Wed, Oct 28, 2015 - Page 9 News List

Spain’s late-blooming compassion for bulls

First it was Spain’s national fiesta; now bullfighting divides its people, with fans and protesters slugging it out in the Spanish heartland

By Duncan Wheeler  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Mountain People

“Long Live the Virgin of El Rocio!” Not the first words that would occur to me if I were the recipient of a 25cm abdominal goring that reached my spine — one of the many reasons I am unlikely to ever have a successful career as a matador.

The last words uttered by Francisco Rivera before receiving medical treatment in August for a potentially fatal injury not only revealed that bullfighting remains inextricably linked with religious iconography, they also illustrated that the ability to face death in both theatrical and stoical terms is crucial to its allure and romance.

In technical terms Rivera has never been a first-class torero, but this is not a necessary or sufficient condition for success. At the age of 10, the grandson of the late torero Antonio Ordonez — idolized by Ernest Hemingway in The Dangerous Summer — lost his father to a bull in 1984. Rivera senior, popularly known as Paquirri, was confirmed a martyr and a saint as video footage circulated of a brave bullfighter bleeding to death and, at the same time, comforting a visibly panicked and unprepared surgeon.

Although vastly improved medical facilities have reduced fatalities, this year has been an unusually bloody year in human terms: As well as 13 fatalities in encierros (running with the bulls), several matadors endured life and career-threatening injuries in the ring.

For the first time in the modern age, the survival of what was once referred to as Spain’s national fiesta is also in jeopardy. Animal rights activists have found an audience among a significant proportion of the population who increasingly view bullfighting as a financial drain at a time of economic crisis and a symbol of the nation’s ills: Cruel, parasitical and out of touch with reality.

A profession with deep-seated internal divisions finds itself ill-equipped to defend itself against a concerted opposition and a rapid change in public mood. Funding cuts have put the future of training schools under threat. Controversial new plans by the Spanish Ministry of Education — run by the right-wing Popular Party — to safeguard their financial viability, by incorporating bullfighting into vocational training courses are meeting fierce opposition.

Former Spanish minister of culture Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde, of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, told me that young people who came of age in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of Franco’s death, often enjoyed going to watch the bulls, and that there was a strong admiration and affiliation with certain leading toreros who mixed with leading lights of La Movida, the drug-fueled youth movement that put film director Pedro Almodovar and his adopted city of Madrid on the international map. She believes this connection has been lost and that teenagers now see bullfighting as something alien to their increasingly globalized culture.

When I was at the Sonorama indie music festival this summer I had to go alone to a bullfight as none of my extended group wanted to accompany me. By contrast, two weeks later I found myself at a private beach club in Sotogrande — generally frequented by aging politicians, property tycoons, bankers and a diverse cast of players from the world of polo — and found the room where bullfights are broadcast on Canal+ to be a popular hotspot.

Retired Spanish monarch Juan Carlos is a fierce advocate of the bulls — his son, Spanish King Felipe VI, has retained a diplomatic silence — but this is of limited use to proponents of bullfighting when his standing in public opinion is at an all-time low. Images of the emeritus king in San Sebastian to celebrate the return of the bulls after three years did little to dispel ingrained prejudices about aficionados as cigar-smoking reactionary figures from an older generation.

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