This article is from the November 1997 The Mexico File
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Bullfighting, or is it Bullkilling?
by David Simmonds
I have just recently attended my first bullfight, first ever. And I don't really know why I never went before. It's not because of a committed philosophical opposition to killing all animals. I like a good steak as well as anyone (not from Iowa) and I know for sure that the cow on my plate was once alive and had to be killed before I dined on its hindquarter. And I'm not a particularly squeamish person as evidenced by my participation in diaper-changing during the last three years as my son learned the whereabouts and purpose of our porcelain fixture.
I don't know. I just never had the desire to see one.
I went to Spain after college graduation in 1972. After buying a van in Amsterdam for four hundred bucks I headed south for the "running of the bulls" in Pamplona. That was going to be my introduction to bullfighting, right where Hemingway had been. Perfect. The problem was that I was camped a couple of miles out of town by a stream along with an international mix of party-warriors whose main purpose was to consume all the wine and sangría in the region. Being a friendly American type I was sucked right into their depravity and we never could quite make it into town early enough in the morning for the bull run and following bullfight. As I remember, the South Africans were the primary culprits. Stay clear of those guys whenever you have something to do and beer and wine are in the vicinity.
Having blown my chance to attend my first bullfight in the perfect place, I just lost interest. As much as I have been obsessed with learning the culture of Mexico through thirty years of travel, I have ignored the sport which is so clearly associated with the country.
So what happens on my recent trip to San Miguel de Allende? I'm blithely strolling along a quiet street getting some afternoon photos when I hear the band and I see the signs and before you can say "olé," I'm being asked if I want to sit on the sunny side or the shady side of the bullring. And since its only a ten-peso difference I find my self sitting in the shade and totally enthralled by my surroundings. Here I was heading back to my room for a siesta, but instead I'm now absolutely mesmerized by the crowd, the costumes, the spectacle, and...the bull. The one which will be killed right before my eyes, merely because that is what he was bred for. I'm not sure that I want to be here but I also know there is nothing that can make me leave.
Now, thinking back, I wonder what I learned from my introduction to the bullfight. And the most striking and obvious observation is that maybe they named this sport (?) wrong. First of all, I don't think its a sport. It's a spectacle, a show. It's the Romans feeding the slaves to the lions, except the animal/man roles are reversed. The bull enters the ring full of life and energy, and in all but a few rare occasions the only way he is leaving is on his side being dragged by a team of horses, quite dead.
If the bull were allowed to confront the matador at full strength I doubt if too many people would opt for a career in the ring. As it is, the bulls neck and upper spine area are severely penetrated prior to any real contact with the matador. The hapless, mostly confused, bull is pumping a stream of blood with every step and its just a matter of time before he goes down for the count. In the meantime the artistry of the bullfight unfolds. And I must say, I enjoyed it.
In a short time you forget about the blood and the dying animal, and you concentrate on the guy with the cape. You understand that even though he has a huge advantage, it still takes some mighty huevos to face down 1,200 pounds of disoriented bull with a set of horns pointing in your direction. There is that possibility that the bull might get lucky, or the matador might trip in his new Air-Jordans, or whatever the bullfighter footwear equivalent is. I sometimes get nervous being around unleashed house pets, never mind a blood-spouting bull.
Although I'm not ready to call them athletes (can they hit a curveball or sink a three-pointer?), I will say they qualify as being brave, not only in encountering the bull, but also for strutting in those too-tight pants they wear. Have they ever considered the protective cup worn by baseball players?
So, there you have the culturally-biased observations of a first-time bullfight spectator. I am now determined to attend many more fights and learn what I can about this ancient ritual that is so important to the Mexican people. The following articles should help give a much clearer picture from sources much more qualified to explain the essence of the performance.