When I was ages ten through thirteen, my dad would take me to the bullfights in Tijuana. My parents were long divorced then and my father had probably run out of ideas of what to do during our weekends together. He had been living in San Diego during those years and he had become a bit of an aficionado. So he took me during that first summer vacation I spent in San Diego. I don’t remember that we ever did anything else in Tijuana; we didn’t shop or look around. We went straight to the Plaza de Toros. Sundays at 4 o’clock was when the bullfights began.

The entrance to the Tijuana arena is dirty. It’s not even paved, just dusty and has some paper litter. Inside, though, it’s cleaner. We climb to our seats on the shady side—the best side. Those tickets cost a few bucks more. Promptly at 4 pm, the spectacle begins. I am so excited! It’s my first bullfight. It begins with a procession of all the participants—except the bulls, of course. The toreros and their entourage, men on horseback–the picadors, my dad calls them– accompanied by rousing music of trumpets and drums and other instruments. I have no idea what to expect or what anything means. All I know is that there is vibrant, live music and a grand procession. And costumes! They are as awesome as any fairytale princess gown—bejeweled, intricate, and in the most luxurious fabrics and colors. The word “pageantry” really says it all.

The picadors ride into the arena on horses draped in heavy quilted blankets reaching almost to the ground. I ask my dad what they are, what are they for? “You’ll see,” he says, “They will protect the horses.” The picadors wear plain, beige costumes and they are all fat. They carry long wooden staffs. What I can’t see from my seat are the small blades on the business end.

The procession ends and only the picadors on their horses are left standing around the arena. And the horses are blindfolded.  Suddenly, a gate opens and a bull comes charging out of a tunnel, and almost instantly stops in his tracks from the sunlight and the roar of the crowd. Even from my seat half way up the stands, the massive power and size of the bull is glorious– a mass of muscle and rawness.  My dad tells me these are not your ordinary, domestic bulls, but are specially bred to be mean and brave.

The bull starts drizzling urine from his pizzle. I feel so sorry for that animal, peeing in confusion. Nothing that pees is really all that frightening. But soon he regains his wits, such as they are, and looks around for something to charge. What he sees, and what I don’t anticipate, are the horses. The bull runs straight towards one of them, and now I understand why they need padding. The bull starts trying to gore the side of the horse, which is kept from running away by its cruel rider. (I am pretty sure I didn’t scream aloud.)  Now I hate the bull and feel only pity for the horse. I want that bull to STOP. So does the picador, sort of. He uses his long staff with the small blade to poke back at the bull. No, not poke—to jam the blade into the bull pushing him back from the horse with all his might. But the muscles of the bull’s withers are so dense it hardly slows him. I stop hating the bull. Eventually, the bull backs up and moves on to the next horse– and the next picador. At some point for reasons that I cannot figure out, the horsemen leave.

Next come the lesser or junior toreros, the banderilleros. There are three of them, each holding two foot sticks covered in colorful frilly paper wrappings. They look so pretty and gay—like party favors– but on the tips are iron barbs. By now the bull is hot from charging and pushing the horses. He is heaving a bit and foam is flung from his mouth when he turns his head, looking from one banderillero to the other. He decides which one to go after and when he charges, the guy runs towards him raising the sticks high above his head. Just as the bull and the man are about to meet head on, the banderillero stabs the bull in the withers with the barbs and jumps out of the way at the last second. The bull stops so fast that his forelegs are in the air. I am unable to turn away and ask my father why did they do that?! “Because they are trying to get the bull to keep his head down; they are weakening his neck muscles.” I still can’t understand why they would need to do this.

This brutality –and show of bravery–is repeated two more times, and now the bull has six colorful spears bouncing from between his shoulder blades. His back is red with blood. My dad looks at my face and does something he so often does when he looks at me: He gives a little laugh and kisses my cheek. I guess I am amusing and adorable. But about that bravery of the banderilleros? Well, they were brave to run at a charging bull, but when the bull starts to really go after them they seem cowardly. They high tail it to the barriers placed all around the arena. Sometimes they just jump right over the fence to escape the bull. And I laugh at them, the scaredy cats; the bullies. It serves them right.

