Bullfighting in Spain. Cultural Heritage or Cruel Sport?

Bullfighting in Spain.
Few topics about Spanish culture generate more heated discussion than bullfighting, the famous corrida de toros. Advocates call it an art, opponents condemn it as cruel. There seems to be no room for compromise.

Bullfighting is universally associated with Spain, but it is also practiced in other countries, e.g. the south of France, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Ecuador**, Guatemala, Panama.

** In May, 2011, Ecuadorians voted to abolish bullfighting, allowing only fights where the bull is not killed. The vote was seen as a victory for the poor over the wealthy elite, most of whom are of Spanish or European descent.

Portugal has its own variation in which the bull is fought from horseback and not killed in the ring. Even within Spain, there may be regional variations. For example, the recortes of the Basque Country and Navarra, which involve young men doing acrobatic stunts around and over the bull (which is not killed or even physically harmed. If you have seen Goya’s famous etching of the 19th-century fighter Juanito Apiñani vaulting over a bull, you get the idea.)

Goya’s etching.

Bullfighting has attracted painters and writers such as Goya, Manet, Picasso, Tolstoy, Lorca and Hemingway to name a few. Its claim to be an integral part of Spanish artistic culture is reflected in its place in Spanish newspapers, where reports on bullfights regularly appear in the section entitled Cultura; it is not a sport goes the argument.

Anthropologists and psychologists have also weighed in, attempting to decode the meaning of the corrida de toros, and politicians have used it for their own purposes.  For example, General Franco, dictator from 1939 to 1975, promoted it strongly as the fiesta nacional.  Following his death, separatist sentiment, especially in Catalonia (Catalunya), has associated the corrida with centralism and repression.  Barcelona once had three bullrings, but only one –the Plaza de Toros Monumental—remains active and there is some doubt about its future. See below. (The oldest bullring has been torn down; the other is being transformed into a shopping and leisure complex.)

Only aficionados still insist that bullfighting is the fiesta nacional. Its popularity is greatest in Andalucía and around Madrid, but as a national passion, it ranks far behind soccer.

It was banned in the Canary Islands in 1991, and there is a strong anti-bullfighting sentiment in Galicia and Catalonia (in Barcelona the city council officially condemned it in 2004).

In Catalonia, children under 14 have been prohibited from attending bullfights since 1999. A poll taken in 2006 showed that only about 25% of Spaniards had any interest in the spectacle, and those were made up mostly of older people. Although there is a core of aficionados, opposition to the bullfighting continues to grow.  Protests are held regularly outside many of the larger rings, and animal rights activists and others have put pressure on the European Union (EU) to condemn it.  In 2007 the EU went as far as to urge Spain to end bullfighting, not nearly far enough for animal rights activists.  Aficionados have countered calling on UNESCO to grant bullfighting a World Heritage status.

In 2007, the socialist government took the historic step of discontinuing live broadcasts of corridas  on Spain’s public television (TVE).  Live bullfighting had been a staple of late afternoon family viewing from 1951, but the government argued that it was expensive to put on, and clashed with the time slot for children’s programming. Some regional outlets, however, still continue live transmissions.

Passionate arguments are put forth by both sides in support of their views.  Anti-bullfighting campaigners decry the cruelty of a practice in which the bull is publicly taunted, maimed, and made to bleed, before being callously killed. It breeds insensitivity to the brutal abuse of animals, they argue, and causes unnecessary suffering simply for the pleasure of the spectators.

Aficionados counter with a variety of arguments. e. g.:
1.  bullfighting is part of the Spanish identity;
2.  the bull leads a pampered life until it enters the ring (where it will die within 20 minutes) and therefore receives better treatment than the millions of animals, with restricted movement and fattened for mass consumption;
3.  the bull is so driven by adrenaline that it doesn’t really suffer;
4.  bullfighting supports a $2 billion industry employing over 100,000 people;
5.  the breeding of the bulls benefits the environment because it protects land that might otherwise fall to urban development or golf courses. Going green is a clever pitch! (For the morality of eating meat from bulls killed in the ring, see http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2014/aug/20/fighting-bull-beef-most-ecological-meat-in-world The numerous comments make interesting reading too.)

