A Bullfight at Las Ventas
Following my move to Spain, one of the most common questions I was asked by friends back home, was whether I had gone to a bullfight. That this should be one of their first questions always struck me as strange, and I half expected follow-up questions on whether I’d seen a flamenco performance while eating paella and drinking sangria, all to be capped off by a long siesta.
I’d had nothing against bullfighting, I just didn’t know enough about it to have a particular interest in going, and any curiosity I might have had was diminished by the bloodier side of the sport. I should say immediately, that aficionados here in Spain do not see it as a sport at all, but rather as an art form, covered in the culture section of newspapers.
I soon learned though, that marrying into a Spanish family and having an Andalusian father-in-law who was keen on bullfighting, was enough to spark that particular interest. Attending a Sunday-afternoon bullfight with that very same man was something I started to look forward to.
2012 was an interesting year to attend my first corrida de toros due to several major events in the bullfighting world, events covered widely by the Spanish press that perhaps failed to reach only the tufa cave-dwellers in Granada. The first was the return of Juan José Padilla, just five months after a brutal goring in which he lost his left eye. The next was more of a non-event, with 2012 marking the start of Cataluña’s ban on bullfighting, only the second Comunidad Autónoma in Spain to do so after the Canary Islands. Partly in response to this, Spain’s public broadcaster, Television Española or TVE, renewed its showing of bullfights on prime time TV, following a change of management that reflected the tastes of a new and more conservative PP-led national government.
Not that I had any of this in mind when I phoned José, my father-in-law in Barcelona, with the idea of buying tickets the next time they were in Madrid. Like most Spanish men of his generation, he showed relative interest without “losing his papers”, as they say here.
I however was excited to have super-fan #1 sitting next to me, explaining each step of the way. This guaranteed that at least it would be a culturally informative afternoon even if the gory finale – repeated six times – turned out to be too much to stomach.
Up until just a few years ago, televised bullfights were a regular part of late-afternoon programming. In trying to be the good future son-in-law, I sat through many an after-lunch corrida, digesting my mother-in-law’s enormous meals and diverting my eyes come the final kill. If José noticed, he never said anything. Poor foreigner, he must have thought, where does my daughter find them?
But as our big day together in Madrid grew closer, I could hear him on the phone, pumping Silvia for information. He was clearly more interested than during our tour of the bullring the year before, when he learned “very little” from our guide. I’d reminded him that the tour wasn’t aimed at Andalusians who’d been following the spectacle their whole life.
The day before the bullfight, he let slip that he was “looking forward” to attending his first corrida in Madrid’s famous bullring, La Plaza de las Ventas, considered by many to be not just the most important in Spain, but in the entire world, due in part to the demanding nature of critics and fans alike. There are few higher goals – or financial rewards – than to triumph in Las Ventas during the festival of Madrid’s patron saint, San Isidro. On such occasions, local boy and living legend José Tomás has earned up to 450,000€… in one afternoon.
This hasn’t always been the case of course. The glitz and glamour that follows bullfighters from the ring to the covers of celebrity magazines is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the past, only the poor working-class who had experienced the pangs of extreme hunger, would have been lured into the ring to risk a goring.
Another common misconception, is what the bullfighting lobby likes to call the fiesta nacional, implying that the sport/art form is something loved by all Spaniards. This in fact has never been the case, with disapproval coming from monarchs as important as Alfonso X in the 13th century and Isabel la Católica (of Columbus New World fame) in the 15th century. In the 18th century, Spain’s first generation of French Bourbon kings thought so lowly of the spectacle, that they banned the nobility from participating, thus removing the horse’s pivotal role and providing the opening for el pueblo to step in, sparking the rise of the Romero family, the start of modern bullfighting on foot as we know it, and the building of Spain’s first permanent bullrings, of which, the two oldest remaining are found in Ronda and Sevilla (Madrid’s Plaza de Toros dates only from the early 1930’s).
And although the Romero family would be the first to see their profession as an art form, this idea wouldn’t be widely accepted until the early 20th century, when the daring techniques of one of the all-time greats, the Sevillano Juan Belmonte, captured the nation’s attention. But I digress… Back to my bullfight.
In what felt like a flashback to my childhood days at spring-training, about 30 minutes before the start of the spectacle, I came across a crowd of people waiting for los toreros outside the bullring’s back-door entrance. Although I too wanted to be one of those excited and impatient fans, I had no idea who the torero was, and who was just part of his team, so I set about taking pictures of anyone wearing bright clothing. I was helped out by the guy to the left in the picture above, when he spotted one of the toreros, Iván Fandiño, and managed to slap a big paw on Fandiño’s shoulder, shouting something about going to school together as kids, and don’t you remember me Iván? Apparently not…
I tried to get Iván’s attention for a better photo, but after a dismissive glance in my direction, he made a brief stop to pose with a beautiful blond, and then turned his back on the crowd to join his crew of tough men in their tight pants and pink socks.
