Whether you are a fan of bullfighting or positively horrified by its continued presence in modern society, there is no denying that bullfighting is part of the history and culture of Spain. Each year, during the Corpus Cristi festival, the bullfights return to Plaza de Toros in Granada. It is a beautiful, majestic bullring that stands as a proud monument in the city. Although we toured the bullring last year, none of us had ever been to a bullfight. It seemed like something we should try and experience, and so we bought tickets for the best Corrida on Saturday night. Karen thought this was the perfect gift for Father’s Day weekend.
So how do you prepare a family to see a bullfight for the first time? I am not sure I am the best person to determine this with my limited experience, but I went to what I know and summoned Hemingway’s classic Death in the Afternoon. It may not be as entertaining as some of Hemingway’s best novels, but it is exceptionally well written and very informative. This helped provide a little primer before the big event.
Still, we really didn’t know what to expect once we arrived, and so we just tried to take it all in. We saw women dressed in flamenco dresses and men wearing everything from T-shirts to ties. We saw small children and a host of octogenarians. We saw words of protest written on the side of the venue. And then we saw the bullfighters.
We just happened to be walking around the back of the stadium to our gate when our leisurely stroll was met with a traffic jam of sorts that is uncommon for Granada. A gaggle of people were circling around, and we soon realized that the bullfighters had just exited a vehicle outside Plaza de Toros and were about to enter the Plaza. One of the bullfighters, who is also one of the most famous in the world, was from Granada. They call him El Fandi, and I think that only the picture below can give you a real sense of what he means to the people, particularly the older people, who live in this city. Of course, this was long before the gore was to begin, but you only had to be human to see this moment was special.
Inside the bullring, there are two types of tickets – sun and shade. Although Hemingway insists that the sun is the best bullfighter, we chose the shade, since temperatures were just below 100 degrees. We were glad we did. People are packed like sardines into the shaded sections in particular. There is a bit of pageantry and then all of a sudden, a bull runs into the arena.
For those less inclined to read the gory details, I will spare them here, while trying to convey the feelings of what we experienced as a family. We saw the sheer power and courage of the bulls, the confidence and calm that exists only in men willing to be gored, and the great colors that fill the bullring and adorn the matadors (toreros). We heard incredible cheers in response to acts that seemed unremarkable (those that are made by the best to look easy) and we heard the unrelenting cries of the woman behind us when the first bull met his fate.
We saw white handkerchiefs wave in respect and we saw life and death play out in a manner we never have before. I can’t say that any of us enjoyed it, but it took our breath away. That is the best way, and perhaps the only way, for me to describe it.
After the fight concluded, we tried to learn a bit more about the matadors we had seen. We learned that Enrique Ponce, by the numbers, might be the best ever according to our friend Luis from Ubeda. El Fandi is a showman like no other, and here in Granada, his flamboyance was met with undeniable ecstasy from the fans. The third bullfighter, Roca Rey, just turned 20 years old, is a daring, rising star, and has been gored multiple times in his young career. Still intact at this time, Karen did think he was cute.
In the days that followed, we watched the documentary film “The Matador” about El Fandi, his life, family, and career, and we learned a lot about this ancient art, its tradition, and the place it holds in Spain. We tried to keep an open mind through our weeklong learning process. And although our instincts and experience in person evoked the sentiment of cruelty, El Fandi shared something that I have thought about in the days since the bullfight. He said that the bull is the only animal we eat that has the opportunity to defend itself. Many a bullfighter has perished, and El Fandi himself has even spared a number bulls in his career for their incredible bravery. That doesn’t happen at the slaughterhouse.
The relationship between the bullfighter and the bull is different than I had imagined. I envisioned a slaughter, but it didn’t feel like that. I envisioned the sense of the bull being made fun of, on display for entertainment, but it didn’t exactly feel like that either. This felt more like man vs beast, with the beast loved by the Matador more than anyone else in the ring, summoning a respect for one’s opponent I have never seen in sports. Auto racing comes close, but then again, the racetracks themeselves don’t breathe….or bleed.
El Fandi said the most difficult moments for him are the ten minutes before he enters the ring because he doesn’t know if he is going to come back. Once, when he was asked to fight 6 bulls in one corrida, he was injured after the third bull, and the injury required surgery. He insisted that the procedure be done at Plaza de Toros without anestesia so that he could return to the ring mentally sharp enough after the surgery to take on the remaining 3 bulls. He did just that, and whatever one thinks of this sport or art or brutality, its danger is unquestioned. On that very same night that we watched El Fandi dazzle the crowd in Granada, his friend and compatriot, bullfighter Ivan Fandino, was gored and killed at a bullfight in France.