Saturday, June 16, 2012

Colombia's Bullfighting Legacy

A statue of Cesar Rincon, Colombia's greatest bullfighter of recent times.  Behind him is a bust of Ignacio Sanz de Santamaria, who donated the land to build Bogotá's bullfighting arena, which is named after him. 
A plaque in the Santamaria Plaza
honoring Manolete, a legendary
Spanish bullfighter who
performed here. 
Bullfighting's days appear to be numbered in Bogotá and the rest of Colombia, so it's worth taking a look at the country's legacy in la fiesta brava.

Whether you love bullfighting for its drama, grace and courage, or hate it for its cruelty and celebration of violence and killing, the sport has played an important role in Latin history. Colombia is the planet's third-largest bullfighting country, altho that may change if the sport is definitively banned in Bogotá and the city of Medellin cuts off municipal support. (On the other hand, Cartagena plans to begin organizing bullfights.)

And bullfighting's history is not just about valor and violence - it also touches on politics, international relations, and even feminism.

Undoubtedly, Colombia's most famous bullfighter of recent times is Cesar Rincon, born in 1965. He is still alive but retired and raises bulls and has become a prominent defender of bullfighting. While fighting in 1990, Rincon was gored and contracted hepatitis C from the blood transfusion. He nevertheless continued bullfighting until 2008.

Alvaro Munera, Colombian bullfighter turned animal rights activist following a severe goring. 
Very different is the story of Álvaro Múnera, also born in 1965. An accomplished bullfighter, he got contracted to fight in Spain. But a goring in 1984 changed his life utterly. The goring left Múnera parapalegic, and only after years of hospitalization did he regain some use of his hands. During his hospitalization, he may have read animal rights literature. But in any case he emerged as a critic of his previous profession, and even got elected to Medellin's City Council on an animal rights platform. Múnera has since traveled back to Spain to advocate banning bullfighting. Recently, the Spanish province of Catalonia banned bullfighting.)

Pepe Caceres and a bull, tho probably
not the one which killed him. 
Pepe Caceres was perhaps Colombia's most famous bullfighter of all time, and he went the way perhaps a bullfighter should. Born in 1935, Caceres fought into his 50s - long past the time that most others retire. He had announced his retirement for the following year, but agreed to fill in for another bullfighter. The bull gored Caceres, who died a few days later.

Bertha Trujillo, La Morenita
de Quindio, who died last year.
Bullfighting is unquestionably a male-dominated profession. But at least two toreras have left their marks in Colombia. One was Bertha Trujillo, 'La Morenita de Quindio,' who was born in Armenia, Colombia in 1928 and fought her way to prominence in bullfighting's macho world. She nevertheless outlived many of her male peers, dying last year in Cali at age 82.

Juanita Cruz receiving ovations.
You'd never catch Pepe Caceres in a skirt!
But the most famous female bullfighter to perform in Colombia was the Spaniard Juanita Cruz, who retained her femeninity by fighting in a skirt. Cruz began fighting just as Spain's Civil War began, and she threw her support to the communist forces. When Franco won and established his fascist regime, he also prohibited women bullfighters. Because she was a woman bullfighter and an opponent of the regime, Cruz fled to the Americas, where she continued bullfighting. According to one biography I read, Cruz's last bullfight was in Bogotá.

"They needed a civil war to defeat me," Cruz commented.

Colombia's best known active bullfighter is Luis Bolivar, who has fought in Spain. Can a bullfighter hope for much of a future in this day and age?

Just a hobby? Young aspiring bullfighters practicing their moves the other day in the Plaza de Toros Santamaria. 

A bullfighting protester outside the plaza. They are planning an anti-bullfighting march for June 25th. 

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A Bullfighter's Philosophy

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours

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