The survival of bullfighting is debatable. There will always be supporters, and if the corrida is not banned by law (as happened in the case of fox hunting by hounds in Britain in November 2004), it will probably remain an attraction for a minority.

Despite the ban on fox hunting, aficionados in
Britain have found various way of circumventing
the law.  See article in www.telegraph.co.uk
December 28/ 2008. Type in Foxhunting in Search.

Sometimes there are attempts to introduce bullfighting or a variation into countries where there is a tradition of animal sports e.g. into parts of western USA and Canada, where rodeos are still popular.

Periodic revival of popularity of bullfighting is possible owing to the charisma of certain matadors.  In the late 50s and 60s the rivalry between Antonio Ordóñez and his flamboyant brother-in-law Luis Dominguín had spectators on the edge of their seats. In the 1960s, the “corrida” was dominated by Manuel Benítez (El Cordobés), the first bullfighting star of the TV age and pop idol of his generation.

From the mid 70s Francisco Rivera (Paquirri) was the star. He was also a celebrity for marrying first Carmen Ordóñez, the daughter of the legendary Antonio Ordóñez, and later pop star Isabel Pantoja. He himself became a legend, however, when he died shortly after being gored in the in the ring in 1984.  Television captured the bloody moment as Paqurri was tossed around like a doll.  Shortly after, a cameraman from the public network (TVE) filmed Paquirri, calmly informing the attending doctor of where and how far the horn had penetrated his thigh. It was a film that was shown repeatedly on TV for months.

Ordóñez was the favourite “torero” of both Ernest Hemingway and the actor Orson Welles.  Welles had his ashes buried in the Ordóñez ‘s family garden in Ronda, the spiritual home of modern bullfighting.

In the 1990s it was the turn of the charismatic Jesús Janeiro (Jesulín de Ubrique), a matador who also made his mark by attracting a large following of young women. In 1994 he filled Madrid`s main bullring for a “ladies only” night and was rewarded with a shower of lingerie for his showmanship.

The latest star is José Tomás who returned to the ring in June of 2007 after an absence of 5 years.  The effect was electrifying as half empty arenas were filled and newspapers devoted entire pages to his exploits (even El País, Spain’s left leaning and perhaps most prestigious newspaper, which had virtually eliminated bullfighting from its pages). His return started in Barcelona and was attended by aficionados and celebrities from all over Spain. Inside the plaza there was a capacity 19,000 crowd, outside about 5,000 protesters.

José Tomás has always been something of an enigma.  Unlike previous matadors, he is said not to pray before a fight and doesn’t surround himself with images of saints or the Virgin Mary.  Reluctant to give interviews, he is solemn and reflective, a far cry from the flamboyance and showmanship that has become part of the bullfighting world.  His upright style in the ring enthrals the purists who compare him to the legendary Manolete, by general consensus the greatest of all matadors.

Sept 19, 2012. For an interesting article on José Tomás’s latest bullfight, and readers’ reactions, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/17/bullfighting-jose-tomas-france-spain

Bullfighting has popularly been viewed as a male pursuit, but in fact women bullfighters have appeared periodically in some form since the birth of modern bullfighting in the 18th century.

Opposition was always strong and the arguments against matadoras similar through the centuries: they degraded the bullfight; they threatened social stability; they were an affront to public decency and lowered moral standards; they should be at home and so on.

The opposition came from moralists, purist aficionados and bullfighters themselves, many of whom threatened not to appear in the ring with a matadora. Fans in general, on the other hand, were more accepting if the sale of tickets to corridas including matadoras was anything to go by. 

Still, there were periodic bans, and a long hiatus during the Franco dictatorship (1939-75). Following a successful appeal against the ban in 1974,  matadoras or señoritas toreras (as they were called) again made an appearance.  The best known is Cristina Sánchez who took her alternativa (formal investiture in the presence of a veteran matador) in 1996 in Nimes, southern France.  She retired 3 years later, however, asserting that she couldn’t get top billing and that some bullfighters would not fight if she was on the programme.

