Wednesday, August 3, 2011

'Why I Want to be a Bullfighter'

Young aspiring bullfighters.
They spend their free time in an empty stadium, one pushing a cart with bullhorns on it towards a companion wielding a red flag, in front of imaginary crowds.

One day, they hope to fight real bulls.
One day, they dream, the bulls will be real and the seats will be full. But theirs is no easy ambition. Their passion, bullfighting, looks to be in decline, and to many people is a holdover from the age of barbarism and gladiators.

Bu they persevere, out of love for their sport.

"One wants to continue the tradition," says Hernando, 17, whose uncle, father and grandfather are all bullfighters and who has dreamed of being little else.

"My mother says 'no.' She suffers a lot, fearing a goring," he said. "But my father says 'keep at it.'"

He and his friends are the young, aspiring bullfighters of Bogotá's Plaza Santamaria. They have not fought professionally, and only a few of them will fight in this year's amateur bullfighting season, held the first two weekends of August.

Why would a young man devote himself to an activity which many call barbaric, which brings him accusations of 'killer,' which is perhaps in terminal decline and which might very well get him severely injured or killed?

Heernando began practicing bullfighting at age seven - and still carries the scar on his leg from a goring a cow gave him at that age. Ten years of training later, he's still waiting for his opportunity to fight in La Santamaria, Colombia's and South America's premier bullfighting arena. He is waiting, he explains, until his father says he's ready. A bad first performance could permanently damage his bullfighting career. 

The young men training to become bullfighters comprise a tight fraternity. There are only about ten of them in Bogota, guys who train every morning, who want to fight bulls, rather than boast of the glamor of 'being bullfighters.'

In a profession - the young toreros themselves differ on whether it is a sport or an art - in which the stars, such as El Juli, Jose Tomás and Pablo Hermoso, tower larger than life, the aspiring bullfighters speak of such men with awe. Those are men whose names can fill a stadium with tens of thousands of fans. They are men who can choose the bulls they will fight and make those animals dance and swerve with a precision of centimeters. And they are men who, above all, stand still in the face of raging bulls - sometimes to the extreme. 

Yet, the biographies of the bullfighters' idols can read like emergency room logs. Famed Colombian bullfighter Pepy Caceres died at age 53 after being gored in the ring. Cesar Rincon, Colombia's most famous recent bullfighter and an idol to many aspiring toreros, got hepatitis from the transfusion he received after one goring. Jose Tomás, probably the world's most famous living bullfighter, almost died last year after being gored in Mexico. After 16 months of recovery, Tomás recently fought again - and landed back in the hospital, yet plans more fights. For the men and a few women who've already earned fame and fortune and yet return to face danger again and again, bullfighting must be more than just spectacle and violence.

Bullfighters in training start out fighting cows, which can be aggressive and dangerous enough. And many would-be bullfighters give up the first time they're thrown by an animal. But others accept such injuries as part of the profession. After all, bullfighting is metaphorical for danger. Many a bullfighter has gotten gored and returned to the ring to finish the fight.

After being gored, "one has more respect for the bull," Hernando said. "But no longer with fear."

But one of his companions disagreed: "The fear is always present," he said.

If bullfighting is violent and vicious, as its critics claim, it is far from one-sided. And, while those of us who eat meat depend on others to raise animals, often in inhumane conditions, and to kill them out of our sight, the bullfighter plays out this fundamental drama of life and death in the light of day, in front of a crowd.

For these aspiring young matadores, their profession is about much more than violence, and even transcends sport: it is art.

"It is my passion, my love," a 16-year-old aspiring bullfighter who had a long scar on his leg once told me.

And it is a difficult love, not only dangerous but also fickle. A bullfighter lives by his reputation - for bravery, for skill, for grace and subtlety. But for that he needs to face a bull which has vigor and aggression. A single disappointing appearance can so damage a young bullfighter's reputation that he will require a long time, if ever, to recover. The aspiring bullfighters also say that success requires a good manager who can get his torero a good place in an important plaza.

Anybody who stands in the path of a half-ton animal that wants to kill you and is capable of doing so, armed with only a piece of fabric (as bullfighters do during the first part of the fight) and who is not be scared, might be certifiedly insane. But showing that fear is a fatal mistake capable of destroying a fighter's reputation. And reputation can make or break a bullfighter.  

Of course, it is an unequal match. The bullfighter may obtain glory, and the bull will almost certainly be killed. And the bull, naturally, has no comprehension of why these men harass, injure and kill it. 
And all of this for a sport - or art - in decline. The Spanish province of Catalunia recently banned bullfighting, as has Ecuador. 

The young men agree that their sport - or art - has fallen out of favor with many young people. They blame that on 'environmentalists' - their term for animal rights activists. It's a criticism they dispute. The bulls, they assert, live well until being brought out onto the arena. After all, for an exciting fight, it's important that the bull be strong and vigorous. For bullfighting, is much more than killing. It's a ritualized dance between man and beast, meant to display the man's courage and subtlety and the animal's power and aggressiveness.

And fighting bulls do roam free in the the fields, until being brought to the bullfighting ring, where the fight lasts 15 to 20 minutes. Their cousins, raised for milk or meat, usually have it much worse, packed into pens and stockades. But industrial animal-raising receives little criticism, perhaps because most people eat meat. Very occasionally, when a fighting bull is considered to have fought very courageously, it recieves an indulto or 'forgiveness' and is allowed to live. These sometimes become famous as stud bulls. 

More than concern for animal rights, many of today's youth have lost interest in bullfighting in favor of sports like football and video games. Ironically, those video games often overflow with violence, while lacking bullfighting's grace and courage. 

While bullfighting has seen grander days, it is far from gone. The sport's living legends can still fill stadiums with passionate fans. Perhaps that's due to our primordial fascination with the mortal clash between man and beast. In a world in which most of us spend our time fleeing danger while pursuing it in movies and virtual reality, bullfighting is one of the last pursuits where mortal danger is still real and deliberate. 

"Bullfighting must survive!" asserts one aspiring torero. 

But his friend sounds less sure. "One's purpose is to be the best - as long as it lasts," he says. 

"My goal is Madrid: to triumph there," says Hernando.

"That's every bullfighter's dream," adds his friend.

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