Elaborate Slaughter: Early Impressions of my First Bullfight

The following is the rough, full version of a write-up on my visit to Las Ventas. Originally written for publication, as usual I was long-winded, and I had to revise it in the interest of the typical internet reader’s attention span.
This also represents the first article of mine in the Huffington Post (yeah!), and hopefully the first of many to come.

Sometimes simply having an opinion isn’t enough, and I am not interested in the easy comparisons between cockfighting or greyhound racing and bullfighting, or graphic and simple descriptions of how a bull is killed, or blabbing on how it is the matador who should be impaled.  Surely most people would be scandalized to discover how chickens, pigs, and dairy and beef cows are raised in most of the world’s farms, especially those in the United States.  I am an animal lover, but I’m not interested in pandering to PETA for a brochure.  And I am not inclined to dismiss an aspect of a culture based on initial emotional reaction, especially an aspect of my host culture.   Of course, simply boasting a long tradition is not automatic justification of something’s existence, but when a person lives in a foreign culture, he or she is obliged, at least, to strive for understanding, not dismissal.  Having said that, I probably won’t go back again, but I may remain, on the subject of bullfights, at least as ambivalent as most of the Spaniards I know. 

*               *               *

The crowd is brutal and unforgiving, and under the stifling heat, at Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, spectators stand and throw their hands up and unload insults in the direction of the arena.  Things are not going well.  Then many begin to whistle, in the ultimate expression of disapproval.  The bull has just stumbled after its second charge at the torero; its buckled front legs forcing one long horn to dig into the ground, pitching all 607 kilos of its weight into the air in a sloppy, undignified somersault.  Even high in the stands, the thump of the bull’s body on the sand can be heard, and the torero struts away from the struggling animal and adjusts his sparkly suit.  The observers in the cramped stadium ridicule the bull, already exhausted, and which now has a fuchsia-colored nose from a mix of sand, blood and frothy snot.  The torero turns around quickly, shakes his capote – the famous red cape – and points his chin to the ground.  He then shouts a provoking command, which prompts another pass of the muscle-bound bull.  Because of the novelty of the show, I find myself gawking in morbid fascination, but the crowd is wholly unimpressed.  Normally, when a bull has proven to be substandard, the president of the corrida, a sort of master of ceremonies watching from high up on his balcony, will wave a green handkerchief to signal its replacement for a fitter, more entertaining animal.  Today, though, this bull will remain, and the whistling spectators wave their own green pieces of cloth in a spontaneous protest.

Throughout the event, the collective emotion of the crowd swings like a pendulum, from near mob mentality to sheer silence, and back again. Ironically, in the final moments of this bull’s life, when it is prostrate in defeat, the standing crowd resorts to obligatory clapping and complacent bar chat, as if unaware of the scene below.  I watch in the conflict of my own unsettling interest, as the torero kills the lying bull (which now sports a grand total of 7 metal punctures and/or impalements) with a final jab of a sharp blade at the height of its spinal column.  A group of three horses, adorned with sleigh bells and connected by a harness set, trot out into the arena to collect the body, and a group of men, wearing white shirts and red sashes, jog alongside the horses, quickly wrap a thick cord around the bull’s horns, hitch it to the harness, and briskly leave the arena, the limp bull sliding over the sand and out of sight.

“Now he’s going onto a plate of rabo de toro,” says the man next to me, waxing romantic, as the Spanish often do, in brilliantly subtle pride, about their food.   Somewhat inexplicably, even though it is not easy to make the philosophical connection between this show and the meat isle at the grocery store, I have little doubt that these bulls are in fact effectively utilized by consumers.  (in other words, put on dinner plates as a second course). But after a glance at the brochure of the month’s festivities, and some rudimentary math, I figure there are roughly 130,000 kilos of bull to deal with in Madrid’s Feria de San Isidro alone.  That’s a lot of entrees.

Before the next performance, a dressed up cleaning crew of eight men in teal shirts and red sashes quickly brushes away the blood in the sand with wooden rakes.  In the spring evening, just at sunset, I am reminded of the tranquil moments just before a baseball game, as keepers groom the sand of the infield under the lengthening shadows of the stadium walls.  Apart from the carcass, the whole scene smacks of sentimentality and perpetuated tradition, almost anachronistic enough to qualify as a historical reenactment.  It is a pleasant moment that makes one happy that winter is over.

