by Nathalie Graham
When I entered the bullfighting arena they handed me a souvenir bracelet with “I Heart Toros” embroidered on it. I tied it on my wrist enthusiastically, unaware of the spectacle I was about to witness.
Before I came to Spain I knew next to nothing about it. Irresponsible traveling? Maybe. What little I did know came from the parts of Spanish culture that had permeated into American pop culture. Namely, the bright, vivid flamenco dancing and the bull fights. These aspects are characteristic of the Andalusian region of southern Spain. I found this out when my friends and I ventured to Seville, the capital of this region.
The soft strumming of acoustic guitars floated romantically as we walked down the cobbled streets, side-stepping out of the way of horse drawn carriages and flamenco dancers. I was immersed in this typical depiction of Spain and I loved it. So, naturally I jumped at the opportunity to buy corrida del toros tickets. I was going to a bullfight.
Bullfighting can be traced back to ancient times. Popularized by the Romans, where animal on animal combat was the norm (you’ve seen “Gladiator”), it was quickly adopted by Spain.
Here, it was polished and refined into the form it is today.
In Spain, it’s not considered a sport, but an art form, the articles about the fights are found in the cultura section of the newspaper. Over 2,000 bullfights are held in Spain annually. However, those numbers are dwindling. These days bullfighting is incredibly controversial, especially generationally.
I was blissfully unaware of this as I headed into the stadium, “I Heart Toros” bracelet strapped to my wrist. If I hearted toros, everyone here must heart toros. Wrong.
I sat in the stands, a quickly warming cerveza in hand, floored by the pomp and circumstance of it all. A band played traditional march music, men in gold embroidered tights paraded about, and other men trotted around on their horses, staffs waved high. The Spaniards in the stands all waved the heat out of their faces with traditional paper fans almost in time with the music.
The men with gold embroidery, the matadors, strutted out into the center of the arena, haughty. They were followed by men in silver embroidered tights, these were the banderilleros, the matador’s assistants. With their pink capes brandished, the men were in position. A gate opened and the bull rushed out. The fight was on.
“I can’t believe six bulls are going to die today,” my friend, Shelby Mang, whispered, her hand clasped over her mouth in worry.
“What? No, that’s not how this works,” I said with the authority of someone with a wealth of knowledge on the subject.
In reality, my confidence was inflated and, much like Jon Snow, I knew nothing.
“Um, I’m pretty sure that’s what the lady said when we bought the tickets,” Mang said. Her Spanish was better than mine, she got complimented on it by locals all the time. I had my doubts, no matter her comprehension level.
I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t remember there being anything about bull murder in what I had learned about bullfights.
And then the first blow came. A man on a horse stabbed a spear into the bull’s side.
Crimson blood reflected the Sevillian sun on the bull’s black pelt.
My mouth hung agape. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the torture I was witnessing. People applauded as the bull was stabbed again. It was taunted by the matador waving his elusive cape.
That’s when it hit me. All I knew about bullfights was from cartoons. Tom and Jerry, the Pink Panther, Ferdinand the Bull, the Looney Toons, and probably more had sold me some false tale of Spanish culture. They gave me all the fun of bullfights but left out the killing. That seems like a pretty big plot hole to me.
Spain sits pretty divided on the topic these days. To the older generation, the antiguas as the Spanish youth refers to them, bullfighting is fine. It’s always been around, it’s a part of Spanish culture, and what else are they supposed to do with the bull, anyway?
“I love animals, I do,” Teresa Guillart, an older Leon resident said in Spanish, “but the bulls, they have a good life. They suffer for a little, but then it’s over.”
Spanish Fighting Bulls are bred for the ring. They grow up on free range farms that mimic the conditions of the wild. At age two the bulls are chosen to fight on a basis of aggression, energy, strength, and stamina. At age three, those that aren’t chosen become breeders or they head to the slaughter. Fighting bulls get an extra year; they aren’t allowed to fight until they’re four years or older.
“They live a better life than most,” Guillart said. “Bullfights are Spanish, it’s our culture.”
But, if a bull isn’t sent to the slaughterhouse or, in the off chance he doesn’t perish in a fight, he can live to be 20 to 25 years old. That sure beats four years, no matter how blissful.
The younger generation of Spaniards doesn’t seem so keen to keep this part of their culture intact.
Carlota Ameneiro, 16, doesn’t think any animals should suffer for entertainment.
“We don’t like it,” Ameneiro said, referring to she and her friends. “It is a torture that harms the animal. It’s something that represents our country, but it’s truly barbaric.”
There have been many moves to outlaw bullfighting. It’s been outlawed in the Catalonia region and the Canary Islands so far. Still, the practice persists as it is recognized officially as a part of Spain’s heritage.
Cut back to Seville. I was baking in the sun, the freshly purchased sunscreen from El Cortes Ingles not completely rubbed into my skin and I had just witnessed six bulls gored to death. I was feeling pretty weird. Angrily, while trying to figure out how to eat sunflower seeds with finesse, I glared at the people around me. They were giving the matador a standing ovation as he waved the bull’s dismembered ear above his head like some kind of blue ribbon.
I felt betrayed by Tom and Jerry, by Bugs Bunny, the Pink Panther, and Walt Disney. In my mind, cartoon violence didn’t equate real life violence. There was no way I expected it to be more graphic.