Underneath a searing Córdoban sun one Friday in mid-June, teenagers, white-haired, aging couples, and all kinds in between stack together around the entrances of a dusty coliseum. The air hangs heavy with the sting of an Andalusian summer, and the merchants at the gate make the most of the opportunity, handing out paper fans printed with logos and company information. Inside the stadium people huddle together. For a few stretched minutes their excitement pushes the scorching heat and lingering smell of horse dung out of their minds.
They’ve come to see a gladiator fight of sorts. As they sit now, cheap fans flapping and blue and white shirt collars drenched in sweat, it is this that their minds settle on—the awaiting festivities, the promise of a bloody standoff. The finality of the matador’s last swing to the bull’s spine.
Here at Plaza de Toros de los Califas, the entertainment falls to this and little else. The stadium is and has been since its construction a place dedicated to the art of toreo, of bullfighting. It’s hosted many fights, seen a number of greats in its time— Machaquito, Manolete, El Cordobés. It carries on the tradition into the present, bringing in thousands on a regular basis and thousands more during la feria—a weeklong celebration of flamenco and gypsy culture in which each providence of Spain takes part.
This particular Friday, the audience becomes a sea of blues and whites. The sun’s rays burn most of the spectators, and only the people who’ve paid for las filas de sombra, the shaded seats, escape them. Vendors skim through the aisles, selling cervezas y agua (beer and water). And just when the ring of excitement and buzzing chatter reach a climax, the banging of drums and sounding of trumpets cut through the air and silence everything.
All at once matadors, twenty or thirty strong, flood the arena in a colorful procession called el paseíllo. They bow regally once they hit center-stage, present themselves and wave to their fans. Soon after, they run to take their places around the perimeter of the circular arena.
Then the fight begins.
Drums and trumpets whine as the beast charges in, barreling towards any of the stragglers still stuck in the open spots on the sand. When he finds no one, he settles for ramming into one of the short, protective walls that hides a pair of matadors. Then a bullfighter hiding behind a different wall musters up enough strength, dares to inch out into the bull’s line of vision. He flaps his vibrantly colored fabric muleta and distracts the animal. Calls to it. Coaxes it.
The bull reacts, bolting in his direction until a second matador comes in from a different angle, waving his muleta. The mumbles of the crowd soften. The bull switches his focus and sets his sights on the new adversary. It begins a gallop in the different direction until another matador from still another direction baits him. The fight goes one like this for some time, with the young matadors wearing out the bull, heckling it, retreating behind the comfort of the protective inner walls of the stadium. Just when the animal begins to falter, the blaring drums sound through the arena again. Two horse-mounted men, called picadores, ride in. In their hands they carry lances (varas).
They approach the bull, one at a time. Once the first gets close enough, he reels his arm back to stab the animal’s bucking body. After that, he retreats and his counterpart advances to do the same. The young matadors wait in the wings should any troubles arise. But the varas slide into the bull’s flesh clean and no one falls from their horse. Red stains the immaculate yellow of the sand, and as the drums and trumpets sound once more, the men on horseback file out. Cheers of the crowd carry throughout the stadium.
Then comes the pièce de résistance—the dance of the bull and main matador. The chief torero enters the arena, waving to the adoring crowd. With one foot extended fully, pointing directly at the beast, and the other supporting his weight, he slinks up to the animal. Silence reigns as the other matadors retreat behind the walls and leave the principal fighter alone with the beast. The bull stands in place awhile, shaking its head and twitching its ears as it sizes up the new enemy. Then the torero flaps his muleta and the dance begins. He sticks the cloth out to his right side and shimmies it, coaxing the bull. The animal lunges. It comes out on the other end. Turns back to the torero. The torero turns as well; he juts the red fabric out to his side once more. Again, he baits the animal. Again it lunges. So the fight continues, the matador tricking the bull into weaving in and out as he commands. He leads it lower and lower, until its nose nearly dips into the sand. The crowd will go wild if he can get the brute to fall on its face.
After the dance ends the final act starts. A few young matadors called banderilleros return to the stage, each carrying a pair of short spikes (banderillas). With the assistance of other matadors focused on distracting the bull, they sprint up one at a time and sink their weapons into the animal’s shivering back. The ends of their banderillas hang out and flap freely as the animal moves.
After these onslaughts, the final, principal matador approaches. He pulls a sword out of its sheath and points it at the bull’s spine. The final stabbing of the bull, la escotada, can take three tries sometimes. Two, often. A truly skilled or lucky contender can do it in one. Once the deed is done one last matador runs up and wacks the weapon further in, until the spinal cord shatters and the bull’s body falls, limp, into the sand. The crowd cheers. Assistants run into the arena and tie the dead bull’s horns to the back of a horse-drawn cart. The corpse gets carried out that way—dragged, around the arena. Five more deaths will take place in that stadium before the crowd makes its exit.
Though the fights may be gruesome, the events leading up to them are not; the bulls raised for the ring live twice as long as their farm-raised counterparts, and lead pampered lives until their last day. No part of these animals—whose skin makes purses, whose meat becomes the robo de toro on the menus of nearby restaurants—goes to waste. But unease still lies in the hearts of many Spanish residents. In the cosmopolitan cities of northern Spain like Barcelona, heavy resistance to the brutality of the sport has found its place. In fact, there were countrywide attempts to ban it in 2010. But Esperanza Aguirre, Community President of Madrid at that time, ended the battle by labeling bullfighting an activity “Of Touristic Interest.” Traditions die hard, and this tradition has laid its roots in southern Spain and all over Latin America, where boys as young as fifteen have made lives in the ring.
Maybe some spectators think on this as they head for the arena exits. Maybe their minds wander to the feria and other summer festivities. The sun has gone down now, but an Andalusian humidity still lingers in the air. It keeps the sweat on blue and white shirt collars and holds some of the earlier vigor in place. Out into the darkening Córdoba evening the audience members shuffle, out into horse dung streets and lamp-lit sidewalks. Perhaps by 2am, their energy will have, finally, dissipated.
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