Every July, thousands of people travel to Pamplona, a quiet town in the north of Spain, to watch or join the so-called running of the bulls, or San Fermín, the local holiday. Around 1.5 million people come to a city of 200,000 to attend a festival where reckless, drunken behavior is often portrayed as bravery.
The festival was first romanticized by Ernest Hemingway and his century-old macho, parochial vision. As he wrote to a friend about bullfighting in 1925, “It ain’t a moral spectacle and if a male looks at it for a moral standpoint there isn’t any excuses. But if a male takes it as it comes. Gawk what a hell of a wonderful show.”
Today, many in Spain associate the festival with cruelty, toxic masculinity and even sexual abuse, even if the city council has made a commendable effort to prevent it. The Spanish Supreme Court just sentenced five men who gang-raped a woman during the festival in 2016 in a case that became a symbol of the ugliest face of the event.
Most of the runners are still men in their 20s — women, who weren’t allowed to run until 1974, usually make up a small percentage. Many come from the United States looking for cheap sangría and staged excitement. Locals are just a minority in a show that leaves behind injuries, around 2,000 police complaints and 2 million pounds of trash (according to last year’s official data.)
In the perfect myth drawn by Hemingway, the suffering of the bulls was an afterthought. In the eyes of many Americans, the run of the bulls is perhaps not associated with the cruelty of corridas (bullfights) and other shows that involve torturing animals. However, in Pamplona, after they are pushed through narrow streets by a shouting crowd, bulls are led to the bullring, where they are killed slowly every afternoon.
But the Hemingway hook persists. Pamplona, like the rest of the country, is very different of what the writer portrayed as an occasional visitor between the 1920s and the 1950s. Yet Hemingway himself is used as a catch for tourism. Hemingway tours include stops at places where there’s no proof he visited at all. Even the white and red uniform of the runners doesn’t go back centuries. An apparel brand gives an award to the “guiri” of the year, a disparaging word Spaniards use for foreign tourists.
Cruelty is still part of some popular festivals in Spain, mostly coming from the Middle Ages. Some brutal practices have been banned, such as the throwing of a goat from a tower and the killing of a bull by a spear-wielding crowd in Castile. Bullfights have already been outlawed in some parts of the country. Bullrings struggle to sell tickets, and the number of bullfighting events has plummeted by 60 percent in the past decade. Bullfighting associations and entrepreneurs still receive money from national and local governments, although public funding is diminishing as well. Most Spaniards now oppose bullfighting, and the gap is bigger in the case of young people. Supporters of bullfighting are a vocal community, sometimes aggressive on social media, but still very small.
Last year, the mayor of Pamplona opened a debate about doing the bull running without killing the bull in a corrida afterward. “Of course, it’s possible,” wrote the bullfighting critic of El País, who pointed out the limited interest in bullfighting among locals in Pamplona.
The city is making an effort to promote concerts, parades, dancing and fireworks while pushing safety, particularly for women. Traditions evolve as communities do, and clinging to the past, even to a lucrative past, is often at odds with the reality of the present.
A different kind of celebration is possible in Pamplona — one that does not hold on to a cruel, dangerous, drunken myth and better reflects the Spain of 2019.
María Ramírez is the strategy director of eldiario.es, a Spanish news website.