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Some say it’s little more than savagery, other say it’s an integral part of Spain’s cultural heritage.
Bullfights are, to this day, still reported in the cultural sections of Spanish newspapers, not the sports pages.
To the outside world, bullfighting is one of the defining images of Spanish society; one of the first things that comes to mind when people say ‘Spain’, along with paella, flamenco, or tiki-taka football.
Within Spain, however, bullfighting splits opinion and has gradually fallen in popularity.
And after bullfights were, like all public events, hampered by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is not entirely clear that Spain’s historical pastime will or can continue forever.
But what’s the history of bullfighting in Spain? Why is it controversial, and will it ever be banned on a national level? Would a outright ban be necessary?
Spanish matador El Cordobés stands in front of a bull during a bullfight at the Coliseum bullring in Burgos on June 27, 2022. Photo: CESAR MANSO/AFP
Some historians trace bull-focused festivities to the pre-Roman period as an activity that was once popular along the entire Mediterranean coast, not just in Spain.
Spanish bullfighting itself has had its origins traced back to 711 AD, with the first official bullfight, or corrida de toros, an event during King Alfonso VIII’s coronation.
Some historians point to the influence of the Roman Empire, and that Spain’s bullfighting tradition took inspiration from the gladiatorial games of the amphitheatre.
Initially, bullfighting was done solely on horseback and was a pastime of the Spanish aristocracy, but modern Spanish bullfighting as we know it today, historians believe, began in 1726 when Francisco Romero, a famous matador from the Andalusian town of Ronda, fought with a sword and a red cape for the first time.
Interestingly, in what is a widely-believed and long-held urban myth, bulls do not in fact charge red capes. They are colour-blind to red.
A few years after Romero introduced the sword and cape, the first bullfight with a supporting team (known as the cuadrilla) took place in 1729.
A bullfight in Barcelona, ca.1900. Photo: Library of Congress/Public Domain
By the end of the century bullfighting was becoming increasingly popular with the Spanish public. It became less elitist, no longer the chosen sport of Spanish nobility, and started to transform into a respected and admired profession.
In 1836 Francisco Montes, a well known matador known as ‘Paquiro’, published a set of rules called “Tauromaquia” that standardised the rules and regulations of bullfighting and dimensions of the ring, and some years later, in 1859, as the popularity of bullfighting continued to grow, the first ring built to these dimensions was built in Valencia.
And then in 1868, the first bullfight truly comparable to the rules and style of modern day bullfighting (with 6 bulls and 3 matadores with their team of cuadrillas) took place.
As the 19th century ended, the popularity of bullfights grew and matadors became celebrities.
In the 20th century, bullfights became more controversial and political, and anti-bullfighting movement began to emerge at the turn of the century.
During Franco’s dictatorship, he projected it as Spain’s ‘fiesta nacional’ and tried his upmost to solidify it as a key tenant of what he viewed as traditional Spanish identity.
A photo taken in 1954 in Vallauris shows Spanish painter Pablo Picasso (L) shaking hands with Spain’s matador José Montero and Luis Marca. AFP PHOTO (Photo by JEAN MEUNIER / INTERCONTINENTALE / AFP)
Opposition to bullfighting, therefore, was often intertwined with anti-nationalist politics and, following Franco’s death and moving towards the 21st century, increasingly with separatist sentiment across the Spanish regions.
In recent years, regional governments have cut or decreased funding for bullfighting events, political opposition is growing, and a highly visible anti-bullfight and animal rights movement have disrupted events and criticised what they deem ‘torture, not tradition’.
It is no coincidence that the areas that have historically tried to ban, or have limited, bullfighting in Spain are regions with pronounced identities, histories, and often, languages, or are islands off the coast of mainland Spain.
For all Spain’s bullfighting heritage, it has been waning in popularity for many years.
An online poll by Ipsos MORI, on behalf of World Animal Protection, revealed that just 19 percent of adults in Spain aged 16-65 said they supported bullfighting – while 58 percent opposed it.
Another Ipsos-Mori poll conducted from 2015 showed that 58 percent of Spaniards between the ages of 16-65 were against bullfighting, and that 71 percent of 16-34 year olds opposed it.
