Bullfighting in Spain:
History, Economics, Animal Rights and Hemmingway

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Bullfighting in Spain:
History, Economics, Animal Rights and Hemmingway

[Ed. Note: For images of bullfighting, visit our image gallery. See a short video of a bull who tries to escape the ring.]

By Brian Reyes on Dscriber.com

Cultural or not, there is no escaping that bullfighting has been losing popularity over the years. While big fights in cities like Madrid, Seville and Cordoba remain extremely popular, others in smaller towns struggle to attract spectators, particularly outside of the main festive season, the yearly week-long ferias.

Much of the decline is driven by a growing awareness of animal rights. Critics say this is a barbaric tradition, the torture and slaughter of an animal for entertainment.

The debate over bullfighting in Spain has taken a political twist. The fiercely-independent region of Catalonia wants it banned, while traditionalists in the capital Madrid want it declared cultural heritage. But in southern Spain, as I discovered at a fight last weekend, the row is seen as largely academic. "Get rid of the bullfight?" responded an incredulous Antonio, a hardcore aficionado. "It's not going to happen." We were chatting at the rear of the bullring in Algeciras on Saturday afternoon, a day before a corrida organised by Miguel Ramos, a retired local bullfighter better known as Miguelete. Below us, the eight animals due to be sacrificed the next day were unloaded from trucks and checked for strength, temperament, quirks. Miguelete, excited and amiable, organises this corrida every year to raise money for social causes. No one gets paid for this fight and all the cash from entry tickets, donations and the post-fight sale of meat goes to local charities working with the poor. It's not a huge amount, just over 10,000 euros this year, but in a region hard-hit by the economic downturn and staggering unemployment, it does not go unnoticed.

At the corrida on Sunday, the discussion among aficionados was of damage in the countryside caused by heavy rains, of ruined crops and waterlogged fields. As for the future of bullfighting, the only discussion was about El Gali, who at five years of age is the world's youngest matador in training. He is being mentored by Miguelete, who proudly posed with him and urged me to take a photo for the local paper. From this distance, the row between Catalonia and Madrid is seen as what it is, politics.

Spanish nationalists see the Catalan move as a provocation from a region where many want independence from Spain. The issue, debated in the Catalan parliament earlier this month and reported widely, provided an opportunity for one of Spain's most prominent conservative politicians, the ambitious head of Madrid's regional government, Esperanza Aguirre, to portray herself as a champion of tradition.

"Bullfighting was a source of inspiration for Goya, Picasso, Garcia Lorca, Hemingway and Orson Welles," said Aguirre. "It is an art-form that deserves to be protected and that has been part of Mediterranean and Spanish culture since time immemorial," she said. She called on UNESCO to declare bullfighting part of the world's cultural heritage.

Cultural or not, there is no escaping that bullfighting has been losing popularity over the years. While big fights in cities like Madrid, Seville and Cordoba remain extremely popular, others in smaller towns struggle to attract spectators, particularly outside of the main festive season, the yearly week-long ferias.

Much of the decline is driven by a growing awareness of animal rights. Critics say this is a barbaric tradition, the torture and slaughter of an animal for entertainment. I won't rehearse the arguments in favour of the fight, which I blogged about here and which I largely agree with [notwithstanding the fact that this is undeniably a violent, often disturbing spectacle].

The decline in popularity was painfully obvious in Algeciras on Sunday, where just a couple of hundred people turned out to see the event. Fights like this serve as training grounds for the future stars. But they attract only the real aficionados, the hardcore fans, and there are fewer of them each day. On Sunday, the stands were empty for the most part.

Ultimately, the clash between animal rights versus cultural heritage - stoked as it is by populist politicians on both sides of the debate - may well lose out to a more mundane glaring reality: on a cold Sunday evening in Algeciras, most people would rather be indoors watching the football on telly.