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Bullfighting in Spain: Still in the Political Arena

18/12/2015 13:30 GMT | Updated 18/12/2016 10:12 GMT

Co-authored by Duncan Wheeler (University of Leeds) and Lucy Bell

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It is midday in Spain; 1pm in the Canary Islands; and the Middle-Ages in Tordesillas. This gag by popular Spanish humourist El Gran Wyoming related to the controversy stirred by the celebration of the "Toro de la Vega" [Bull of the Plain], a tradition celebrated in honour of the local Virgin of a small town in the province of Valladolid, which can be traced back to the sixteenth century. A bull in lanced to death by local villagers as it runs a course that runs from near the municipal bull-ring to the River Duero. Declared an official tourist attraction in 1980, the bloody tradition has been subject to increased criticism over recent years, a focal point for wider debates and a litmus test for changing attitudes to animal rights.

Last summer, protestors from around the Peninsula congregated in the centre of Madrid on September 12 to demonstrate against the "shame of the nation", a derogatory reference to the specific event itself and bullfighting more generally, a problematic conflation as there are many Spaniards who are opposed to the former but not to the latter. Aware that small towns often rely on such traditions to attract tourists, numerous well-known actors and musicians offered to perform in Tordesillas for free if the taurine spectacle were cancelled. This offer was refused, whilst locals and protestors clashed, the bull being released despite animal rights activists being potentially left in its path. Similarly violent clashes also occurred during September in Zarzalejo, a village near El Escorial, forty kilometres North-West of Madrid, where a journalist from the Financial Times was asked to leave when he was spotted with his notepad watching amateurs take on infant bulls ("becerros") in an event organized by and for locals.

Debates surrounding bullfighting are inextricably linked with the territorial and political reality of a nation-state comprised of seventeen autonomous regions, and the personal and ideological idiosyncrasies of 8,000 mayors. Although there are frequent demonstrations outside major bullrings, full body-checks are not generally carried out on entering the arena, and protestors have directed their energies towards challenging direct or indirect support by public institutions and funds rather than targeting major corporations such as Ticketmaster or El Corte Inglés for continuing to sell tickets. Locally-run events are harder to police in terms of both potential prohibitions and protests.

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The fiercely centralist Francoist state aggressively promoted bullfighting as a star attraction for tourists during the 1960s, but curtailed a number of amateur festivities, concerned that they might prove offensive to foreigners and raise the shackles of organisations against animal cruelty. In the twenty-first century, this tendency has largely been reversed. Catalonia has banned professional bullfights ("corridas") but, aware of the practical and ideological difficulties of legislating in smaller municipalities, permits festivities in which charging bulls are adorned and provoked with fireworks and flames.

The Catalan prohibition has brought a number of younger and liberal-leaning aficionados out of the closet, but there can be no denying that the prime demographic for major plazas such as Madrid's Las Ventas or Seville's La Maestranza are politically conservative and advanced in age. Globalisation has ensured that young Spaniards no longer construe bullfighting as part of their culture, while corridas now being screened by the subscription Canal+ channel as opposed to the state broadcasting channel has hardly provided a sustainable model for fostering interest amongst younger generations. The more pro-active format of many local festivities nevertheless requires the physical presence of youngsters, frequently in a state of inebriation. This is a radically different form of popular participation to that envisaged by start-up political parties such as Podemos, who tend to view bullfighting as a financial drain at a time of economic crisis and a symbol of the nation's ills: cruel, parasitical and out of touch with reality. Pedro Sánchez, leader of the traditional Spanish Socialist Party, was aggressively harangued by activists at public meetings for not intervening in Tordesillas where, contrary to widespread assumptions that taurine traditions are the exclusive preserve of the reactionary right, it was a Mayor from his party who green-lighted the tradition this year.

One of the many challenges (or opportunities) to face whatever government is formed in the aftermath of the December 20 General Elections is the future of bullfighting. The right-of-centre Partido Popular is likely to be the only political formation willing to champion actively what was once known as the "national fiesta", a cause and symptom of it being somewhat reductively construed as part of a reactionary package. Even a cursory knowledge of the history of bullfighting tells us that this has not always been the case, while this revisionist construct in the present is a principal obstacle to a reasoned debate about its future. The future of bull-related activities at the local, regional and national level is, unfortunately, destined to have as much to do with settling political scores than the preservation of local traditions or protecting animal rights.

Image attributions:

1/ http://www.enkivillage.com/bullfighting-in-spain.html

2/ Torture is not Culture', Barcelona protest, May 23, 2013, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/784052.shtml