I was in Spain during San Isidro in Madrid, the season in which bullfighting is in full swing. The months of May and June bring the biggest crowds to Plaza de Toros Las Ventas, the bullfighting ring of Madrid. During May there is a corrida de toros, a bullfight on foot; everyday seven days a week at seven o’clock in the evening. I happened to attend one of the last “big” corridas of the month. It included the famous matadors Rafaelillo, Javier Castaño and Serafín Marín. All three matadores had to face two bulls each during this corrida. I had done very minimal research before attending my first bullfight; I was going off of the YouTube videos and small articles I had glanced at prior to my visit to Spain.
Three days prior to my attendance to Plaza de Toros Las Ventas a few friends, also visiting Spain for the first time, had attended their first bullfight. I had just happened to lay my ears on the converstion they were engaged in a few feet away from me. I let myself into their conversation by saying, “So I was just listening to you guys talk about the bullfight, I plan on going this weekend, what did you think about it?” Their eyes glaring at me as I waited for a response caused me to fell anxious about their accounts. “It was worse than I thought it would be”, was the response that broke the deafening silence. “Did you know what to expect going into it?” I replied. “Well, I watched Youtube videos the night before and they didn’t seem too bad.” I quickly realized that my minimal research may not be sufficient enough to prepare me for my first Spanish bullfight. I asked question after question in search of a comforting response, but all I kept hearing was, “It was so bloody.” “I was kind of scared.” “I almost cried.” The worst response I heard was unimaginable, “There was blood everywhere, it was so hard to watch, I mean it was so hot, and crowded everything just made me fel sick to my stomach. I watched them torture the poor bull.” Torture? Is that what I was going to be a witness to on Sunday? I was beginning to doubt whether or not I was willing to watch such a horrific sight, but my friend who agreed to accompany me convinced me that a bullfight is a deep rooted part of the Spanish culture. I wanted to fully immerse myself into the Spanish culture, so I had to go see the bullfight, I couldn’t pass this experience up.
On Sunday June 7, 2015 my friend and I set off for Las Ventas to watch our first Spanish bullfight. While on the metro we discussed what we might be witnessing this evening. Would we be able to stomach the sight of an animal being gorged and taunted by men wielding weapons? Was it going to be as gruesome as the others had said? What if we enjoy it, does that make us inhumane? As these thoughts rushed through my head I tried to gain a grasp on what a bullfight meant to the Spanish people.
A brief history of La Corrida: bulls are brought out to face a matador, it is a tradition almost as old as Spain itself. It made its way to Spain via the Iberian Peninsula around the year 711 A.D. La Corrida we are familiar with today was not implemented until the Moors of Northern Africa brought the spectacle to life. Men mounted on horses would show their sheer power over the bull by thrusting a spear like weapon into its back. The tradition of this continued and has come to take the form of bullfighting we now see in the twenty-first century.
Today, the men on horses symbolize the overthrowing of a powerful beast just as in the eighth century. It seems like such a meaningless act to prove one’s power over something that seems quite harmless, but it is a tradition that holds so much esteem for the Spaniards and their pride. The bullfight of today, is a much larger demonstration of that Spanish pride. Now there are teams of men facing off with a mighty beast in the ring that millions of people have come to love. A matador or torero is the man everyone fills stadiums to see, but there are also the men that help him weaken the bull. The picadors, and banderillreos are the ones who face the bull before the “moment of truth” between el matador and El Toro. There are usually three matadors who have to face two bulls each, they dance with the bull before they test its ultimate strength and kill it.
The matador symbolizes the strength and “machismo” (masculine nature) of Spain, he has to face the bull himself and test his strength against this mighty beast that stands before him. It seems like such a valiant story, but is it really worth watching six bulls in one corrida be slaughtered to prove that they are a man of power? This still seems like a gruesome act to me, but I thought why not give it a chance and let the bullfight speak for itself. Would it speak to me at all? Would I really understand why Spaniards love such a bloody scene? All questions whirled through my head and I hoped by then end of the night I would know what my true and honest feelings about La corrida were.
The trip on the metro took a little over twenty minutes but we had left approximately two hours in advance, because we did not know what to expect on a Sunday evening and we wanted to make sure we were able to purchase our tickets. Walking out of from the metro the first sight is the big and grand arena. It is an enormous structure that resembles the Colosseum in Rome, only smaller; it is a striking first sight when you arise from the dark metro below ground. The brick color looks a faded red when hit by the sun, but as the building rests in the shade the brightness of the brick looks brand new. The arches displayed the Arabic architecture that influenced not only the building, but the bullfight itself with white and red stripes flowing through them. The rounded front of the building is met by two squared off pillars that wield the Spanish flag waving with pride in the summer breeze. The flags were the first symbol of the Spanish pride that the corrida embodied.
