Kneeling in the middle of the ring, the Catalan matador Serafín Marín crouches to kiss the sand where he has just fought what is to be the last bullfight in the history of his region. The 18,000 people that crowd Barcelona’s Plaza de Toros Monumental chant “freedom, freedom” in protest against the bullfighting ban recently passed by the Catalan parliament.
El torero, or the bullfighter, who only minutes beforehand has faced death with grace and fearlessness, covers his face and begins to cry. He is the triumphant hero of a collective failure. Outside the ring, police try to mediate the heated confrontation between animal activists and bullfighting fans. For one side, an atrocity has finally been abolished. For the other, an art form.
“Bullfighting is the only art in which everything is true,” says Salvador Boix, a musician and the manager of José Tomás, one of the best toreros of all time and a main attraction at the final corrida de toros. “In a world in which truth is denied to us, bullfighting is an act of purification. The matador confronting the bull mirrors our own human condition, our own struggle for survival not only through courage and skills but also through art. A bullfight is like a tragedy.”
For Francisco Leal, president of the Party Against Cruelty and Mistreatment to Animals, the only tragedy is that suffered by the bull: “The bulls have a right not to be tortured. If our ancestors fought against slavery or for women’s suffrage, then we defend the right to humane treatment for all animals.”
Although a respected cause, the ideals of animal protection are perhaps not the principal reason behind the prohibition. The ban has been, above all, a defense of cultural identity. Catalan nationalists view the toreo as a symbol of Spanish culture imposed upon them by Franco’s fascist regime. The veto does not extend to correbous, a Catalan tradition similar to San Fermines in which lit flares are attached to the running bulls’ horns, causing them strong stress and fear.
“We have been victims of the hypocrisy and cynicism of those who want to wipe anything bothersome off the map,” comments Albert Rivera, president of Ciutadans, the Party of the Citizenry, who opposes the ban. Though not an aficionado, in Parliament he has defended the right to freely enjoy a spectacle that “although indefensible from a rational point of view, should be preserved for its aesthetic and ancestral value.”
What holds true is that the final sword thrust at the Monumental is the close to a chapter in history that, although precipitated for political reasons, would have arrived sooner or later due to social indifference. In a 2008 poll, only 22.5 percent of Catalans surveyed responded that they were interested in toreo. Though Barcelona had been the only Spanish city with as many as three plazas de toros, it has long ceased to play an important role in Spain’s bullfighting scene. In the ‘30s, as many as 50 spectacles were staged in the Catalan capital each year, but by 2011 not even ten corridas took place, and almost always to a half-empty stadium. Soccer, movies, and videogames have become more compelling pastimes for the newer generations.
That is not the case for Alejandro de Benito, however, a 19-year-old apprentice matador who, since childhood, has dreamed of becoming a torero. While his friends were hooked on Play Station, a young de Benito stood in front of the mirror imitating his idols, the mythical matadors Finito de Córdoba and José María Manzanares. In place of a cape he used a towel. And instead of a bull, his German shepherd.
“Nowadays there are many ways to entertain yourself, but nothing is as authentic as toreo. In soccer you can win by deceiving the referee, but in lidia—the art of bullfighting—there is just you and the bull.” Though his affinity for the art has little to do with the concerns of the majority of boys his age, there is one thing he shares with them all: “All of my bravery vanishes when I talk to a girl.”
De Benito has the same calm, clear and humble look in his eyes as Juan Mora, the third matador of the afternoon. In Mora’s hotel room, only a half hour before entering the Barcelona bullring for the last time, he is dressed by his son in the suit of lights, the traditional bullfighter’s uniform, which has remained essentially the same for the last 200 years. His son, with a side part and loafers reminiscent of Spanish movies from the ‘50s, lights two candles and places them in front of an improvized altar decorated with holy cards. The matador, already donning his manoletinas, shoes named after the most legendary bullfighter of the 20th century, Manolete, slips into his jacket and stares at himself in the mirror.
In this moment a phrase from Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon comes to mind: “Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death.” Eighteen thousand people await Juan Mora. They don’t expect perfection of him, only that he do the best he can, and that he pursue immortality through beauty and bravery, by coming as close as possible to death.
Dudalegre, the last of six bulls to be slaughtered in the ring that afternoon, is a negro mulatto bull of 1,250 pounds who bears the burden of history. As he falls his death is the end of the fiesta itself. With the stands empty, the lights go out forever at the Monumental.