Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Bullfighter's Philosophy

Nicolas Nossa, bullfighter
During a bike tour we met Nicolas Nossa, a veteran Colombian bullfighter, and several of his bullfighting students in the Plaza de Toros Santamaria.

I've never seen a bullfight except on Youtube, and before moving to Colombia I'm sure I had a very stereotypical comic book image of bullfighting: a violent, bloodthirsty, murderous activity in which the bullfighter hurled himself in the face of death and tried to kill the bull as quickly as possible.

But that's not the case at all. Bullfighting is a subtle contest in which the bullfighter shows off his quickness, dexterity and courage by getting the bull to charge past him, as closely as possible, with every chance of killing the bullfighter if he miscalculates or the bull makes an unexpected move. Bullfighters do respect the bulls - particularly those considered courageous - altho that creates no obstacle to killing them.

One of Mr. Nossa's students. 
Nossa, who's been bullfighting for 40 years - a long career for a bullfighter - is a soft-spoken, thoughtful man. I'm sure that no bullfighter given to impulsivity would last long. He described rare moments of ecstasy in the ring, which he compared to making love, when he felt a communion with the bull. It's a surprising feeling to find in a contest between two male, presumably heterosexuals of different species. And I doubt whether the confused, angry bull shares the sentiment.

Nossa also denied some common accounts of alleged cruel or cheating practices, such as smearing the animal's eyes with vaseline or injuring its genitals. That might work for rodeo, but not for a good bullfight, he pointed out. A good bullfight requires a strong, able, aggressive bull who puts up an honorable drama. A bull with vaseline on its eyes would smash itself against the ring's walls and one with injured genitals would be a poor fighter.

One of Nossa's students in action. He's standing in back watching. (Photo: MiBurladero
This doesn't cha nge the fact of bullfighting's cruelty - the animal is stabbed and harried and almost always killed. But I'd say it's less cruel than much more common activities such as factory farming. But bulls bred and raised for fighting live free and well until they are brought to the ring, where the fight itself lasts only about 20 minutes. On the other hand, bullfighting makes a public spectacle of the cruelt and killing, which seems to harken back to darker days of human history.

Nicolas Nossa, triumphant in the ring. (Voyalostoros.com)
Nossa refered to the possibility of removing the blood from bullfighting. Some bullfighting empresarios, he suggested, would be willing to eliminate the violence from the sport, just as long as paying customers continued coming to see the spectacle. (Portuguese and French bullfighters don't kill the bull - altho I understand that the animal is killed out of the public's view after exiting the ring. A bull which has fought before is much more dangerous.) But for Nossa a bullfight without the stabbing and killing would lose the art. For bullfighters, the final kill, when the matador reaches over the bull's horns and stabs it thru the spine into the heart, while holding his body inches from the horns, is the climax of the fight. Done well, death comes pretty quickly. But when a bullfighter misses his mark the animal bleeds slowly to death while the disgraced bullfighter stabs at it again and again. 

Bullfighters I've met don't seem to feel sorry for the bulls they kill - unless the animal has fought particularly bravely and courageously. Most bullfighters I've met admit to fear.

If bullfighting is anything it is traditional. A match-up reaching back millenia, bullfighting is perhaps the most primordial of human contests. Cattle, after all, are so fundamental to human society that words like the Spanish 'ganar' and English 'gain' come from terms for cattle. (Ganado in Spanish.) Everything from the matador's suit of lights, his ponytail and even the order in which matadors enter a bullring is dictated by tradition.

Morenita faces off against a bull. 
As such, Nossa has certain ideas about women bullfighters. Worldwide, only about a half dozen women have become full-fledged bullfighters, altho some of them have become famous. History's first woman bullfighter was Morenita de Quindio, a Colombian, Nossa said. But he said that 'women's changing moods' made bullfighting more difficult for them. And, he suggested that bulls lack a certain gentlemaness when faced with a woman. "A bull doesn't know to be softer when the fighter is a woman, harder when he's a man," Nossa said. I suspect that women bullfighters don't ask for gentler treatment. Nor does the bull have any reason to offer it to a person who means to kill him.

In Colombia animals rights activists are often referred to as environmentalists, altho the causes are very different. Some bullfighting fans defend their sport with a sort of biodiversity argument: fighting bulls are a special breed, raised and bred only for the bullring. If bullfighting were prohibited, as seems to be slowly happening, the breed will disappear. While that's true, fighting bulls (or any sort of cattle, for that matter), are not part of native biodiversity and I don't think that losing them would be any worse than losing a breed of dog or cat. However, Nossa offered a more substantial environmentalist argument for bullfighting. Bull-raising ranches, he said, protect lots of other native species, which would otherwise be hunted out. That's a good point. 

No child's play: A 16-y-old bullfighting student displays a scar from a bull's horn.  His father was a bullfighter and he grew up surrounded by it. "It's my love, it's my passion," he said. 
Colombian bullfighting: Colombia is the world's third-largest bullfighting nation, following Spain and Mexico. Bogotá's season is quite short, occupying only six or seven weekends in January and February. Most of the rest of the year, Bogotá's Plaza Santamaria sits empty. 

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By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours


amanda said...

i'm on the fence on this one. i see the animal rights point-i see the controversy in colombia with violence tied to a sport...but ultimately i think it is much more than senseless violence or torture, a deep rooted tradition, a celebration of dexterity. i've only ever seen corridas sin sangre in the deep andes and there, the bulls are not killed afterward, only 1 select bull, to feed the whole town. in the traditional bull fight, too, the entire bull is consumed, rationed out. i think you got your etymology wrong. the verb "ganar" comes first meaning "desire, covet"...germanic influence adds the sense of "harvest, graze" and from there we get ganado--that which grazes but also that which is coveted and won. those bulls are sacred.

Miguel said...

I think that bullfighting is all of those things. Includes lots of skill and bravery, but also violence and cruelty. There are lots of spectacles which require skill and courage but don't involve animals' suffering and dying. But there's something exciting in the whole man-animal confrontation.

Yes, I think that I reversed the etymology. The 'livestock' meaning comes from the meaning of 'to earn.' So, there is a connection there, but not as strong.