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Photo by Vanessa Murray
A moment from the last bullfight to be staged in Catalunya in September 2011
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Photos by Vanessa Murray
Animal rights supporters protest outside La Monumental
A year after Catalunya held its last official bullfight, some people are still hoping for a reverse of the ban.
Serafin Marin is one Catalan who likes to kill bulls. And he is not alone. In March this year, matador Marin and his colleagues delivered a petition with 590,000 signatures to the National Institute of Statistics (INE) in Madrid with the goal of classifying bullfighting as national heritage and overturning the ban in Catalunya on bullfights here, which came into effect on January 1st this year. Of those signatures, 150,000 are of people from the region.
“If you ask why the Catalan people don’t like bullfighting, then you don’t know the Catalan people,” says Marin, who was responsible for killing the last bull at Barcelona’s Monumental bullring in September last year. Since that final official bullfight, Marin and other matadors such as Santiago Martín have worked to collect the necessary signatures in their campaign to see corridas (bullfights) continue here.
“My role is to show people the reality in Catalunya, where we found over 150,000 supporters, more than those opposed [to bullfighting].”
Marin’s love of bullfighting stems principally from the fact that his parents came from Andalucía, although he thinks of himself as Catalan. “I live in Barcelona, it’s a place I have a lot of affection for. People often criticise me for my profession, sometimes in very strongly worded emails, but it’s best not to pay attention to those kinds of people.”
Marin says the ban is hypocritical and influenced by Catalan politicians who are more interested in separating the region from Spain than bullfighting itself. “I fight bulls in France, so why not in Catalunya?” Symbolically, last September, Marin kneeled down to kiss the sand at the end of the final fight in La Monumental. “I felt a great sadness, because that might have been the last one ever.”
With the matadors’ petition still having to pass through the Junta Electoral Central and the Mesa del Congreso, this summer there have been no bullfights at the Monumental for the first time in many years. Many Catalans, such as former deputy mayor of Barcelona Jordi Portabella, hope it stays that way.
Portabella is the current president of the municipal group of political party Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC) in the Barcelona city council, and in 2010 published the book L’engany de la corrida (The deception of the bullfight). The book attempts to debunk some common ‘myths’ surrounding bullfights, explaining that corridas are supported by public funds. “If they were not backed by central government funding, they would no longer exist,” Portabella told Metropolitan. This monetary relationship with the government in Madrid harks back to Francisco Franco’s era, when the dictator imposed national unity by both suppressing local culture and promoting certain activities such as bullfighting and flamenco.
In his book, Portabella introduces the idea that some traditions are bound to have an end point, and suggests that while technology and science have evolved rapidly, human ethics are lagging behind. “One of the most important myths is that bulls don’t suffer. More and more people are realising that human beings shouldn’t enjoy seeing an animal suffer—we need an ethical shift,” he says. “Human beings need to see themselves as part of a whole and not above any other creature on Earth.” He believes la corrida is a “cruel show” in which the bull is “tortured with different kinds of instruments.”
“People say the matador’s movements are just like a choreography; well, I would add this is a cruel choreography.”
Animal rights group Prou! (meaning ‘enough’ in Catalan) organised the Iniciativa Legislativa Popular (ILP) that garnered 180,000 signees to bring the issue of a bullfighting ban before the Catalan parliament, where it passed in July 2010 with 68 votes in favour, 55 against and nine abstentions. Prou! spokesperson Alejandra García says the matadors’ petition manipulates the figures and is not a true representation of support for la corrida in Catalunya. “They were given nine months to gather the numbers in all of Spain, and then given another three months because they didn’t have the required amount,” she says. Prou! had just four months to gather 50,000 signatures for the ILP, but ended up collecting 180,000—all residents of Catalunya.
Even if bullfighting is classified as national heritage—and considering the conservative People’s Party is now in power, this isn’t a totally unthinkable possibility—García says the ban cannot be overturned. “We are an autonomous community and the state has no power to legislate on these issues.”
Bullfighting has a long history in Catalunya, and was so popular during the early 20th century that Barcelona was the only city in Spain to have three working bullrings open simultaneously. However, Portabella says those aficionados are long gone, and comments that in recent times 85 percent of the Monumental’s spectators were tourists. He notes that another “Catalan factor” in this debate is the contrasting popularity in certain local towns and villages of correbous festivals, where a bull, often with flames attached to its horns, is pursued by people with lances and knives, although not ultimately killed.
“Shows and festivals with animals that involve fights and torture go back into the ancient civilisations such as the Minoan culture,” says Jordi Portabella. “And it is indeed a deeply rooted tradition in Catalunya, but this is not the point.”
Echoing Portabella’s argument regarding the development of human ethics, in their ILP petition, Prou! quoted Mahatma Gandhi as saying, “The evolution of a nation can be seen in the treatment that its animals receive.” While watching Barcelona’s final—and my first—bullfight at La Monumental last September, one particular Ernest Hemingway quote resonated: “The beast at the bullfight is the crowd.” The US writer was an avid corrida aficionado and this sentiment, taken from his 1932 book Death in the Afternoon, that it is in the crowd that you start to understand the popularity, or revulsion, of the bullfight certainly felt true to me that day.
Cigar smoke filled the air, along with chants of “Viva España, Catalunya y su fiesta nacional!” But by far the loudest call was for “libertad” or freedom, chanted in Castilian not Catalan. Fans saw the ban as an attack on their democratic right to attend a bullfighting spectacle.
I asked a Catalan man at the bullfight whether he felt any sadness for the bulls. He nodded in agreement—or perhaps acknowledgment—and went on to point out that the bull has had it good for the five years prior to its being led into the ring. “He has been well fed and kept in perfect health. He has had no work to do, and has lived like a king! And now, just 20 minutes of suffering for a glorious death. It’s a pretty good deal, no?”
There are discrepancies about how many bulls die in Spain each year, with different sources offering up figures ranging from around 10,000 to 40,000 bulls killed in bullrings here—whatever the true number, they certainly don’t all die “gloriously”.
Aside from the lancing of the bull by mounted horsemen, the most disturbing part is the final stage, when the matador takes a sword and thrusts it into the heart of the bull. Sometimes he gets it right the first time, and we have our “glorious death”. But other times he misses and has to pull the sword out and try again, and again, while the bull shudders with pain, bleeding profusely, awaiting its death. Killing bulls in the bullring is a highly emotional issue. Some say it’s a burden Spain carries from its macho, warring past, while for others, it’s a badge of cultural pride.
“Bullfighting is not part of our culture,” one Catalan and Prou! protestor outside La Monumental last year told me. “Culture is to dance, to paint a painting. This is torture, and if Picasso liked it, well, that’s his problem.”
Like Hemingway and Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso was one of the contingent of famous figures who supported la corrida, although they also have their counterparts in those celebrities who are not in favour of bullfights such as the current Queen of Spain and poet Manuel Vicent, who famously wrote: “Admito que el toreo sea un arte si a cambio se me concede que el canibalismo es gastronomía.” (“I will admit that bullfighting is an art if, in exchange, it is agreed that cannibalism is gastronomy.”)
Undoubtedly, though, even Hemingway saw the end coming. “Anything capable of arousing passion in its favour will surely raise as much passion against it,” he wrote in Death in the Afternoon, pointing out that, “the whole bullfight is indefensible; there is much cruelty, and there is always danger...and there is always death.”