Colombia, like most parts of South and Central America retains many of the cultural traditions brought by the Spanish Conquistadors. Bullfighting is still considered an exciting and entertaining aspect of a cityís annual fair. The bullfighters often come from around the world to perform on the circuit throughout the country. Here is my account of bullfights I attended in Armenia on January 24, 1999, October 27, 2001 and January 27, 2002.
The bullring was perfectly round and not too big so everyone had a great view. The crowd came all dressed in ponchos and sombreros (white small rimmed hats with a black or white ribbon wrapped around). Lots of alcohol was for sale including bottles of wine with a picture of a woman in fancy Spanish clothing and a bull. In the centre of the stadium was a round ring of sand with two concentric circles (to warn the bull fighters of the proximity of the boards?). The ring was surrounded by brightly red painted boards with four or five wooden barriers along the edge behind which the bullfighters can hide. A military band playing typical Spanish bullfighting music and the "Feria de Manizales" paraded around the ring at the opening while beautiful women dressed in elegant Spanish dresses danced gracefully, their hands twisting over their heads. The matadores (matar means to kill) and all their helpers came out in fancy bright red or blue costumes with gold trim and wearing two-edged caps.
The bulls ranged in size from 448 kg (985 lbs) to 445 kg (1200 lbs) and were just huge, muscular black beasts. Supposedly the tips of the bullís horns are cut so it feels air pass down them when swept under the cape. This makes them mad. They are a specially bred race (some are purer blood than others) and are trained from very young to fight. They came running out really mad and ran at almost anything. The picadores (the matadoresí helpers) would attract their attention with their bright pink capotes (capes) and the bull would pass neatly by. It seemed kind of unfair, all those people working on one bull but it very soon became evident how dangerous these animals really were. The bull took a few big chunks out of the wooden barrier that the men hide behind.
First the picadores tire the bull by getting him to run at their capes. Two big sturdy blindfolded horses covered in plastic armour then come out ridden by men wearing armour and round gold hats. The bull eventually goes for the horse, and his rider spears the bull in the back with a long, sharp lance. The horse, while protected, gets the worst of it. Sometimes the bull actually knocks over the horse and the picador is trapped beneath. Score one for the bull! The poor horses must get pretty freaked out. Sometimes the bull manages to get its horns under the protective padding of the picador's horse. The bull knows what it is doing. It tries to get right under the horse and flip it. In one case the bull flipped the horse and then went on to flip the second horse twice. The strength of these animals is really awesome. Some even pawed the ground before charging, just like in the cartoons. One of the horses was mildly hurt on the leg from the force although not cut. According to Hemingway, in Spain the picador horses don't wear padding and are allowed to be killed at least they were in his time.
Once the horses leave, either the matador or the picadores place the banderillas. All is under the command of the matador and he decides who does what and when. The banderillas are spiked daggers with a cotton-like coloured part about two feet long. Six are placed, two at a time. The matador holds one in each hand (without having a cape or the aid of the picadores) and runs diagonally in front of the bull. He jumps and reaches over the bullís head to stick the banderillas into the back of his neck. He then has to run away from the angry bull! The picadores distract the bull but usually once it feels the two banderillas it stops running and tries to knock them off.
The matador then takes over. He comes out with a red cape; this time supported by a piece of wood and a thin sword. He then lets the bull pass back and forth until the bull is tired. As the bull tires, it foams at the mouth, breaths heavily, bleeds from itís back and of course stops running as hard. It is here that the matador shows his bravery and style by touching the bull or turning his back on the bull. When the matador is ready to kill the bull he switches the sword for a sharper and slightly downward curved one. Before switching to the red cape, the matador takes off his cap and throws it into the air. I think the way it lands has some special significance. He stands directly in front of the bull with the cape in one hand pointed to the ground in front of him. The sword is held high above his head in the other hand and pointed at the bull. He then wiggles the cape, the bull moves forward and the matador plunges the sword deep into the neck of the bull. Ideally it goes in straight and deep and into the bullís heart. The bull usually then dies but sometimes walks a few steps, sags and dies. To insure heís dead a picador jams a dagger into the back of his head once he has fallen. The bull goes tense and then dies.
