Posted by: joha5 | July 30, 2010

Bullfighting, the NFL, and a European Pilgrimage

In the summer of 2000, only a couple of days after I graduated from high school, I flew to Spain so I could do a pilgrimage.  The physical aim of the pilgrimage was to start in the south of France in a small city named Pau, walk over and through the Pyrenees mountain range that splits mainland Europe from the Iberian peninsula, and make it more than halfway across the northern portion of Spain to a city named Burgos.  The spiritual aim of the trip was to gain a newer and different perspective on the world, to have carthartically cleanse my system of the stress and pressure that had built up in me over the previous few years, and to experience something new and exciting before entering the next phase of my life.

On this trip I was stripped down to the absolute bare essentials.  I had a backpack, I had a journal that I would write in, a water bottle, and a camera.  That was it.  I never knew where I was going to get food from or where I would rest my head after a long day of walking.  All I knew is my destination.  It would be easy for me to sit here and regale you with humorous stories of transformation.  But I won’t.  The reason I am even mentioning this part of my life at all is because I saw something in the news that made me think of Spain.  Bullfighting.

Impressive or Unjust?

In Spain, they call bullfighting la fiesta, the festival, the celebration, but the party is over now in the region of Catalonia. The local parliament voted yesterday to ban bullfighting.  I saw my first bullfight in a city called Logroño and it fundamentally changed the way that I viewed cross-cultural references.  A bullfight is not just a bullfight.  A bullfight is a veritable celebration.  A bullfight is an event where the local community comes together.  They killed 6 bulls on the day that I witnessed this event.  At first it was beautiful – the ceremonies, the uniforms, the cultural history – and I was thrilled beyond belief to behold such an event that few Americans ever get to witness (or stomach). 

Then the bull came out.  The bull charged the picadors and the matadors and they swiftly maneuvered away from the animal.  The bull charged again followed by another flashy demonstration of skill by the matador.  Then the matador pull out a vara (lance) from his sheath on his waist.  As the bull charged again, the matador deftly struck the animal behind the neck with it leading to the bull’s first loss of blood.  The vara was brightly decorated on the end and would hook under the animal’s flesh and would dance on its back as it became more enraged.  The crowd cheered.  Jon winced. 

This tradition carried on for about 5 minutes with the matador continually striking the bull.  The bull slowly weakened and began to stumble as it galloped around the ring.  I distinctly remember being able to hear the varas pierce through the animals flesh as the ring became more and more quiet as the animal neared its death.  Finally, the beast stood still.  Bleeding and panting it was clear the bull had given up.  Then with one fell swoop the matador delivered one final blow through the animal’s shoulder blades piercing its heart.  The bull collapsed.  It was dead.  The crowd cheered wildly as the bull was dragged off by two horses in full regalia.  The matador took a bow.  His job was done. 

What in the world did I just witness?!

I was literally in shock.  I mean, I was pleased to have seen such a spectacle that many people never get the chance to see but I was stunned at the brutality and the gruesomeness of the act.  I knew what I was getting myself into when I entered the stadium but I did not know just how grotesque I would find it.  The next matador came out and the act repeated…again…and again…and again.  I witnessed 6 matadors ceremoniously extinguish the life of 6 separate bulls.  As I was leaving the venue, a young man with dark brown hair and deep hazel eyes man overheard me speaking and noticed that I had an American accent.  He came over to me and asked me if it was the first bullfight I had been to.  Bewildered, I answered him.

“Ummm…yeah,” I replied.  “It was one of the most shocking things I have ever seen”

The man chuckled.  “You like you have just seen a ghost!”

“I feel like I have,” I said.

“Well, it is no worse than your American football.”

Now it was my turn to chuckle.  “Yeah, right.  Football is so much worse than witnessing the needless slaughter of 6 animals.”

The man laughed again and he began to explain to me the traditions of the bullfight in Logroño and around Spain.  hesitantly, I listened to his explanation of what I had just witnessed.  He explained how the bulls would be slaughtered anyway and that the bullfight was a festival and a celebration of life and of culture.  He explained to me that if I had grown up with this as a part of my culture that I wouldn’t not find it so abhorrent and disgusting.  He also explained to me how he finds American football just as gruesome to watch as I did bullfighting.

“You say that bullfighting is awful and that these bulls do not deserve to die yet you have grown men who throw themselves at each other head first.  They break their limbs.  They gain weight in order to become gargantuans on the field but what good does it do them when they are finished playing their sport?  What good does it do them when they become injured?  Men who have played football have been paralyzed.  This is brutal and gruesome.  Bullfighting is nothing like that.”

Impressive or Unjust?

If I am totally honest, I disagreed with him completely and we left amicably but still in disagreement with each other.  However, he had made his point and it stuck with me.  To me, the bullfight was brutal and barbaric but to him it was life.  To him, football was brutal and barbaric but to me it was life.  Our different cultures had given us different and separate values to behold in our daily lives and collectively as a community or nation.  While I did not agree with him about the brutality of football or bullfighting, he illustrated to me that I was not universally right just because I believe in something that I perceive to be as universal.  In the end, I was no more right than he was.  Conversely, he was no more right than I was either.  I just appreciated that he had exposed himself to part of my culture and I like to think that he appreciated me doing the same with his.

As far as this new legislation against bullfighting goes, I can’t particularly say that I am sad to see it go in such a major region of Spain.  What it tells me is that the Catalan culture has shifted away from bullfighting and that it is becoming more and more of an antiquated celebration with the passing of older generations and the dawn of new ones.  Progress – whether we like it or not – cannot be stopped and in Catalonia, this is what is going on.  Times change, cultures change, values change.  I would not be who I am today if it wasn’t for the way culture defines us and allows us to travel down different avenues of opportunity.  For that, I am grateful.  Yet, the lesson of the bullfight – whether it is banned or not – will always remain a metaphor to me when comparing myself to other people and other cultures.  The world is a much larger place than what goes on in my head and while I don’t have to like everything that goes on in the world – or even around me – it is important to realize that we often learn more from listening, from empathy, and from communicating than we do by restricting our frame of mind to what we ‘know’ is right and wrong. 

It is amazing to think of the lessons that I learned that day.  The best part was is that we were in complete disagreement with each other.  yet by listening, opening our minds, and embracing the other’s thought process, I was able to learn one of the more valued lessons that I have ever learned in my life.  And for that, Spanish-man-I- knew-for-5 minutes, I am eternally grateful.



  1. […] post by joha5 var addthis_language = 'en'; Filed under Uncategorized Libraries Top Sports and […]

  2. Miracles large and small…

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