I read in the news today that the very last bullfight at the Plaça de Toros Monumental in Barcelona took place on Sunday to a sell-out crowd. I should note that the Catalans were never much for bullfighting, and this was as much about animal rights as it was about politics and economics and the EU and, well … molt complicat. Indeed, even when I lived in Spain many thought of the ring there as a place for the turistas, not the serious aficionados from the South.
I didn’t arrive there caring much about bullfighting. No Hemingway recreationist, I didn’t have any desire to run the bulls in Pamplona nor was I comfortable with eating an identifiable animal (e.g. the prized cochinillo) let alone watching one being killed. No, gracias.
But life in that period in Spain, just a few years after the death of the Generalísimo, was very different than it is now. Traditions ran deep, and the years of isolation under Franco’s regime kept modernity safely in the distance, or at least hidden. The explosion that occurred later was on the cusp and licking at the heels of Spain’s youth during that heady period of cultural movements like that wonderful, glorious movida madrileña from which brotó Almodóvar. This was a time when many Americans, included educated ones, thought Spain was somewhere in South America (I kid you not), not a European country.
It was as much a part of Spanish life as tapas and fútbol, unavoidable. Los toros was a part of every Sunday, the corridas televised on one of the two stations which shone from every window, every bar. One could not help but be seduced by the images, by the drama which rivaled any telenovela because—despite all the theatre of the ceremony—in the end there was a man and a bull. The toreros were superstars in a world where media was limited and the explosion of international superstardom had yet to hit. Along with singers and futbolistas and the royal family, tauromania filled the gossip pages and about them there was an undeniable and mysterious beauty which mesmerized, yes… even me (just a little, on Sundays).
I went only once during my years in Spain to the bullfights, in the South. We had connections so we were seated directly behind the bullfighters, so close that we could hear their whispers. Their rituals, their body language, the way they dressed in their traje de luces, their communication with their entourage and with the bull was fascinating. It was ritualistic, primitive, iconic and even spiritual. A blood sport, perhaps, but ironically the bullfighter held more love and respect for the bull than most men hold for one another. The death of the bull was not a light affair, it was intense, and the ritual continued even after the bull’s death (the ear to this person, the tail to another, the… well, you get it).
I used to walk through the Parque del Retiro each day on my way to work and I would often see the young bullfighters practicing. One, cape in hand, swirling and dipping as the other held a rack with horns up and imitated the suddenness, the unexpectedness of the bull’s moves.
But perhaps most indelible in my mind when I think of bullfighting was Paquirri. He was dashing and known by all for not only his skill in the ring but for his marriage to one of the most popular singers of Spain at the time (and still with some degree of fame it seems), “La Pantoja,” a gypsy from Seville.
His death was dramatic, a fatal goring in Pozoblanco, Córdoba by a bull named “Avispado.” When the news broke the whole country gasped, a moment not unlike any pivotal moment in a culture. “Where were you when you heard Paquirri was dead?…” People cried, mourned, ached for the loss of this gladiator (actually, the bullfighter who drew my eyes from my paella to the tv in those days was named, appropriately enough, “Espartaco,” or Spartacus).
The images of the death, the bull catching him in his groin and flipping him about like a ragdoll, were played and replayed over and over on the television (and exist still on youtube, although I won’t link to them here). His funeral was massive, the outpouring of grief cathartic and intensely painful for a country still clinging to their icons with almost childlike innocence. This was an epic tale, tragic, mythical, the hero lying moribund, leaving behind the beautiful wife, the young child, as well as two other sons with his ex-wife who herself was part of a powerful bullfighting dynasty.
How incredible that it turns out he died exactly on this day, twenty-seven years ago, not only on the day bullfighting is in the news, ceasing to exist in Catalonia, but also because it is the first time in many many years that I have thought of los toros, or of Paquirri.