As we wait for the next act, the crowd’s noise is reduced to a relaxed murmur.  I flag down a vendor, an exhausted looking man who has a large ice chest strapped to his shoulders. I ask for a cold beer and give him an extra euro out of pure sympathy.

Then a bugle sounds and a modest brass band plays a quick paso doble jingle, and the scene is set for another confrontation between the team of men and the beast, the latter’s eventual end all but predestined.

The next torero is wearing a dark black montera on his head (signature head-gear) and an intricate, tightly fitted traje de luces, or “suit of lights”, a garment that is presumably meant to accentuate the broadness of shoulders and clenched buttocks; to formalize the glamour and pride of the man.  The crowd cheers in obligatory approval.

In the bullfight, three lead toreros rotate, each in his period of three loosely divided acts, known as tercios. And probably the most spectacular sequence is at the very beginning of the tercio. The torero kneels at the gate, at the beginning of a ritual known in Spanish as larga cambiada, when the bull moves directly at him, suddenly released from his holding chamber and already suspiciously pissed off, in a determined trot.  The kneeling torero whisks the bull to the side with his cape, prompting loud, approving cheers from the crowd.  I suddenly turn into a 12-year-old, and blurt out the boyish Cool! It is a moment when the mounting anticipation of the crowd meets unpredictable animal wildness, when the lone torero and bull meet each other for the first time.

But contrary to a common notion of the bullfight, the matador is not a solitary man resorting only to his own devices against the animal.  There are moments in the show when there simply appears to be too many people in the arena: each member of the cuadrilla, the support team for the star torero, with his own specialized tool designed to weaken the animal.  After generations of real-time practice, I suspect that it has proved too difficult for a lone man to wear down a bull enough to kill it with his sword.  And overall, it is unreasonable to expect that there is any serious effort to minimize the harm done to the bull while at the same time accentuating the appearance of danger to the torero.  In fact the opposite is true. The bull must be made tired and injured relatively quickly in order for the torero, who struts and trots in theatrical exaggeration, to have any chance of killing it.  It must be a show, but with the likelihood for disaster strictly curtailed. From the moment it is released from the dark pen, the bull has little time to continue behaving as a fully functioning animal.  At around the 10-minute mark, it has already been impaled in crucial places near its muscle-bound neck, thereby exponentially reducing its agility and mitigating its genetic propensity for aggression. Coming at the bull are men on horseback wielding long lances, and others approach from the side and in front; stealthy, agile men brandishing colorfully decorated, barbed spears, which are stabbed two at a time. They hang from the bulls flesh after they are thrust in.  And still others distract and confuse the bull with pink capes, and then run behind protective barriers at the side of the ring.

For this second bull, the onslaught of the cuadrilla proves too much, too quickly.  It’s vivaciousness flags even sooner than the previous animal, and more green handkerchiefs fly in the hands of the crowd.

Most of the people in the stands at Ventas this evening are season ticket holders; aficionados for whom the novelty of an animal’s death has long since worn off.  It is the style of the bull’s ordeal and the illusion of a worthy confrontation that excite them.  If the bull is easily killed, it is simply too boring. I am, on the other hand, still captivated by the bull’s frantic struggle for survival and the process of the show as a whole, regardless of the perceived performance of the bull or the bullfighter.

There are moments that perhaps only the novice notices.  For example, the bull occasionally seems to be playing up its own caricature and stereotype, by lowering its head and digging its front hoof in the ground, kicking back sand. The 600-kilo beast is reminiscent of slapstick animation, with all its elastic, cartoonish proportions, steam shooting out if its nose, and red, bulging eyes filled with anger.  I wonder how many people in the stands, furiously flicking their hand-held fans and waiting to be impressed, are thinking about cartoons.

“What a disaster of bulls, today,” a seasoned, sun-dried old woman behind me mumbles.  She takes a swig of her cold beer.  “Beautiful weather though.”

