The Spanish word for bullfight is “corrida de toros” which translates to “running of bulls.” It is not called a fight because it is not set up to be a fair competition, where man and bull compete on equal terms. A corrida is considered an aesthetic and tragic event in three acts, similar to an opera.
I attended my first bullfight in Pamplona, Spain where I bought a scalped ticket for 30 Euros with two U.S. Air Force pilots I had met that evening for the first bullfight of the festival. Our seats were in “sombra” or the shady section of the arena as opposed to the “sol” or sunny section. Tickets are always divided into “sombra” or “sol”—sombra, being the shady and desirable seats and the sol section receiving most of the direct sun. Understandably, the sol section has the cheapest tickets.
Because of the overly festive atmosphere of the San Fermin festival, Pamplona’s bullfights were somewhat different than other bullfights in Spain. The sol section is occupied by Peñas, San Fermin’s social clubs, each with their own brass band. The bands parade through the streets before and after the fights and all play Pasadobles, the historic music of matadors and flamenco dancers, and provides the soundtrack for key moments during a bullfight. Because the sol section is the party section, the emphasis is on the enjoyment of the party and less on the bullfight itself. The sombra section is full of older, more subdued locals and bull aficionados—connoisseurs and experts of the sport. I was happy to settle in on my small portion of the concrete seating in the shade, surrounded by quiet residents of Pamplona and my new friends. In the sol section partiers were pouring sangria over each other and reveling in the festive atmosphere of the day, surrounded by a cacophony of brass bands.
The bullfight is steeped in ritual and the first event and the event is initiated by a parade of all the “actors” in the arena. The first event consists of a parade in which all the people involved in the bullfight participate, including the president’s official representative, which oversees the corrida, the matadors and their cuadrilla—the team that supports the matador in each fight—and the men who will remove the dead bulls from the ring with their horses or mules. After the parade the first bull is introduced to undergo the “capenado” where the oldest bullfighter works the bull with a cape alone. After this introduction of the bull into the ring the bullfight is underway. Each confrontation with a bull consists of three phases or “acts.”
Act One is called Tercio de Varas or “trial of lances.” During this act the matador does not encounter the bull, instead first phase of the bull’s physical torment is conducted by “picadors.” These are mounted bullfighters that ride blindfolded horses and carry staffs equip with short lances on the end. At this point the bull is at its full strength and must first be worn down so that it focuses its attention on one enemy and it is physically tormented in a way that its head will be lowered, both so it can be caped without hitting the matador in the face with its horns (during the third and final “act”) and it head is down so that the shoulders will be low and open allowing the sword to go in for the final kill. I was unable to get a good image of this part of the bullfight as I was not able to get a good photo from the seats I had at this bullfight. To watch a video of a bull charging a picador and his horse, click here.
When separated from its herd a bull’s main instinct is to charge. When left alone with a picador the bull is supposed to charge the horse, which allows the picador to cut the bull on its morilla, the muscular mass behind its neck and above its shoulders. If the bull does not charge the horse on its own, assistants with capes direct the bull’s attention to the horse. If successful, the bull will come close enough for the picador to use his lance to make his cuts. Cutting the morilla will begin the bleeding of the bull, cause the bull to lower its head and also to become enraged. In the past horses were often killed when the bull charged it when the bull crashed into the horse’s side and goring it. After 1928 horses had to be outfitted with heavy padding and while many are injured it is not as deadly for the horse as it was in the past. Nor does the crowd see the injuries the bull incurs when the horse is covered.
When the picadors are finished with their lances, the “second act” begins called the tercio de banderillas”. The banderillo is the man who will place bandelliras—long sticks decorated with colored paper that end in a barbed metal point—into the bull’s morilla. Banderillas will continue to aggravate the already bleeding bull. The banderillo does this by placing the banderillas in the back of the bull’s neck in pairs when the bull charges him and jumps out of the path of the bull at the last moment. The objective is to focus the bull’s rage at a single man and tire the bull and focus its energy so the bull will execute passes and allow the matador to show off his bravery, “artistry” and skill before he finally kills the bull. In order to accomplish this without thoroughly tiring the bull, the bandalliro may not place all six banderillas that he is allowed to use during this phase of the fight. Sometimes a matador will act as banderillo and matador, but normally the matador’s role happens in the third act, caping the bull and finally killing it. A banderillo’s job is very dangerous, and are as vulnerable to injury or death as a matador. For this reason some banderillos are famous in their own right.
