Bullfighting: A Spanish tradition

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Soon after moving to Mexico City my whole family went to our first bullfight. My mother describes it: “We had good seats on the sunny side quite near the ring and the sun felt good. It was, as always, a colorful pageant with the matadors, banderilleros, picadors all wearing such fancy beautiful suits, just like the pictures we have seen.

Juan José Padilla
Juan José Padilla

“A brass band played in interludes and at the times two very regal sounding trumpets announced the actual fights. Twice the matadors did such a good job they paraded around the ring and people threw down flowers, hats, flasks from which the matadors drank, and scarves that they put on and then threw back.

“The bulls were not very ferocious that day so the crowd was quite disgruntled. A horse was gored quite badly. Surprisingly though, I didn’t mind the bulls getting slain – as Kathy said, it was so ugly and bad that she enjoyed the killing of it the most. The best part of it, for me, was when the three brightly decorated mules with snappy little men in blue uniforms and wheelbarrow, shovels and brooms, come out in a great flourish and dragged the dead bull out of the ring and cleaned up any blood. It was an absolute riot to see them. The mules were balky and the crowd would alternately boo and clap, enjoying it as much as the fight, I do believe.

“Also, as is always true in crowds, the audience was most interesting, and as the beer flowed freely so the audience relaxed and enjoyed themselves and you should hear Kathy yell “OLE”. We all enjoyed it.”

Manuel Benitez Perez, AKA El Cordobés, was one of the greatest and highest paid bullfighters of all time. He grew up in an orphanage in Cordoba, Spain and was imprisoned briefly as a youth for stealing food. He was illiterate until he went into compulsory military service in his 20’s. He began bullfighting in 1959 and in 1963 became a full-fledged Matador.

He was famous for being a daredevil. He would kneel in front of the doors as the bull rushed out into the arena. He would do crazy things like kiss the bull between the horns, and stand with his back to the bull. The crowd loved him. He was good looking and fearless.

I had a serious girlhood crush on him. His full length poster hung on the wall of my bedroom in Mexico City. My brother’s 18th birthday present was tickets to the bullfight to see El Cordobés. That day the matador was rewarded with two ears, a tail and a hoof for his performance. This was an accomplishment that was unheard of. He also was paraded down the main street, Reforma. I was so jealous.

El Cordobés
El Cordobés

El Cordobés was gored several times but always recovered. He retired a couple of times but came back for exhibition perfomances for many years. He just couldn’t stay away. When I went to visit Cordoba in Spain, one of the things on my “must see” list was the Bullfighting Museum. Manolete was another bullfigher from Cordoba who some consider to be the best bullfighter of all time. He was also El Cordobés’ role model. The museum in Cordoba is really dedicated to Manolete with the majority of the exhibits relating to him. I was a little disappointed there wasn’t more about El Cordobés but I enjoyed it none the less.

Today there is a lot of controversy around bullfighting and many places have banned it or phased it out. In Portugal it is illegal to kill the bull so it is removed before the last act. Fighting a bull on foot started in Ronda, Spain around 1726. Bullfighting is not a sport or a competition, it is considered an art. It is highly ritualized, almost like a dance in several acts. The costume the bullfighter wears, called the suit of lights, is bright and colorful. The cape is used with skill. It is primitive, dangerous, compelling and exciting. The bull does have a fighting chance, and I have seen bullfights where the bull was not killed because it fought exceptionally well.