Tensions are mounting over bullfighting tradition in Spain

Tensions over bullfighting are growing in Spain, where the death of a matador in the ring broadcast live on television has added fuel to a national debate over the centuries-old but controversial tradition.

Tensions are mounting over bullfighting tradition in Spain
Photo: AFP

Animal rights activists renewed calls for a total ban on bullfighting after Víctor Barrio, 29, was gored in the thigh and chest during a bullfight in the eastern town of Teruel on Saturday.

Many took to social media to celebrate Barrio’s death, the first for a matador in the ring since 1985. The critics also hurled online insults at his widow, Raquel Sanz, who wrote on Twitter that her husband had lost his life in “glory”.

Conservative Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who had paid tribute to Barrio after his death, on Wednesday condemned the outpouring of hate for the late matador, calling the insults “barbaric”.

Earlier this month dozens of semi-naked animal rights activists daubed themselves with fake blood and stood outside of Pamplona’s bullring, one of the biggest in the world, to protest against the start of the week-long San Fermin bull-running festival which wraps up Thursday.

Photo: Ander Gillenea / AFP

Years of similarly dramatic protests preceded the regional government of Castilla y Leon’s ban in June of killing of bulls at town festivals, in a move that targets the northern region’s controversial Toro de la Vega festival where horsemen chase a bull and spear it in front of onlookers.

The centuries-old event, which takes place in the heartland of conservative Spain, had drawn increasing protests in recent years, with demonstrators turning up and taking to Twitter to denounce what they feel is an anachronistic national tradition.

“We succeeded in positioning all of Spanish society against this celebration,” said Silvia Barquero, president of Spain’s animal welfare party Pacma which won nearly 285,000 votes in a June 26th general election, a record for the 13-year-old formation.

But supporters of bullfighting, known as “aficionados”, are not giving up without a struggle. They see bullfighting as an art that is an integral part of Spanish culture, like flamenco.

Spain’s first pro-bullfight lobbying group, the Bull Foundation, made up of breeders, matadors and “aficionados”, was set up last year.  

Protest rallies in favour of the controversial past-time have been held, such as one in the eastern city of Valencia, a major bullfighting city, which drew thousands of people in March.

Rajoy’s Popular Party government voted to attach “national cultural interest” status to bullfighting in 2013, granting the industry staunch legal protection.

Matadors are ‘heroes’

Bullfighting is “the culture of our people”, said Diego Sanchez de la Cruz, a financial journalist and co-founder of La Economia del Toro, an independent platform that conducts economic analyses of bullfighting.

Matadors are “heroes, capable of fighting, again and again, animals that weight 500 kilos (1,100 pounds)”, he added.  

For their part in this long-running national debate, animals rights activists disagree with the practice’s place in their culture, seeing matadors as “torturers”.

“We can hide behind words like culture, art, ritual, but in practice it’s a bull that we stab with banderillas and a sword, that we kill and torture,” said Pacma spokeswoman Laura Duarte.

Photo: AFP

There are some signs of growing political will to stop bullfighting. New far-left party Podemos, which came in third place in last month’s polls, is against it.

Following municipal elections in May 2015 several cities where the party won power such as Madrid and A Coruña in the northwest have pulled public funding for bullfighting events or stopped including bullfights as part of their annual fiestas.

Bull spectacles are expected to be banned later this year on Spain’s Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean which is ruled by a coalition including Podemos.

The move comes six years after northeastern Catalonia became the first region on mainland Spain to ban bullfights.

Valencia, Spain’s third largest city, banned the tradition of setting bulls loose with lighted torches attached to their horns called “bous embolats”.

The city’s councillor for culture, Gloria Tello, said the practice was “abuse” and an “aberration that violates animal rights”.

Opponents of bullfighting point with pride to culture ministry figures that show the number of events involving bulls fell to 1,736 in 2015 from 2,290 in 2011.

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How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain’s trainee bullfighters on hold

Cries of "Toro, toro!" echo round the empty stands at Madrid's world-famous bullring where two young apprentice bullfighters have seen their promising careers abruptly halted by the pandemic.