Time for the main event. More trumpets. The posturing and elegant torero enters the arena with his suit of lights and his enormous flowing silk cape—shocking pink on one side and saffron on the inside. He reminds me of a ballet dancer. Oh, he really is something! Thin as a whip, incredibly lithe and wiry. He walks onto the sand, not too fast or too slow. And, if this is possible, he is both deliberate and tentative at the same time—or maybe I’m just imagining that. He’s probably keeping watch on the bull from the corner of his eye, but I can’t tell.

The bull pretty soon decides he cannot abide this asshole. And then, for the first few encounters, the torero loses his poise and kind of scrambles, passing his cape over the bulls head until they both settle down into the dance. I am totally unimpressed by this exhibition. My father explains that the torero is learning how the bull moves; if he hooks his horns; which direction he hooks them; if he is a brave bull. OK, I can see that, but I also understand that the bull has no such analytical powers—he will just do what he must do. I want some daring here from the torero. I want the torero to give the bull a fair shot at goring him. Soon enough, he does. He stands perfectly still when the bull charges, arching his back and letting the bull pass mere inches from him. So this is where all those Olés! come in. I get behind that shouting Olé! along with the crowd.

And this seems to go on for a while until the bull is no longer charging but just circling the matador, and the matador swishing the cape over its head. Soon another torero comes out with a smaller, plainer red cape and gives it to the star torero. This cape has a sword hidden behind it, Dad explains.

With a smaller cape, the dance gets tighter. The bull is tired. He is pausing and then charging again as if he just can’t stop himself. But it seems like he wants to stop. Now the torero shows how arrogant he is. He kneels in front of the bull. He turns his back and taunts the bull—he is, for some ungodly reason, contemptuous of the bull! He is the picture of dominance and the bull is the picture of a defeated and exhausted animal that cannot stop doing what he was bred to do. I am more than ready to call it for the matador. Game over, we can go now. The matador won. But it is the unfairest match I’ve ever seen, even if my father tries to explain that all those stabs the bull endured actually makes the field fairer—after all, the bull is vastly stronger than the skinny matador. All I know is what I see.

My father warns me that now the torero is going to kill the bull. He’d better kill him cleanly and quickly, he says, or the crowd will be very angry. And if I don’t want to watch, this is the time to cover my eyes. I watch. The bull is facing the torero, his head is slightly lowered. The bull is motionless as though he were mesmerized by the moment. Me too. He is heaving and breathing steam. The torero unveils the sword and raises it to his eye level. He has all the time in the world, it feels like. The entire arena is very still. Then, he does a little skip and runs towards the bull pushing the sword almost to the hilt, just behind the bull’s horns. The bull drops like a stone, dead. Just like that. The crowd goes wild, screaming praises of relief at the matador. Not me. I am stunned. I can tell you this: I feel that sword right in my heart. It isn’t a pain; it is heaviness. It was for this feeling that I think the expression, “her heart sank” was coined.

(I was lucky. That first kill was the best I would ever see.)

The bull ring is showered with flowers. A team of horses comes into the ring and men hook a chain around the dead bull’s horns and drag him away. (To be butchered and given to the poor, my father said.) The torero struts around the arena, sometimes throwing back roses to ladies in the stands—just like the movies. I wish I had some flowers to throw. The kill was so perfect, Dad says, that the officials will award the torero both the ears and the tail of the animal—a rare honor. They present them to him as he takes his victory walk and he holds them up for us to see.

(Now, I feel I should defend my father about these excursions. My early years were spent in my grandparents’ butcher shop, so this experience didn’t really scar me—I was used to carcasses of beef. When I was little, my father was a butcher and worked with my grandparents. Then he had an accident at another butcher shop and lost his right arm in a meat grinder. After that, for me, watching a bullfight wasn’t that horrifying. The bullfight was somehow like my relationship with my father. Funny—he was even a Taurus. Like a bullfighter, he was maimed.)

After that first bullfight, I wanted to learn more about it. I read about the famous toreros, especially about the one my father admired, Manolete, who was gored and died in the arena in 1947. I learned about the veronicas, about the pasodoble music, collected bullfight posters. I learned bullfighting terms that I have long forgotten. The bullfight thrilled me; it was beautiful and terrifying. It broke my heart and exhilarated me. Just like my father did.

