Death in the Afternoon

By March 30, 2009 Insights

Sunday I went to my first bullfight. There is a bullring that is about a 10 minute walk from the house – I find it a bit ironic that it’s just up the street from the dance studio where I’m learning to tango (though not learning the Pasodoble).

A bullfight is a cruel spectacle. No one can deny that when death is the objective. I found it fascinating, horrible and beautiful. It’s a complex experience. It’s certainly an art and not a sport (even though a torero or banderillero risks death or injury, I’d argue that it’s not really a “competition” between the bull and the man). Hemingway said that “bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”

The arena was pristine when we arrived – we were among the first there. Gradually gringos and Mexicans (more gringos than Mexicans) filled about a third of the cement seating. Vendors sold cervezas and a brass band up in the shade played traditional music, just a bit off key. Compared to bullfights I have heard about in Spain, this was probably more on the scale of community theater than Broadway.

Four toreros performed with various levels of skill, and the small young bulls did the best they could though all but the last looked worn out from the start. The first two toreros were respectable though not particularly remarkable (to my untrained eye of course). The third torero was a young novillero, perhaps 16, whom I might guess will not survive a career in bullfighting without serious injury. He spent much of the fight running from the bull and being coached from the sidelines. He was handsome though and posed with bravado.

The last to perform was young Emilio – only 12 but with a brave talent. His was by far the best fight, and his bull the most honorable. He stood quite still as his veronicas (sweeps of the cape) led the bull just inches past him. At one point he knelt in front of the bull, in respect.

Toward the end of a fight (it’s not really a fight, more of a dance), the matador exchanges his sword for a much longer sharper one – the killing sword. After a few more passes with the bull they both stand facing one and other. The bull is tired and his head is bowed from the banderillas which hang bloody from his shoulders. The matador points his sword high and rushes the bull attempting to thrust it between the bull’s shoulder blades for the kill. Unfortunately this isn’t always done well and the bull is not brought down quickly; it suffers and must be killed by the banderilleros with a dagger to the base of the neck. Young Emilio thrust his sword perfectly down to the hilt and his bull, poor honorable Don Felipe, died quickly.

The crowd gave him a standing ovation and he was awarded both of the bull’s ears (the previous matadors only gained one, though I’m really not yet sure what significance this has).

While I turned my head away many times yesterday afternoon, I’ll definitely seek out other bullfights, not only to watch but to try to understand.