Crowds clash over ban at Tordesillas bull festival

It was the first year that the killing of the bull was outlawed at the notorious festival in Tordesillas, and taurino aficionados didn’t like it.

Crowds clash over ban at Tordesillas bull festival
Photo: Archive photo of the Toro de la Vega. AFP

Insults and fisty-cuffs were exchanged during the first Toro de la Peña, an event designed to replace the Toro de la Vega, now that the practice of spearing a bull to death has been banned.

Mounted police kept the peace among crowds as hundreds gathered to witness or participate in the event in Tordesillas, a town 200km northwest of Madrid.

Traditionally men on horseback and on foot chased a chosen bull through town attempting to stab it to death with a spear. The victor won the privilege of parading through the town brandishing the bull’s testicles on his lance.

But amid increasing protests by animal rights activists, the regional government of Castilla y León introduced a ban against the killing of bulls at town festivals unless it took place in the context of a traditional bullfight in the bullring.

Instead revellers were allowed to chase to the bull to the pen in the outskirts of the town with sticks, but were forbidden from killing it.

Some had threatened to defy the ban, but despite the fierce words between animal rights protesters and locals supporting the tradition, there were no arrests and the bull was unhurt.

Police ensured the bull, a 670-kilo (1,500-pound) beast named Pelado – “Bare” in Spanish, was spared from anyone looking to defy the law as heavy rain cut short the event.

Ricardo Garcia, who was decked out in black, said he came from Madrid with a group of friends to “ensure the law is respected”.   

Locals in the town of around 9,000 people held a protest in defence of the traditional bull-spearing festival.

They chanted: “Tordesillas does not give up!” and “Animal defenders are terrorists!”

Scuffles between animal rights activists and locals have been a regular occurence at the festival in recent years, contributing to the pressure to ban bull spearing.

While the activists welcome the ban, they complain the bull still suffers stress as it is chased and it is destined to be killed in the slaughterhouse in the end.

But for many locals the bull-spearing festival was a source of intense pride.

Local resident Omar Lumar proudly displays the head of a bull named Vulcano, killed in the festival in 2003, on the wall of his home.

Residents accuse the activists of “distorting” the reality of the festival to portray them as “savages”.

“We have taken it really badly. These laws are a question of power, not of justice,” Gerardo Abril, president of the festival's organising board, told AFP.

“It is incredible that in villages we have our traditions, and they take them away from us in cities,” he added in a reference to Valladolid, the capital of Castile and Leon which passed the ban.

Abril, a plumber who was gored seven times by a bull at the festival in 2011, said he has been vilified within the far-left United Left party to which he belongs because of his support for the festival.

A self-described feminist, he wore a red handkerchief with a small image of a bull and Marxist guerrilla leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara around his neck.    

Feelings over the ban have spilled over to the ballot box. In June's general election, 13.2 percent of votes cast in Tordesillas were blank – the highest level in the country, comparing to a national average of just 0.94 percent.

Animal rights party Pacma, which spearheaded efforts to ban the festival, won a record number of votes in the polls – nearly 235,000, although this was not enough to enter parliament.

The bull-spearing festival was banned once before, between 1966 and 1969 during the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

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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.