Tauromachy

The old Tijuana bullring on Boulevard Agua Caliente once drew Hollywood starlets like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner to its stadium seats.


The procession.

Picadores:

Banderilleros:

Suit of Lights:

Aftermath:


How Picasso saw it:


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Questinia
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I can’t kill anything except deer ticks and rats (from a distance and by poisoning). In fact, I’d been fighting to get a town in New York to stop instituting netting and bolting deer, a barbaric choice of limiting the deer population in order for yuppie azaleas to thrive. It was successful. I empathize too much, anthropomorphizing most anything that comes my way… including plants! Some of us seem to romanticize life as much as bullfighting romanticizes death. Humans are sentimental for the thing that seems to mean the most to them where in other quarters of the food chain things are a bit more pragmatic.

My husband went to a bullfight with his father in Spain. He was about eleven years old and much like you can recount the experience with astounding clarity. He said the bull put up such a valiant fight that the torero could not kill the beast and the crowd voted to save him. I believe the bull was festooned with flowers and led to live out his life in some pasture.

You are a joy to read, Cher.

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Khirad
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What more can I add?

I totally dug this.

Not just the subject matter, but the fluid writing, as well.

I was in that bummed stage one gets into after being absorbed in a novel for a couple days, and this reminded me of it a little, as that too was seen in part through a 9 year old girl’s eyes and lyrical as well.

I regret this has none of the pageantry that I find very seductive, but I’d be happier with this, where everyone gets some good exercise.

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choicelady
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Thanks, Cher – you have raised countless ethical issues for me. I eat meat. I worry about how it dies. I don’t ignore my carnivore heritage – I have the teeth for it, and we all do. In England they have HUGE laws about how animals must be slaughtered. We don’t. I buy halal when I can (the Muslim equivalent to kosher which Sacramento has none of anymore) because the death is quick. No way to know if it’s painless or fear-less. Nature, however, is NOT quick. One has only to look at nature films to know that. It’s brutal. I can’t determine yet where I come down on the food side of it all.

The issue for me is the degree of compassion for the animal. I think First Nations people understood better than any of us. The ask forgiveness from the animal they kill. Wow. Seeing oneself at one with the creatures upon which we feed is awesome. It inclines one toward clean kills, respect, a desire NOT to inflict needless suffering.

Dog fights, cock fights, bull fights – it separates us from the animal and from our humanity. It objectifies the animal. It is unacceptable. Now we have a new horror; CA has outlawed “live food” that some Asian cultures prefer. Cutting up or even cooking animals alive. I don’t even eat lobster anymore – they don’t “die nice”. But China is exporting leather goods that I understand are not made from recycled leftover hides of food animals. It is the tanned skins of dogs – skinned ALIVE for their leather. I am so utterly disgusted by this, so horrified at the NEEDLESS cruelty, I cannot find words.

What is in human beings that we can ever laugh at another’s suffering even if it’s a fish? Catch and release? Not sure the fish is fine with that. Is that better than catch, quickly kill, and eat? I don’t think so.

Natural food webs produce death to be part of the web. The big question is whether we need to depart from our own best possibilities to be part of that. The question needing NO thought is – exploiting the suffering of animals for sport has no justification whatsoever. As we contemplate how easily we tortured people the first 8 years of this millennium, it may stem in part by how easily we torture animals – and children, and women, and immigrants, and GLBT people – and any creature we have convinced ourselves is lesser than we.

Enough already. Bullfighting can go on. The ceremony and the drama are beautiful. Just leave the bull in peace. Then it’s a fair fight. That I’d pay money to see.

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kesmarn
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How skillfully you were able to slip back into your 10 year old self, Cher, and remember how everything looked and felt and sounded. Wonderfully written.

And so many thoughts come to mind. Like many, I have a reaction of strong distaste at the whole ritual and its goriness. Then I begin to wonder if the death met by these animals is any worse than the whole process of slaughtering beef that goes to our commercial markets. Those poor animals virtually never get a shot at goring their executioners. If I oppose one method of killing, why not the other? Simply because it is almost entirely unwitnessed? Why am I not a vegetarian? Only because I’m a hypocrite? If I don’t have to see or think about the animal’s death, does that make it any more acceptable?

