After 8 months of calling Bangkok home, I moved on and set off for Madrid to embark on a month-long brother-sister adventure through Western Europe. As I walk the city streets today I think about what defines this culture. I think of sangria and tapas, of late dinners and long nights, of Picasso and Goya, and finally of the Spanish bull, arguably Spain’s most iconic symbol. The bullfights have defined my image of the country since I first laid eyes on a wrinkled bullfighting poster in my grandmother’s basement. Only on my first trip to Spain at age 15 did I realize that my uncle Jim Martin was not, in fact, a famous bullfighter. (Customized bullfighting posters are one of Spain’s most popular souvenirs.)
The shops around La Plaza Mayor are plastered with images of swift matadors fooling their beasts. Vendors sell stickers, t-shirts and keychains with the famed Spanish bull to flocks of tourists looking to take home a memory of their holiday. The bullfighter is Spain’s celebrity without a face, respected and admired by Spaniards and visitors alike. But not everyone is a fan of this cultural institution.
My brother reminds me that bullfighting is on thin ice. Ethical questions surrounding the centuries-old tradition (a tradition that defines the country) could perhaps end it for good. Effective January 1st of this year, Catalonia became the first region to ban it. It’s viewed as a cruel blood sport, in which the bull suffers a long and painful death in front of thousands of spectators. Groups like Antitauromaquia, SopOurShame, and PETA continue to fight to put an end to bullfighting. They hope that the rest of Spain will follow Catalonia’s lead and abolish the tortuous sport for good.
Though only the bulls are condemned to die, matadors also face potentially-fatal risks. Fighters have been paralyzed, gored, and even killed as they have carry on this tradition in the bullring. Remember the bullfighter who was gored in the neck last October? The now recovered Juan Jose Padilla continues to stand by Spanish tradition, and has returned — albeit with an eyepatch and a paralyzed face — to the ring. “I regret that there are people who have a contemptuous image of the corrida. These people are not familiar with our art. They reject bullfighting out of ignorance. Injuries are my medals – and now I’ve won gold.”
Would an end to bullfighting culture change the country for the better? Would eliminating the “art” of bullfighting also eliminate the most important part of Spanish culture? Supporters argue that bullfighting is fair and noble, a sovereign spectacle that belongs to the people. They maintain that activists should dedicate their time to other issues such as poverty, education, and healthcare instead of wasting it on taking away the soul of Spanish culture.
What do you think? Would Spain still be Spain in the absence of the matador and his beast?