Bullfighting 101

It is summer 2000-something; I am, I think, 19. My love of learning is still alive and well, so I am spending the holidays in Malaga studying Spanish. Yes, actually studying and not lying at the beach all day and going out every night. I am enjoying the unfailingly sunny days and the proximity of the warm Mediterranean after a cold and stressful winter at university in the Netherlands. I love the taste of the new language in my mouth, the random conversations with the friendly locals and shopping for colourful things I don’t need.

We were talking about corridas de toros – bullfighting – the other day in class. Today, when I open the morning newspaper and spot an article about a bullfight in the town of Rincon de la Victoria, I am suddenly curious about experiencing the ancient, questionable tradition first-hand.  None of my Northern-European girlfriends want to join me, and it takes all my power of persuasion to finally convince a girl from Germany to come along. She is fair-skinned, shy and kind-hearted, and only agrees to go so as to ‘support’ me in this ‘terrible’ experience.

We take a bus to Rincon de la Victoria and arrive at the entrance of the small bullring about forty minutes later. The town is decorated generously for its annual feria and the streets are swarming with people in traditional dress. The environs of the plaza de toros are dusty, and smell of horses and cigar smoke. My friend and I get in line for the tickets and I buy the ‘best’ ones, Barrera Sombra – front row on the shady side of the ring, right behind the bullfighters’ main burladero. We still have an hour or so before the fight begins at 6 pm, so we go to the beach and walk in the warm waves. Little is said between us about what we are going to see, or about whether we ‘should’ see it. My unhealthy curiosity is the answer to all possible questions and doubts, and I take the liberty of answering for my friend, too.

The bullring is full: full of laughter, and fluttering fans, and bright lipstick, and of hoarse voices of seasoned aficionados. I see no foreigners except us, seated in the most conspicuous of spots and drawing quite a few stares and chuckles.

‘Te gustan los toros?’ Do you like bullfighting, my neighbour, a grey-haired senor with a thick cigar between his teeth asks me.

‘Pues, aun no lo se,’ I reply, I don’t know yet.

My friend and I are both feeling uncomfortable, and relief only comes when music, un pasodoble, announces the arrival of the trio of bullfighters. In their shimmering trajes de luces, ‘suits of lights’, they walk across the arena slowly, proudly and deliberately. I am amused by this display of outdated masculinity: by the tight satin suits with pink stockings, the Mickey-Mouse-like hats, the ballerina shoes, the too much gel in the black hair… I point out all these ‘funny’ little details to my friend, and we giggle, relieved, certain now that nothing too terrible could possibly happen.

The small plaza seems to shake when the gate opens and the first bull of the evening storms out into the ring. The bullfighter receives it with a less than smooth wave of his heavy magenta capote. Clouds of dust rise from the sand again and again, following the bull and the torero: a big cloud, a smaller cloud. I am unimpressed but the man, who, satisfied with his performance, hides behind the burladero above which we are seated.

Next, two horses dressed in floor-length leather armour appear in the ring carrying portly riders armed with lances – they are the picadores, I recall from the class. ‘Hey, toro, hey!’ one of them, closest to us, calls out. When the bull, lowering its muscular neck, attacks the horse, the picador drives his lance into the flesh above and between the bull’s shoulder blades, pushing and twisting until a pool of blood forms where the metal meets the flesh. It feels as if the same lance has been thrust into my eyes, drawing hot liquid from them. My eyes are wide with terror, then, anger, when I realize that the noise in my ears is applause and cheering. I look around the plaza and cannot for the life of me comprehend how one creature’s suffering could bring such joy to others.

When my gaze returns to the arena, I see the ‘tercio de banderillas’ unfold there: three men, the bullfighter’s assistants, each take a stab at the same spot in the animal’s neck with two colourful sticks, their tips – sharp metal hooks; they are called banderillas. Unlike the lance, the vara, banderillas stay inside the flesh, pulling on and stretching it. When they hit muscle, I hear it; I can all but smell the blood as I watch it gush out of the wound. We are too close to this; I can’t watch, and I can’t look away.

Again the bullfighter emerges, a red cape, muleta, in hand, his steps slow and calculated. The bull’s head is now hanging low on its broad neck. The man calls his adversary, who follows the voice and the muleta’s teasing movements: the muleta is the animal’s whole world, demented as it is by pain and rage. I feel them, and shame, too, such great shame.

When the beast begins to stumble, the ‘maestro’ changes his sword and manoeuvres the bull into position for the final blow – the estocada. He aims and, moving swiftly, drives the estoque into the flesh and through the aorta of his opponent. In a minute or so the enormous animal tumbles to the ground, dead, eliciting more applause for its killer.

