill it immediately? No clue. But bear in mind: a bull that does not die in the Plaza de Toros will most likely die in a slaughterhouse.

Seven bulls entered, six corpses were dragged out.


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