The Spanish bullfight is something that nearly everyone knows about, and if you’re a human being with a heart, probably think is disgusting. And you would be totally correct – it is a completely barbaric act that is still prevalent in the Spanish culture today. Matadors train their entire lives for that moment of glory (or horrific mutilation) in the ring with a weakened bull.
Before coming to Spain I was very on the fence about seeing one of these traditions enacted before me. However, I like to consider myself an active participant in experiencing as much as I can of a culture when I’m on their turf, and in the process, putting my judgments aside. So, I went ahead and added it to my Spanish Bucket List. Lucky me, the Festival of San Isidro came to Las Ventas Bullring in Madrid this past May. Literally, a month long series of bullfights and all the festivities that accompany them. Those poor bulls.
I’m not here to sit and recount the good and the bad of the bullfight, but after watching 3 in one day, I must admit I felt a different way than I had anticipated. After all the blood, shouting, and trumpet playing, I walked away feeling as if I had just sat through the single most thrilling cultural experience of my time in Spain thus far.
Before attending the fight, I had talked with my co-teacher a bit about which fights on the calendar were the best to see, what the different types are, who the famous matadors are, and which are the ones in training. I must admit, I was a bit taken aback by her enthusiasm and phraseology when she gushed about the topic. She was throwing words around like “enthralling” “glamorous” and “beautiful” to describe the bloody event. I told her I thought she was crazy, but that I was now highly intrigued. And with those words tucked in the back of my brain, I went to Las Ventas with two friends to see what all her fuss was about.
When we entered the massive stadium, it felt similar to any other, but more concrete than I had imagined. The arches were high, and the hallways were desolate since the first round of fights had already begun. This was the first tidbit of knowledge I learned: no one is allowed to enter the stadium seating area after a fight has already begun. There are three rounds per fight that are each quite short, but during a fight you are only permitted to exit for urgent reasons. Someone came out with their crying and scarred-for-life child just as we got there. Great.
While we were standing outside the massive red doors waiting to enter for the next round, we met a Spanish gentleman who had purchased a ‘lifetime pass’ for Las Ventas bullfights. Yes, you read that correctly. He was a passionate bullfight attendee and ended up sitting with us for the entire round of fights. He was a wealth of knowledge to us in describing what happens in each round. I think his presence made me appreciate the experience even more.
The fight began with blaring trumpet music announcing the picadors on their blindfolded horses entering the ring. These picadors are the ones who are responsible for weakening the bulls, while the matador watches the bull for any uncharacteristic movements or behaviors. It was so terrible to watch, but as horrible as this sounds, I think the key to ‘enjoying’ such an event is to remove the fact that it’s an animal from the equation, so as to see some of the thrill in it. That statement may get me hated, but it was the realization I came to and I’m sure is why so many people are able to watch fight after fight. During this round, I found myself squealing and gasping with each attempt by a picador to strike his target with his sword.
This is followed by a series of assistant matadors sticking the bulls with decorated knives, and teasing and taunting the bulls with colorful capes. Seriously, they were colorful; not just the typical red cape. I distinctly remember commenting on how colorful the ring looked. Colors aside, this is supposed to exhaust the bull even more, and was quite intriguing and fascinating to watch. Not to mention, many of these assistant matadors are in training for the headliner position.
Then comes the final round, where the main matador and the bull are in quite an unfair faceoff: bloody, crumbling bull versus matador in his sparkly, traje de luces costume. This round is actually the most brutal as can be imagined, due to the killing. However, it’s also when the matador can potentially meet the face of mutilation himself, in which the other matadors have to come in and finish the job. This didn’t happen while I was there, but it did happen the day before.
While this round was absolutely disgusting and sad and every other adjective you can put next to killing an innocent living thing, I found myself returning to the prior revelation: remove the fact that it’s a living animal, and see it for what tradition does; an art. These men train for years to get to this point. Many of the matadors hail from a family of matadors and this is their life’s purpose. I can’t fully wrap my head around that concept – however I did finally understand what my co-teacher meant when she described the fight as “beautiful”. Watching the matadors wave their capes with an air of grace and confidence without an ounce of fear in their bodies felt like watching art in motion.
After the bull went to ‘a better place’, the matador took his victory round, where he cut off an ear of the bull and gallantly strutted around the ring waving the ear high above his head, while viewers threw rewards into the ring. I don’t know what to say, aside from that how something so atrocious could seem so wild, fascinating, and accomplished with such artistry, is truly beyond me. When the doors finally opened for us to exit, the gentleman took us to the matador exit area. We were surrounded by screaming fans who were crazy for these matadors. They are like celebrities in the world of the corrida, and it was an experience to witness it.
The matador was covered in strands of blood all over his traje de luce, which outright grossed me out, but I was so enthralled by the intricacy of the costumes, worn on display only to be destroyed by blood.
It was heartbreaking and inhumane and an experience I don’t think I can accurately convey in words, or forget soon enough, but I am glad I immersed myself in it.
Of course, a bullfight is not for everyone, and my words reflect my own thoughts and feelings attached to the event. I realize that each person has their own ideas for immersion and cultural experiences. I, however, feel as if I was let into a layer of Spanish culture that isn’t so easily encapsulated. The corrida isn’t just a killing but an art form on the Spanish peninsula, and while I know much of the younger generation doesn’t fully accept it, it’s a part of the culture and something to be appreciated in the grand scheme of experiential immersion. That being said, if you are curious, I recommend going to one. If it’s too much for you, then just walk out. You’ll never know how something will affect you until you try it.