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Promise of death in the afternoon keeps bullfighting alive for fans

Bullfighting is facing a decline in attendance and a ban in Catalonia. But its advocates insist this Spanish tradition can survive its current crisis due, in part, to the unique risks it presents.


The frisson of danger is the draw of bullfighting for many of its supporters. Photo: stevendepolo (flickr)

The bull struck its horn deep into his thigh. Seconds later, the same horn speared his neck. Before thousands of anxious eyes and terrified faces, Luis de Pauloba was rushed out of the bullring and into the infirmary. From there, an ambulance hurried him more than 150 kilometres from Cuenca to Madrid. Even after Pauloba had received four litres of blood transfusions, the doctors weren’t optimistic.

“They told me that I was going to die because it had almost touched my brain,” Pauloba says. “It was a very unpleasant wound.”

Remarkably, in less than five months, Pauloba was back in the ring.

“I always had the mentality that after that wound I was going to bullfight. Physically, of course, I had to learn how to breathe, learn how to speak, learn how to eat, and the truth is it was very taxing,” he says. “I weighed 54 kilograms and after everything I weighed 48 kilograms. I was a toothpick. But I recovered.”

Once healthy, he continued to bullfight for 17 years. Today, the survivor of that gruesome injury contributes to the survival of bullfighting, which recently became outlawed in the northeast region of Catalonia (the ban taking effect in 2012). Pauloba now works as a coach at Seville’s bullfighting school, preparing the next generation of bullfighters. One of those hopefuls is 17-year-old Paco Lama.

“If I don’t bullfight, it’s like something is missing in my persona,” says Lama. “Something I can’t live without.”

When a student enrols in bullfighting school, he or she not only makes a career choice, but elects a lifestyle as well. The program consists of three-hour practices that meet three times per week. Once Pauloba and the other coaches believe a student is ready, they bring him or her to the countryside to joust with cows. Currently, nine members of the school are fighting cows in the countryside, while five have begun to fight young bulls, known as novillos.

“There are kids that make it and there are others that don’t make it because they can’t do it,” Pauloba says.

Lama can. He has already won two competitions and has aspirations to become a professional by the time he turns 24. It’s a desire that alienates him from his generation, which is mostly apathetic towards bullfighting.

“ think that I am crazy because I don’t live a normal life,” Lama says. “I don’t get drunk on the weekends and I don’t go out. They see a bullfighter — someone dressed as a bullfighter — as someone that is unapproachable, someone that they can’t communicate with.”

Seventy years ago Spain was divided by bullfighting allegiances, but today loyalties lie with soccer teams. Lama insists the glory days of bullfighting will return once again, as soon as his generation understands the ceremony he loves.

With prohibition in Catalonia and decreased attendance and interest throughout Spain, the glory days that Lama envisions seem a fantasy.

But those connected to the bullfighting world in Seville aren’t worried for its future, at least in the south of Spain. Álvaro R. del Moral, bullfighting journalist for the Correo de Andalucía, is one of those believers.

“Only ago right here in Seville, a bullfighter was seconds from bleeding to death. That is the truth, the great authenticity of bullfighting. That is what will allow it to continue to live,” he says. “If it were a ballet or something prepared, trained, it wouldn’t have the same punch it has.”

It’s the authenticity that Pauloba is familiar with, and the punch that he hopes Spain’s younger generation will admire.

“If you came [to practice] to waste time, you’re wasting your life, your youth,” he says. “We came here to be someone important in life.”

And as Lama and the rest of the bullfighting world hopes, someone important in the eyes of Spain.

This is the final article in the three-part series on bullfighting in Spain, published every Monday by Iberosphere. The first is here and the second here.

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Published: Apr 11 2011
Category: Culture, Featured
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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6 Comments for “Promise of death in the afternoon keeps bullfighting alive for fans”

  1. Michel Michaeljohn

    Bullfighting: It’s not ART; it’s not CULTURE; it’s “TORTURE.”
    Bullfighting: The most “indefensible” type of “animal abuse.”

    Bullfighting is not a “fight” at all, but a systematic “torture-killing” that pits a gang of armed thugs wielding “razor-sharp” barbed spikes, spears, swords and daggers (these weapons are designed to “inflict intense pain and cause blood loss” to weaken the animal) against a lone, terrified; confused; “fatally” disabled and wounded animal.

    It’s a “sickening” economic industry based on HORRIFYING victimization; sadistic abuse; extreme cruelty and ‘mutilation and torture” of bulls (and horses) during the cruel exhibitions of “bullfights” (which are barbaric “blood” fiestas): “Close-up Horror of Bullfighting” (Graphic)

    Handlers “weaken” the bull for days before the bullfight. They starve him and deny him water, or they put laxatives and epsom salts in his food. He is “beaten” with heavy sandbags on his back. They file his horns down to the tender quick to “interfere” with his ability to “navigate”; they blind and drug him; they stuff his ears so that he cannot “hear”; they stuff his nostrils so that he cannot “breath.” In the ring, they drive “razor-sharp” lances and harpoons into his back and neck muscles so he can’t lift his head. By the time the matador appears, the bull is weak from blood loss and dizzy from being chased in circles.

    The horses used in bullfights are old and drugged. Wet newspaper is stuffed in their ears so that they will not “hear” the approaching bull and “run away”; their vocal cords are cut so the audience will not hear their “cries.” They wear long blankets to hide their entrails, which spill out when they are “gored and disemboweled” by the “deceived; tortured; agonizing” bull.

    It’s no fun to see an innocent, crazed animal “tortured” before a screaming crowd of people, who should be hanging their heads in shame. Even if you leave after 15 to 20 minutes, the damage has been done – your money has gone to support this “hellish” business, which “decent” people are working to “end.”

