This article is from the November 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Spanish Fiesta Brava, A History of Bullfighting

by Mario Carrión

Mario Carrión is a Spanish bullfighter who was born in Sevilla, Spain, in 1934. He provides here a history of the "sport" and his own unique perspective as a bullfighter himself.

A Brief History of Bullfighting

During the eight centuries of the Spanish War of the Reconquest (711-1492 A.D.), the knights, Moors and Christians, weary of killing one another, would occasionally allow themselves a respite; but in order to avoid boredom, and also to release their pugnacious instincts, they would compete in hunting wild-life existing in the Iberian lands. Deer and other equally docile animals were easy prey, and while a cornered bear or boar would occasionally put up a fight, it was never a challenge for such valiant knights. However, the scenario changed every time they faced the Iberian bull. This beautiful and awe-inspiring beast, with its unique noble bravery would, when provoked, rather die fighting than flee — in essence, transforming the hunt into an avid exchange in which the bravest warriors could bring to light their courage. Perhaps a nobleman with an entrepreneurial spirit thought about capturing several of these horned beasts, taking them to the village, and recreating the thrill of the hunt so that the knights could demonstrate their skill and win the admiration of their subjects. Thus, in a remote corner of Medieval Spain, the beginning of what today is the national Spanish spectacle of bullfighting was created.

The first historic bullfight, corrida, took place in Vera, Logroño, in 1133, in honor of the coronation of King Alfonso VIII. From that point on, history is full of instances in which kings organized corridas to commemorate important events and to entertain their guests. After the Spanish War of the Reconquest, the celebration of corridas expanded throughout Spain and became the outlet where the noblemen demonstrated the zeal that allowed them to defeat the Moors. Even the Emperor Charles I in Valladolid in 1527, and later King Philip IV took part in the lancing of bulls in the bullfighting arenas, (such as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid), plazas de toros.

During the reign of King Philip II, Pope Pius V, appalled at the unconscionable carnage of the bullfights, forbade the practice of the corridas. The people, however, ignored the papal decree and continued to relish the fiesta brava, forcing Pope Gregory VIII to recant the decree, following the advice of the writer and mystic Fray Luis de León, who said "the bullfights are in the blood of the Spanish people, and they cannot be stopped without facing grave consequences."

With the arrival of the French Bourbon dynasty in Spain, the nobility gave up the thrill of the arena for the pleasures of the royal court. As a result, bullfighting was left to the plebeians who in turn enthusiastically took up its practice, and took it to heart as a symbol of something genuinely Spanish.

Bullfighting was transformed and democratized. The squire, on foot, became the master of the arena, today's matador, and the knight, on horseback, the picador of the present time, undertook the secondary role of helping to show the prowess of the squire who was once his servant. The people, aware of the changing social hierarchy rendered an act of symbolic social justice by allowing Francisco Romero, a man of humble origins, to become the first professional bullfighter of historical significance in 1726. The people transformed Romero from a simple man into a legend whose skills are still praised in popular songs today. In Cossio's five volume encyclopedia, Los Toros, the most complete history of bullfighting, we find many notable characters who followed in Romero's footsteps; among them were Rafael Molina, Belmonte and Manolete, three outstanding matadors, who elevated the toreo to great heights. Each introduced changes that converted what once was a primitive and cruel encounter, the Medieval hunt, into the skillful art form which is practiced today in the bullfighting arenas of Spain, France, Portugal, and in the Latin American republics of Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

Is Bullfighting a Sport?

Let's look at the nature of this cultural expression so innately Spanish. What is bullfighting? Is it barbarism, a sport rooted in the hunt, or an artistic expression similar to the dance? There have been many different opinions, often colored by the cultural background of the person expressing his or her thoughts. However, most Spanish people agree that it should not be considered a sport. Indeed, the translation of the Spanish term torear into the English word bullfighting, shows the prejudicial view of this event in the Anglo world. A person would have to be insane to fight a 1,200 pound beast. The objective of the bullfight is, in fact, the opposite: to avoid a brutal confrontation by using the human attributes of intelligence, grace, and elegance. In a sport, the important thing is to win; the sport fan is satisfied with the accumulation of points, hits, and records. In bullfighting, there is no scorekeeping. Satisfaction is implicit in the expected triumph of human cunning over brute force; a bullfight fan screams olé not because the matador has won, but because of the manner, the form, the grace, the wit, the dexterity of the torero performing a veronica, a natural, or any other pass with the capote or muleta, as the piece of cloth that he holds in his hand is called. The trophies awarded to the bullfighter are often nothing more than the people's momentary show of emotion; it is not unusual for a matador who may have only performed one artful move in the entire event to be the true winner of the day. For just as in painting, singing, or dancing, the quality that made that move special cannot be quantified or described. The appreciation of its worth is intuitive.

Nevertheless, based on my reading on the subject, my practical experience as a matador, and my intuition, I define bullfighting as a type of dramatic ballet dance with death. As he would in dancing, the bullfighter must control his movements — maintaining the rhythm, not of music, but of danger. On stage, a faux-pas means an interruption of artistic flow. In the bullfighting arena, a mistake could mean the death of the star of this drama.

Between the bullfighter and the bull there should always be a relationship based on distance. This plastic art form is based on the fact that the matador's dexterity makes him the creator and master of this relationship, instead of allowing the bull a chance to take command. In theory, this artistic event is simple — the difficulty lies in carrying out the task. The bull, by his very nature, attacks everything that moves. The man, unrelenting, standing tall, exhibiting elegance and poise, should move the cape in such a way that the bull will pursue it without ever catching it, and at the same time, in order to enhance the feeling of danger, he should direct the trajectory of the attacking animal as close to his body as he dares. Not so close, however, that in order to avoid being injured or killed, he should have to briskly step aside, because by doing so he will disturb the fluidity of the movement. Referring to this skill, a Spanish critic of this art form once said: "Anyone can bullfight if he knows the technique, anyone who has courage; the difficulty lies in being able to bullfight like Belmonte or Manolete as if the bulls were made of glass and one were afraid to break them."