Take Me Out to the Bullfight

Today’s slide show: Images from the Basque Country.

Bullfighting has its detractors

In a city that’s home to a long-established terrorist organization, even the tamest protest is taken seriously. The 40 or so protesters waving anti-bullfight placards outside the Vista Alegre bullring last Wednesday were faced not only with thousands of aficionados, aggravated that their path to the corrida was blocked by screaming demonstrators, but also by 10 or so armed members of the Ertzantza, the autonomous Basque police force.

The protest was rather thin on rousing slogans: “Toreros, taurinos, asesinos!Llueva sangre, es macara” (“Bullfighters, aficionados, killers! … It’s bloody, it’s macabre”) was pretty much the extent of it. In a city that’s theoretically bilingual, the Spanish-only chanting seemed out of place, but I guess no one could think of a rhyme for zezenak—the Euskara word for “bull.”

The demonstrators didn’t persuade anyone to stay away from the bullring. Of course bullfighting is cruel—it would be hard to argue that placing an animal in a ring, where it’s stabbed with a dart, taunted, stuck with a lance by a man on horseback, pierced by barbed sticks, then taunted some more until someone drives a sword into its neck is anything but cruel. It’s also incredibly beautiful—an improvisational art form of exquisite grace, where one misstep or lost focus can mean death and dismemberment.

Antonio Barrera summons the bull with the muleta

For aficionados, the disassociation of bullfighting from animal cruelty is partly the lack of sentimentality country people have for animals—bullfighting may now be a largely urban phenomenon, but its roots are out on the range—and partly because, for aficionados, a “corrida de toros” (running of the bulls—the misguided notion of “fighting” originates in the English translation) is about studying and appreciating the behavior of the bull in the face of human punishment. A brave bull always receives a round of applause when its body is removed from the ring, and the most important part of a bullfight review (an exquisitely poetic form of journalism) is the assessment of the bulls—the toreros come later.

It’s a tough ticket—the “good” corridas of the festival, with the hottest matadors, sold out, despite a top price of more than $100. Bullrings are always full of people wanting to see and be seen—Lehendaraki Juan José Ibarretxe, the leader of the Basque government, took a turn around the ring before the toreros arrived, and the section of the local paper devoted to the bulls read like a social register for the Bilbao establishment. The woman sitting directly behind me spent half the corrida working her way through the numbers in her cell phone. (“Can you see me? I’m right in front of the president’s box. I’m in fuschia.”) Bullfights are also where you see Spaniards at their hottest—figuratively and literally: There’s enough fanning by the people in the sunny seats to induce an epileptic seizure.

The seats in Madrid-area bullrings are full of cynics—if you want to prepare yourself for the questioning that inevitably follows a bullfight (when people ask, “How was the corrida?” they want a bull-by-bull account, not a “very nice thanks” brush-off), it’s generally safe to turn your nose up at the bullfighters, the bulls, and the ranch they came from. In Madrid, my standard response to that inquiry is, “Cosas sueltas dignas de ver, pero los toros impresentables, los picadores malísimos, y el presidente una desgracia.” (“Some isolated things worth seeing, but the bulls weren’t up to snuff, the guys on horseback were terrible, and the president [who oversees the conduct of the event] was a disgrace.”)

The Bilbao crowd is much kinder: Madrid’s bleacher bums bay for blood throughout the corrida, but the only time the Bilbaínos raised their voices in complaint was to implore the band to play some music while a matador worked the bull. To be fair, though, Wednesday’s corrida was outstanding: decent bulls, grace and bravery by the toreros, and excellent drama. In the fifth bull of the day, El Juli made a gesture worthy of a movie actor playing God, pointing his finger at the creature’s head, ordering it to die—the fact that he’d stuck a sword in its shoulders moments before made this seem a smidge theatrical. In the fourth, Miguel Abellán killed well, but just as he placed the sword, the bull used the last of its strength to gore him in the thigh. He struggled to his feet and took his victory lap staggering like a bad actor taking five minutes to die. Ten minutes later, Abellán was out of the infirmary strapped up and sharing his thoughts with a TV interviewer.

For many fans, bullfighting represents tradition—it’s “la fiesta nacional,” Spain’s unique heritage—just as important to preserve as roots music and the choreography of medieval dances. Tradition is particularly important to Basques, who proudly proclaim themselves Europe’s most ancient people, but the Aste Nagusia festival is just 25 years old. In 1978, social activists energized by the stirrings of post-Franco democratic movements set out to organize a truly “popular” fiesta—and many of the elements they came up with survive today.

By now most of the inventions have developed their own traditions. The figure of festival mascot Marijaia—a lite version of Mari, the Basque Country’s great goddess—is everywhere; as is “Badator Marijaia,” local musician Kepa Junkera’s tribute to the festival, which blasts from loudspeakers throughout the fiestas. Truth be told, it’s a damned catchy tune—I go to sleep singing it to myself, despite the mysterious Euskara lyrics.