The most exciting part about traveling in a foreign country is the culture. Spain was no exception. As somebody who speaks very little Spanish, it was hard for me to get immersed in the culture and to interact with people in a meaningful way. The bullfight allowed me to join in with locals and truly participate in an extremely cultural event. For me, the true significance of the event was not the combat between the matador and the bull, but the emotions and actions of the crowd.
The bullfight I saw happened in Villaluenga, Spain. The bullfight itself took place in a circular stadium made of stone. The floor where the combat took place was sand, wetted down before the combat. Wooden barriers surrounded the arena. They were five feet tall and just as wide. The distance between the barrier and the wall was enough to let people slip between the fence and the wall, but small enough to prevent the bull from doing the same. It is no coincidence that overweight matadors do not go far in their careers.
There were tunnels behind the barriers leading under the seating. The bulls were kept in these tunnels and some of the pre-fight rituals occurred there. The seating was about eight feet up the wall. The seats were of the same structure as the walls of the stadium. The president of the bull ring sat at the west end of the arena, which was the only part hidden from the burning sun when the fight started. The old walls of the ring gave the impression that they might start to crumble at any minute.
Every bullfight involves six bulls and three matadors. Each matador has six team members to help him kill the bull. The bullfight has three sections, tercio de varas (lances third), tercio de banderillas (spear third), and tercio de muerte (death third).
Soon after all the spectators were seated, the bull was released and tercio de varas began. The bull was incredibly fast, charging after the matador and his teammates when they waved their capes in front of the bull. Each bull is between 1,000 and 1,300 pounds. After a few minutes of watching the bull, the matador stepped out from behind the cover of the fence to test out the bull’s ability. The bull charged at the upheld cape, and the matador dodged the bull’s passes.
A horse marched out next. The horse was covered in colorful mats to protect it from the bull’s horns. Historically, the horse was unarmored, but it was usually killed during the fight. This changed once Spain became a tourist destination. On top of the horse was a man, called the picador. He carried a spear called a pico. The matador guided the bull close to the horse, then, if the bull was being cooperative, it charged the horse. Sometimes it took a few minutes for the bull to charge the horse and picador. Once the bull hit the horse, the picador stabbed at it. The picador’s job was to injure the muscles at the top of the bull’s neck, so that when the matador goes for the kill, the bull would keep its head down. Most of the picadors were booed by the crowd, suggesting poor performance.
After the picador was finished, the second stage, tercio de banderillas began. In this portion, the banderillos tried to impale short spears in the back of the bull’s neck. The spears were about one-and-a-half feet long and had colored ribbons attached. The banderillos had a very dangerous job, because they had no capes or other forms of protection. Once they threw their spears, they sprinted for a wooden barrier. During the bullfight I saw, one of the banderillos lost his balance and almost tripped as he was running for the cover of the fence. He made it, but it was a very close call.
Once the banderillos finished, tercio de muerte began. By the time the third stage started, the bull was exhausted and losing blood from the wounds in his neck. This was the saddest part for me, because the bull had been so proud and strong at the beginning and was now reduced to a pathetic and injured being.
At this point, the matador came out with a sword in one hand and the famous red cape in the other. The skill of the matador is most obvious in this stage. If the passes were particularly skilled or impressive, the matador would receive an “Ole!” from the audience. The matador then tried to kill the bull by driving his sword between the shoulder blades and into the heart. At this point the crowd was completely silent. One of the people in our group made a quiet comment, and was instantly shushed by five Spaniards. When the matador struck accurately, the bull died in a few seconds. If the strike was less skilled, the matador would have to try again.
The crowd was a tough critic of both the bull’s strength and the matador’s performance. The crowd demonstrated its feelings to the president. The first bull in the fight was weak, and the spectators booed the president for its poor performance. After the bull died, the crowd clapped if the matador was mediocre; however, if they thought the matador performed well they rose to their feet and waved handkerchiefs at the president. If over half of the audience stood, the president was obligated to give the matador a trophy in the form of the ear of a bull. The president awarded an extra ear to exceptional bullfights.
Throughout the fight I felt I was part of an almost completely Spanish crowd. I cheered, booed, and winced with the rest of the crowd. At one point, I looked across the ring and saw a group of people my own age cheering a particularly impressive pass. Although some would consider it inhumane, for me the bullfight was powerful way to bond with another culture.
— Nico Tonozzi