Once inside the bullring, I ran into a pair of aficionados wearing t-shirts for the Iván Fandiño peña taurina, or bullfighter’s club. Although they’d been horsing around and laughing it up, they both turned serious when I asked for a picture. They looked at each other, nodded, and then composed themselves, shoving their hands in their pockets and putting on their best police line-up face. I cleverly deduced from their t-shirts that they had come down with the rest of the peña from the tiny village of Tórtola de Henares, (pop. 896) northeast of Madrid. I’m sure our man Iván was touched…
That got José reminiscing about the peña he belonged to back in his early 20’s, although he admitted that the bullfighter they supported “never amounted to much”. Still, he was in high spirits as we tried to find our seats. He shouted over the noise about one of his first dates with Silvia’s mom, when he took her to see the famous Paquirri in Barcelona’s Plaza de Arenas, now converted into a shopping mall.
We found our seats in time to see the winner of the Wayne Newton look-a-like contest, who planted his sign in the sand and twirled it in a circle. This ritual was repeated before each new bull, showing his weight in kilos (the bull’s, not Wayne Newton’s), his birth month and year, the ranch he came from (Jandilla), and the name he was given (Cajero).
Cajero was then let loose for Fandiño, and the first tercio or third of the bullfight, known as the Tercio de Varas, had begun.
In this first tercio, the matador seen above uses the capote de brega, the heavier pink and yellow cape, to test the agility, the spirit and the fierceness of the bull. It’s also in this stage that the bull receives its first puyazos or jabs from the vara or lance of the mounted rider, who’s known as the picador.
Although some of you are thinking, “poor bull,” others are surely thinking “poor horse.” In this stage, the horse receives the brunt of the bull’s aggression, and is no doubt wondering behind those blindfolds, what in god’s name is happening. But you might feel better to know that the horses are much more protected than in the past. Up until as late as the 1920’s, the horses were completely defenseless, and the scene above would have resulted in the horse’s entrails being scattered across the ground. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon for there to be more dead horses than dead bulls at the end of the day.
The second third, known as the Tercio de Banderillas, sees the picadores and their horses leave the bullring to make way for the banderilleros, whose high-flying acts seen above are some of the most dangerous moves performed. The job of the banderilleros is to place the banderillas (small wooden lances adorned with decorative pieces of cloth that resemble little flags – i.e. banderillas – whose tips hold a harpoon-like spear) into the bull’s back around the area of the shoulders. The goal of this is to avivar the bull, to enliven him, just in case he wasn’t upset enough…
These banderillas remain in place during the final third, known as the Tercio de Muerte, when the matador confronts the bull for the final time.
Many of bullfighting’s classic images come from this stage. The matador has traded in his heavier – but yet not-so-manly – pink and yellow capote de brega for the muleta, which is the smaller and lighter cape of the two. Although the traditional red color of the muleta has been associated with the anger it supposedly provoked, the bull is actually dichromatic, and has no idea what color the muleta is. They attack it simply as a moving target, shaken to get their attention.
It was during this stage that the crowd was at its quietest. By the way, anything look out of place in the photo below? Notice the seat behind her has been vacated…
While watching Fandiño, I struck up a conversation with the guard nearby. He lowered his voice to point out the gentleman in the photo below, who hadn’t missed a corrida in over ten years. The guard admitted that he often watched the reactions of the man if he wasn’t in a position to see the bullfight itself. “I can tell when it’s a disappointing show. That’s when he rests his head in his hand.”
Almost as if having sensed this, Fandiño initiated the kill.
And just like that, it was over, without much ceremony or applause – a sign that the first bull and/or bullfighter had been none too impressive, José told me. The mulilleros then came running out like tennis court ball-boys, quickly tying up the bull to their mules and whisking him away.
Five more times you can see the same series of events, though much of the foreign crowd left after the first two. After the fourth bull, I looked at my watch and gave Silvia a nod towards the exit, followed by that not-so-innocent shrug that’s meant to suggest, “I could stay or go”, when really I mean, “are we staying for the whole thing?”
She gave a nod in the direction of her father, followed by a side-to-side bobbing of the head that’s meant to suggest, “not sure what he’ll say,” when really it means, “are you kidding, of course we’re staying, can’t you see his face…”
With so much patience in answering my questions, I could hardly deny him these last two bulls. “Bueno, que tal?” José asked me after the sixth bull was dragged away. “Interesante, no?” Interesting indeed, I said. “We’ll have to do this again next year,” he said, as he slapped my knee and stood up to go. And yes, it’s a safe assumption that next year Las Ventas will return to action. The question is, in how many other cities will that also be the case. The crisis has put a large dent in the budgets of local governments who have long subsidized bullfights, but are finding it harder and harder to do so. According to Interior Ministry, between 2007 and 2010 the number of bullfights fell by over 34%.
The Basque city of San Sebastián, now run by the pro-independence coalition Bildu, decided not to renew the bullring’s contract for 2013. Even in the state of Madrid, the bulls are not immune, and the regional government recently cut its budget for bullfighting by roughly 35%.
It might be premature to say the future of bullfighting is at risk, but its existence seems less guaranteed than in the past.
“Historia del Toreo” – by Jorge Laverón
“Toros en Madrid” – Madrid Histórico Magazine
“Testimonio Taurino en Madrid” – Madrid Histórico Magazine
“Cosos Taurinos Madrileños” – Madrid Histórico Magazine
“The New Spaniards” – by John Hooper
Last update: March 7, 2014