Mon, Oct 12, 2009 - Page 13 News List

Bullfighting’s noble death?

While fans fete matador Jose Tomas, a looming vote on a ban in Barcelona focuses more on Catalan identity than animal rights

By Jason Burke  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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Last month, bullfighting fans in Barcelona enjoyed an historic afternoon corrida. The main draw for a 19,500 sell-out crowd in the Plaza Monumental, the brick-and-tile bullring of the Catalonian capital, was Jose Tomas Roman Martin, a 34-year-old described as the “messiah sent to revolutionize Spanish bullfighting” by the bullfighting critic of El Pais, Antonio Lorca.

That afternoon, Lorca wrote, saw Jose Tomas (the fighter is known universally by his two first names) reach his “apotheosis.” But the report carried an undertone of melancholy.

Praising the bullfighter’s grace, emotion and astonishing calm, Lorca lamented the possibility that base “politics” could put an end to such a spectacle once and for all in the Catalan capital.

The headline last week in El Mundo said it all, asking: “End of the line for bullfighting in Barcelona?” The answer to this question may be known before Christmas. And it could well be “yes,” if an imminent vote in the parliament of Catalonia goes against the “aficionados.”

Campaigners have raised 180,000 signatures for a petition calling for a ban. So far one conservative national party has come out against the ban, while major left-wing and green local parties have declared their support. The deciders will be Catalan nationalists and socialists. But some observers say the row is less about animal rights than Catalan identity.

“There is an element of animal rights but it is mainly about Catalans wanting to leave behind the Spain that is mystical, dark, bloody, Catholic,” said British writer and broadcaster Robert Elms, a bullfighting fan and avowed Hispanophile, who lived in the city in the 1980s. “Barcelona is becoming a bright, clean, cosmopolitan city, like so many others in Europe. It has lost its mystique.”

BULLFIGHTING: A HISTORY

1133 The first corrida takes place in Logrono at the coronation of King Alfonso VIII.

1567 Pope Pius V tries to ban the sport.

1700 King Felipe V stops the aristocracy from taking part, but bullfighting, on foot, gains popularity with the peasantry.

1726 Spain’s first professional bullfighter, Francisco Romero, from Ronda, Andalucia, introduces the estoque (sword) and muleta (crimson cape).

1785 The first purpose-built bullring is inaugurated in Ronda with a display by Romero’s grandson Pedro.

1932 Ernest Hemingway dedicates Death in the Afternoon to the Ordonez family of matadors. SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN


The city’s only other bullring, Las Arenas, is being turned into a US$148 million leisure and shopping center by architect Richard Rogers.

There has long been a strong

anti-bullfighting movement in Catalonia. Opposition to the sport has become a strong marker of local nationalist identity, pitting fashionable, arty Barcelona against conservative Castillian-speaking bullfighting central and southern Spain. Under the fascist regime of General Franco, bullfights were state-supported and used as a symbol of national pride and cultural unity.

But the charge that the anti-bullfighting camp is motivated by identity politics has infuriated many. A recent New York Times article on the row quoted Paco March, bullfighting correspondent of Barcelona’s La Vanguardia newspaper, saying that his 15-year-old daughter had been called a “fascist” by classmates because she had a picture of a “torero” stuck to a schoolbook. “We want to be different from the rest of Spain by not killing bulls ... but we’re just killing off our own culture,” March said, prompting one group of supporters of the ban to issue a statement saying that Catalan “nationalism” had nothing to do with their opposition to the sport. Instead, they argued, many locals simply wanted “to eliminate a shameful practice that is considered repulsive by a large number of Europeans.”

In 2004, campaigners declared Barcelona “an anti-bullfighting city.” More than 20 Catalan towns followed its example. Animal rights groups claim polls show more than 60 percent of the city’s residents want to see bullfighting end.

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