We didn’t really have much time to rest after we got back the Northern Spain trip on Wednesday night, because Thursday was another busy day. We had the farewell dinner that night and a bullfight to go to right before it, plus we had some last minute flower purchases and photo printing to get done for Paco, Elena, and Azahara, some of the people who have had the most influence on our program so far. Combine all of that with wearing nice clothes during a hot day and the fact that it was Día de los Trabajadores in Spain (basically Labor Day), where every store including Corte Inglés is closed, and it was certainly an eventful end to the main part of our program.
After eventually getting all of the party preparations done through a group effort made up of some quick decisions, creative arts and crafts, and placeholder printing, it was time to head to the corrida de toros. This was really the last major aspect of Spanish culture that we were missing. While many people in the country do not like the sport and it’s become controversial, it remains popular in some circles where it’s viewed as more a fine art than a blood sport. None of us really wanted to go alone, so luckily Elena helped coordinate a time that would work for us all and helped us get tickets to that day’s spectacle in Las Ventas, Madrid’s bullring that’s only two metro stops away from me. Prices are set based on the location of the seats, with the key distinction being whether you are in the sun or the shade. Being college students, naturally we were in the sun which was my already sunburned skin didn’t love, but couldn’t be helped. It was definitely an interesting experience to say the least. We were supposed to be sitting near the professor of the English seminar, so he could explain what was happening to us, but unfortunately our seats were far from them so we had to figure things out by ourselves.
A Spanish-style bullfight involves six bulls and three teams of bullfighters, or toreros, which each fight two bulls during the corrida. The teams are made up of the lead matador de toros and six assistant toreros which are either picadores (lancers on horseback), banderilleros (flagmen), and a mozo de espada (sword servant). Each bull is fought in three stages, or tercios (thirds), throughout which throughout which the traditional rituals are performed to bait and weaken the bull. Spectators need to remain in their seats whenever there is a bull in the arena, because although bulls have poor eyesight and are colorblind, they respond to movement so any leaving or entering the stadium during a fight can distract the bull and the performance.
During the first stage, the matador de toros observes the movement of that particular bull, as well as the toro‘s weaknesses, preferences, and reactions to the cape movements of his assistants. Eventually the picadores come in on heavily-padded horses that are blindfolded. The lancers use this height to gain leverage when they stab the bull’s neck with the lance. This wound, as well the bull’s attacking of the horse, prompts more blood loss and further weakens it for the next stages. The idea is to get the bull to keep its head and horns low during the rest of the fight, both making the process safer for the toreros and allowing them to stab the sensitive areas of the bull’s head and neck. It was really crazy to see how well-trained the horses were when they barely moved despite the toros almost knocking them over a few times. Many horses used to die in the past from those attacks, but now there’s tons of protection stopping the horns from hurting the horses, though we often worried the toro would break through the padding.
The second stage features the banderilleros, who place two barbed sticks each into the bull’s shoulders. These sticks are supposed to stay there for the rest of the fight and weaken the neck and shoulder muscles, dropping the head further down and causing the bull to charge. The bull grows exhausted after the loss of blood and movements encouraged by the toreros‘ use of the capes.
In the third and final stage, the matador brings out a special small cape, this time red instead of the magenta and cold cape used so far in the fight. After a number of specific passes that looks like a dance with the bull, the matador tries to lure the bull into the perfect position to thrust his sword between the toro‘s shoulder blades and through the heart. The object is to get a swift and clean death that causes the least amount of pain to the bull, and if the sword thrust isn’t successful or does not kill the bull fast enough, another sword or small dagger must be used to sever the spinal cord. After the bull has died it is dragged out of the stadium by mules.
The corrida de toros is definitely a very interesting aspect of Spanish tradition that I’m very glad we got the chance to experience. It was a very strange feeling to actually see an animal killed in such a way, but many of us felt we could really understand the meaning behind the ritual and that the toreros were actually risking their lives. There were many close calls that worried us and definitely made it seem like the bull almost injured or killed one of the bullfighters. Although I’m not sure I could ever make it a habit of following the sport and part of me feels bad admitting it, I understand the people who enjoy watching bullfights and can empathize a little with the sport; it can be a very captivating spectacle that you do not want to take your eyes off.
There are still many things we’re not sure we completely understand about what we saw, such as how points and awards work. One of the bulls also had to be taken out of the stadium after it was weakened by a very tough flip and fall on its neck. Its legs were too small for its weight and charging, so the fight was not fair and the animal was put down outside of the arena; we’re not really sure how that decision was made or what it meant for that matador’s performance. We left at around the middle of the corrida because we had to get to the farewell dinner and felt that we had seen enough, plus a few of the people in our group were noticeably disturbed by what we saw. We didn’t have the chance to see how each of the matadors did in the end, but we definitely noticed a difference between each of the fights and the experience levels of the matadors. The ones with the most experience definitely had quicker fights that seemed to cause much less pain to the bulls and allowed us get a glimpse of what the sport is actually supposed to be.
The farewell dinner later that night was actually very fun and not sad at all. Though it’s obviously always sad to have things end, we really had a great time during our study abroad program and did a ton, plus we’d see each other next semester back in DC. We ended up handing out superlatives to all of the students traveling on our program, so that and the gifts given for our program coordinators helped set a good, light-hearted tone to the night. As for the gifts themselves, Paco, Elena, and Azahara, each got a framed group picture from us, and we all signed a card. We also gave Elena a bouquet of flowers and gave Paco a cala plant that he had mentioned was his favorite. We gave extra money that wasn’t spent on the gifts and also some more donated separately for everyone to a scholarship fund setup in the name of MariCarmen, the former director of the program. It was really fun to see all the students, coordinators, and teachers together one last time for a long dinner of good laughs, great company, and delicious food. Though we’re obviously sad to see the program ending, it was definitely good to go out on such a good note. 🙂