Monday, 22 March 2010

Sunday bloody Sunday

By Gabriel Fraga de Cal

Bullfighting has once again triggered issues of Spanish divergence. Gabriel Fraga de Cal delivers some insight to one of Spain's cultural hot potatoes.

For many years, animal rights groups around the world have denounced bullfighting in Spain for its supposed cruelty. According to many, the sport is nothing but a prehistoric form of crudely organised assassinations, an unnecessary display of man’s superiority over nature. The protests are these days gaining more ground than ever before, and today the battle between bull and man is becoming a hot topic in ‘The country of the Sun’.

I have never personally attended una corrrida, as the bullfight is phrased in its original tongue, and therefore I cannot tell whether it is a fascinating or horrifying spectacle. To be honest people say that if you go once you will certainly want to repeat the experience.

I am for that reason probably not the most indicated Spaniard to talk about the issue itself. In my region, Galicia in the north, we for example seldom have the opportunity to observe an authentic corrida. Even so I can say that for many Spaniards there is nothing more boring than a Sunday afternoon without bulls.

“El Toro de Lidia”

Let’s first turn our attention to the bulls for a moment. The type of animal that fights "el matador" is a special type of bull called "Toro de Lidia" (in English, ‘fighting bull’).

"El Toro de Lidia" is known for its bravery and for never turning its back on any danger. They are raised very carefully until they reach their maximum physical power. It is then when they are ready for the fight. In Spain the bull is fated to die in front of the spectators, while in some other taurine counties such as Portugal the bull is not killed in the arena. In Spain, when the bull is especially brave, either the bullfighter or the public can grant an amnesty to the animal. Then, this lucky and portentous animal will return to the fields as a stud bull.

This animal is however always born and raised to fight, and essentially, to die in the arena. So if there are no more fights, there will be no more "Toros de Lidia".

According to Red List "More than 16,000 species of the world's mammals, birds, plants and other organisms are at present officially regarded as threatened with extinction to one degree or another".

In an article from the Guardian on the topic, Julien Jowit further writes:

“For the first time since the dinosaurs disappeared, humans are driving animals and plants to extinction faster than new species can evolve”

We are moving towards what scientists call “the sixth great extinction” of species. This is driven by several factors, among them “the destruction of natural habitats, hunting, the spread of alien predator and disease, and climate change", claims Jowit.

Whether ‘El Toro de Lidia’ is one of them, is a matter of opinion, or perhaps, of definitions.

Cultural dispute

Spain is a very diverse country, so diverse that some regions would like to not be part of it. Different languages, different climates, different food, different music, different characters … In sum, different ideas of what Spain means.

Foreigners usually think that all Spanish people learn to fight a bull when we are young, and sometimes I am even asked to play a flamenco. As a matter of fact the traditional instrument  in my region is the bagpipe. As far as I know, southern-Spanish gypsies in Andalucía have not yet incorporated the Celtic instrument in their repertoire of flamenco music.

The truth is that issues like bullfighting – supposedly what characterizes Spain more than anything else to a non-Spaniard - is a highly controversial and often region-dependant issue, and there are voices against as well as voices in favor, outside as well as inside Spain.

Bullfighting, whether it is around the corner or in a distant region, is hence nearly always something that most Spaniards have very different opinions about.

In Catalunya, a region known for its strong sense of autonomy, bullfighting is for example about to be completely prohibited. Barcelona is the capital of Catalunya, and here at the heart of the anti-corrida campaign, Catalans do not identify greatly with Spanish traditions.

It might be said that the lack of understanding between Catalunya and the rest of Spain is unfortunately mutual, and in response to Catalunya's attempt to prohibit this Spanish emblem, some other regions have decided to counterattack. In Madrid, Valencia and Murcia, politicians are planning to protect bullfighting and declare it cultural heritage. This seems to be just about regional politics. But the dispute really shows the cultural tensions to be found these days in contemporary Spain.

El Toro de Lidia is for many a synonym of spanishness

A shield of a country

People in Spain can be extremely passionate about bullfighting. After the flag, the bulls are in some areas like the country's shield.

It is true that the animal might suffer, and it is true that there is a lot of blood involved in a bullfighting afternoon. It is true that it might be a matter of a noble animal becoming extinct, and it is also true that we are talking about what to many foreigners is the maximum representation of Spanish culture. Bullfighting is together with red wine and flamenco pillars of the same tradition.

What is more important to realize is however that the current debate over bullfighting is not only about killing bulls – it is not about the spectacle itself. It is about culture and tradition and in a country as diverse as Spain, this is bound to stir firm reactions.

If bullfighting dies, an essential part of Spanish culture will die out with it, no doubt about that. But perhaps the real issue at stake is something much deeper and much more serious – namely that of Spanish diversity and the challenges we often face when it comes to defining what is important to our culture or not.

Video: José Tomás (born in Madrid, 1975) is one of today's most influential bullfighters:

Image rights: Creative Commons

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