The Death of Bullfighting

October 5, 2011 • Features • Views: 3976

By Christopher Peak:

I paid 30 euros to watch six bulls die. There are less expensive seats available at Madrid’s Plaza de Las Ventas, Spain’s largest bullring, but I wanted a good view and a place in the shade. The total came to five euros for each time the trumpets announced the matador; five euros for each bull; five euros for each death in the late afternoon.

Known in the country as the fiesta nacional, Spain’s controversial practice of bullfighting may be nearing its end. On July 28, 2010, the Catalan parliament voted on a bill to ban bullfighting. The vote was close: 68 voted in favor and 55, including Catalan President José Montilla, voted against. Many speculated that animal rights offered a neutral field from which Catalans could rebuke the central Spanish government and assert themselves as a unique nation with its own set of unique traditions. Indeed, the ban passed two weeks after the Spanish Constitutional Court struck down a statute intended to make Catalonia more independent from Madrid. In their ruling, the court declared that Catalonia was not legally a nation. According to local police, 1.1 million protestors gathered to protest the court’s decision. El Periódico, a daily newspaper in Barcelona, reported that the protest was “undoubtedly one of the largest that has taken place in Catalonia, possibly the largest.” In the wake of the ban, Spanish nationalists have mounted a campaign to protect the bullfight as one of the nation’s most important traditions.


An hour before my first bullfight, or corrida de toros, began, I met two Canadian tourists named Jesse and Andrew. They sat in a narrow strip of shade and drank beer from 40-ounce bottles. Jesse hoped the bullfight would be like the movies, saying, “It’s the closest you get to Gladiator.” Andrew agreed: “Passion, blood, pain.” I left them to finish their cervezas. The crowds and I pressed through a narrow gate and into the stadium.

Trumpets announced the beginning of the bullfight. Wearing the traditional gleaming gold outfits known as trajes de luce, or suits of light, three bullfighters strutted across the sand of the arena. Shade eclipsed half the stadium.

The day’s first matador (Spanish for “killer”) was Serafín Marin, considered to be Catalonia’s best bullfighter. With 10 years of experience killing bulls, Marin killed one more bull that day: a 4-year-old named Huelvano. He weighed 545 kilograms, or 1200 pounds.

The red bull Huelvano charged into the stadium. With knife-like horns, it ran at bright pink capes waved by the matador’s team. During the first part of the bullfight, the matador determines the bull’s speed and daring. In the process, the bull tires and often stumbles to its knees. By the end of this, Marin’s bull was panting, its ribcage heaving in and out.

In the second part, members of the matador’s team weaken the bull: Picadors, men on horseback, use long lances to pierce the bull’s neck muscles, and three banderilleros stab brightly colored barbed sticks into the bull’s sides. After this, the bull began to slow as blood flowed freely down its front legs.

The third part, the one most often associated with bullfighting, involves only the matador and the bull. Using a cape dyed the same color as the bull’s blood, the matador makes the bull charge as close as possible to his body. After a few minutes, the matador lures the bull towards him and plunges the sword into its exposed neck.

The bull will often stand for some time, the handle of the sword protruding from its back. The banderilleros wave capes on either side of the bull, turning its head from left to right. In the process, the sword slices the bull’s lungs and other organs. One of the banderilleros stabs the bull in the back of the head with a short dagger, known as a puntilla, to ensure it is dead.

The mouth of Marin’s bull foamed red. Tourists’ cameras flashed. The carcass was hooked up to a pack of four horses and dragged out of the stadium to be butchered and sold as a delicacy in the hotels. The fight was over: Vendors continued to sell their sodas; the band played a cheery musical interlude; people stood up, to stretch or to slip down to a better seat than they had paid for; blue-shirted workers swept away the blood and smoothed over the sand like the dirt at a baseball game.

As I left the stadium, I walked past a large bronze monument dedicated to Jose Cubero “Yiyo,” a bullfighter from Madrid who died from a goring in the heart. A plaque reads, “Murió un torero y nació un angél.” A bullfighter died and an angel was born.

For every bullfighter that dies, 200,000 bulls die. There are no monuments for the bulls at Las Ventas: There isn’t enough room.

Bullfights in Madrid are considered both an important tradition and a tourist “must-see.” (Peak/TYG)

José María Baviano, Director of Communications at Plaza de Las Ventas, believes each bullfight continues an important tradition. “The ritual of the bullfight, the specific language, the music—all part of the tradition.”

Depicted in Goya’s prints, García Lorca’s poems, and Picasso’s paintings, bulls have held an important place in Spanish culture for thousands of years. Historian Pedro Romero de Solís said archaeological evidence from the Iberian Peninsula shows “the importance of bovine creatures in human civilizations since the Paleolithic Age.” But by the sixteenth century, “what at first was mere hunting was transformed into a spectacle.”

Today, reviews of the week’s bullfights are published in El País’s Culture section, not Sports. Bullfighting remains one of the main tourist attractions: Forty million tickets are sold each year at bullfighting rings across the country. During the two-week Festival of San Isidro in May, 86 percent of the 24,000 seats in Madrid’s bull ring Plaza de Las Ventas are reserved in advance. Despite the ban in Catalonia, ticket sales in Madrid have remained high, Baviano said.

In response to the ban, Esperanza Aguirre, the head of Madrid’s regional government, announced in March 2010 that bullfighting would be given protected status for its important cultural value. Aficionados of the corrida are currently lobbying UNESCO to declare bullfighting part of the world’s cultural heritage. Even Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa has publicly supported the efforts, in the hopes that Spanish citizens have the freedom to choose for themselves whether to visit a bullring or not.

