One of the best-known Spanish traditions is being called into question by a change in social mood. Economically, too, the spectacle has been in crisis for some time and survives only with the help of subsidies. How much longer will it manage to stay alive? Would it be legitimate to ban a form of cultural expression? How can a solution be found to this conflict that divides the population so strongly?
In August 2022, Twitter blocked the account of the Spanish bullfighter Morante de la Puebla because his content violated its guidelines on the portrayal of violence. This action triggered a polemic in the country and again raised the familiar question: Is bullfighting culture or torture? Even if you don’t hear much about it in Germany, the world-famous spectacle still takes place in Spain today – in 15 of the 17 autonomous communities. On the Canary Islands, the practice was banned as early as 1991, and in Catalonia, despite a failed ban, bullfights are no longer held.
La fiesta (the festival) is particularly present in the countryside. The national association of bullfight organisers ANOET writes on its website: “In rural areas there is a stronger connection with bullfighting. Many communities organise bullfights as part of their local celebrations and as another leisure activity for their citizens.” However, bullfighting festivals are also occasionally held in cities, especially in the summer. In Madrid’s largest arena, “Las Ventas”, admission costs between 6 and 175 euros, depending on the seat. In addition to the classic corridas (bullfights), there are many other traditions involving bulls in Spain. These include encierros, where the animals are driven through the streets.
Before the Covid19 pandemic, a total of 1,425 “bullfights” were organised in Spain in 2019, according to a report by the Ministry of Culture, of which just under 350 were corridas – the lowest figure in recent years. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of bullfights fell by a quarter, according to the Ministry of Culture. The number of active professional bullfighters is also decreasing: while there were 6,700 bullfighters in 2012, in 2020 there will only be 5,000, 464 of them matadores. This is the name given to the protagonists of the fight who face the bull alone in the final “act” and kill it.
What do the Spanish think about this issue?
The festival is very controversial among the population: In a survey conducted by the “Huffington Post” in 2018, the majority of respondents (52 percent) were against the bullfights and were even in favour of a ban. A third (35 percent) voted against the ban and 10 percent were undecided. About half of the respondents had already seen a bullfight in the arena. According to a report by the Ministry of Culture, only 8 per cent of Spaniards attended a “bullfight” between 2018 and 2019, but among 15-19 year-olds the figure was 10.5 per cent – the highest among all age groups.
In fact, the tradition has many supporters, one of whom is Neyva Sánchez Pérez from Granada. She says the arena is full every time she attends a bullfight. “Sometimes I don’t even get tickets because they sell out so quickly,” she says. Contrary to the downward trend, she believes that the spectacle still has its audience. And this audience is not just made up of older generations. “Yes, there are older people in the arena, but there are also a lot of young people,” she says. She herself is 29 years old and grew up with the culture around bullfighting. “Even my parents and grandparents were fans and also in my group of friends we have been committed to going to bullfights together since our school days.”
What’s so special about the tradition?
The matador fights the bull in the arena while traditional music plays in the background. (Video: Instagram @bandaelcarmen)
“Vivir sin torear no es vivir” – “A life without fighting bulls is not a life,” writes 49-year-old torero Curro Díaz in his Instagram bio, making it clear what personal significance the so-called great festival has for him. “It’s Spanish culture, bullfighting originated here after all,” Neyva agrees. “So I think we should respect it.” In fact, the tauromaquia has a centuries-old tradition in Spain and, in addition to the ritual process of the fight, includes special clothing (traje de luces), typical music and a rule-governed audience dialogue: After the fight is over, the spectators wave handkerchiefs, for example, to express their satisfaction with the matador and the spectacle. If the response is particularly positive, one or two ears are cut off the “defeated” animal and presented to the matador as a trophy.
The Spanish state has also officially recognised the “indisputably cultural character” of bullfighting. With the justification of the need to preserve the “treasure of the country“, the practice was declared an intangible cultural asset by the government in November 2013 and thus legally protected. One of Spain’s most famous contemporary toreros, Enrique Ponce, commented at a subsequent press conference in December 2013: “We bullfighters consider ourselves artists first and foremost. Therefore, we want bullfighting to be viewed in that sense as well.”
When asked what she likes about the corridas, Neyva answers: “When I go to a bullfight, I feel excitement, pure thrill. I see a man facing a bull alone.” Depending on the torero, the experience is different. And: “The atmosphere in the arena is also unique.” In Neyva’s hometown of Granada in southern Spain, it is customary to take small refrigerators with you. “Then you have a little picnic there with food and drinks and everyone shares what they have,” the 29-year-old says.
„The animal is slowly tortured to death“
However, not everyone speaks so enthusiastically of the fiesta. The opponents of bullfighting (antitaurinos) repeatedly draw attention to themselves with massive demonstrations, petitions signed hundreds of thousands of times (also in Germany) or other forms of protest. One of them is Miriam Jiménez Lastra from Madrid. Besides her activism on the streets, the 24-year-old gives insights into her life on TikTok and Instagram, shares vegan recipes and explains certain behaviours from a sociological perspective. She dislikes bullfights “because the animal is taken to a place where it is stressed, where it loses its orientation, where it suffers and is eventually slowly tortured to death,” she summarises. “We shouldn’t do this to any animal – much less for the pure amusement and fun of humans,” says the sociologist and content creator from the Spanish capital.
