My First – and Last – Bullfight

Let me cut to the chase – it was awful.  Not particularly bloody or gruesome, but horrifying to me nevertheless – maybe even more so because of the banality of it all.  Amid the cheers and the clapping, I cried. At times, I came close to sobbing. 

And still, I am glad I went.

Ok – with that out of the way, let me start from the beginning. 

To celebrate the new year, we went with friends to San Miguel de Allende, and one of their friends gave us complimentary tickets to a bullfight.  I could have declined – I have had conversations about bull fighting with a number of people since moving to Mexico, and I was under no illusions about what I would witness.  One person told me that the worst part, the hardest thing to shake, is the smell of blood in the air.  I knew it was going to be bad, and still I went.


I could easily dress-up my reasoning in academic garb – after all, that is what I was trained to do.  I could talk about cultural relativism, and rail against some form of values-imperialism…without actually supporting the practice, I could construct some argument about eurocentrism and the importance of respecting “cultural practices” and blah blah blah.  

But really, I was curious. We have all encountered the romanticised image of the bullfight (encouraged in no small part by Hemmingway’s treatment of the practice as an art form, as a symbolic struggle between man and beast) and for me, the representation of things is generally more interesting than the thing itself.   Like I said, I knew it would be bad.  I knew I wouldn’t ‘like’ it.  But, I was interested in trying to understand how – if it is as bad as people say – how can it still be popular? 

As a professor trying to get my students to understand the record of human cruelty, I would remind them that before they became genocidal, the great majority of young Germans, or Hutus and Tutsis, or Serbians and Croats had been just like the rest of us…not blood-thirsty, not lacking in empathy, uneasy with suffering.  What happened, I would ask, to make them ok with what they were doing?

Ok – just to be very clear: I am NOT comparing fans of bullfighting to Nazis…not suggesting they are blood-thirsty or genocidal or cruel.  But the question is not all that different – what combination of history, culture, experience, and attitude combines to make a practice like bullfighting acceptable? How do people construct a particular narrative of  struggle between man and beast, with all of the ritualised performance that goes along with it, and how do they disconnect it from the reality of what is happening in front of them?

It was these sorts of questions that were going through my head as we made our way to our seats.  I was taking mental notes in anticipation of writing this post, and thought it might be titled “An academic goes to the bullfight.”  I took it all in, watched groups of young people, tourists, families with children, and couples take their places in the risers around the ring.  I enjoyed the buzz of the crowd and the hum of anticipation that I somehow associate with the Lucha Libre.  I appreciated the horsemanship of the first fellow to enter the ring.  I even thrilled a bit when the first bull was released into ring and charged around with the banderilleros waving pink capes and egging him on.  “Yeah,” I thought, “I can see how people could enjoy this.”

And then it got bad.  A picador came out on an heavily padded and blind-folded horse.  The tired bull was then lanced in the back – I heard someone explaining that the picador is aiming for an artery that runs along the back, but I have no idea if that it true.  The crowd booed during the whole process…I thought at first it was because this somehow unsporting, but I think actually it is because it takes too much fight out of the bull.  And the crowd wants a feisty bull.

You all know where this is heading.  The bull was stabbed repeatedly with brightly coloured banderillas – little spears that stay lodged in the flesh while the audience roared with approval when they stuck or with dismay when they didn’t.  Eventually the matador came out – which is when you might expect the classic charging-bull, twirling-matador scene to unfold.  The reality was that the bull was bleeding, tired, confused, and in pain, and it took a great deal of goading on the part of the matador and his helpers to get the bull to commit to even a half-hearted charge.  Eventually, the audience became restless, and signaled that it was time to finish it by calling “matarlo!” At this point, the bull was having trouble standing, and fell a few times to its knees.  It just stood there while the matador approached with a long sword which he drove into the bull’s back – apparently aiming for the heart and a quick kill.  It rarely worked out that way, and the animal usually had to be stabbed in the back of the head after it was down.  In fact, one bull was stabbed so many times by the matador that he was booed out of the ring.  The bull was allowed to leave the ring – when the audience realised that he was making his way to the gate, there was loud applause – I was clapping too, because I thought this bull had beaten the odds.  But, apparently he was simply killed out of eye sight.

I was crying almost right away, and spent much of the time looking at the crowd instead of the in the ring.  I saw a good number of people leave after that first bull with grim faces.  But most people stayed and cheered and booed and cried ‘olé’ on cue.  I was surprised by how many children there were, and how festive everything was.

So like I said, it was awful.  Gruesome.  Desperately sad.  DH  said afterward that he kept thinking about our dogs.  I just kept thinking that there is no way to escape the truth of what happens at a bullfight –  animals are being tormented for public entertainment.

And that is why I am glad I went.  So often, we are confronted with shades of grey…it sometimes becomes difficult to take a stand on an issue because we know there are other perspectives, other views, whatever.  So many of us – myself included – hedge rather than risk offending someone.  But for me at least, there was nothing ambigious about what I saw.  Every allowance that I had made about culture and discourse was just academic bullsh*ttery.  I wasn’t watching  a “symbolic struggle'” or a “metaphor for class struggle,” or participating in some “cultural tradition” or “social ritual.” I was watching blood spill just because people like to watch. 

It doesn’t get more cut and dry than that.

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