With dry and itchy eyes I watch one of the ring workers cut off both of the dead animal’s ears and present them as a trophy to the bullfighter. With them in hand, the man, smiling, walks around the ring, basking in his strange triumph. He throws one ear, then, another, into the crowd: it is a great compliment, my neighbour’s hoarse voice explains, to be given one of the trophies. I turn to the voice and follow it back to the man’s old, leathery mouth. It is smiling.  

‘Let’s go,’ I tell my friend but she looks completely lost. I try to persuade her to leave but she just sits there. Finally, I get up and begin to pull gently on her arm, but I must stop when the plaza falls silent: the next matador is in the arena, ready for his challenge.

‘Sientate, guapa,’ my neighbour says and, pointing at the bullfighter straightening his capote in the ring, adds, ‘este es buen torero.’ I comply and sit back down – my emotional exhaustion is such that I can do no more. In the course of the next hour I witness the slaughter of five more toros de lidia – fighting bulls born and bred to die in the arena. My whole being is saturated with such suffering that my mind shuts down and I simply stare. When the corpse of the last bull is dragged away from the ring by two horses and the last of the applause die down, I am swept off my seat and out of the bullring by the crowd. Out the main plaza gate the three heroes of the night are being carried on their assistants’ shoulders to the sounds of more cheering…

‘Como te ha gustado?’ a familiar voice sounds behind my back – it’s my neighbour, again.

How did I like it? I nod and smile weakly in response and wave good-bye.

My friend seems to be in a worse state than I; complacently she follows me I don’t know where. It is getting dark as we approach the beach. The town feria continues on the promenade to the sounds of traditional music and smells of food and candy.

‘Shall we walk back?’ I ask my friend.

‘It’s a long way,’ she says, and then, ‘yes, let’s…’

We walk quietly for the first hour. The beach is now empty and quiet – we are far away from everything.

‘I’m sorry,’ I say.

‘No, I wanted to see it, too,’ she lies graciously, ‘it’s fine.’

We have now said what needed to be said and can continue on is silence. I don’t know how long we walk for in the hot, humid night. The sound of waves and their warm touch against my feet is beautifully relieving, but I still can’t chase out of my head the sound of metal hitting bone, mixed with the roar of applause. I don’t understand how two such sounds could have come together.

About two hours later I find myself in my room at the language school, sitting on the bed. My new dress smells of smoke, and dirty sand, of human and animal sweat. Of blood, too? Do I smell of the blood I have been drinking with my eyes? Could one tell by looking at me what I have seen: what I paid to see and stayed to see? Curiosity was what brought me to the ring but what was it that kept me in my seat? Am I – in my pretty dress, with my big tearful eyes – really the ‘nice’ person I think I am? What is it about me that up until this evening I have been continuously failing to acknowledge? Am I crying and hurting now because I should be or because I’m truly touched by what I’ve seen? Could there be a cruel, savage something in me that may have enjoyed the corrida? I spend the night torturing myself with such questions as I’d never had to ask before. I try to be brave and honest. Still, I don’t understand…

A year after the day of the corrida in Rincon de la Victoria I will return to Andalucia for answers to my questions and a ‘suit of lights’ of my own.

6 thoughts on “Bullfighting 101

  1. Spanish seems to come naturally esp after learning a little Latin, but I gave up on the verb declensions in both languages. My mind just doesn’t think well to add all the endings properly without a chart in front of me. But if you think about it, the verb endings make a lot of sense compared to the way English verbs operate. Need Spanish living in Miami (70% Hispanic) but I just focus on vocabulary and that is functional enough.

    1. When I first came to Spain, my vocabulary was limited to ‘hola’ and ‘gracias’. The locals, however, complete strangers, would always be so patient and encouraging with my developing language skills, it was amazing. They laughed and corrected me, or waited while I tried to pick the right verb endings, no matter how long it took. At least in part, I feel, it was learning Spanish in Andalucia that taught me that it was ok and even fun sometimes to make mistakes. I am forever grateful to Spain and its culture for this gift of courage.

  2. As is often the case, your writing is so engrossing….I like you were unable to leave my seat until it was finished…the questions at the end of the post perhaps are quite universal in nature….another birlliant write.

    1. Thank you for reading this long, long post. I’m glad you liked it.
      The questions I asked myself that night were certainly universal but suddenly felt so urgent and personal after the bullfight: they were not thoughts streaming from the mind but open wounds in the heart. I had to know the answers to them, no matter what it cost me. It took over two years and a lot of guts to find them.

  3. Hi Mila,
    I hope all is good with you , love your writings the depth of feeling you have in words is amazing.

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