Spain’s Bullfighting Fight

A detail of Goya painting of a bullfight from the early 1800s. The sport has been in decline in Spain for decades. Credit Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid
A detail of Goya painting of a bullfight from the early 1800s. The sport has been in decline in Spain for decades. Credit Museo de la Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando, Madrid

When the Parliament of Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain, solemnly banned bullfighting in 2010, it was not simply a victory for animal rights. There was a political angle, as well, involving a battle over regional and national identity.

Catalan nationalists were beginning their push toward full independence from Spain, a movement that is reaching a critical point. Getting rid of the bullfights, seen by many as quintessentially Spanish, sent a message as blunt as a graffiti slogan: “Catalonia is not Spain.”

Now the Constitutional Court in Madrid has struck back. In a ruling on Oct. 20, it repealed the Catalan ban. The court’s finding was partly that the regional Parliament went beyond its mandate, but crucially, also, that bullfighting is a “common cultural heritage” of Spain.

So identity, rather than ethics, is what is at stake here. Underlining that point, the “correbous,” a summer festival typical of southern Catalonia in which a bull is let loose to run the streets, was not covered by the ban. At the same time, while the Constitutional Court has struck down the Catalan law, it has issued no ruling against a similar ban on bullfighting in force for more than 20 years in the Canary Islands.

Despite all this fuss, bullfighting has been on the wane for decades. According to a government survey, scarcely one in 10 Spaniards ever attends a bullfight. Even before the ban, Catalonia’s biggest bullring had struggled to fill a third of its seats — and then only thanks to busloads of foreign tourists.

So why does bullfighting — and the idea of banning it — matter so much?

Most people think of bullfighting as an ancient tradition, but it’s a relatively modern spectacle — originating in the region of Andalusia in the 18th century. It was still in its infancy when the painter Goya, who himself briefly trained as a toreador, depicted a bullfight in his 1816 series of etchings “La Tauromaquia.”

The sport took decades to reach a national audience, but then became a craze. Bullrings sprung up throughout Spain, and beyond, in Mexico, France and Morocco. A cult of celebrity developed around bullfighters. Spanish itself became so peppered with phrases derived from bullfighting that even today it’s hard to speak more than a few sentences without one cropping up.

In the 20th century, writers like García Lorca, Alberti and Bergamín, thinkers like Ortega y Gasset, and painters like Dalí and Miró embraced bullfighting and gave it a poetical gloss. Because Spain was still building its self-image, the fighting bulls, with their “savage beauty” and tragic allure, supplied an easy metaphor for the nation itself, torn apart by political passions and social conflict.

Foreigners could not disguise their contempt for the “disgusting, extremely bloody spectacle” — and those were the words of the head of the Nazi SS, Heinrich Himmler, not the kindest of hearts, aghast when treated to a bullfight in Madrid in 1940. Such revulsion only gratified Spanish intellectuals, who reveled in a reputation for atavistic barbarity. Their hero was Juan Belmonte, a bullfighter-cum-philosopher who sported scars from dozens of gorings and spoke in coarse epigrams.

During the Spanish Civil War, there were bullfights on both sides. The Republican Army even had a Bullfighters Brigade of anti-fascist toreadors. Picasso’s famous indictment of war, “Guernica,” included a suffering bull, and when García Lorca was executed by one of Gen. Francisco Franco’s firing squads, he died in the company of two bullfighters, shot as anarchists.

Catalonia was never the heartland of Spanish bullfighting, but it, too, participated in this dark fascination with the blood of bulls and men. Francesc Macià, the founding father of modern Catalan nationalism, and Lluís Companys, its most cherished leader, both loved bullfighting. And it was in Barcelona’s largest bullring, the Monumental, in 1959 that Ernest Hemingway watched a bullfight that featured in “The Dangerous Summer,” the posthumously published account of the duel between Dominguín and Ordóñez, the two bullfighting stars of the age.

That world is gone. Neither bullfighting nor Spain are the same nowadays. Despite a brief uptick in popularity in the 1980s — which explains the bullfighting themes in the cinema of Pedro Almodóvar — the Fiesta has been losing fans since the ’70s.

The reasons for its decay are many and varied: A new sensibility toward animals, a more urbanized society and the competition from other forms of mass entertainment — TV and soccer, in particular — have all played a role. Not least, though, is that Spain has fashioned a new image for itself.

Deprived of the sport’s former prestige and hounded by animal rights groups, the remaining aficionados are on the defensive, angry and nostalgic. To those of us who neither love bullfighting nor hate it, the warring camps of supporters and opponents seem excessive. One bullfighter recently showed his defiance of changing social norms by fighting a bull with his 5-month-old baby daughter cradled in his arm. And when an 8-year-old cancer patient expressed his ambition to get well and become a toreador, there were tweets wishing him dead. Bullfighting may be disappearing, but it still stirs strong emotions.

Will bullfighting return to Catalonia after the repeal of the ban? Unlikely. The ban reflects the view of most Catalans. Bullfighting may never have been a big part of Catalan identity, but it definitely isn’t now. Whereas the ban is.

As for the rest of Spain, the politicization of bullfighting means that right-wing parties want to prop it up, because it represents their idea of Spain, while left-wing parties want to end it because it no longer coincides with theirs. So bullfighting is still about identity and culture and the image of Spain. Only the boundaries have moved, and the allegiances changed.

Miguel-Anxo Murado is a journalist and the author of the story collection Ash Wednesday.

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