By Sam Palca
The days in Valencia are sweltering as the hot Mediterranean sun beats down with furious rays, driving all but the most resilient indoors. But after the sun goes down, the city is freed from its oppressive heat and the fun begins. While I would never venture into a crowded, open-air stadium during the day, night is the perfect time for such an excursion. Yesterday, I had the pleasure of attending one of Spain’s most iconic (if not stereotypical) events: a bullfight. Our group had procured tickets for Thursday night’s 10 p.m. bullfight, so at 9:45 I set out, not quite sure of what to expect.
The Plaza de Toros is a mere few blocks from my housemother’s apartment near the Ruzafa district. My housemother herself doesn’t care for bullfights, but her cousin Mati, who lives a couple of floors up, loves them. I’d heard that many young adults in the city are vehemently opposed to the fights on moral grounds, objecting that it is unnecessary torture of an innocent animal. In my mind, the older generations seem more keen on preserving the custom, and my suspicions were confirmed when my comrades and I took our seats. The prevailing age demographic was 40 and above, although there were younger elements in attendance, myself included.
The real entertainment started before the opening ceremonies when the group of seven older gentlemen seated in front of us proffered meat, cheese and bread and refused to take no for an answer. Before long, they were handing us wineskins—yes, actual leather wineskins—and gesticulating wildly about certain matadors and the usual guidelines observed at a bullfight. Fortunately, our professor Bruce Strong’s wife, Claudia, is fluent in Spanish, so she managed to translate most of what they tried to tell us. Apparently, if the matador does a good job in killing the bull, the crowd begins to wave white handkerchiefs, napkins, or even newspapers to appeal to the president of the bullfighting association. He then throws a white kerchief over the railing in front of him if he agrees, and the matador is given one of the bull’s ears! I’ve no idea why someone would want a dead bull’s ear, but it means quite a lot to a matador. If they receive two, they are carried out of the stadium on someone’s shoulders instead of having to walk.
There were six fights in total, two for each matador. Before the fights began, there were quite a lot of prancing horses and men parading around in their glittering skintight pants. After some generous pomp and circumstance (accompanied by a full orchestra), the fights began. Each fight progressed in much the same way. First, the bull was released and various men would flash pink and yellow capes at them and then dodge around the bull or behind the wall of the arena. Next, men on horses would emerge bearing long spears. The bull would charge the horse while the rider jabbed the spears into the bull’s neck. The horses were very well padded, but multiple bulls managed to lift the horses off the ground, and one managed to bowl both horses over.
A couple of my friends who were initially reticent about attending due to the barbaric nature of the spectacle quickly became more concerned about the wellbeing of the horses than of the bulls, understandably so as the horses were blindfolded and, once knocked over, had to be yanked to their feet by the reins and the tail. (Ouch.)
After the bull had been speared a couple of times and the horses had left the arena, the matador would emerge with two banderillas, or barbed sticks covered in colored tassels. These would be thrust into the spine of the bull and stayed there. After six or more of these banderillas were hanging from the bull, the final stage would begin. The matador enters the ring alone, bearing nothing but a sword and a red cape, which does not, in fact, anger the bull because bulls are colorblind. The color is simply a matter of tradition. After making a show of fluttering the cape and dodging the bull’s charges, the matador would raise his spear and a hush would fall over the crowd. And by hush, I mean everybody in the crowd goes “Shhhhh” all at once. This signifies the beginning of the end for the bull, which already has lost a lot of blood and is growing weaker. The matador then runs forward and plunges his sword into the bull’s neck, forcing the bull onto its knees and finishing the fight.
Each time, the fight was slightly different. The second matador was quite a show-off, although he can hardly be blamed in such a situation where so many eyes are upon him. Another had lost an eye to a bull’s horn in a past fight, showing exactly how dangerous the sport can be. An even more dramatic example came during the fifth bout, when the same showboating matador faced his second bull alone with his cape and sword. The bull charged and the matador twisted away, but the bull jerked his head in the same direction and knocked him to the ground. The bull then gored the man in the stomach (breaking a few ribs as well as skin) as other men rushed the field to distract the bull with capes and by pulling on its tail. The other matadors entered the ring to support their injured colleague while the bull was distracted, but rather than leave the ring, the matador determined to finish the fight. Even with his torso covered in blood, he actually managed to kill the bull, securing an enduring wave of cheers and white handkerchiefs from the crowd and his second and third ears of the evening.
Afterward, as I walked home slightly wobbly from the wine pressed upon me by my new Spanish friends, I thought about the ethics of the bullfight. It might be wrong, cruel, even downright evil to subject an animal to pain for pleasure and amusement, but more than being simply immoral, what does it say about us? I shrugged to myself and discarded such heavy thoughts, content with the knowledge I had enjoyed myself immensely. I might not agree with the whole affair, but I won’t deny that the atmosphere is infectious and the scene itself incredible to look upon.