The best Easter I ever had was spent in some unknown pueblo in Oaxaca, Mexico. The year was 2009, and by car I had traveled with a bunch of people I barely knew to some hidden village tucked away in the mountains. I had spent the day hiking in a vanilla/coffee plantation, and wearing only my underwear swam in the coldest mountain spring I’ve ever found. When it became night the sky was wrapped a blanket full of starts. I and the others I was with, hung outside a fence drinking Coca-Cola’s and through the holes of the fence tried to see as much as we could of the rodeo that was taking place on the other side. We didn’t have enough money to join the people wearing cowboy hats and fancy skin boots, but we were content non the less.
That year, I was far away from friends and family.There was nothing traditional or familiar. I thought and still think that it will probably be the best Easter I’ve ever had.
This year, I wanted to keep with that tradition. The tradition of doing nothing traditional for a holiday spent abroad away from family and friends. I warmly reflected on Mexico and then came across tickets to see a bullfight in Malaga. I imagine to formally study Spanish it is impossible to not at least once discuss the topic of bullfighting in Spain, as which I had in former Spanish classes. So I was well aware that a bullfight would be sharply distinct from any rodeo that I may have gone to. I was already against the bullfights before I went, but as I hope they will be banned someday (soon) I thought it would be an interesting opportunity for a first hand experience, and a way to remember Easter 2012 by. Thinking in terms of the reflection of innocent sacrifice.
I didn’t want to google information, or look up videos before I went. Honestly, as soon as I bought the ticket I was terrified for what I was about to witness. That feeling continued with me as I walked up to the Plaza de Toros, which was bustling with people, tourists and Spanish alike. It was a slow and sickening walk to my entrance gate, number 10…I had to make a full circle around the ring before entering, I started to get really nervous and felt sick. I entered, and after making a run to the bar- beer to calm me down please!- I made my way to my seat.
The ring was a decent size, but small enough so that the whole time I could see everything with good detail. It was all the details that made it so hard for me. The hot sun beating down on me, making me sweat. The bugles and trumpets that sounded signaling something violent was about to occur, the bulls’ s loud moans of death echoing and amplified as it was being stabbed, the aggressive cheers of encouragement from the audience, the man walking around shouting ‘potato chips for sale’, the squawking of the seagulls that circled the ring and touched down to pick at bits- it all came together to create this very vivid experience. One so vivid I’ve been continuing to have violent nightmares when I sleep.
One of the most haunting things beyond seeing the slow, and very torturous killing of a majestic animal were the reactions of the people. What in particular stands out in my mind is the father who sat in front of me. A Spaniard who had brought his very young son and his young niece to event. I was witnessing in effect the passing of pride and an idolized cultural pastime. The boy, sat in his fathers lap, and looked to him for cues as for when to cheer, and mimicked in his small voice “Ole”. I watched him learn how and when to wave his Kleenex that looked like his dad’s white handkerchief when the matador had ‘fought well’. His niece was older, but still a young girl. From the mouth of missing baby teeth she flung out comments like, ‘Come on! What’s this guy’s problem!’ and ‘For heaven’s sakes already, kill it’ and other things that, as I was holding back my tears and gasps, she was something between bored and annoyed with the performance, as if completely oblivious to the fact that this bleeding and dying animal was in front of her.
The father was nice to me though. The children left early, but not because they were disturbed. He offered me the seat next to him, as he was in the very front row, and I had been taking pictures (as a way of distraction) and talked a bit to the kids. We exchanged dialog, and after one of the killings he asked me how I liked it. I told him my knees and tummy were trembling. He suddenly looked real concerned and offered me a sandwich (as people eat refreshments while watching). I looked at him, paused and said, ‘my tummy is trembling for the bull’. He rolled his eyes and said, well in Spanish if you say that it means because you’re hungry. I don’t think thats true.
Bullfights have been banned in las Islas Canarias, and also in Barcelona (although some people say the ban in Barca is more political than animal rights). There are bullfights though, like in Portugal where the animal is not killed in the end. I understand that bullfighting has an old and rich history in Spain, I guess I just don’t understand why. It was disgusting to watch. While I’m ‘glad’ I went, it was very disturbing and I would completely support the ban of the sport entirely.