A 2018 poll conducted by YouGov for the HuffPost revealed that 78 percent believed bullfighting events should not be subsidised with money from the public coffers, as is sometimes the case.
A protestor holds a sign reading “This is sadism” during a demonstration called by the AnimaNaturalis and CAS Internacional associations to protest against bullfighting, in Torrejón de Ardoz, near Madrid, on June 19th, 2022. (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)
According to figures from a Spanish government survey taken every five years, in 2018/19 just 8 percent of Spaniards went to a bullfighting spectacle if you include both ‘corridas’ (bullfights) and bull runs, like the famous ones held in Pamplona during San Fermín celebrations.
Of this 8 percent, 6 percent attended a ‘corrida’ and the other 2 percent went to different bull events like the bull runs.
According to Spain’s Ministry of Culture, between 2007 and 2018, bullfights in Spain fell from 3,651 to 1,521.
Yet despite bullfighting’s waning cultural cache in Spain, and falling attendances, as Spain’s politics becomes more polarised bullfighting is reemerging again as a live political issue.
When bullfighting was reintroduced in Mallorca in 2019, the facist anthem “Cara al Sol” boomed from the bullring and drowned out animal rights protestors. The neon green of Vox supporters peppered the crowd, and the reintroduction was, for many, a collective middle-finger to what they perceive as an increasingly liberal and secular society.
Spain’s far-right Vox party have regularly thrown their weight behind bullfighting, painting it as an essential part of Spanish culture and identity.
In 2021 Madrid’s right-wing regional President, Isabel Ayuso, celebrated the return of bullfighting to Madrid’s famous Venta del Batán ring, suggesting that animal rights and anti-bullfighting groups were attempting to destroy Spain’s broader cultural history.
“Those who intend to rewrite history with their backs turned to the cultural richness of bullfighting are going to run into not only Goya’s paintings, Lorca’s verses or the chronicles of an amazed Hemingway,” she said.
In Spain’s April 2019 general elections four bullfighters stood for office. Miguel Abellán and Salvador Vega for PP; Pablo Ciprés and Serafín Martín for Vox.
Like seemingly most cultural issues in modern Spain, bullfighting has become a hotly-debated political issue and a front in the Spanish culture war but not something Spaniards are overly concerned with on a day to day level.
Like many things in Spain, the issue of bullfighting depends on where exactly you are in in the country, the politics of the region, and there’s huge variation between different autonomous communities. Andalusia, Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha, and Madrid accounted for almost 78 percent of the bullfighting events held in 2018/19, for example, according to a government survey.
In some regions, however, governments have taken a very different approach. Bullfights have been regulated in the Canary Islands since as far back as 1991, when legislation was passed to protect bulls, specifying that animal abuse in bullfights or local fiestas was prohibited.
In 2012, the Catalonian regional executive passed legislation that banned bullfights outright.
Yet, in 2016, a Spanish court overturned the move because, according to the court’s ruling, regional governments can regulate but not ban bullfights, although no new bullfights have taken place in the region since.
A year later in 2017, Mallorca’s regional government got creative with ways to try and ban bullfighting but doing it in a way that, legally speaking, would bypass the constitutional courts. Though the legislation didn’t explicitly ban bullfights outright, the wording of the text meant it indirectly stopped bulls being killed or suffering as part of the event.
Under the new rules, matador’s were armed only with a cape, the bull could not be stabbed or poked, as they often are, and could not stay longer than 10 minutes total in the ring. Anyone who hurt a bull was liable to fines of up to €100,000.
But within two years the courts had again overruled the decision, claiming that the cultural significance of Spanish ‘corridas’ would be lost if the bulls survived.
According to PETA, at least 7,000 bulls are killed in Spain each year as part of bullfights.
A picture taken in March 2000 shows children looking at a dead bull at a bullring in Castilla y León. (Photo by DANIEL VELEZ / AFP)
Bullfighting ban – a case test
Patxi Esquembre was the Mayor of Villena, a small town on the border of Murcia and Valencia, from 2011-2019. He was the first Green Party (Los Verdes) mayor in all of Spain and, spurred by a 2015 majority in the local government, he banned bullfighting in the sleepy town. Or, rather, he tried to.