The rejoneador is a matador (not picador) who, instead of confronting the bull on foot, rides a horse. The horses are fast, nimble and high spirited. Basically the bull chases the horse as the rejoneador, twisting in his saddle, places the banderillas. Some are two feet long but others are only about six inches long so the bull gets very close to the horse while he is placing them. These horses are not blindfolded like the picador horses and occasionally get scared. Once the bull actually caught the horse but they got away before any damage was done. The horse was then too skittish and had to be changed. Another horse was too fast so the rejoneador had to switch mounts. He switched every little while anyway to insure his mount was always fresh. While placing two banderillas at a time the rejoneador must ride with both hands free and leaning over as his horse runs tight circles around the ring. It is a miracle he is not thrown as the horse dances in and out of reach of the bull's horns. Several times the horse just faced the bull, jumping on way and then the other to dodge its charge.
This afternoon (January 24, 1999) there were three matadores and each faced two bulls (six in all). The first guy was pretty bad. His style was boring and he didnít place either the banderillas or the sword well. The second matador was better. He was more graceful and more interesting but didnít place the sword well and had to try again. The best matador of the afternoon was a sixteen year old from Portugal. He would pass the bull on his knees, stand along the barrier and he even touched the bullís head. Juli, the 16 year old, did very well. On his first bull he placed the sword perfectly. On the second he misplaced the first time but placed the second well. The bull however managed to catch Juli after he placed the sword. I donít think he was gored but probably just knocked down. Juli stayed completely still so as not the enrage the bull further. The bull was distracted and immediately people ran to Juli from all directions. He was lifted up and about to be carried off when he shrugged it off, got to his feet and went over to where the bull was still standing. Often when the bull is still standing after being speared, two picadores make the bull turn one way and then the next until he drops from dizziness. This time however, when Juli arrived the bull just dropped.
If a bullfighter does a really good job, he is rewarded at the end of the fight with one of the bullís ears. For an outstanding performance, he gets two ears. I think under very special conditions they are awarded a tail. Last week eight ears were awarded (from six bulls). Today, Juli got three. The crowed waves their ponchos over their heads to call for the awarding of an ear, although it is the judge who makes the final decision.
One of the matadors was a young man from France, a boy actually (January 27, 2002). His voice was high and young and could be heard over the shouts of the crowd yelling at the bull. But it was the Colombian matador who put on the best show. On his first bull he was caught on the lower leg and thrown to the ground. He rolled and rolled and rolled as the picadors ran out to divert the bull. Five men lifted him off the ground but he insisted on continuing limping over to pick up his cape and going on to earn one ear. On his second bull he was magnificent. Despite being caught twice more and once thrown clear in the air, he made up for it with his passes, kneeling, back to the bull's head, not more than a metre away. His cape work was elegant and beautiful. When the time came to kill the bull he lifted his sword but crowd yelled in protest. He continued his passes and then attempted to kill the bull again but to protests and shouts of "indultalo!". Occasionally, when a bull demonstrates great courage and vigour, it is indultado, or allowed to live. It is then used as stud (ie. mucho sexo). Only about one in a hundred bulls are granted this privilege. He looked at the judge and finally was granted one of the highest honours; the bull was indultado or pardoned and allowed to live. As it was such a fine bull it was spared and would be sent to stud. The bull would never fight again because although a bull may seem dumb chasing a red cape around for half an hour, they learn and can never be sent back into the ring . The matador symbolically killed the bull, or descabellar (beheaded) by going through the motions of spearing. He discarded his sword and facing the bull, dove over the horns touching the bull's back with his hand. This was a great honour for the matador as well as for the breeder who came out for a round of the ring. The matador was awarded two ears for his work albeit cut from a previous bull.
Although it may initially appear
to be a barbaric tradition left over from the Roman Empire, there is a definite
grace, style and art form to bullfighting. It is much more than simply a sensationalist
event and although the bull inevitably dies, it does take great skill and
courage to be a bullfighter. I now
have a great desire to see a bullfight in Spain from where it originated.