Bullfighting: Art, Culture, Drama, Death

I attended my first bullfight in Bogota in 2012 — it was my bachelor party actually. I had a good enough time, but I didn’t really know what I was watching.

Before attending my second bullfight, this time in Lima, I read Ernest Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon.” It taught me more about the bullfights than what I knew from skimming the Wikipedia page before the corrida in Bogota. Learning about the corridas (“fight” is a misnomer) enhanced the experience. It helped me feel the emotions the “toreros” look to inspire. It was high drama on a Sunday afternoon in Rimac, Lima, and I wasn’t even drinking.

Not only did I educate myself for this show, I also attended what turned out to be an extraordinary show on bullfighting standards. From my write-up on Peru Reports:

Peru bullfighting rests hopes on young matador

andres roca rey

Peru’s bullfighting fans watched Andres Roca Rey win the Escapulario de Oro award for the 2015 season yesterday in Lima’s Plaza de Acho.

The 19-year-old cut four ears from two bulls and was carried from the bullring on fans’ shoulders after his impressive debut in Lima as a matador.

Roca won the crowd over with impressive performances following a disastrous show in Mexico last week in which he was gored in the mouth. The fans of Lima eagerly watched whether he would avoid risks or fight cautiously after losing three teeth two weeks prior. But if anything, Roca showed even more bravery in his hometown debut, executing passes on his knees and nearly being tossed twice.

“I must have the race of the Peruvian, of the fighting cock,” Roca said. “It’s nice to have people trust in you, and at the same time you know that they trust you because things have gone well.”

For a pedestrian description of the elements of bullfight, see Plaza de Acho: bullfighting in Lima. Or see the pictures in the Bullfighting in Lima album on the Lima City of Kings Facebook page.

The rest of this article is a primer on bullfights with selected passages from Hemingway.


The first point to understand is that bullfighting is not a “sport.”

The bullfight is not a sport in the Anglo-Saxon sense of the word, that is, it is not an equal contest or an attempt at an equal contest between a bull and a man. Rather it is a tragedy; the death of the bull, which is played, more or less well, by the bull and the man involved and in which there is danger for the man but certain death for the animal.

The formal bullfight is a tragedy, not a sport, and the bull is certain to be killed. If the matador cannot kill him and, at the end of the allotted fifteen minutes for the preparation and killing, the bull is led and herded out of the ring alive by steers to dishonor the killer, he must, by law, be killed in the corrals.

Bullfighting is a performing art like ballet or circus acrobatics. It’s the old Hispanic version of professional wrestling. Think of it like that.

So why is bullfighting an “art?”

Most definitions of “art” contain verbiage about the use of technical skill to evoke emotions. Bullfights are not an arrogant or juvenile display of torturing an animal to death.

The matador and other toreros evoke emotion by subjecting themselves to death. Death is a central character in the bullfight, and its importance inspired Hemingway’s title.

The bulls weigh a half ton. They are not bulls from a cattle ranch, but special bulls which have lived on free ranges without any contact with man or cow. They are a distinct race, bred for aggression and strength. They are genetically engineered, ferocious beasts looking to kill anyone in the ring with them.

The toreros demonstrate their control over the bulls, and hence humans over beasts, and evoke emotion in showing how close they come to death. A gringo may see a matador come close to being tossed and think he isn’t a good bullfighter. On the contrary, he is showing bravery by taking risks for the sake of a good show. The crowd goes wild with anxiety, pleading with him to be safe.


[O]ne of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental is violent death. It has none of the complications of death by disease, or so-called natural death, or the death of a friend or some one you have loved or have hated, but it is death nevertheless, one of the subjects that a man may write of. I had read many books in which, when the author tried to convey it, he only produced a blur, and I decided that this was because either the author had never seen it clearly or at the moment of it, he had physically or mentally shut his eyes, as one might do if he saw a child that he could not possibly reach or aid, about to be struck by a train…

We [gringos], in games, are not fascinated by death, its nearness and its avoidance. We are fascinated by victory and we replace the avoidance of death by the avoidance of defeat. It is a very nice symbolism but it takes more cojones to be a sportsman when death is a closer party to the game…

Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honor. In Spain honor is a very real thing. Called pundonor, it means honor, probity, courage, self-respect and pride in one word. Pride is the strongest characteristic of the race and it is a matter of pundonor not to show cowardice.

