A slow death in the afternoon
Can bullfighting survive its many challenges?
By Guy Hedgecoe
When Spain joined the European Union in 1986, many people thought the death knell for bullfighting had sounded. The modernising effect of membership of the bloc would stretch beyond the confines of the national economy and infrastructure, they reasoned, to the more ethically charged area of los toros.
But the doomsayers were wrong – or at least partly so. The late eighties and early nineties saw something of a resurgence of interest in bullfighting, reflected both in opinion polls and the number of bullfights being staged.
And yet, nearly three decades on, the writing really does seem to be on the wall for the fiesta: fewer than 500 bullfights will be held this year, compared to 2,700 in 2007.
There are several reasons for this decline and animal rights, in its truest sense, is not the main one. But even so, when Catalonia banned bullfighting from 2012, it was a huge setback for the pro-bulls lobby. Few observers were fooled by the claim that the regional parliament had backed the ban simply because its members abhorred the gratuitous killing of bulls – the predominantly Catalan nationalist support for the motion reflected more faithfully an abhorrence of their relationship with the rest of Spain. Banning bulls was above all a political act asserting Catalan identity.
But precedents are important whatever their motives and other parts of Spain are either thinking of following Catalonia’s example, or, in the case of the city of San Sebastián, have already done so.
Yet while animal rights and anti-bullfighting groups are growing, they are not doing so at a rate that would seem to worry your average torero. What does seem to be increasing is indifference to the national fiesta. If you took a late-evening wander past Las Ventas bullring in Madrid during the recent San Isidro festival as a bullfight was finishing, you would have seen plenty of people pouring out of the venue – but the vast majority would have been either pensioners or tourists.
With so many other sources of entertainment, who can blame youngsters for staying away? For them, a pastime such as football is infinitely more relevant, more international and more sexy. And for a generation that has grown up consuming the unpaid-for delights of the internet, paying €50 for a seat in the sun in La Ventas doesn’t make much sense.
Juan José Rueda, who owns and runs a bull-rearing farm north of Madrid called La Dehesa, told me these high prices have contributed to the “bubble” in which bullfighting has been surviving. Top matadors are still earning up to hundreds of thousands of euros for appearing at a big fiesta, but the industry is in freefall.
Rueda points out that though Madrid, Seville and Valencia still hold their big fiestas, it’s the small towns and villages whose bullfighting traditions are disappearing.
And like so many sectors that are currently in crisis, bullfighting’s biggest problem is the economic slump. If the unemployment rate were, say, 10 percent instead of 27 percent, more Spaniards would fork out for overpriced tickets. And if municipal authorities weren’t also out of pocket they would be able to fund the fiestas that for so long have been an integral part of their towns’ summers.
Given that the economy is expected to endure a painfully slow recovery according to the most optimistic forecasts, a bullfighting fightback looks distant, or even impossible.
Not so long ago, there was a feeling among aficionados that the dominant figure of Spanish bullfighting of recent years, José Tomás, would single-handedly lead a renaissance. Returning with a vengeance in 2007 from early retirement, his daredevil style, frequent gorings and enigmatic persona all made him that rarest of matadors: one who made it onto the front pages of newspapers, albeit often caked in blood.
But El País’s bullfighting correspondent, Antonio Lorca, who has been a consistent critic of the “cult of José Tomás” pointed out to me that since returning from a life-threatening goring in Mexico in 2010, the matador has lost some mobility and, it seems, some ambition, appearing mainly at smaller venues rather than in the great bullrings of Spain and Latin America. Now 37, his mantle as bullfighting’s last hope is swiftly fading.
Lorca added that only a handful of Tomas’s peers can be deemed first-class bullfighters.
It all adds up to a deeply depressing scenario for bullfighting fans: a lack of stars; an economy and public hit by recession; a younger generation distracted by other interests; and an animal rights lobby bolstered by Spain’s complex relationship with its regions, particularly Catalonia.
All of which is not to say that bullfighting will disappear in the immediate future. Its hardcore support is still vocal, as was illustrated by a recent petition presented to Congress to protect la fiesta by law that bore half a million signatures. But even so, at some point, this centuries-old tradition is going to have to be put out of its misery.
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