Olé! – Spanish bullfight! (blast from the past)

Back in 2001, I had the opportunity to travel to this fantastic country where breakfast would be cerveza (beer) and jamón (dry-cured Spanish ham) and where many restaurants don’t even open for dinner till 8pm.

The story has been recycled and slightly tweaked from a long time write-up posted on my photo-sharing site (webaperture) which I’m closing end of this year. I figured it was a good time again to dig through my old scanned archives, process them a bit differently and in Photoshop CS4 — I was using Photoshop 6.0 then! I shot about 6 rolls of film (gasp!) within the hour-long event. I would have shot more but light levels were dropping and I only had ISO100 left after exhausting all my ISO400 film! Shooting digital, I would have just jacked the ISO up! Film was Kodak Supra 100 and Supra 400 (I later switched to Kodak Portra series). Cameras & Lenses: EOS-30 with 70-200 f/2.8 with 2X teleconverter, resulting in a 140-400 f/5.6 lens and an EOS-50E with a 24-85 f/3.5-4.5 lens. This was before my big shift to transparency film (aka slides) such as Fuji’s super-saturated Velvia 50 and Kodakchromes (along with ekta and elitechromes).

The bull ring at Madrid

The Iberian Peninsula forms a link of sorts between Europe and Africa and that makes it not only an interestingly unique country among Europe but one of the most culturally rich as well. Strategically located, it was invaded and visited by many, the Celts, the Phoenicans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors. It is also the home of the fierce Iberian bull. This also makes Spain such a historically rich country that one can be really confused where to start. I mean look at the depth of this country’s history and cultural roots. Many consider bullfighting as such an essential part to Spanish machismo. So one day, while we were stuffing ourselves with tapas and beer in Madrid, we decided that we’d watch a bullfight. Bullfighting would be quite an exciting start to our cultural tour of Spain since it is so much a part of Spain that almost everyone you meet will associate it with Spain although some Latin American countries also do it. Famous Spanish painters like Goya or Picasso have glorified it. If you drive around Spain, it’s unlikely that you’d miss these huge billboards in the shape of a bull.

The bull ring at Malaga

Now, don’t get me wrong. Even if you’re against this event, I still think you should go watch one. The problem is, how do you go about watching a bullfight. I mean most Spanish cities have these huge bullfighting stadiums called Bull Rings, all of which probably hearkens back to the decadent days of the Roman Empire where slaves and gladiators fought each other and animals in such arenas. When I approached the first bull ring I saw in Seville, I saw this long winding line of people. What they were queuing up for was never apparent to me despite walking around the entire ring and looking lost. The signs were all in Spanish and I gave up — hey, these were the days before google, mobile internet! Now, you’d just pull up your iPhone and google translate it. Anyways, call me lucky or whatever but it just so happens that my Uncle was posted to Spain as an ambassador. I figure he’d we able to get me some tickets. What’s the use of being an ambassador if you can’t get tickets to a bullfight. Again, I was fortunate to be in Spain in April since the bullfighting seasons starts after Holy Week which ends with Easter Sunday in April and continues until August. Any other time, and it doesn’t matter who you know because you probably won’t get tickets. Anyhow, so I got my tickets.

A good friend of my Uncle’s, who is a true-blooded Spaniard commented:
“The bullfight is the essence of Spanish-ness and it’s good for you to see one.”
His lovely wife, with a not-so-strong-but-you-can-recognize-it welsh accent replied:
“Ghastly. Cruel.”
Obviously, she wasn’t Spanish by birth. He continued:
“It defines Spanish culture and who we are!”
But she wasn’t finished:

Oh well. I have a fight to catch. Click on the Entry to read more…

The bull ring is, well a ring with the center circle of sand with wooden barriers around. First thing after you enter is you’d notice a whole bunch of people carrying some sort of cushion. Where they get them is a mystery as I was never able to find out. I did get the answer to the question of why they needed the cushions because once I got to my seat, it was basically a stone bench. It was also rather hard, I mean much harder than other stone benches I’ve sat on. Without being too endowed in that area of my body meant I probably can’t sit for too long so I resorted to shifting my weight from side to side. At least I got a good seat in terms of location.