The aficionado would like to consider the corrida a national celebration, something that is pure and uniquely Spanish.  And although bullfighting’s following in Spain is by no means universal (in fact it is almost non-existent in Galicia and the Canary Islands, and outlawed altogether in Catalonia), the vernacular has bled into everyday Spanish speech and in so demonstrates how this tradition has permeated Spanish culture.  In Spain, people utter phrases directly taken from the world of tauromaquia, often unknowingly.  And the tradition barely shows any waning popularity in Castilla, Madrid, or down south, in Andalucia.  Bullfights are reported and critiqued in the arts sections of major newspapers.  There are TV cameras and live broadcasts.  Toreros have Facebook pages and tweet personal status updates and appear in gossip magazines.  They can be celebrities in every Hollywood sense of the word. Tickets to bullfights are sold at travel agencies alongside cruise packages and group tapas tours.

Anyone who makes a habit of watching the spectacle of a bullfight must admit at least a passing interest in death; in the ritualized, forced end to a life, whether that of the animal or the threat of it to the man in the ring.  The nature of the bull itself is a tribute to morbid curiosity and attraction to danger. They are an aggressive breed with a predisposition to crankiness and occasional moments of rage.  Until the moment it steps into the arena, the bull has no knowledge or experience of human beings on foot (only riders on horseback), because of a simple fear that it will charge the man, and not the stupid cape. They are utterly intimidating and unpredictable.

The second bull now seems to have given up, as it stands still, gasping in heavy, unsteady breaths, the flowery banderillas hanging from its neck, and blood pouring in a steady flow from its neck and mouth.  Even though a bull is not easily personified, like a furry little meerkat, or a baby grizzly bear, still, I feel terrible. When it moves, it simply trots in slow circles.  The vigor of its nature has been taken. The torero approaches closely and taunts the bull, which has become almost complacent.  But even now, surely, behind the scrunched, sweaty face of the torero is a fear of tripping, of being condemned by the cranky crowd, of being gored to death.

The expression “moment of truth” describes the end of the act, at the momento de la verdad, when the two adversaries face each other, and the torero prepares for the kill by holding the long sword up to his face, and pointing it at the exhausted bull.  He jogs, hops in the air, and runs the long sword between the bull’s shoulder blades.  It falls almost immediately.

I suspect it is the deliberate spectacle that is so appalling about the bullfight.  The haughty show of killing an animal easily provokes contempt and protest.  But it is for that reason that many come to watch. Some toreros disappoint die-hard aficionados with flamboyance.  But this crowd has hot gathered to witness the workings of a farmyard slaughterhouse. He remains a professional of embellishment; what he does, and it is almost always a man, is nothing short of prancing, like a cat when it notices itself in the mirror.  The very act of flicking away an 800-kilo animal with a cape at once elicits admiration and sympathy. The torero steps in slow, deliberate and exaggerated steps, puffs his chest and holds his arm out, inviting the fight.  The torero would have no time for this without help from his team.

But in the context of contemporary culture, perhaps he is becoming a caricature of himself, a nod to the ways of the old world.  It is an antiquated idea, to pit animal against man in a prepared spectacular, complete with music, adornments, expensive outfits, and beautiful coliseums.  In fact the origins of bullfighting can be attributed to Roman blood sport arenas. The modern notion of killing animals has evolved into a more standardized process in the context of an assembly line out of sight of the public, something that is done simply to put packaged food on plates in large quantities.  It is not stylized and admired, and therefore it is less debated.  The bullfight has no choice than to put itself in the most visible place possible—at the center of the arena.

Today, this bull is not killed in a warehouse in rural Andalucia, or in a farm field in Castilla-Leon, rather it will die in the urban surroundings of Madrid, by a long shiny sword held by a man in an intricate suit.  And it is the torero’s existence that has a questionable future.


7 thoughts on “Elaborate Slaughter: Early Impressions of my First Bullfight

  1. Reacting to your preamble: It is all too easy to feel ambivalent on issues, especially when justified on some sort of cultural relativism. And there is nothing wrong with rejection, opposition, or dismissal, so long it is based on understanding. If we were to talk about female genital mutilation in Egypt or Sudan, or the misogynistic restriction of basic women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, an ambivalence of these cultural practices is problematic.There are aspects of my own culture and other cultures that I have issues with; I don’t hesitate to call a spade a spade and be critical. Nice article nonetheless. Here’s to more on HuffPost.

  2. Shawn – this is great stuff!! I hope you don’t mind – I shared your article on twitter and fb!! (and misspelt your surname on fb by accident 😦 sorry!! ) This is super exciting stuff!! I don’t know if I would have gone to someting like this, but it is as you say – if you want to learn/appreciate the culture, it’s best you experience it first hand!! 🙂 **

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