How the pandemic has put the careers of Spain's trainee bullfighters on hold

Wearing a tracksuit, trainers and an FFP2 mask, 22-year-old Alvaro Burdiel holds out his vibrant fuchsia-and-mustard cape in front of him. With his arms rigid and shoulders proud, he has the gesture down to a tee.

A bullfighting hopeful, he already experienced one triumphal entry through the main gate at Madrid’s Las Ventas bullring, borne on the shoulders of his supporters in October 2019 — a matador’s greatest honour.

Right now, he doesn’t know when he’ll be back in the ring again, but he hasn’t missed one of his daily classes on the ochre-coloured sand inside this historic venue in the heart of the Spanish capital.

“We all have ups and downs. But that’s where the passion shows through – in persevering,” he says. “In those moments, that’s what makes you stand out from the rest: not giving up.”

‘Decisive years’

A little further away is 19-year-old Guillermo Garcia who was lucky enough to be chosen to fight on May 2nd in the first bullfight to be put on at Las Ventas in 18 months.

Wearing a sage green t-shirt, he twitches his cape slightly, catching the sand in a bid to provoke the beast in front of him.

But there is no bull today – only a fellow student gripping a pair of horns. His back hunched and breathing heavily, he lunges forward with everything he’s got.

On this April afternoon, there are about 20 young students tirelessly running through the choreography of the bullfight.

Trainee bullfighters at Madrid’s Las Ventas. Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

At one side stands a “carreton”, a bulls head mounted on a wheelbarrow-like contraption that can also be used to simulate the charge.

The teachers try to keep their students’ enthusiasm up, despite the uncertainties hanging over the season, which normally runs from March to October but was cancelled last year because of the pandemic.

In the southern city of Seville, which is also known for its love of bullfighting, all the events planned for mid-April had to be cancelled due to virus restrictions.

At Las Ventas, the school is run by famed former matador José Pedro Prados, popularly known as El Fundi.

“Slowly! Don’t lift your heel until the last moment, move from the waist – that’s it!” he calls. “We take them to ranches to keep their spirits up and maintain their enthusiasm,” he says.

“Bullfighting schools are having a really hard time” because of the restrictions put in place due to the virus, he adds.

“There were youngsters who were at their peak when everything shut down. And this could end up halting them in their tracks because these are decisive years for many people’s careers.”

Teen in the arena

The stands are deserted except for a handful of workers repainting the barriers ahead of Sunday’s reopening.

Closed since October 2019, Las Ventas managed to get the authorisation to hold a bullfight on Sunday with just 6,000 spectators in an arena that normally holds 44,000.

On the bill are stars like El Juli and Enrique Ponce alongside the young Guillermo Garcia, who is listed as a novillero, or novice matador. Still a teenager, Garcia has got this far thanks to his sheer dedication, says El Fundi.

Trainee bullfighter in Madrid. Photo: Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

“Since the beginning… there’s always been something different about him, he is serious, he has a lot of strength and enthusiasm and he’s always been very committed to training.”

But Garcia admits he’s had moments of doubt over the past year. “It’s been very hard because you didn’t know if you’d ever get the chance to prove yourself after all this training. But I told myself that sooner or later they were going to reopen the bullrings and that one day I’d get my chance to perform.”

And Sunday won’t be easy, admits the youngster who is studying business management.

“It’s going to be difficult when I go out to fight and see people wearing masks, seated apart and with the stands half empty.”

There also won’t be any triumphal entry through the main gate with the victorious matador carried on the shoulders of his supporters because of restrictions on gatherings.

“That’s just the way it is,” he sighs. “But the bull doesn’t care about the pandemic, it’s all the same to him.”

Even if the health crisis drags on longer than expected, there is no shortage of eager students keen to show off their skill.

One is six-year-old Nico. It’s “practice bullfighting,” he explains very seriously as he dances around the sand in a cape, wielding his miniature sword.