But many people disagree with me. Visibly almost all the people in the ring that day did. For a lot of people bullfighting is not just a tradition, but is a respected art form. That makes me think a lot about what I find to be art. In the end I conclude for myself it is not art, but sport. But I think it is the idea of art- in the form of story telling, which is a real art form, that has lead to this notion of what bullfighting has been created to be.
The only possible comparison that I personally know of would be deer hunting.
I grew up in a family of deer hunters through my father’s side. Growing up it was a dinner treat to receive venison ring bolony, with a side of mashed potatoes and corn. I knew all the words to the ’30 pt buck song’ in elementary school, I helped my father build and maintain deer stands on our land every summer, and he showed me how to distinguish their tracks in the mud. Before I could hunt myself I was allowed to go with my dad, uncle, cousins and grandpa and wake up early dressed in all orange, with hand-warmers stuffed in my boots and gloves, and sit for hours in the cold looking at the same spot, often falling asleep. I got to be in charge of the walkie-talkies, and would wait to hear that someone else had seen movement, or better yet, hear the echoes of a bullet fired deep in the woods. I learned about every aspect of deer hunting. I had seen the preparation for the season, I learned how track, to sit and be quiet, to spot a hidden deer, I learned how to gut an animal, and even as a child I was taken to where the animal was processed and would be a bit sickened by the smell of death and seeing carcasses and parts everywhere. Yet when I was 12 I was so proud to get my own rifle, made special for me to be lighter and shorter, and to have an official license to kill.
It wasn’t till my second year hunting though, when I was 13 that I ‘got’ my first deer. Basically, what happened was I was in a tree, waiting, a deer came past, I picked up my rifle and shot it. Thats basically what happens with every hunter actually. But thats not how its told. Ever. Part of deer hunting is a learning how to tell your story. Its partially from that story, full of details and elaborations that the excitement and tradition of deer hunting lives on.
I had been waiting for hours already by that time. Cold and bored and loosing my enthusiasm. Then it appeared, literally forming in front of my eyes that had been staring at the same shades of brown and green for the whole day. It was a small female, thin but healthy. Adrenaline surged through my veins and I squinted my eye and put its neck area in my crosshairs. My father was next to me and I couldn’t disappoint him, this was my moment. I watched the doe, it had stopped moving, it could sense our prescence…it either heard or smelled us, or both. Its eyes looked so big and never seemed to blink. I couldn’t breathe. Worse, I couldn’t pull the trigger. I started to panic and froze up, not able to do anything but just watch it. My dad softly whispered in my ear, ‘shoot’. I wanted to but I couldn’t. Then as it started to walk away I took aim, pulling the butt of the gun tight to my shoulder, I held my breath and pulled the trigger, and fired the shot that killed the deer.
My first reaction was to cry. I sobbed and choked on my tears. My dad says to me, ‘why are you crying’? I said ‘I don’t know’, and stopped, and became proud and happy. I felt like a hero later that day and told my story to everyone, each time making it a bit more exiting and dramatic.
I never went hunting again after that. I don’t find anything wrong with hunting, its just not for me anymore. But everything that built up to that time was glorified in that moment and will forever live on in story.
I think thats how bullfighting is in a way. Matadors can start training as children, who have looked up to an older generation of fighters, they learn the ways and skills of a fighter, they hear the proud stories of bravery, man-hood, near death encounters, and then they come to that day when they too can put on the uniform and step into the ring and create their own story, and become their own legend. This legend is fed by the crowd, who too come and share the stories of the fights they have seen. Newspapers and books- even authors like the famous Hemingway- make such a splendor out of the sport. Less and less it becomes that a man with a sword, who stands in front of a bull previously wounded and unable to defend itself properly, and he kills the bull, slowly, and that the bull dies in agony and suffering, so that for 30 bucks people can enjoy 2 hours of entertainment.