After refusing to give up the bullring for bullfights, instead wanting the space to be used for other cultural events, Esquembre faced immediate, and very personal, challenges from bullfighting groups and the ban morphed from a local dispute into a provincial court matter with ramifications across Spain. He spoke to The Local and explained the anti-bullfighting position and his experience of facing up to the bullfighting lobby.
“They [pro-bullfighting groups] made several appeals to the city council and finally a criminal complaint against me” Esquembre explains. The case stretched into 2019 until an Alicante provincial court ruled that town halls lack the authority to prohibit bullfighting and “preservation of cultural heritage” is a state responsibility.
Esquembre himself was investigated for prevarication, a crime which would have disqualified him from public office. “It has come to court because the bullfighting lobby wanted to intimidate the municipalities and use us as an example,” he says.
Opposition to bullfighting, he explains, “started as an ethical, alternative and militant posture of animalism,” but is now “beginning to be a posture of change of orientation in terms of power, strength, wealth.”
“Villena has been a field of experimentation for the bullfighting lobby,” he added. If we use Villena as a litmus test for the probability of a national ban on bullfighting in Spain, it seems the combination of the aggressive bullfighting lobby and legal structures make this unlikely – in fact, as of 2022 Esquembre is still mired in legal challenges in Alicante courts.
A man dressed up as a bull holds up a sign reading “no more olés” outside the Congress building in Bogotá. Spain exported bullfighting to some of its former Latin American colonies, where opposition to the practice has also been mounting. (Photo by DANIEL MUNOZ / AFP)
Will it ever be illegal?
Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez had seemed uncomfortable on the subject, reticent to describe it as an art form, and their junior coalition in government partner Podemos are openly critical, but with their term in office consumed by crisis after crisis, little time has been devoted to Spain’s oldest and most controversial tradition.
Yet, subtle hints are there: in 2021 tickets for corridas were deliberately not included in cultural programme announced by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez that gifted cultural passes to young Spaniards in an effort to help the Spanish economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.
READ ALSO: Spanish crowds to return to the bullring next month in support of Covid-hit matadors
With interest and attendances dwindling, the pandemic brought home just how much industry relies on footfall. The Spanish Union of Breeders estimated the industry’s losses would surpass €80 million if another season was affected.
And it is largely due to those crises – pandemic, war, inflation – that the Spanish right seem set to return to government in the next general election, slated for December 2023. With all polling – and recent regional elections in former PSOE stronghold Andalusia – suggesting that the Spanish conservative party, PP, are set for a turn in government, the prospect of banning bullfighting becomes even slimmer.
READ ALSO: What the PP’s landslide win in Andalusia means for Spain’s ruling Socialists
Indeed the campaign in Andalusia brought home bullfighting’s position as an increasingly far-right, fringe issue. While PSOE and PP battled over economics and COVID recovery, far-right party Vox’s policy platform included “support[ing] bullfighting and the rich traditions of the people of Andalucía,” but not much else.
Ultimately, it must be said that a blanket ban of bullfighting at the national level is unlikely in the 2020’s. Not only due to political landscape, and likely incoming right-wing government, but owing to the intensely polarised nature of Spanish politics in recent years any opposition to the controversial Spanish tradition is likely to provoke a equally strong reaction from the right and pro-bullfighting groups.
Yet, that’s not to say that bullfighting as we know it won’t necessarily disappear with time. Rather than being banned outright by government, it seems more than plausible that bullfighting could simply wane out with time and become a niche historical interest. With popularity decreasing, bullfighting’s business model seems shaky at best.
After Spain’s bullrings sat empty for two years during the pandemic, and restrictions on capacities lingered on in certain parts of Spain, a combination of the ageing demographic that makes up Spanish bullfighting enthusiasts and its external financial pressures could mean that in the future the bloodiest bullfight battles will be in the Spanish Congress, not the bullring.
If current trends continue – interest waning among young people, the regions trying to limit or soften bullfights themselves – a national ban may not be necessary (and a majority in Congress unlikely anyway).
Bullfighting, however, will likely endure as a piece of symbolic and polarising Spanish political rhetoric long after it dies off in the bullrings.