    The continuation of bullfighting depends on “government subsidies” and the IGNORANT “tourist industry.”
    Don’t be an “accomplice” to this “savagery” by supporting it with your “tourist dollars.”

    Please help these “suffering” animals – “STAY AWAY FROM BULLFIGHTS; speak out against them and DEMAND that they be ABOLISHED.”

    Michel Michaeljohn (of Spanish-descent); California; United States.

  2. This animal cruelty is DISGUSTING…and is a reason I shall and will NEVER visit Spain. Any country or its peoples whom would perform such a disgusting act should be – well – you know what I mean. Why not drug and do all the same things to the bull fighter himself….

    I am sick of humans deliberately causing harm to animals only to try making themselves that much more powerful. Ever bull fighter should be killed – if they have it coming to them….do they teach cowardness in school – certainly is noting more or less in my opinion.

  3. I am in total agreement with Michel and Christopher – this is nothing more, nor less, than systematic torture and cruelty, for the most disgusting and disturbing reason of all – the “entertainment ” of people so lacking in humanity, decency, or compassion as to be utterly repugnant and incomprehensible to those of normal human character.
    It’s strange that they don’t realise how very many potential visitors are deterred by the awful cruelty that is synonymous with SPAIN.

  4. Ah! But the spectacle! As the late Michael Flanders once so graphically related:
    Well, we promised you another hat, and here it is. I bought this last year when I was on the Franco-Spanish border, in the tiny principality of Andorra. It’s worn like this – with the peak, the brim at the back, you see. And it is in fact the distinguishing mark, the proud distinguishing mark, of the Andorran olivador, or olive-stuffer.
    How many of you, I wonder, as you toy with a dry martini at the bar, have thought of the romance that lies behind the simple stuffed olive, or have witnessed, as I have, the almost unbearable drama of a corrida d’olivas, or festival of olive stuffing.
    In Andorra, every boy hopes that he, too, will grow up to be one of the truly great oliveros. And each year, in fiesta time, people come to watch this traditional sport from as far afield as Cadeeth, Madreeth, or by air ferry from Leeth – as I myself deeth.
    Let me now try to recreate for you something of the atmosphere of a corrida d’olivas. By three o’ clock in the afternoon, the stands in the great Plaza d’Olivas are packed with spectators; and excitement mounts as the band strikes up a paso doble, announcing the grand entry into the arena of the olivador. He is closely followed by his assistants, the picador, with his pick of sharpened wood, and the matador, with his small round mat. They bow to the Presidente Municipale, or Mayor, in his box, who gives the signal for the trumpet to sound, and the first olive to be wheeled in. A gasp goes up; for this is no ordinary olive. This is the giant, pendulous oliva brava, specially bred for the ring in the rugged foothills of Andalucia.
    A corrida d’olivas is divided into three parts, or tercios – the first, a tercio of quites, or passes. Here, the olivador, keeping the rest of his body entirely motionless, passes the olive from hand to hand, trying to soften up its tough outer skin, in a bewildering series of Veronicas, Naturales, Media Veronicas, Veronicas Reverso. All this before the hyper-critical eye of the aficionados, each with his bottle of aficiolemonad.
    The trumpet sounds a second time, this time the tercio de banderillos, and now it is the turn of the picador. Planting his feet firmly together in the sand, he holds his picks at arm’s length and prods into the olive, trying to determine whether the stone runs true up and down, or whether it is set at an angle, favouring one side, the dreaded oliva revoltosa.
    The trumpet sounds a third and last time, for the tercio del muerte, the moment of truth. The olivador bows again to the Presidente, saying to him, “I dedicate to you this olive”. He then places it on his knee; murmuring a prayer to St. James of Compostela, he takes the pica, raises it high above his head. All is hushed. And then, in one sudden movement, he brings it jabbing down into the heart of the olive. And a great cry goes up of “Olé!” – he has made an ‘ole.
    But before the gutted olive can fall to the sand it is caught by the matador on his mat, dragged out of the arena, and handed over to the estufadores, who are of two types: the estufadores pimentos, and the estufadores anchovas. Their dread work done, it is distributed among the poor.
    No olive is ever allowed a second time into the arena. And woe betide the olivador whose olive is revoltosa. For then, at the moment of pica, the pick, glancing off the angled stone, will jab hard – ungh! – into his own knee.
    A cruel sport. Some may think it so. But this is surely more than a sport, this is more than just a vital art form. What we have experienced here today is total catharsis, in the acting out of that primeval drama of man pitted against the olive.
    And as the sun sets over the now empty Plaze d’Olivas, nothing is left but a few footprints in the hot sand, with here and there a tell-tale smear of olive oil. And one is reminded of those immortal words of Garcia Loca – in the Roy Campbell translation – “all lust and life must pass away, to make a cocktail canape.”
    And this hat – this hat was introduced by perhaps the greatest olivero of them all, Flaminguez. Flaminguez it was who, at the very moment of pica, would give a deft twist to the wrist, which sent the sharp olive stone flying high into the air. And this peak – is to stop it going down the back of the neck.

  5. And sad to to hear of the death of Juan Pedro:
    Magnificent beasts!

  6. It amazes me how marketing can condition everyone´s perspective of any region. To me the only reason why Catalonia has banned bullfighting is to seem more friendly towards british and american potencial turists, since it is a spanish region whose market is mainly focused on this concept.
    It seems no one knew that already ten years ago in Canary Islands, also belonging to Spain, bullfiting and any practice against animal safety was forbiden while in Catalonia still, many practice rural and cultural rituals much more agresive.

    It seems the idea is selling the product of somthing different, but please, someone explains to me how Catalonian people are different from any other spaniard if they have been living in a peninsula since always and the country is not much bigger than Texas.

    Please common sense.

    Lets stop giving bad publicity to spaniards.

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