An Unsettling Tradition: Impressions of My First Bullfight

 Plaza de Toros

Plaza de Toros

Bullfighting, flamenco, and siesta are linked to the Spanish culture. But in the 21st century bullfighting is not as accepted as it once was, and has even been banned in some regions. While the Scoopettes are against bullfighting, we feel a need to look at it on The Spain Scoop as it is still very much a part of the culture. Some say it’s cruel, others say it’s art. Where do you stand? Shawn, from A Casual Notebook, is based in Madrid and offers one perspective on the tradition.

Photos and story by Shawn Moksvold

At Madrid’s Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, angry spectators unload insults from their seats. Things are not going well. The bull has already stumbled after its second charge at the matador, its buckled front legs pitching all 607 kilos of its weight into the air in a sloppy, undignified somersault. The torero struts away from the squirming animal and adjusts his tightly fitted ensemble that is presumably meant to accentuate the broadness of shoulders and clenched buttocks. The bull is already exhausted, and sports a fuchsia-colored nose from a mix of sand, blood and frothy snot. I find myself simply gawking, as the matador eventually kills the lying bull (which has, in the end, endured a total of seven punctures) with a jab of a sharp blade at the height of its spinal column.

Bullfighting in Spain

Bullfighting in Spain

“Now he’s going onto a plate of rabo de toro,” says a raspy old man next to me. Then a bugle sounds and a modest brass band plays a quick paso doble jingle, and the whole thing starts again.

It would be misleading to report that there is any serious effort to minimize the harm done to the bull while at the same time accentuating the appearance of danger to the matador. It must be a show, but with the likelihood for disaster strictly curtailed. Coming at the bull are men on horseback wielding long lances, others approach from the side and in front. Stealthy, agile men brandish colorful barbed spears, leaving them to hang in the bull’s flesh.

Bullfighting in Spain

Bullfighting in Spain

So it is the style of the bull’s ordeal and the illusion of a worthy confrontation that excite the aficionados (fans) in the stands, who would like to consider the bullfight a national celebration, something that is pure and uniquely Spanish.

Although bullfighting’s support in Spain is by no means universal (in fact it is almost non-existent in Galicia, and outlawed altogether in Catalonia and the Canary Islands), the vernacular has bled into everyday Spanish speech and in so demonstrates how this tradition has permeated Spanish culture. And the tradition shows only slightly waning popularity in Castile, Madrid, and Andalusia. Matadors are critiqued on TV and in the arts sections of major newspapers, and they have Facebook pages, tweet status updates, and appear in gossip magazines.

Anyone who makes a habit of watching the spectacle of a bullfight must admit at least a passing interest in death, whether that of the animal or the threat of it to the man in the ring.  And I suspect it is the deliberate spectacle that is so appalling about the bullfight.  The haughty show of killing an animal so easily provokes contempt and protest.  But it is for that reason that many come to watch. The matador, whatever is said of him, remains a professional of embellishment; what he does, and it is almost always a man, is nothing short of tense prancing, like a cat when it notices itself in the mirror, and he takes himself very seriously.

Watching the spectacle of a bullfight

Watching the spectacle of a bullfight

But in the context of contemporary culture, perhaps he is becoming an anachronism, an unwilling nod to the ways of the old world. It is antiquated, to pit animal against man in a prepared spectacular. The modern notion of killing animals has become a utilitarian, assembly line process. It is not stylized and admired, and therefore it is less debated within the fringe elements of society.  The matador still has no desire but to exist in the most visible place possible—at the center of the arena–and I wonder how long he will get away with it.

Shawn Moksvold is a freelance writer with particular interests in travel, food and wine, and Spanish culture. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, The,, and San Diego City Beat. He writes for his blog, A Casual Notebook, and currently lives in Madrid, Spain. Follow Shawn on twitter @casualnotebook

11 Responses

  1. robin says:

    An excellent look at bullfighting which accurately reflects my own views.

  2. admin says:

    Hi Robin,

    While I am not pro-bullfighting, I think Shawn offers a really interesting and well-written perspective.


  3. Rod Younger says:

    And Books4Spain has recentlt listed The Bull and The Ban by Cat Tosko – based on a documentary due out in Jan 2013. Read our expert’s reveiw here:
    Other books about bullfighting sold by Books4Spain include:

    Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway. In this book Hemingway shares his passion for bullfighting. The technical skills are described and explained, with chapters on individual bullfighters and the bulls.

    Killer of Bulls, an autobiography of Juan Belmonte (translated by Leslie Charteris – The Saint!) and aruguably Spain’s greatest and most unorthodox bullfighter.

    Bullfighting; Art, Technique and Spanish Society by John McCormick

    On Bullfighting by A L Kennedy

    Bullfighting, a troubled history by Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier

    Double Edged Sword, The Many Lives of Hemingway’s Friend, the American Matador Sidney Franklin by Bart Paul

  4. admin says:

    Thanks for these extra reading options Rod! Some good ones on there.

  5. James Scott says:

    Many people who visit Spain seem to go to bullfights to judge them. I’m not sure why we foreigners believe we have a right to do this, or why we feel it important to do so.

  6. admin says:

    Hi Scott. I think if you make a place your home you have a right to participate in the culture and form ideas and opinions about it. In fact, it would be strange not to do so. It would be a weird existence to live in Spain as only an observer. Plus, I think as writers, we’re wired to watch, take in, and form opinions about the world going on around us.

    On the other hand, I share your viewpoint when it comes to some political issues, such as independence in Catalunya, which I choose not to take a stand on either way because I am a foreigner (and because I can’t vote here).

    Thanks for your comments.


  7. Although bullfighting strikes me as animal cruelty first-and-foremost (or perhaps a cruel form of slaughtering, instead of a quick bullet-to-the-head for meat processing), I’m willing to suspend my American assumptions for a few hours and experience a bullfight. I haven’t attended one yet (only been living in Spain for a month), but I’m looking forward to understanding the artistic side of the custom—at least once.

    I really enjoyed reading this thoughtful exploration of the tensions expatriates face when presented with bullfighting, and the stunning photography that accompanied the article made it even better.

  8. admin says:

    Yes, Shawn Moskvold, our guest writer did offer an interesting perspective. Please check out one of our guest writers, Fiona Flores Watson, and her take on bullfighting. She lives in Seville.

  9. R.M.Villoria says:

    Barbaric?? And yet we support boxing, MMA,

  10. Has this article been translated into English from another language?

  11. The Spain Scoop says:

    No, why do you think so? Fiona is a native English speaker.

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