How to Watch a Bullfight

Hear from a friend that there’s a bullfight this Saturday. It’s like 12 euros or something. “Do you want to go?” Sure you do, but say, “Remind me on Friday.” It’s better not to commit, just yet.

On the day of the corridas, pass by the few protesters on the paseo sitting cross-legged beside posters of mutilated bulls. They’re the quietest folks around, fanning themselves and drinking Cruzcampos. Feel the sun striking from every angle as you break out your own fan, even though the faint comfort just reminds you of the heat. Pass behind a few Germans who pause for a longer look at the protesters, possibly reconsidering their plans, and think back to the conversation at lunch.

“I mean, the bullfight is going to happen whether we go or not. I really don’t see this as a moral decision.”

“It’s not the morality I’m concerned with, I just don’t know if I want to watch a helpless animal suffer.”

“What about the millions of animals that die in slaughterhouses? They didn’t get an audience, they didn’t have a purpose, they died alone in a machine to be later–”

“It’s also just really hot.”

And it is. Really, really hot. You researched all you could about Spain before you left, but never noticed the part about Seville being the hottest city in Europe, nor the part about needing to adapt to sleepless nights of no air-conditioning.

Heatlag. As in, “Yeah, I can’t believe how heat-lagged I still am after a month.”

But it’s not every day you’re in Spain, much less Seville, at the oldest bullring in Spain, the spiritual home of bullfighting, where thousands of bulls and plenty of men too have died on hot afternoons before crowds sitting in simultaneous admiration and astonishment. Get in line and buy a ticket.

Look for the lineups of lingering old men, arguing about football and politics out the sides of their mouths, probably next to the protesters. Find the one holding a plastic sack of Cruzcampos, somehow still in a cold sweat. Ask for a few, they’re only a euro. You can’t bring beer into the arena but just chug two or three (at least three), feel the frigid shock falling into your chest, catch your breath, and head inside.

As you enter the stadium, think about what Hemingway said. About the importance of the sun. About how the Spanish say the sun is the best bullfighter, and without the sun the best bullfighter is not there, he is like a man without a shadow. Observe the lack of lights. Night games must be an American thing.

The crowd seems sparse, filling maybe two-thirds of the arena. Seat yourself with an awkward slowness, as if deciding upon a seat in an empty movie theater. Every open spot languishes under direct sunlight. Over in the shade, Spanish families chat and fan. It feels like a wedding for a cousin you’ve never met.

Hear the trumpets. It’s like some combination of dirge and national anthem. Everyone looks to your left. A coarse voice: “Toro, ya!” and the bull busts out from behind a gate. Stand in unison with the crowd to look and photo the bull sprinting ahead into the empty dirt ring. It looks like a massive, mutated dachshund, with a wide, brown body propped up and carried by quick, stumpy legs. Wide branding marks pop through dense skin, and it’s been pinned with a bright ribbon, denoting its breeder.

Make room for the mustached father with a veiny, tattooed arm as he guides his son through the bench in front of you, hand on his back, coaching the boy to his seat along the way. “Venga,” come on, he says, but the animal’s entrance freezes the boy the way a well-hit baseball brings a pause to a conversation, or when a girl you know arrives looking unexpectedly beautiful. The father stops, too. As everyone looks into the ring, the bull maintains a stready circular trot, exploring its newfound freedom. The crowd is collectively focused, watching over it as if it’s all of their child in a playground.

Not long from now this animal will become but one of several characters in a familiar narrative. The men, the horses, the bull. Your attention will first be drawn to the man holding a bright pink apron and wearing a hat equal parts pirate and Mickey Mouse. Watching him jog, the sequins will catch sunlight and the bull will at first ignore him. Persisting, the bull will give a slight charge, maybe a quarter of the speed with which it entered. You will watch the torero make a few more turns, and as the bull passes through the sheet of pink, you will instinctively join the subsequent applause.

During a quiet moment, you will see that the further away someone sits from the bullring, the more interested they seem, taking photos frequently. Those in the front row, the men directly behind the fence, they’ll just lean on the wood like bored kids at a fancy restaurant.

Soon, men will ride out on blindfolded horses. The horses will wear a quilted body armor while the horsemen will drive the first lances into the bull. Someone will say something about hoping they don’t get hurt. The horses, they mean. When the father was his son’s age, horses didn’t wear any protection. Their insides would just spill all over the place; they died all the time.

It will appear strange to you that the bull seems to hate the horse the most, driving his horns and the full force of his body into the padded horse as the lance tip plunges into its neck. But it’s not as surprising as the horse’s unwavering ability to hold its ground. It won’t even make a sound. It might be the most impressive thing you see all day.

At this point you will begin to see blood, it will be a lot darker than you expect, and come on slowly, more like sweat than a burst vein. With each additional spear tip the bull will groan louder but charge less emphatically. The horses will leave as a few more men enter, holding spears resembling bowling pins. They will evade the bull and leave the spears dangling from its shoulders.

Finally, the man with the sword. Red cape. He will be wearing white, no hat, bright blue pants tighter than the bull’s own skin. You will see his scowl as a stark contrast to the man in the audience yawning behind him.

But none of this has happened yet. For now the bull is alone and the only thing in the ring that isn’t dirt.

Watch the bull in the dirt ring but do not look for life or death or tradition or bravery, it’s just a bull. From this vantage point, the bull could, for all you know, jump the wooden fence and revolt against the audience; it could stand on its hind legs and begin an eloquent argument against what is happening; it could lie down and sleep. All things seem possible in this moment belonging utterly to the bull.

Notice the sliver of pink flashing from a torero entering from behind a wooden barrier, catching the eye of the animal. As death becomes assured, the bull returns to life.

Not twenty minutes later, as a team of mules drags the carcass away, listen to a new fanfare of horns that conjures, if only for an instant, the Benny Hill theme song. Check your watch, see the sun still high overhead. There are five more bulls to kill and you’re already getting bored.

Nobody stands when the next bull enters.

Fail to ignore the urge to check the pictures you just took, instead of watching the bullfight happening a few dozen yards away. Look at a shot of blood dripping from the bull’s belly, and consider how the good zoom was worth the extra fifty bucks. Start thinking of what you will title the photo album when you hear and feel the simultaneous gasp of the crowd. Notice when you look up from the camera that everyone is now standing.

Sense that the brightly colored bodies running toward the bull, shouting and trying to push and distract it, all seem vaguely familiar. Suddenly recall the bucking bulls and rodeo clowns from the rodeo your dad took you to in 8th grade. Try to place the noise — the crescendo of the crowd rising to a distressed, vibrating hum, then shouting, then silence, then a few “ohs!” Notice, then, the torero beneath the bull’s feet.

Feel a sense of something missing as no music plays while the bull jogs away, chasing another torero. Watch scrambling helpers carry the man who’s just been gored. Continue to feel like something’s off when you notice that the audience does not stand to applaud the injured torero, that it’s all very hurried, as if he were just an actor, fainting in the background of a play.

Originally published Sept. 2011 on Matador Network. All photos by the author.