Bullfighting in Colombia: For what purpose?

November, 2012

Bogotá’s Mayor, Gustavo Petro, does not see the same art that Hemingway saw in the running of the bulls – corridas de toro – that have cured the masses of the Santa Maria ring in the center of Bogotá with entertainment for much of the 20th century. Earlier this year Petro tried to propose a ban on the blood sport that has been a traditional spectacle in the capital since Alonso Luis de Lugo brought 60 beasts and Spanish tradition to Bogotá in 1543.


The ban Petro proposed would put a halt to the Colombian matador’s game in Bogotá and might inspire mayors of other cities where bullfighting is controversial to cancel the games as well.


The tradition of bull fighting in Colombia took a strong hold when two Spaniards arrived in Bogotá in 1917 to develop the industry. Bull rings popped up in the 1950s, first in Manizales, then Cali, Bucaramanga, Medellín, Cartagena, and later other smaller municipalities.


In 2004, a law called the “Bullfighting Code” was passed under Alvaro Uribe to ensure that bullfighting was protected as an ‘artistic expression of human beings,’ and protect the art from being abolished.


Despite the code, many in Colombia think there’s nothing more than blood and brutality behind the ancient “art.”


Several of Colombia’s municipalities and a growing row of activist sentiment express disgust toward bullfighting, calling it inhumane. Medellín has already decided to oust the matadors from their ring. Of course, animal rights activists have reason with their strong views of animal cruelty. It is a sad thing to watch a bull’s legs crunch underneath its own might after desperately trying to survive.


Surprisingly, however, there is still a strong, unflinching following behind Colombia’s bullfighting scene. And some of them see something more important than whether or not animal cruelty is right or wrong.


Ernest Hemingway, for one, would turn over in his grave if he knew what Petro was up to. But he would probably turn over again if he knew why so many wanted to keep the blood sport alive. Hemingway was passionate about bullfighting.


After Ernest Hemingway witnessed the meticulous events leading up to the death of a bull or the man who tried desperately to kill it as majestically as he could, he was captivated with the dance that matadors do with death. He said, “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 now a matador standing trial for cruelty toward animals is an artist? Hmm…


Hemingway went on to write a treatise on the Spanish art of goring great 1,000-lbs horned beasts. He titled it Death in the Afternoon. He even participated in amateur bullfights himself. Through bullfighting, Hemingway ascertained the realities of fear, death and how the human condition tries to cope with it. Exposing himself to it was an important step for his journalism, as he would go on to cover and live through some of the bloodiest battles of the first half of the 20th century. It thickened his skin and primed him for his own encounters with the uncertainty of life and death.


Whether right or wrong, bullfighting is a ritual. And for the most part, that is how Spain, Mexico, Colombia and other countries that recognize it as an art choose to approach it. Matadors train at specialized academies from an early age, almost like little ballerinas might train. Duels between man and bull follow a specific series of stages before the matador can take the bull’s life. Those who choose to be spectators view the ceremony as an artistic dance with death more than an uncivil slaughter.


But a deliberate ritual is not always the way the spectacle works in Colombia.


What might be the most controversial incarnation of bullfighting is something called a corraleja.


It only happens in one place, but it happens.


Each year, in a small town called Sincelejo near the coast of Colombia, people build a wooden stadium where ‘journeymen’ – amateur bull fighters – enter into a ring with an agitated horned beast and try not to be killed. Unlike the young boys – usually 12 or 13 when recruited – who enter bullfighting school with the hopes of rising out of poverty and into the bosom of torero fame, the journeymen who enter the corraleja ring are untrained, mostly drunk, and the exotic variety of fame they’re looking for is called the peso.


What usually comes out of their drunken stupor is a marvelous chance to gamble their lives for the possibility to win a pocket full of cash offered by another intoxicated (and usually more wealthy) spectator if they can manage to do a somersault over the horns of the bull as it charges head on.


For this reason it is normal to see a pile-up of dead bodies after a good day of fun at the corraleja in Sincelejo.


Usually it’s a 20-40 count.


The festivities at Sincelejo, indeed, make up quite another ritual next to the majestic dances performed by professional matadors.


But it is doubtful that Hemingway would be much happier with the corraleja from Sincelejo than with Mayor of Bogotá and his pledged ban.


To the Mayor, Hemingway would probably say that fear is an integral part of Colombian history (not to mention human nature). Indeed most of Colombia’s 20th century was occupied by politically-induced terror for the Colombian people, and so why not allow them the choice to view how a young matador tries to face fear and cope with it in the ring? Let the spectators who choose to watch the dance formulate their own terms of how to cope with death.


To the ‘journeymen’ from Sincelejo, he would probably tell them not to get so damn drunk so that they can see the bull when it charges.


The point, after all, is not your prize in pesos, nor is it plainly to survive the bull. Everyone faces the uncertainty of death. It is more about how you choose to survive.


And everyone, no matter whether they face a bull or not, should get to choose how to survive.

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