Arriving two hours early was not the best decision we had made because after our attention was no longer focused on the beauty of the building, we realized there were only a handful of people there and most of them were vendors, or people selling tickets. We walked around and heard a voice come from one of the ticket booths set up next to the exit of the metro, “Billetes para hoy, muy baratos para los dos” We walked up to the man and he asked us if we wanted to buy tickets in el sol o la sombra (in the sun or the shade). We asked for the price difference and since it was only two more euros to sit comfortably in the shade, so we made the easy decision and purchased our tickets en la sombra.
After purchasing our tickets we walked around the huge stadium to see if we could get in early. We should have known that in the Spanish culture being early makes no difference in the experience, there was no way of entering early so we decide to explore the outside of this grand piece of architecture. Looking up at the Roman inspired arches, with a hint of Arabic pizzazz in the colors and pointed tips, the long corridors, and vast space between each entrance was like being sent back in time. In my head, I pictured people dressed in royal colors of purple and red walking down the corridors discussing politics and placing bets on the bullfight. There was so much detail in every corner of the stadium, beauty of the exterior had me wondering how such a bloody tradition is held just a few feet inside of these walls.
We waited at the gate with our waters in hand twenty minutes before the doors were scheduled to open. While standing there I found myself just people watching, noticing that the Spaniards were the ones with big bags filled with alcohol and snacks and the tourists with small backpacks or purses. I also took notice of the way people were dressed; this was an occasion that most Spaniards dressed up for as a symbol of respect for this ancient tradition; I was in shorts and a T-shirt with a baseball cap of my team back home which made me feel like such an obvious foreigner. There was so much smoke in the air it was suffocating, but this is Spain smoking is a norm here. I just hoped that once inside I would not be surrounded by a cloud of smoke. Finally the gates began to open and people crowded around the doors pushing and shoving all trying to get to the front as if they were late. I anxiously pushed my way through with the crowd.
Walking in there were people renting out seat cushions and I thought to myself, “Great, I am in for an uncomfortable two hours.” I decided not to rent a seat cushion because I wanted to really experience the entirety of this bullfight, the heat, the uncomfortablility, and the spectacle that is the bullfight. Walking past the entrance the walls within the stadium did not match the beauty of the exterior we had been so captivated by earlier everything was so plain, there were hardly any details on the walls. We looked for where we were going to sit down and as we walked down the hall, there was a bar at every entrance offering refreshments such as tinto de verrano (sangria), cerveza (beer), and so much more. Most people went directly to their seats but I wanted to stay out of the sun as long as possible, so we walked around and looked at the stories of the great Toreros (matadors/bullfighters) and began to get a sense of what the corrida meant to the Spanish. Only the brave took on a bull and only the great lived to tell about it. Toreros were the opitomy of “machismo” because they layed their life on the ground everytime they stepped foot in the ring. Spaniard find toreros to be their real life heroes because of the honor they carried by comfronting death and beating it time and time again.
It was about ten minutes until the first bull was scheduled to make its appearance, so we walked into the blazing hot sun and were guided by an employee drenched in sweat to our seats. We took our seats and waited for the beginning of this much talked about event. While I was sitting there I just kept thinking if this was a good idea, because I consider myself an animal lover; how could I allow myself to witness this torture? Does my presecenc make me less of an animal lover? The stadium began to fill up there were no empty seats that Sunday evening because this was the last fight for Rafaelillo this month. The horn and drums began to play; a signal that the corrida was about to commence. I looked around and saw so many people hugging, kissing each other on the cheek, shaking hands, and laughing with such great joy. Everyone except myself seemed to be excited for the demonstration of power between man and beast. I felt frozen waiting for what I thought was going to be one of the most difficult sights to witness.
The horns sounded off again and everyone went silent as the picadores, toreos, and banderillreos came out one after the other to acknowledge the crowd. After they had made their round, everyone took their seats and a man with a sign came out to the center of the ring holding up a sign of the torero and the size of the bull he was about to face. I watched with so much anxiety as the men prepared themselves for the first bull. El Toro comes rushing out and the picadores and the banderillreos flashed their brightly colored mats at bull enticing him to charge at them. The bull charged full speed at every man in sight, running into barrier after barrier. Once the bull ran around the ring twice and was dizzied to his knees as the horn sounds for the next round. The picadors rushed out mounted on their horses wielding spear like weapons in their hands. The bull angrily charged the horse; whose eyes were covered and body shilded, the picsdores let the bull get close enough and then he plunged the spere into the bull’s back. The blood begins to glisten down the bull’s broad shoulders and the horn is ounded again. The banderilleros entered the ring antagonizing the bull. They stomped and yelled in order to get the bull’s attention. The bull honed in on the banderilleros and charged full speed ahead. I thought the men were going to run out of the way, but they charged right for the bull. The banderilleros lunge at the bull as they avoid the mighty horns in order to plunge the tooth-pick like weapons into the back of the bull. They repeated this routine two or three times until there were six spikes dangling from the bull’s back. Finally, the matador and el toro face off in the ring.