But what exactly happens during a corrida? First, the bull is stabbed in the neck by lancers, the picadores, so that it can no longer lift its head. Then another fighter stabs it in the body with pointed flags (banderillas), causing the animal to lose more blood and weakening it. Now the matador comes into play: in the last act of the spectacle, he repeatedly challenges the bull to attack, which he skilfully dodges. A few times he lets the bull run into the famous red cloth until he finally gives it the final blow. It has been scientifically proven that the animal feels pain during these sequences, according to a report by the organisation AVATMA (Veterinarians Against Bullfights). It is not uncommon for the bull to still be conscious when it is pulled out of the arena after the spectacle, Miriam says. “And some toreros don’t even know how to kill properly,” the activist complains. “Then they need up to five attempts with the sword. I know this because I have seen it myself.”
From bullfight fan to vegan
Miriam used to be an enthusiastic taurina herself, i.e. a fan of bullfighting. “It was quite normal in my family. We went regularly to the “Las Ventas” arena since I was very small,” she says. She says she grew up completely convinced in the faith she was brought up in. Yet she never thought about the suffering of animals: “I was very far from that.” The turning point came in her youth when she got her dog Coco. “That made my head explode,” the 24-year-old recalls. “Suddenly I could understand animal sentience, basic things like: If I step on her paw, she cries.”
For a while Miriam still considered herself a taurina and an animal lover at the same time, until she finally couldn’t stand the cognitive dissonance any more. “The more I read up on the subject, the worse I felt. To understand that two of your fundamental values contradict each other is very painful,” she explains. She asked herself, “If we wouldn’t do it with a dog because we think it’s horrible – why is it different with a bull?”
In the meantime, Miriam has become a vegan and does not want any animal to suffer. Nevertheless, she also considers bullfights to be a culture, which for the activist does not mean that the fiesta has to be protected. The animal protection party PACMA writes about the topic on Instagram: “Culture must develop hand in hand with society. Bullfighting does not belong in this century.” For PACMA, it is a “disgrace to the country and civilised society” and must be banned. Whether this is necessary to end bullfighting, however, is questionable. The industry has been in an economic crisis for a long time.
An industry at the end of its rope
The declining interest among the population and the economic crisis in the country led to the fact that in the early 2010s the entrance fees alone were no longer enough to finance the events. When the law recognising the practice as an intangible cultural asset was passed in 2013, it enabled the state to support the bull industry with subsidies. Since then, two sectors receive financial aid from the Spanish state and the EU: the cultural sector (events, salaries) and the agricultural sector (bull breeding). In 2013, an often-cited study estimated the total sum of all subsidies at around 700 million euros a year. Antitaurinos take up the issue again and again, such as the initiative “You pay for it“.
During the pandemic, the crisis worsened and the taurinos felt disadvantaged by the government when they were not mentioned when the Corona aid for the cultural sector was announced. In a demonstration in June 2020, they demanded to be supported in the same way as other businesses in the sector – with success. However, a recent decision announced by the Ministry of Culture caused renewed displeasure in the bull community. All Spaniards who come of age in 2022 are to receive a cultural voucher to attend events, among other things. In October, the ministry confirmed that bullfights were not included.
What does the future hold?
Could a political decision put an end to the “big party”? It has already been banned on the Canary Islands and is currently being discussed in Mexico’s capital. Neyva would be very disturbed by a ban and she says: “For me, it would mean having to travel to another country to watch a bullfight.” In Spain, however, a national ban seems unlikely anyway – the case of Catalonia shows this. The autonomous community decided to ban bullfighting in 2010, but when the practice was declared a cultural heritage in 2013, the Catalan law began to wobble until it was finally overturned by the Constitutional Court in 2016.
A possible compromise would be the so-called blood-free corridas as they are organised in Portugal or the capeas also celebrated in Spain, where younger bulls are used. In both versions, the animals do not die in the arena. Miriam thinks, “If that’s all we can do, okay. But that’s not my goal.” Because here, too, the bulls would suffer and then be killed. Miriam suspects that the tradition will eventually “fall by its own weight”. “It’s not a profitable industry in the end,” she says.
And until then?
There are many theories, but no one can say exactly what the future of bullfighting will look like. The development in the coming years depends on many factors: Who governs, how the industry behaves economically, how many visitors go to the spectacles, how public opinion develops.
Until then, Neyva wants to be accepted for her hobby. This works very well in her circle of friends. Even there, not everyone shares the same opinion. Miriam, on the other hand, wants more empathy and for bullfighting to be seen from the perspective of the animal, not the human. “If you have doubts, watch a documentary. Then at least you know why you act the way you do. That’s something everyone should be clear about,” says the sociologist.
Vokabeln rund um das Thema Stierkampf:
|corrida de toros, la fiesta||bullfight|
|matador||bullfighter who kills the bull|
|torear||(verb) to fight against bulls|
|tauromaquia||culture around bullfighting|
|encierros||festival, in which bulls are herded through the streets|
|taurinos||supporters of bullfighting|
|antitaurinos||adversaries of bullfighting|
|traje de luces||clothing of the toreros|
|banderillas||sticks with metal tips decorated with ribbons, which are stabbed into the bull’s back|
|picadores||bullfighters who stab the bull|
|capea||bullfighting with young animals without killing them in the arena|