a bullfighting tale

photo by Marta Jimenez via flickr

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.

photo by Lucien Clergue

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.

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6 thoughts on “a bullfighting tale

  1. I remember going to a bull fight in Spain when I was 15 and feeling repulsed by it. But seeing it was an integral part of understanding the unique culture in Spain. I wish now that I hadn’t been such a teenager. I would like to time travel back to that day and experience it through an adult’s eyes. Not necessarily to see the killing of the bull, but to partake in the pageantry and the ritual.

    We also visited a ranch where they were raising the bulls that would eventually fight in Madrid. We saw them training the bulls and training aspiring bullfighters. I enjoyed that day very much.

    Thanks for this evocative post!

  2. I never got to see a bullfight when I was in Spain (over 20 years ago now!) but did catch one in Portugal on the same trip. I don’t remember being repulsed; I recall being fascinated. Later that epic summer of ’89, we also took in Il Palio in Sienna… where again … I was totally pulled into the ‘seduction’ as you say. I often think back to the cultural events I experienced that summer. Yes, indeed, quite the evocative post! Thank you!

    1. I like that… the “epic summer of ’89” 🙂
      I suppose it was a very different Spain then just as it was a very different world. It would be interesting to hear from people who are in their 20’s now… I would imagine most would never have even gone as close as we did. It’s all relative…surely they do things I’d never have imagined either!

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