The bull, blinded with pain by now, attacked the red cape four times until the torero finally plunged his sword into the bull’s back. The crowd went wild, the man sitting next to me screamed out “Horale!” which can be translated as “alright!” His loud cry snapped me back into reality, I had watched the fight but felt as if I was experiencing it from outside my body. I saw the matador and the toro face off, but when I heard that loud, cheerful cry, all I could remember was watching the blood seep out of every pour of the bull. Blood came out from his nostrils as if it were a fountain, his mouth opened and another rush of blood came spewing out. It looked almost fake, like something you would see in a bad horror film; finally the bull charged his last charge at the torero and fell to the ground. The crowd once again broke into a loud surge of deafening cheers at the defeat of the mighty toro.
All that came out of my mouth at that moment was, “That was really intense.” I only stood because everyone else was standing. Men and women alike were hugging and high fiving at the battle that had just occurred. I looked at my friend in disbelief of what I had just seen; a part of me wanted to leave and never return; but I stayed knowing this was a normal thing in Spain and I wanted to get the full experience of the Spanish culture. We sat back down as the horses came out and dragged the lifeless body of the bull out of the ring. At first I did not understand why they had to drag the body of the dead bull as if to prove he was really dead, but then I asked the man next to me why they did that and in his broken English he responded with, “He was great fighter for all to see.” It was a form of respect for the audience to see the sheer size of the beast that had lived and fought with great honor.
We sat back down waiting for the next bull. The smell of beer and smoke surrounded me, we were in an open space but I felt like I was suffocating from the thick clouds of smoke coming from the people surrounding me and that made me even more anxious because I did not want to breathe in that noxious air so, my breathing only became thinner and lighter as we awaited the next bull. I looked down into the ring and the blood was raked away, it seemed as if it was never there and all the matadors took their places once again.
The next bull came charging out of the stable not fazed by the crowd or the noise, he simply attacked matador after matador. They went through the same process as the first bull, but there was something different about this toro he seemed to have a purpose in the ring, he was out for blood.
Rafaelillo came out as the torero and the crowd went wild once again. He was really an entertainer; he got so close to the bull it seemed he had no fear of the beast standing before him. The bull was breathing heavily and Rafaelillio kept shouting “Olé!” The bull attacking the red cape several times did not waver, he was going to make his opponent work for his life. Rafaelillo put on a show for the crowd doing crazy turns, dropping to his knees as the ferocious bull charged at him, and showing his back to the bull. Finally, the bull was becoming tired. Rafaelillo put his hand in between the toro’s eyes and left them there for a brief moment. The crowd went silent and Rafaelillo lifted his hand from the bull’s head, and gave him one last glance as if to say farewell. He took a step back and plunged his sword in the back of the Toro’s neck. The other matadors emerged and distracted him, but this bull was not ready to leave this earth so he charged and charged until he collapsed to the ground and took his last fighting breathe. After the bull was dragged out the crowd went into a craze Rafealillo went around the ring and people threw their hats, seat cushions, water bottles, and so on down as a sign of respect for fighting such a great fight. He was victorious and he showed the crowd that he could show some compassion to the mighty beast.
The rest of the corrida seemed to go by so fast, it was over before I knew it. I was unsure of whether or not I had enjoyed the bullfight or if I had just sat there because I felt I had to. I struggled with that dilemma for several days after the bullfight until I decided I would not let other people’s opinion of this ancient tradition sway my feelings. After having a discussion in class about bullfighting I came to the conclusion that it was something that everyone had to judge for themselves. They could deem it inhumane, or they can get joy from watching it; either way they decided to feel about it is fine. There is no right or wrong way to feel about a bullfight, it is a tradition that has lived on for centuries that gives Spaniards a sense of pride; something they call their own. The bull lived a full prosperous life grazing freely and left this earth as a hero. The torero and the toro met in battle; a beautiful site witnessed by hundreds, of man and beast standing face to face not knowing who is going to be the last one standing at the end of the fight. Both putting their best foot forward and meeting somewhere in the middle to acknowledge each other as mighty warriors, worthy opponents, and heroes in their own respect. That is a story that has to be witnessed, because word of mouth does not suffice the moments you see during this epic tale of two warriors.
To conclude, I enjoyed my first bullfight even though I struggled with it at the begging because I was worried about what others were going to think if I admitted to liking such a gruesome act. At the end of the day the story and meaning behind this Spanish tradition is quite beautiful if you let go of all judgments and just let yourself enjoy the story of two warriors going into battle and showing one another a form of respect. If you can do that then you will begin to understand why Spaniards hold their bullfights in such high regards.