Bullfighting’s Catalan accent
In Catalonia, bullfighting could soon be banned if a motion manages to get through the regional legislature. But with nationalist sentiment running high, the debate currently raging on this issue is about much more than just animal rights.
By Guy Hedgecoe
It was meant to be a reasoned, informed debate about the pros and cons of bullfighting. Politicians, philosophers, writers, scientists and even a bullfighter were all due to give their views on the fiesta nacional and whether or not it should be banned in Catalonia.
And yet, in one session alone, crucifixion, Colombian kidnappings and female circumcision were all invoked, insults such as “intellectual pigmy” and “hypocrite” were used and at one point, the scientist Jorge Wagensberg pulled out a sword to illustrate how much spearing the weapon into a bull’s back would hurt the animal.
This passionate and often fractious debate was the result of a petition by anti-bullfighting grass-root activists who gathered 180,000 signatures, leading to the motion going to the Catalan regional parliament. The assembly held an initial session in early March, with further debate on March 17.
But while this issue is ostensibly about animal rights, the direction the debate has taken at times shows that it is also a reflection of Spain’s conflicting regional identities.
“Some think that by banning bullfighting we will be less Spanish. They are wrong,” said David Pérez of the Catalan Socialists when the motion was first presented to the chamber.
With only one functioning bullring left in Barcelona and the region’s economy suffering just like the rest of Spain, there would appear to be other more pressing problems for the region’s politicians. However, Catalan regional sentiment is running particularly high at the moment. The Constitutional Court’s decision to consider repealing parts of the autonomy statute that devolves increased powers to the region is a major reason for this. The region recently responded with non-binding referendums on independence in dozens of towns, with the vast majority of those voting supporting the motion – albeit with a low turnout.
A divisive tradition
While bullfighting has in the past enjoyed a long and illustrious tradition in the north-eastern region, it can never escape being seen by many across the country as an archetypal “Spanish” activity, enjoyed by conservatives, pensioners and tourists – and therefore worthy of disdain. Aficionados say continuing the tradition of the corrida reinforces a unique sense of identity. Critics say it perpetuates an old-school parochialism, the kind of mindset that held Spain back for so many decades prior to its current democracy. In Catalonia, whose cultural identity many would argue is more progressive than other parts of Spain, this makes for an intriguing mixture of allegiances and sentiment on the issue.
“Today, being a fan of bullfighting means living in hiding and resisting the annihilation of the Catalan government,” said Salvador Boix, representative of the bullfighter José Tomás during the debate in early March. “Some people think that by not liking bullfighting they are being more Catalan.”
Boix’s testimony was pompous and mainly unhelpful. However, there was an element of truth in what he said – opposing bullfighting seems to be a kind of badge of honour for ‘true’ Catalan nationalists. When the Madrid-born torero Joselito took the stand, he was unable to answer several questions because those asking them did so in Catalan, which he does not speak.
However, despite its conservative associations, bullfighting’s supporters and opponents cannot be divided along purely party lines; some supposedly left-leaning figures from the world of culture are often seen at bullfights, a throwback to the days when toreros moved in intellectual circles. While the motion for the ban is backed by the nationalist Republican Left (ERC) and the Catalan greens (ICV), the conservative Popular Party and the Socialists – both with substantial representation across the whole of the country – oppose it. Others, such as the conservative nationalists of CiU, have given their deputies the freedom to vote as they wish.
Josep Rull of the CiU was clearly one of those in the Catalan parliament who felt trapped between their political affiliation and their gut feelings. The deputy performed a manoeuvre that would make most bullfighters proud when he condemned the Spanish-style corrida but staunchly defended the correbous, an equivalent spectacle in which the bull is taunted but not killed, popular in southern Catalonia and Portugal.
In the capital, meanwhile, things are more straightforward. The regional premier, Esperanza Aguirre of the Popular Party, waved a red rag at the Catalan abolitionists by declaring that in Madrid, bullfighting will be declared an activity “of Cultural Interest”. In doing so, she made reference to Goya, Picasso, Lorca, Hemingway and Orson Welles. All were fans of the corrida and all were great artists, her argument appeared to go, so why should it be banned?
Aside from needlessly opening the gap that divides Madrid and Barcelona by a few more inches, Aguirre showed how opponents and supporters of bullfighting in Catalonia seem to be talking two different languages; not Spanish and Catalan, but the languages of two groups who do not listen to the other’s arguments.
The philosopher Jesús Mosterín, for example, attacked the idea that a tradition should be protected simply for tradition’s sake, and made reference to such barbaric “traditions” as female genital mutilation, domestic violence and kidnapping.
And yet a common response to this stance has been the libertarian argument that if you don’t like it, don’t stop me from doing it. This, of course, utterly avoids the most common argument against bullfighting: that it is morally reprehensible.
The right to kill
The philosopher Fernando Savater has blithely insisted that it all comes down to “a question of freedom. Going to bullfights is voluntary and getting enjoyment from them is up to each person.” Fellow commentator and aficionado Eduardo Arroyo takes up a similar theme and in a curious – and rather contrived – twist, sees killing bulls as the inalienable right of this region, which once had its culture repressed by dictatorship. “It makes me sad to look at this situation after having achieved so many conquests through the democratic transition,” he remarks. The abolitionists, he warns, “are prepared to force a rich, open and cosmopolitan country like Catalonia to become a corner where suspicious ‘ruralism’ and semi-fascism rule.”
But contrary to Arroyo’s claim, in Catalonia it is in fact the opponents of bullfighting who see before them a brutal anachronism that they believe is at odds with their tolerant, progressive region. The supporters, meanwhile, intuit gratuitous anti-Madrid sentiment at the heart of the prohibition motion.
The outcome of this motion is still unsure. It might get approved, like a similar one which saw bullfighting banned in the Canary Islands in 1991. It might even be rejected. Whatever the case, bullfighting will almost certainly die out one day, in Catalonia and in Spain as a whole. The crowds are getting older, with few genuine stars to excite new generations, and experts complain that the quality of the bulls is deteriorating.
But before it collapses exhausted on the bloody sand, this most Spanish tradition will no doubt manage to inflict one or two painful political wounds.
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Published: Mar 18 2010
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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Tags: animal rights, blood sport, bullfight, bullfighter, bullfighting, catalan, catalan nationalism, catalan politics, catalonia, Culture, madrid, tradition