In Spain, the bullfighting season traditionally begins in February in Valdemorillo, a small town located about forty kilometers from Madrid. It usually does not attract big names, but the star of the gods matador Morante de la Puebla has confirmed that he will participate this year. In a sector marked by internal divisions, the idea is growing that next season will have to be a success if the bullfighting is to be prevented from disappearing altogether.
In Catalonia bullfights were banned in 2010, but in the rest of the country the debate has changed since the pandemic began: if in the past we focused on the advisability of banning them, now the question is whether we should throw a life buoy on this. part of the struggling cultural industry. The current ruling left-wing coalition appears not to have the political will to explicitly veto what was once known as the National holiday nor, on the contrary, to grant her support to keep her alive. Thus, for example, tickets for bullfights were excluded from a program (announced in October last year by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez) which provided for the distribution to young people of 400 euro vouchers that could be spent in the cultural sector.
Bullfights are reviewed in the cultural pages of Spanish newspapers and not in the sports ones, and are the responsibility of the ministry of culture. The Catalan ban – declared illegal by the Spanish constitutional court in 2016 – was both a political propaganda move and an attempt to defend animal rights. In the wake of the illegal referendum on Catalonia’s independence in 2017, the xenophobic and anti-immigration party Vox exploited anti-Catalan and procorrida sentiment in its political election campaign and became Spain’s third largest party in 2019. Morante de la Puebla often accompanies party leader Santiago Abascal in the election campaign.
But this link is much more beneficial to Vox than it is to bullfighters, particularly in rural areas where Abascal’s party has won the consensus of pro bullfighting and pro hunting voters. The far right defended the profession, but also turned it into a higher target. More and more progressive citizens harbor a visceral dislike of bullfighting, seen as the last bastion of reactionaries for whom there is no place in a 21st-century European democracy.
In the cultural wars of contemporary Spain, the anti-bullfighting lobby often tends to brand them too quickly aficionados as artifacts of the Franco regime with a cigar in his mouth. The defenders of the National holidayfor their part, they preclude any debate on the future of bullfighting by dismissing all potential criticisms as moralistic censorship. Therefore, it is in fact impossible to seriously discuss a topic that arouses strong emotions and has been exploited by representatives of the entire political spectrum.
If a local leader sees red
At the local level, city councils do not have the power to enact a blanket ban, but they can deny licenses. In the northern coastal town of Gijón, the socialist mayor Ana González has announced that the municipal arena will henceforth be used for live concerts rather than bullfights. The decision, according to his statements, came after “the limit was exceeded”: last summer two bulls were killed who had been called “El Nigeriano” and “El feminista”. The presence of Morante de la Puebla at the event had suggested a deliberate provocation, but it was probably a coincidence. Fighting bulls inherit their names from their mothers, so it is likely that the names “El nigeriano” and “El feminista” are a legacy of previous generations and were not chosen for the occasion. That said, there have been some exceptions in the past. In 1939 the first bull faced by the legendary Manolete as matador professional had been baptized “El comunista” during the short second republic (1931-36). After General Franco’s victory in the civil war (1936-39), that name became a curse and “El comunista” was diplomatically renamed “El mirador” (The spectator).
Either way, this is an example of how the bullfight lobby has become something of a sounding board. It is often difficult to understand how it is perceived from the outside. An open letter written by the president of the Fundación del toro de Lidia (a non-profit organization created to promote and defend bullfighting) turned into a gift for satire, due to claims that the closing of the bullring of Gijón was somewhat comparable to the destruction of religious artifacts by Islamic fundamentalists: “Both the Taliban and the mayor of Gijón forget that neither the Buddhas of Bamiyan nor the bulls belong to them, but they are a common heritage of humanity.”
According to the mayor González, the aficionados they have done what they wanted for too long, and now is the time to hear from the many citizens of Gijón who oppose the bullfight. In recent years, animal rights activists have organized large protests outside the arena. During the pandemic, they moved the issue to a moral level, staying at home and accusing the manager of the facility of attacking public health (as well as that of animals).
Even without taking into account the abolitionist movement, bullfighting is a business model in crisis, and it will face exceptional trials that will make its survival even more difficult as the pandemic continues. The main Spanish arenas (Bilbao, Madrid, Pamplona, Seville, Valencia, Zaragoza) remained largely inactive for two years. But with an aging audience and some of the social distancing measures likely to remain in place, the return of bullfights requires a sacrifice to the matador and breeders, who will have to significantly reduce their fees to allow arena managers to break even.
Fixed costs make it difficult to organize a small-scale bullfight. Tales of the industry’s declining popularity seem exaggerated as large bullfights draw more than ten thousand spectators, but contracts for bullfighters, save for a handful of top names, dwindle as provincial arenas close. . Much like the pandemic, there probably won’t be a specific day when the bullfight will end, but it seems unlikely it will thrive in its current form for much longer.
(Translation by Davide Musso)