My first Spanish bullfight.
I arrive at the Plaza de Toros de La Maestranza at 6:29 p.m. and walk straight up to the ticket counter. I have no idea what this thing is going to cost me. The agent shows me a seating chart by price and I select the cheapest option, which still puts me back $35. The best seats in the ring cost upwards of $200 for certain bullfights. I exit, ticket in hand, and the large wooden doors for the ticket office close behind me. For a country so notorious for its fluid concept of time they sure take their Spanish bullfight punctuality seriously.
There are no concession stands. What’s the point of even watching a sport if you can’t drink beer and eat a hot dog? Like, I’m from Chicago.
Everyone is already seated and I’m not permitted to take mine because the bullfight has started, which is fine with me as I don’t exactly know where I’m going anyway and I feel extremely self-conscious in these foreign surroundings. Surely my presence must scream bleeding-heart-liberal-Democrat-animal-loving-sanctimonious-judgmental-xenophobic-ugly-American. I stand in the entranceway for awhile — my view blocked — and eventually take my seat. A seat, anyway.
I know very little about the Spanish bullfight: there’s a matador, there’s a bull, the matador pisses off the bull by throwing javelins at it, the bull charges the matador, the matador uses his cape to confuse the bull, the bull dies, we all go home. Olé.
In actuality the Spanish bullfight is obviously much more complex and very ritualized. To break the event down as simplistically as possible, it consists of three matadors, accompanied by a crew of assistants, each fighting two bulls (not simultaneously). Each fight has three stages: the tercio de varas (the part of lances), the tercio de banderillas (the part of banderillas), and the tercio de muerte (the part of death).
THE TERCIO DE VARAS
My heart rate palpably accelerates when the bull charges into the ring: it’s big, it’s powerful, and it’s NOT happy to be there. The assistants and then the matador thrust their capes and incite the beast for the purpose of seizing up their opponent. This is fun.
Two more assistants enter the ring riding blindfolded horses wearing a padded sort of armor. The furious bull attacks the clueless horse, nearly wrestling it to the ground as my heart clenches in empathy for the poor animal that has got to be utterly terrified. Now it’s the bull’s turn to be tortured: the assistants stab it in the neck with their lances. This is not fun.
THE TERCIO DE BANDERILLAS
Now the matador and his assistants plant barbed sticks into the weakening, enraged bull. yay.
Everyone around me is engrossed in this lopsided spectacle. Enrapt, no one appears to be tweeting or updating their Facebook status or texting photos to friends. The sixty-something man and his wife seated next to me passionately chant óle óle óle (not olé) in awe after every pass the matador completes. Children look on, much as they would observe Disney on Ice.
I confess I’m not immune to the adrenaline rush produced by the drama unfolding below me: my palms sweat for the bull, for the matador, for the assistants, for those goddamn horses.
THE TERCIO DE MUERTE
The matador returns to the ring and performs a number of distinct styles of passes, luring the bull in with his red cape (the bull is color blind: the red hides the blood), inching ever closer to the dying, murderous animal as their dance becomes more intimate and intense. I’m mesmerized and I loath myself for it.
Finally the matador puts the beast out of its misery with what looks like to be a stab to the head. The crowd cheers. A team of mules is released into the ring and they drag the bloody body out. The brass band plays like it’s halftime. Where are the cheerleaders?
I hang in for another round. This time, during the tercio de banderillas, the bull pursues an assistant who hides behind a barrier, and the beast crashes head-on into the planks. It falls to its back, legs flailing in the air. Seconds pass. It struggles, and struggles, and cannot right itself. The crowd is enthralled. I can’t handle this. Somehow witnessing the humiliation bothers me more than observing the fear and pain. I feel shitty.
Not far from the Plaza de Toros, walking through the streets of Santa Cruz, I pass a band of a cappella singers entertaining the carefree Sunday crowd with comical ditties. I discover the resplendent El Divino Salvador church where people kneel humbly. Singing, laughing, praying, killing, music, beauty, death — the contrasts are difficult to process.
I order dinner and chastise myself for giving $35 to the Spanish bullfight and contributing to its sustainability. Yet here I am eating serrano ham with pleasure. I can condone the pig’s pain and suffering because I wasn’t there to witness it?
I reach a reconciliation. The bulls and pig suffered at the end in exchange for life. They would have never lived if they weren’t destined to serve some purpose. And unless you’re fortunate enough to be born as Paris Hilton, Petra Ecclestone or a spoiled pet like my two cats there’s a price to pay for your existence. You’ve got to commute two hours daily, or smile at your boss’s lame jokes, or pull a cart, or lay some eggs, or blow the repulsive producer or fight a guy wearing tight-fitting, gold-brocaded pants and a funny hat. There’s no free lunch. Not usually, anyway. So that’s how I justify my behavior.
Still, I’ll be donating to PAWS (Pets Are Worth Saving) when I return home to Chicago.