Dear Reader, please don’t get your panties in a knot.
There are two things I know to be true about bullfighting:
a.) Bullfighting is growing in unpopularity in those countries where it is most popular – Spain, Mexico, some Central and South American countries.
b.) It is firmly planted in Spanish culture.
And I suddenly had the chance to see a bullfight in Sahagun.
I had arrived in Sahagun early. I had been hearing about the festival of San Juan de Sahagun and seeing posters about the bullfight for several days. In Fromista, a local resident had thrust a flyer in my hand, urging me to see the bullfight since I was heading for Sahagun.
My initial reaction was – Ugh! Bullfighting is a blood sport. The bull doesn’t stand a chance, doomed the moment it sets hoof in the ring. Why would I want to watch someone put an animal to death and see a crowd cheer about it? Sounds like dogfighting or bear-baiting. Sounds like boxing. Bloody. Or hunting.
However, as I neared Sahagun, I thought about contradictions.
The local people I had met along the way were extremely kind and benevolent towards their children, their gardens, and their pets. Many of them spoke out against bullfighting with passion. The person who had put the flyer in my hand was the only person who seemed to actively advocate seeing a bullfight.
On the other hand, many towns along the Camino have bullrings. And the feast of San Fermin, featuring the “running of the bulls,” is known around the world, in spite of the many tales of unhappy endings,
I try not to judge a book without reading it and a movie without viewing it. How could I judge a cultural icon without seeing it.
I found a bed in a convent in Sahagun, had dinner (“. . . algo para comer con mi cerveza??”) and walked to the bullring.
The ticket was surprisingly inexpensive. I was one of the first to arrive. The ring was dry and hot, with concrete seats all around.
The shady side of the ring filled up first. The crowd was made up of people of all ages – young people on dates, old men with their cronies, teenagers goofing together, moms with strollers and toddlers,
Local organizations each had their own marching bands and each sat in a different section of the stadium, wearing the group’s color.
The parade began, Not the dramatic parade I expected. No, these were just local people, representing their local organizations, wearing the color of their organization – red, blue, green, yellow – and jeans, sneakers, and t-shirts. Nothing fancy, although the clowns were dressed elaborately. But these simple, local people would fight the bulls.
They all bowed to the center box, where the mayor sat. Each group went to a section nearest their group and casually waited. They shared stories and drinks with the spectators who were within a foot of where they stood. They joked with each other and with the crowd, their fans chanting and playing songs.
Finally, the bull entered. I got nervous. These guys seemed totally unprepared to do anything except run. They did not seem prepared to challenge a bull, even a young ones. This bull was big and fast.
Then, the first fighter strode to the center of the ring and began to provoke the bull. He got closer and closer to the bull, waving his cape, daring him to charge. The young man had polish and courage, which made his encounter with the bull mesmerizing. The bull was unpredictable.
As I watched the two in the ring, I was drawn in and began to feel the excitement that the town had come for. This wasn’t about blood. It was about style and fearlessness in the face of breathtaking odds. It was about physical and mental agility. It was about valor and danger. The bull would act. The man would react. Finally, the bull charged. The man pirouetted out of the way, cape fluttering over the bull’s head. OLE!
Again and again, closer and closer, the young man teased and taunted. He stared at the bull with an intensity that silenced the crowd. He moved out of the way just enough to brush the sleek black hair of the passing bull.
The young man stayed in the ring for a long time, gracefully moving aside, sweeping the cape over the bull’s back. When his time was up, he accepted the applause of the spectators. No killing, no poking. No gory ending.
And so it went. Old men showed that they, too, had style and courage.
Young women – didn’t I mention women? – showed their exuberance and daring.
And, although there were some close encounters . . .
. . . everyone walked away to the sounds of cheering crowds made up of friends, family and neighbors (and pilgrims). There were no attempts to harm the bull in any way, And people cheered the bull, also.
Here is what I learned. I learned that there are more ways to “fight” bulls than I had suspected. What I thought of as bull fighting is more like a game of “chicken” played with a bull instead of a car and with flair and panache.
I still do not want to see a bull getting killed. I do not like to watch boxing. And I understand hunting, but I wouldn’t enjoy it.
But I learned to not be so quick to judge the cultural norms of others. Between black and white, there are many shades of gray.