“There is no cruelty, no cruelty in bullfighting,” Baviano said. He argued that unlike other animals, the value of the bull is in the fight, not in its ability to produce meat or milk: “The bull has the sole purpose of dying in the arena instead of dying in a slaughterhouse.” Through the utility of the bull’s death, a successful bullfighter creates a primitive, visceral experience. The matador is an artist, and the bull is his medium.

Jennifer Berengueras, Project Coordinator at Foundation for Adoption, Sponsorship, and Defense of Animals (FAADA) and one of the 11 members of the commission that spearheaded the bullfighting ban, disagrees.

“We never say that it’s not a tradition or that it’s not culture,” she said. “However, traditions and cultures should be flexible and adapt to the current times and knowledge. We think [bullfighting] is not something of this day and age.” Berengueras would prefer for the Ministry of Culture to advertise the Picasso Museum rather than bullfights. “They sell it like the Spanish thing to do,” she said, “but real culture doesn’t involve the killing of an animal.”

When Berengueras initially began working in animal welfare, she believed bullfighting was only a minor issue. “With the years, I realized it was the most important [concern],” and protecting animals exploited for entertainment became her priority. “If we are mistreating and killing an animal for fun, then how can we dissuade people from mistreating animals for food or other purposes?… There is absolutely no justification, no excuse for this.”

In August 2008, Berengueras created a commission with ten other animal rights activists to begin a Popular Legislative Initiative (PLI) to ban bullfighting in Catalonia. Though there had been protests against bullfighting as early as 1900, previous legislative attempts introduced by members of parliament had proved unsuccessful. The commission decided the ban had to come directly from the people.

To bring the PLI to Parliament, the commission needed the certified signatures of 50,000 Catalan residents over the age of 16. They brought 180,000 certified signatures to Parliament. “It was quite a process,” Berengueras said. “The whole animal rights movement mobilized to carry it out.”

The Canary Islands is the only other region in Spain that has banned bullfighting. In 1991, the ban quietly passed. “No one even realized,” Berengueras said. “This most recent ban was so polemic because it was Catalonia.” From the 1950s through the 1970s as Francisco Franco ruled Spain, more bullfights occurred in Barcelona than in any other city in Spain. “They thought it was symbolic. If they close down Barcelona, there will be a domino effect and others will shut down,” Berengueras said. “But now they will, by law, be forced to close.”

The death of the bull is the standard and expected conclusion for bullfight audiences. (Peak/TYG)

Carles Móra sat in a large recliner in his tiled living room below a series of watercolors by Monet and other French painters. Móra was the mayor of Arenys de Munt, a small town outside Barcelona that passed the first referendum for Catalan independence in September 2009. He spoke in Catalan, a language banned in public places under Franco’s dictatorship only 30 years prior.

There is still “residual fear” after Franco’s dictatorship, especially in the older generations, Móra explained. “Grandparents won’t speak about politics. ‘Leave this for the politicians and stay away from that,’ they say.” But for the first time since Franco’s rule, the Catalans have begun to express their desire for independence. “There is a feeling in Catalonia that the system failed. Now people want to change the system,” Móra said.

Many traditions have been revived: Catalan is now an official language in

Catalonia, taught in schools and spoken by over three-quarters of the population, and Catalan celebrations feature joining of arms in the circle dance of the sardana and building of human towers known as castells. (In 2010, the tradition of building

castells joined the list of UNESCO’s Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.) “They are all symbols of people working together,” Móra says, “of people helping each other go farther.” Catalans reject the corrida de toros and flamenco as foreign Spanish traditions. “We have a different culture. We have other traditions, other habits,” Móra said. “There is really a feeling of not belonging to Madrid.”

While advertisements in Madrid announce which matadors will fight each Sunday, banners in Barcelona declare new productions of “Romeo and Juliet” and

Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Already, one bullfighting stadium in Barcelona has shut down due to declining ticket sales: Las Arenas, or The Sands, is now a shopping mall. “The ban of bullfighting is a way to distinguish, to say we do not have this as a part of our culture,” Móra said.

Many Spaniards see this reasoning as dangerous. “The Separatist parties are trying to erase the cultural traits that identify Catalonia with Spain,” Baviano argued.

Bullfighting aficionados point to the uniquely Catalan tradition of the correbous as evidence of the separatist forces behind the ban. Variations of the correbous involve tying ropes around the bull’s horns and dragging it through the city’s streets or attaching fireworks to its horns. Though the animal is not usually killed, many bulls are left blind or physically harmed. Some die from heart attacks caused by stress. In December 2010, only a few months after voting to ban bullfighting, the Catalan Parliament voted overwhelmingly to protect the tradition of the correbous in a vote of 114-14, though communities in Madrid, the Basque country, Castile-La Mancha, and Andalusia have all prohibited the correbous. An article in El País claimed the Catalan vote was “an example of hypocrisy of the Catalan political class.”

Berengueras maintained the bullfighting ban is an animal rights issue, not a political issue. She pointed to the fact that the 11-person commission consisted entirely of animal rights activists, not political separatists. Indeed, only four members were Catalan. Berengueras also highlighted a Gallup poll from 2008: Though the poll showed that the highest disinterest in bullfighting came from northeastern Spain (Catalonia), the second highest was the south, where places like Seville and Cordoba are thought to be notoriously pro-bullfighting.

“We work on a national level. We work on a global level,” Berengueras said. “[Bullfighting] was banned in Catalonia, and we are happy with it, but we believe that animals suffer everywhere,”

The bullfighting ban will take effect in January 2012. Until then, 180 bulls will be killed in Barcelona, Berengueras said. Across the rest of Spain, 72,000 bulls will die. Since the ban in Catalonia, five other regions in Spain have attempted to bring popular initiatives to their respective parliaments. None has succeeded.

Christopher Peak ’13 is in Morse College. Contact him at

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