Then I think about how our reactions to these things are influenced — to a greater or lesser degree — by the reactions of those around
us. I remember being a really little kid — maybe 5 or 6 — playing with my older cousins in the summer. They had just discovered that if one stomped on a lightning bug that had landed on the sidewalk while the insect was little glowing there would be this “cool” glowing phosphorescent smear left behind for a while. I did it one time. Then suddenly I was almost ill with a sort of “What are we doing??” feeling, and walked away, feeling awful and isolated. What was cool to them, was anything but — suddenly — to me.

My parents adored fishing, and family vacations often involved trips to Michigan or Minnesota where lakes were abundant and fishing was great. By the time I was about 12, though, I couldn’t do that any more either. I loved being out in the boat and taking in the scenery, but I was really unhappy about killing the fish. My family found this hilarious. “She feels sorry for the fish!!” they would say with a hearty chuckle, as though they’d somehow inexplicably managed to raise a Buddhist in a thoroughly midwestern culture where hunting and fishing were commonplace. 😉

And, finally, I thought about Mexican culture and how fascinating it has been to me for such a long time. From the veneration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to the Day of the Dead, to the weird and sometimes gruesome statuary found in Mexican churches…blood and death, death and blood seemed to be so much more an accepted part of life there. In a way it seemed more real and less sanitized than American culture.

EDIT: I had posted an image of one of those Mexican church statues, blood and all, and then thought better of it and removed it. It didn’t really add anything to the comment…

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whatsthatsound
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Such an interesting and fascinating article! I can only chime in with others about my inability to comprehend this brutal “sport”, but I can also share a little story about Picasso.

Picasso loved bullfighting and often depicted it, or images of bulls, in his artwork. When he was in his nineties, he was still, to his credit, painting away. Sadly, though, the work of his last years was not of the same quality of his earlier periods. But he tended to surround himself with sycophants, and was, even for all his achievements, still insecure about his place among the great artists.

So he painted a homage piece to Velasquez’ masterpiece, “Las Meninas”, wanting to go up against the painter widely considered to be Spain’s greatest. The result was typical of his later period; more or less a shadow of his earlier brilliance. Nevertheless, an admirer told him that he should be awarded “both ears and the tail”, meaning that he had left Velasquez in the dust. This was the first I had ever heard this expression used, and now I encounter it again in your article, so I just thought I’d bring that up as an aside.

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escribacat
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Beautiful writing, Cher. Years ago I went to a bullfight in Madrid, armed with my copy of “Death in the Afternoon,” a book about bull-fighting by Ernest Hemingway. I learned from the book that the bull in the ring has never been in the ring before, never had any such experience before — hence his confusion. Otherwise, he would have figured out how to skip all the drama and just kill the matador.

I was about 20 at the time and I remember being pretty shocked by all the blood streaming down from the bull’s neck from all the “picks” from the picador. I was left feeling that it was just beautifully ritualized torture of animals, including the horses. I remember the bull pushed one of the horses up against the wooden fence and kept pushing and lifting. When they finally got the bull away, the horse just slumped into the dirt.

I’ll be glad when this “sport” goes the way of gladiators fighting lions.

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M Cubed
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M Cubed

Thank you for this thought provoking piece,Chernynkaya. As a four-year-old, I dressed as a matador for Halloween. I am sure I was inspired by the kind of art one used to see in homes of the early sixties–my grandmother traveled to Mexico frequently, and I remember these kind of prints in her home. I thought they were so brave and beautiful. And of course, no one is going to tell a four-year old American girl that the bull dies. I guess I thought it was more like football, where the teams meet each week.

Anyway, all this made me think about the nature of spectacle. That the beauty and thrill of the bullfight comes from both an aesthetic creation and the inherent danger. And that the approach is ritualistic–that the same form is followed time and time again, and that the basic demand in the sacrifice of the bull. However, unlike ritual–where you know the priest will elevate the host at a particular moment, there is no question that the sacrificial element will remain quiescent in the chalice. Guess I will have to read some Hemmingway to get some insights on that.

