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Bullfighting at Las Ventas

For most of my time in Spain I was loathe to attend a bullfight. Especially after hearing the experiences of my friend Christina in Ciudad Rodrigo – where they do bull runs and bullfights for Carnival – I found little to no appeal in what I saw as an unforgiving blood sport.

But my Spanish history and culture teacher was adamant. “Even if you don’t agree with it,” he would tell us, “you should see it once before making a judgment.” At the time we were learning all about tauromaquia, the umbrella term for everything surrounding this deeply controversial spectacle.

Eventually I took on his advice and went with several friends to Las Ventas, Madrid’s celebrated bullring where every up-and-coming torero dreams of performing for the crowds. Watching from the stands, I found myself torn between the artistic elements and the stark brutality of the tradition. It was a big surprise – what I witnessed that day challenged my preconceptions of bullfighting and its significance as a part of Spanish culture. As usual there will be pictures but I have kept them as bloodless as possible.

At first I did not expect to be drawn in, but then I saw something extraordinary in the interaction between man and bull. At times it resembled a dance, effortless as it swept across the arena. One torero in particular, a Víctor Barrio who was exactly my age, had the crowd holding its breath. On two occasions he suddenly dropped to his knees, deflecting the charging bull with a deft swing of the cape. It was exhilarating to watch.

However I could not ignore the unadulterated violence that was soon to follow. We watched in horror as blindfolded horses, unaware of the danger they were in, received repeated blows from the bull, itself angered by the spears of the picadores (lancers) on the saddle. As the spectacle went on the patch of blood on the bull’s back grew only in size, until he finally sat down, dying, on the sand. I saw fear and sadness in those eyes, a tortured pain in those laboured breaths. How could something so beautiful coexist with something so cruel?

It seems like the ultimate paradox, but while the bull is baited and killed in the ring, he is also deeply revered as a valiant participant and a powerful cultural symbol. Specially bred for their ferocity and aggressiveness, these fighting bulls – called toros bravos – are the reminders of a long-held relationship forged in ancient times. Pre-Roman sculptures all across Spain point to a form of bull worship, and the modern-day Osborne bulls standing along Spanish roads are the de facto emblem of the country.

But what place does bullfighting have in the 21st-century world? It’s a question that many Spaniards are asking themselves, including my friend Elena. The day after the bullfight, we are strolling through La Latina as I describe my ambivalence about what I have just seen. She turns her head and sighs, before offering a compromise that is wonderfully simple. “If there was no killing… then that would be perfect.”

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. I’m all for animal welfare but bullfighting just seems so traditionally Spanish that it would seem a shame to take it away. Maybe mechanical bull fighting?

    August 1, 2011
    • I’m inclined to agree, especially after seeing the spectacle firsthand. But it would be a lot better off without the wounding and killing of the bull.

      August 2, 2011
  2. It certainly is a spectacle, and I can appreciate the beauty and the skill, but it is just too cruel to exist. If they can’t find a way to make this less cruel it has to go. You did a great reporting job.

    August 2, 2011
    • Thank you Debra, with something as controversial as this I think it’s important to show both sides of the story.

      August 2, 2011
  3. Alfonso #

    James, también deberias investigar el tipo de vida que lleva un toro de lidia, antes de la gran corrida!!! Probablemente sea la mas privilegiada de todos los animales, quizas al final lo matan, pero, que acaso ese no es el destino de todos los animales? No querria un ser humano morir ante la gloria y fama de tantos espectadores?. Un Saludo…Cuando puedas, visita la Plaza Mexico, la más grande del mundo.

    August 2, 2011
    • Sí Alfonso, este razonamiento nos contaba un profesor del curso – para 15 minutos en la plaza podemos decir que los toros tienen una vida de lujo. Sin embargo, la diferencia es que los matan para diversión, como si fuera un deporte. Yo ví una belleza y un tipo de arte en la corrida, había cosas muy bonitas, pero a veces no podía soportar el nivel de violencia.

      August 2, 2011
  4. Que hay amigo, sigues en España?

    Es un honor que un extranjero realice un blog de tanta calidad sobre mi país! Que creo que es el tercero más visitado del mundo, por delante de USA!

    At leats last year lol! I think you were enough of hearing “OOLEEE!!” in Las Ventas LFMAO!

    August 15, 2011
    • Muchas gracias Javi, tu país es uno de mis preferidos en todo el mundo! Ya he salido de España – volví a Hong Kong el mes pasado pero todavía quedan muchas historias para compartir. 😀

      August 16, 2011
      • JPN #

        Thats for sure.

        We will share our stories my friend. But now Im quite busy wroking on a project, and do not have time enough for wordpress. In September I’ll be back as strong as ever! 😀

        September 2, 2011

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