Opening Parade
A bullfight typically starts with a parade or sorts with all the participants except for the bulls of course, with music, and quite a bit of fanfare after which, the first bull will be released for the fight. A total of six bulls will be introduced to the ring for each fight with each fight having three distinct phases. Each fight lasts roughly fifteen to twenty minutes although some can be a bit shorter or considerably longer, depending on the skill of the matador.

After some fanfare of which I couldn’t understand and some rousing music played by the band, the tension in the air rose to a point that any idiot can deduce that some event of life and death is about to happen. Well, not exactly yet. A few mounted bullfighters entered the arena carrying a pretty mean looking lance followed by some others on foot with a pink cape. The costumes were extremely extravagant but I’d read somewhere that some species of apes bred in captivity and very used to human contact can sort of know when a human being is dressed silly and turn violent. I don’t suppose that’s how the bulls feel about their costumes. They are very expensive and rather heavy costumes mind you. Not to mention intricate and colorful. There are quite nice but I still cannot stand those pink stockings.

Bullfighting has been a rite that dates back a long time and it is steeped in myth, tradition and history. It’s origins are unclear, but for some, it’s about life and death; a man, a bull, a fight, and one of them must die. In Europe at least, the bull is quite a symbolic creature not unlike a lion in Africa. Ancient Neanderthals painted bisons and bulls on cave walls. Greek mythology has the minotaur, a half-man, half-bull creature. Fighting the bulls is often a sign of bravery and courage. Then again, archeological digs have found that ancient Europeans used the skins of animals, including the bull, for clothing and shelter, which may mean that the first bullfight probably occurred because some poor chap was hungry, homeless, and naked.

The first historic bullfight or the proper word for it is corrida took place in Vera, Logroño, during the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. This occurred in 1133 although bullfighting was already occurring throughout Spain. From this point, many bullfights or corridas were held to celebrate important events. I suppose they didn’t have much forms of entertainment then but it probably also made quite a show at Royal functions and all and not to mention impress a few fair maidens along the way. A good way to fame and fortune if one didn’t get gored and killed in the process. Europe didn’t have any other fiercer creature so a fight between such a fearsome and awesome beast was, quite properly, a test of bravery and strength. In some parts of India, hunting and killing a lion was also a test of courage.

Initially, before all the arenas came about, the bullfight was done on horseback. I suppose any ordinary human being would have died from exhaustion chasing the bull around, or the other way around more like it. The first bullfighters also did not have the luxury of the burladero or wooden shield where there are four in each bull ring for the fighters can take cover. As such mounted fighters stood a better chance of winning. Fighting on horseback was still practiced at Royal functions even though they were held in enclosed arenas. Later on, during the Bourbon dynasty, the nobility gave up the sport. I don’t think all that inbreeding had anything to do with it but perhaps their lineage was being already decimated by political infighting that throwing whatever good genes they have into the bull ring wasn’t such a good idea. This is when the commoners took up the sport. This is when a common man, from possibly unknown origins, could upset the nobility and claim immortal fame in legends and song and become the first professional bullfighter. This simple man was Francisco Romero. Obviously commoners couldn’t afford horses so they fought on foot but it could be that the horses didn’t want part of this entire charade and would run the hell out of the ring. Of course, once Romero has achieved fame, many others followed in his footsteps, and among the more famous are Rafael Molina, Belmonte and Manolete.

Juan Belmonte actually revolutionized bullfighting by breaking rules and was immortalized by Hemingway. In fact, upon hearing of Hemingway’s sucide, Belmonte shot himself five months later. It actually elevated him to greater heights of fame and legend.

The modern form, which majority of it is mostly derived from two famous schools, the Rondena from Ronda and the Sevillana from Seville, has the mounted fighters providing a supporting role to the main stars, the matador on foot. Probably to lessen the critics and animal rights supporters, mounted fighters have padded their horses and blindfolded them. You can see some horses taking a dump in the ring. Don’t make fun of them though because how would you like it if you were wrapped in armor, blindfolded and led into a ring to be charged and knocked about by some raging angry beast. They are very well trained horses by the way but you could be brave and still crap in your pants if you faced these bulls.