Once the banderilla2s have been placed the matador is ready to enter. A matador is dressed in a Trajes de Luces, which translates to “suit of light”, and is a tight silk suit elaborately embroidered with sequins. The suit is tailored to be tight on the matador’s body so that a horn won’t carelessly catch the fabric. The Traces de Luces is accompanied by tight pink silk tights, slippers, and a felted hat. The matador usually removes the hat before he begins his confrontation with the bull. The red cape, called a muleta, and a wooden sword are the only weapons he has to “fight” the bull with and the matador uses the cape to entice the bull to charge him repeatedly. There are several names for the different moves used during cape work. In order to entice the bull to charge and also be able to be artistic with his body and cape work, a matador has expert knowledge of a bull’s physiology and behavior. The matador knows where the blind spots are because of the bull’s anatomical make up. He or she will also know the bulls breeding and the typical behaviors that a bull should exhibit given its breeding.
Not all bulls will display the desired behavior and the crowd has high expectations for both a matador’s and a bull’s behavior in the arena. A matador must be able to size a bull up and encourage it to charge so that he or she can execute a series of artful passes with the cape. If the bullfighter is doing well, people in the crowd yell “toro”, and if the fight is going badly a matador and bull will often be heckled by the crowd. If things aren’t going well angry whistles emanate through the crowd, signifying cowardice of bull or matador. At this point a bull has lost a significant amount of blood and will be nearing exhaustion, its sides heaving from being injured and exhausted and many bulls have tongues hanging from their open mouths. The matador must determine when the bull will have had enough passes and still want to charge the matador for the death kill. At this moment the matador changes out the wooden sword with a metal one.
When the bull does his final charge the matador is supposed to insert the sword between the bull’s shoulder blades as bull leaps into the air so that it will kill it quickly. If the sword does not kill the bull, the matador must remove it and try again, but if it looks like the sword thrust was fatal then the matador is given another tool to sever the bull’s spine with and kill it “cleanly.” It also happens that the sword hits bone and bounces off the bull and the matador must make it charge again until the bull is killed. It is not unusual that the bull will live for a few minutes while encouraged to walk in a circle by the matador and his assistants until the sword strikes a vital artery and the bull drops to its knees. At that time it is acceptable to dispatch of the bull by severing the animals spine.
If it has been determined that it was a good or great fight a matador will be given one or more mementos of the bull, either one or both ears, a hoof or the tail. Only one ear was given on July 7th, 2012 out of the six bulls fought, and that was by Joselillo from a Dolores Aguire bred bull. The awards given to the matador are determined by the president of the match. The president also has the power to pardon a bull at the crowd’s request if the bull exhibits extreme “bravery,” but this a very rare occurrence. In most cases, the three matadors kill two bulls a piece during a standard corrida. If one matador is so severely injured that he must leave the ring, one of the other matadors will kill his remaining bull(s).
Because I did some research before I went to Spain, I knew most of this information before I went to the bullfight, but my two friends from the Air Force didn’t know anything about bullfighting before this corrida. I’m concerned about animal welfare, so I was pretty certain I would dislike watching the bullfight, but I was a little surprised by the strong reaction from the two American men I watched the fight with. They were very upset by the event, mainly because it wasn’t a “fair fight.” While many images of bullfighting that appear in the popular press show one man against one bull, in reality there are many people involved in the fight and ready to assist the matador if he gets into trouble. The pilots were very angry about the event, because the bull was outnumbered, but also because most of the bulls visibly suffered. Only one bull was killed swiftly, the other bulls’ deaths were not ended quickly. Either the matador had to make several attempts to insert their sword into the bull, or the sword did not hit a vital organ or artery and had to be encouraged to walk in circles before it was ready to drop to the ground. Even for these military men it was difficult to watch. One of the men proclaimed that watching the bullfight made him want to, “become the president of PETA,” which came as a big surprise to me as we had noticeably different political ideologies, but we all shared the same feelings about the bullfight we had just witnessed.
Aficionados would say that the novice spectator misses the aesthetic properties of the bullfight, the grace and fearlessness of a skilled matador that can make a dangerous situation look like a choreographed ballet step. The beauty is supposed to be in the cape work, how the matador reads the bull and gets the bull to perform passes and how close the matador is to the bull’s horns while controlling his own body and emotions. While all of these things do take skill, it was difficult to ignore the brutality of the event and the fact that it is a very decadent and in my opinion unnecessary form of animal death.