ASK an American what they think when they hear the word “Spain,” and they would likely say: Bullfighting, flamenco and Penelope Cruz. Bullfighting is etched into the psyche of the English speaking world. It’s daring, wild, it’s got panache. And since Ernest Hemingway was required high school reading, bullfighting also has a poetic sheen.
In Death in the Afternoon Hemingway wrote:”Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor.”
So with these images in mind, and a ticket from my roommate’s grandfather in my hand, I prepared for my first bullfight.
Granted, this was small town bullfighting, not some elaborate bullring like in Madrid or Sevilla. Small town bullfighting is the equivalent of American rodeo circuits in one-stoplight towns in Wyoming. It ain’t pretty.
Even so, I arrived at the bullfighting ring, erected just that afternoon, nervous and excited. I heard the crowd inside as the horse show – sort of an opening act — had already begun.
My roommate had remembered to bring food and drinks; I later found out bullfighting is a long ordeal for all involved. I watched as the horses were led back out. A hush fell over the crowd as a gate with a chute opened. Two men leaned over the railing of the chute. They began banging on the sides. A bull careened through with a low rumble, emerge blindly, charging at nothing. It stopped and snorted, confused.
The crowd let out a cheer as the matador team walked into the ring with their pink and yellow capes in hand. Normally, a matador has six assistants — two picadores (“lancers”), three banderilleros(“flagmen”), and a mozo de espada (“sword servant”).
A bullfight goes in stages. The first stage is when the matador seems to be flirting with the bull, egging it on. Some of the banderilleros wave capes in its face to see how it charges. It is during this time that the matador or picadores take small knives or lances and stab the bull in the back of the neck. In the first round of bullfighting I saw, a picador on a heavily padded horse came into the arena. As the bull charged the horse, he stabbed the bull in the back of the neck.
The dance with death had begun. But that’s as poetic as I’ll get. Being close enough to hear the knives as they jammed them into the bull’s neck and smell the mass of humanity pressed close into this dusty ring didn’t do much for me. Still, I was mesmerized by what was happening, the way rubberneckers are with car wrecks and public executions.
Stage two is full of more stabbings, with knives that have festive colored flags attached to them. As the bull gets more sticks of colored paper hanging off of him, the closer to the end he gets. The old men in the crowd shout encouragement or advice on how they would have done it. Many of them have old fashioned wineskin holders that they sip from during the fight. My roommate passes me some food and a cup of coffee from her thermos. A little boy in front of me is dressed in a matador-in-training outfit complete with a pageboy hat and stockings. Men walk through the rows selling sunflower seeds, candy, and variations of chips.
The real show is the very end. It’s just bullfighter and bull — staring each other down, circling around the ring, each one treading lightly in the dust and sand. A trumpeter plays a somber series of notes to signal the crowd it’s the final countdown.
The matador reentered the bull ring with a red cape and sword. He used his cape to attract the bull in a series of charges and passes. The red color of the cape is just tradition, and doesn’t make the bull angrier. Bulls are colorblind and are attracted to the movement of the cape.
Finally, the matador takes the sword and brings it down into the back of the bull’s neck. It’s supposed to be a clean and swift stab, and if it isn’t it costs the matador points and elicits jeers from the crowd. This one is done correctly.
The bull staggered to its front legs, coughing up a steady stream of blood. The crowd screamed its approval. After a bull is killed, if the matador has had a stellar performance he is rewarded with one or two of the bull’s ears, and if he’s especially good, the tail as well. On this day, the matador got one ear.
I watched the women waving their white handkerchiefs at the matador. I wanted to feel poetic and alive after this cultural experience. The matador was handsome, with windswept features and swagger. I wanted to strut through the streets like him. Roses fall to the dust, and I watched him kiss some of the shawls and throw them back to the women in the seats. I tried to channel their emotion. The bull is dragged out by the horses, unceremoniously, as the cheering continues.
But all I could think was: Hemingway was full of it.