Speaking of the bulls, the black bulls in the ring are descended from an elite breed of Iberian bull, specially bred for the prized traits of aggressiveness and bravery. These bulls are bred by stables which some have become as famous as the matadors themselves because of the ferocity of their bulls. Some of these stables trace their history back several hundred years. Each stable has its own symbol with which they brand their bulls. Each bull has to be at least four years old before it is allowed to fight in the arena. I was told the bulls live a full life, have complete freedom and are well taken care off but of course, this doesn’t soften the critics one bit. On our way up to Segovia from Madrid, you can see some of these bulls grazing idly in the grasslands, not knowing what fate has in store for them.

A final chorus from the band and the first bull was soon let out to the crowds’ enthusiastic cheers. At first, it’s all confusing to see all the motion in the ring and try to make sense of it but soon it became apparently clear. The Spaniards are absolutely suicidal or hell of a courageous lot. That bull looks like it can charge through steel with ease and these people are standing around with their flimsy pink capes. How futile. Well, the bull probably thinks that way too and starts charging. The purpose of the matadors on foot with their pink capes is to lure the bull to enable the mounted fighters or Picadores to stab the bull with their spears. The spears used by the picadores have a device to prevent the spear from penetrating too deeply. The goal here is to weaken the bull’s back. One bull gets into a rage and flips this poor horse over, and the crowd cheers! A few ardent fans stand up and start yelling “Go Toro! Go Toro!” (Toro is Spanish for bull). Laden down with all the armor, the horse can’t right itself so the unmounted matadors distract the bull while several assistants rush over to help lift the helpless horse back on its feet.

After three thrusts, the picadores retreat behind the wooden fence much to the bull’s disgust I’m sure. Anyone who pokes me three times with that long pointed stick better stand and fight. Of course I learn that the rules say that three’s the limit. So begins the next phase in the fight which requires a matador stick a pair of darts into the bull’s back. This looks really tricky but the matadors seem to be exceptionally skilled as they accomplish this task without much effort but with much fanfare and style. Of course sometimes the bull wins, so a few attempts fail and the darts are flung off the bull for the matadors to try again. I discover that the matador does not always manage to dodge the bull at the last moment, and throughout bullfighting history, you’d find matadors injured or killed by being gored by the bulls. Secretly and perversely, I wished something like that would happen. Not that I have anything against the particular matador but for selfish reasons, I thought it’ll make a good story and darn good photographs to boot.

As per the rules again, after three pairs of darts have been successfully attached to the bull’s back, the final phase begins. This is called La Hora Suprema or the Supreme hour. A lone matador walks in to confront the bull, armed with a red cape and a sword. It’s common I hear for them to offer the kill or a lady or friend. The matador makes a few more passes at the bull with his cape. The bull is looking rather haggard and bloodied by now but who wouldn’t after all that. The final kill is performed with a special type of sword and honestly, I was quite surprised how quickly it ended. Well, I was very wrong because some bulls are a lot tougher and well, not all matadors are equally skilled.

This kill however was particularly artful and skillful so the crowd stands, and cheers enthusiastically, waving white handkerchiefs although some ended up using whatever white material they have including tissue paper and carrefour plastic bags.

The dead bull is then dragged out of the ring by a team of horses. If the bull has been brave, it could be dragged around the ring. Should the bull not die after three strikes with the sword, the bull will be set free. I don’t think this happens often. However, if the bull is down but not dead, a short dagger or puntilla is used to end the painful death quickly I suppose.

After the fight ended with six bulls killed and two having escaped with their lives, one for bravery and the other, well, it just refused to fight and was jeered out of the ring. Watching this entire event set me thinking. On one side, it’s really an act and show of bravery to actually enter the ring and fight a bull, but on the flip side, it’s can be considered a bit cruel to kill an animal for sport. However, many claim the English translation of torrear into bullfight is incorrect, and bullfighting is actually the avoidance of a brutal confrontation with human grace, intelligence and elegance. In a way, it’s no sport because I could observe nothing related to scoring or points. Wins are non-existent and when the fans shout olé in cheer of the matador is not because he killed the bull but rather the flair, skill and artful maneuvers he has performed. Although almost all matadors are male, Cristina Sanchez is Spain’s only female matador and her fame is equally due to her flair and skill. Almost everywhere in Spain, the bull or symbols of the bull are quite evident in many places, from the cafes to grassy landscapes, from ancient monuments to chic t-shirts in the tourist areas. It’s so much a part of Spain that honestly, it will be a sad day indeed if the critics managed to get it banned — maybe they just need to make it end in a less violent manner.