The wild bull is the embodiment of death. It is a half ton of muscle with sharp horns on its head.

The fighting bull is to the domestic bull as the wolf is to the dog. A domestic bull may be evil tempered and vicious as a dog may be mean and dangerous, but he will never have the speed, the quality of muscle and sinew and the peculiar build of the fighting bull any more than the dog will have the sinews of the wolf, his cunning and his width of jaw. Bulls for the ring are wild animals…

A really brave fighting bull is afraid of nothing on earth and in various towns in Spain in special and barbarous exhibitions a bull has charged an elephant repeatedly; bulls have killed both lions and tigers, charging these animals as blithely as they go for the picadors. A true fighting bull fears nothing and, to me, is the finest of all animals to watch in action and repose. From a standing start a fighting bull will outrun a horse for twenty-five yards although a horse will beat him in fifty yards. The bull can turn on his feet almost as a cat does, he can turn much quicker than a polo pony, and at four years he has the strength in his neck and shoulder muscles to lift a horse and rider and throw them over his back.


Toreros showing irreverence for this machine of death with an arrogant Spanish pride wearing tights and slippers and flicking their hair while they wave to the crowd. My first article on bullfighting after seeing the corrida in Bogota was embarrassingly misinformed. Instead of athletic feats, I should have been looking for the nerve of the toreros.

Imagine what it takes to keep your feet together and your body still as the bull’s horns pass by just inches away. Imagine passing the bull behind your back, or on your knees. I saw Andres Roca Rey do all those things. Imagine the bravery it takes to be lifted twice and continue passing the bull. Other spectators around me were yelling “Matalo, matalo” because they don’t want anything to happen to him. He had nothing left to prove. But he continues passing him. He’s too brave.

Roca Rey won the Escapulario de Oro for the bull in the video below. Watch him stand balls first in front of the horns as the bull dies, but it’s not clear the bull doesn’t have the strength to get up and rip Roca’s 19-year-old sac out from under him. Nerves of steel.

For more videos, see:


Bullfighting in various forms has been around for at least 1,000 years. Spanish-style bullfighting, what you see in the corridas, is almost 300 years old. That’s more heritage than soccer and baseball combined.

Some of the comments on my first bullfighting article, almost entirely from people who don’t read the blog but their ears perked up when they saw an article about animals being killed, specifically say it’s not culture, but cruelty.

The bullfighters disagree. They point out that this race of bulls would go extinct if it weren’t for bullfighting. The race only survives for the ring. They are too fierce for raising cattle.

Here’s Hemingway:

People may possibly be divided into two general groups; those who, to use one of the terms of the jargon of psychology, identify themselves with, that is, place themselves in the position of, animals, and those who identify themselves with human beings. I believe, after experience and observation, that those people who identify themselves with animals, that is, the almost professional lovers of dogs, and other beasts, are capable of greater cruelty to human beings than those who do not identify themselves readily with animals.

I am definitely on the humanist side of the fence. But even for the animalists, I’d give a Peruvian or Latino a pass for trying to change their own society. But what do the gringos think they’re doing in trying to tell Latin America how to live?

It’s easy to point and condemn right-wing efforts to change backwards societies. But if you are trying to tell Hispanic cultures to end bullfighting, how are you any different than George W Bush trying to impose democracy in Iraq?

But it’s nothing new that bullfighting is controversial. It was controversial when Hemingway published his book in 1932. I’ll let him close.

The bullfight is a Spanish institution; it has not existed because of the foreigners and tourists, but always in spite of them and any step to modify it to secure their approval, which it will never have, is a step toward its complete suppression.

It would be pleasant of course for those who do like it if those who do not would not feel that they had to go to war against it or give money to try to suppress it, since it offends them or does not please them, but that is too much to expect and anything capable of arousing passion in its favor will surely raise as much passion against it.

The website for gringos into bullfighting seems to be Aficionados International. See their Facebook page.


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