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Kalima
Admin

Thank you for sharing a part of your childhood with us. It was so vivid that I could almost see it through your child eyes.

I’m against any kind of blood sport, whether is be bullfighting, fox hunting, or just killing animals for sport. If you are not hungry, and you don’t need it to survive, why kill it?

I look at life this way, if we can’t respect animals, how can we be whole, and if we can’t be whole, how can we experience and appreciate unconditional love?

I also have no time for horse racing, greyhound racing, or in fact anything which exploits animals to make people richer. I’m a proud Taurus like your father, and I firmly believe that this cruel tradition has to stop, we humans should be better than this.

A beautifully written piece Cher, and it must have been important to you in some way to remember the details so well. Thank you again.

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semirade
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semirade

What a beautiful piece of writing, but like AdLib, I find myself at once appalled and yet amazed at how pertinent this vivid description of blood lust kept me enthralled, as if I were attending the event and watching you and your father. I would have been sickened at the thought of a man exposing his child to such barbarism, and would have been so judgmental had I witnessed such a sight as the two of you.
The world is so beset with violence that it seems ruthless to create more for the sake of amusement!
I hate violence in any form, but it is so prevalent in our species that I sometimes find myself, like the bull raging at the inevitable – raging at the 2nd amendment, raging at the doctors that butchered me, and are responsible for my disability and my castration, and raging at the abuse that I suffered as a child – which created within me a strange sort of envy that you were able to share moments of intimacy with your father that brought at once moments of joy, wonder and horror, while he was there beside you to ease your fears and comfort you.
I find myself saddened by mankind how it chooses to line its’ pockets and the cruelty it reeks upon the earth and its’ inhabitants, the environment, the animal life, the human toll – perhaps it is all shown in this story – pomp and ferocity!
Thanks for the share!

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AdLib
Admin

Cher, what a visual and nostalgic telling of this experience.

The times being what they were, your being the age you were and the other background you describe about your father make the experience and perspective you had very understandable, one of both awe and upset.

I happen to be strongly opposed to bullfighting, the ceremony and pomp that surrounds it is impressive and even glorious but it is in fact a way of guilding a very horrible act of cruelty.

Did you know that it is not uncommon for bulls to be surreptitiously stabbed repeatedly in the shoulders, to weaken their muscles, BEFORE they ever get in the ring?

The tide is actually turning against it in Spain, last year Catalonia banned bullfighting.

Mexico is a very different story. Nowadays, they actually boast about having a 12 year old bullfighting! You can only imagine how typically bulls are pre-injured to “lose” against him. And the complete disregard for the safety of this child echoes the same heartlessness.

To be clear, I’m not criticizing you or your father for taking you, things were different back then, there wasn’t the kind of awareness there is today. In fact, I have my own version of this which I look back on with a shake of the head.

I used to love boxing. The power, the skill, the strategy, the prowess. I caught all the big fights and fighters on cable, Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, on and on. As time went by and boxing lost its star power through corruption, I drifted away from it. Eventually, seeing what happened to Muhammad Ali, Tyson, Holyfield, etc., how the reality of what was happening in that ring, the beatings they would take in the head and how it would later manifest itself as severe brain damage, I grew a distaste of it.

I haven’t watched a boxing match in many years but I very much relate with your story because when I think back to fights I had watched, oddly, I still do so with a pleasant nostalgia. It’s kind of weird, having that feeling yet knowing how I feel about it today.

Maybe it’s just thinking back to times when one was younger and the memory of the pleasant feelings one had at the time. It sure is hard to square with the way I see boxing today.

In the abstract, it is a bit unbelievable, we’re still living in a time when people are entertained by seeing bulls butchered in front of them and human beings beating each other with their fists, often inflicting permanent brain damage on each other.

I am big on freedom though and if people choose to make money having their heads smashed in, I suppose it’s their choice but animals don’t have a choice. If they did, I would bet they’d much rather be in a field sniffing flowers like Ferdinand.

Or hitting on the cows on Friday night.

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Khirad
Member

Yup, that’s the really egregious part, the weakening of the bull before hand. It’s all kinda a cruel sham, which is somehow worse than just being cruel somehow.

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