Trost: Bullfighting Remains Untouched Artform
“Only tourists go to bullfights,” the woman I’m staying with told me. Though she’s lived in Madrid her whole life, she has never entered the striking Plaza de Toros where man has fought beast for almost 300 years, at a time when blood didn’t make the public squeamish.
And she was right for the most part. The stadium was brimming with American students, European tourists and other foreigners who were coming to try to see something considered authentically Spanish, though only a minority of the population has experienced it firsthand.
The building itself was something to marvel at. The extravagant architecture was fitting for a historical institution. But though one walked through the Muslim influenced Herradura archways, it was hard to feel transported to an age where bullfighting wasn’t just a tourist attraction but an essential part of Spanish life. Loud Americans donning cowboy hats waited in line for their 3-Euro Heineken beers. Eastern European women used tacky umbrellas to guard themselves from the Spanish heat. Asian tourists wearing fanny packs and carrying copies of Madrid tour guides struggled to find their seats.
It was not surprising that a large tourist crowd had flocked to the stadium that day. It was a national holiday, celebrating the Patroness of Spain, Pilar, as well as the day that Christopher Columbus discovered America. Many native Spaniards spent the day at the parade and enjoying a day off. Also, last week’s bullfight had brought about major media attention throughout Europe, as one matador’s eye was gouged out by a bull’s horn (click here for the picture, but be warned it is very gruesome).
The festivities started with a booming drum and brassy horns as the matadors and picadors on horses entered the ring. The first bull gave the tourist audience all that they had come to see. It immediately dashed into the stands while trying to destroy the matador, and after a couple minutes successfully got hold of him, as the matador was lifted into the air and flung onto the bull’s back, swinging around as if he were a rag doll. Luckily, he remained unscathed. And the fight in the ring wasn’t the only fight to begin within the first 30 minutes, as a minor argument erupted in the stands next to us between two older gentlemen. It was just like being at Fenway.
But after the first three bulls had met their maker, the stadium had begun to thin, and the true Spanish fans were revealed. Almost all of the American students I had come with had left, and I was left alone to explore the passion behind the Spanish institution. A group of four native Spaniards sat behind me. Smoking a cigar and sipping their Mahou beers they told us that for them bullfighting was an intrinsic part of Spanish culture, and that they frequented the bullfights.
The stadium was suddenly quiet, with people yelling out “cállate” during the most dramatic moments of each fight. The audience also erupted into chants of “olé” as the matador toyed with the bull, flashing his red cape back and forth.
The tourist audience may have left satisfied but missed out on a lesson in true bullfighting artistry, as the fourth match highlighted the precision and quickness that it takes to be a matador.
Sitting next to us was an older couple each holding Mexican flags. One of the matadors, Fermín Spínola, was from Mexico, and once the tourist audience had left, it was evident that he had a strong group of Mexican fans.
Spínola’s match was the most exciting of the six, as the Mexican killed the feisty 500- plus kilogram bull in spectacular style. He received a standing ovation and a curtain call after his impressive kill, and the audience waved white handkerchiefs in the air – a remnant of what once was a tradition of throwing roses into the ring. Others threw hats, scarves and Mexican flags at the ornately covered matador as he looped around the stadium.
It was a confluence of the new and the old. There were tourists with cameras that lacked any knowledge of technique or tradition, but there were also a strong cohort of Spaniards smoking and drinking, wiping their brows against the hot sun.
Bullfighting is on the precipice of being abolished nationwide in Spain. Already outlawed in Catalonia, several men stood at the entrance of the Plaza handing out petitions to protect bullfighting. A rough translation of the preamble says “La fiesta de los Toros forms a part of global Spanish culture, of heritage and common culture for every Spaniard. It is a sign of a collective identity.”
So yes, perhaps the majority of the people who flock to the bullfights are tourists and the majority of the Spanish population does not see it as something that is intrinsically Spanish. Regardless, I see it as something that would be a pity for Spain to lose, as behind the popular façade, one can still find a pure form of art. One that remains untouched from the modernity and resistant to the pressures of globalization.