In December 2009, the Catalan Parliament is to debate whether to introduce a law to ban bullfights in Catalonia.  This follows a petition presented by over 180,000 to have the corrida banned.  Nevertheless, the petition has provoked heated debated with some opponents accusing supporters of being anti-Spanish and hypocritical (other activities involving bulls –e.g. chasing bulls through the streets, sometimes with flaming torches on their horns– are not affected).  Supporters argue that the bulls should be protected under the laws that prohibit cruelty to animals; in addition, the corrida is cruel, and does not accord with the sensibilities of the 21st century.

July 2010.  By a vote of 68 to 55, the Catalan parliament banned bullfighting in the region; the ban will take effect in January 2012. It happens that the ban was enacted shortly after the Spain’s constitutional court had struck down parts of Catalonia’s autonomy charter, including the right to call itself a “nation.”

As a result, many aficionados have viewed the decision by the Catalan deputies as “revenge” for their constitutional setback, especially since the local Catalan tradition of correbous –a form of bull-baiting still popular in village fiestas of southern Catalonia– was not prohibited. 

There is likely to be a large grain of truth in this, but at the same time animal rights activists –while deploring the mixing of nationalist politics and animal welfare– argue that this is but a growing trend in Spanish society.  Interestingly, the neighbouring regional government of Valencia (where Valenciano –a Catalan variant — is co-official with Castilian) has protected bullfighting as part of its “cultural heritage.”

July 31, 2011.  Spain’s socialist government has officially recognised bullfighting as an “artistic discipline and cultural product,” a move that has infuriated animal rights activists while delighting aficionados.

September 17, 2011.  The last bullfight in Barcelona is scheduled for September 25th. Included in the list of toreros is José Tomás.

September 2012.  Following a decision by the ruling conservative party, Partido Popular (PP), bullfighting has now returned to the state run public television (TVE).  A live bullfight was transmitted from Valladolid on Wednesday, September 5, the first transmission in six years, after it was banned by the socialist government of the day, the PSOE.  Bullfighting was, afirmed the Prime Minister, Manuel Rajoy, a part of Spain’s tradition.  The decision was greeted with enthusiasm by bullfighting aficionados; not so by critics who see it as both cruel and an anachronism.

December 2015. There are moves afoot by the conservative government to introduce a two-year bullfighting course into state run schools. The move has provoked considerable opposition, and many consider it “an effort by the Spanish government to rally around … a dying tradition.” See http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/05/hundreds-of-thousands-oppose-plan-for-bullfighting-courses-in-spanish-schools

August 21, 2022. A very interesting article in The Guardian newspaper on the closure of several bullrings and the growing apathy among Spaniards points to a bleak or uncertain future for the fiesta nacional. See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/21/spain-wonders-what-to-do-with-unused-bullrings 

Three excellent book in English on bullfighting:

Mitchell, Timothy      Blood Sport: A Social History of Spanish Bullfighting  1991.
Kennedy  A. L     On Bullfighting   1999
Shubert, Adrian     Death and Money in the Afternoon: A History of the Spanish Bullfight  1999

For a fine summary of the status of bullfighting and opposition to it as of June 2010, see   www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/06/bullfighting-outlawed-catalonia
For another illuminating (and long) article, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jun/06/bullfighting-outlawed-catalonia?INTCMP=SRCH
For the Socialist government’s decision in 2011 to protect bullfighting, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jul/31/bullfighting-saved-spain-artistic-discipline
For a return of bullfighting to state TV, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/9523066/Bullfights-return-to-Spanish-television.html
The latest in the status of bullfighting in Spain: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/spain/10353287/Spain-grants-bullfighting-protected-status.html
Views and opinions in 2015, see an interesting article and comments in http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/25/bullfighting-spain-national-fiesta-now-divides-its-people 
March 2022. European subsidies keep bullfighting alive? See https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/18/bullfighting-still-benefits-from-millions-of-euros-a-year-in-eu-farming-subsidies