martes, 1 de diciembre de 2009

It's That Time of Year Again!


November just left us, and do you know what that means? Bullfight season! In Mexico, the bullfight season runs from November to February or March. We've taken full advantage of this season the past two weeks, as Saltillo just hosted two excellent lineups of bullfighters, among them--EL JULI! I had to go.

Now, I have been fascinated by El Juli ever since I lived in New Mexico, eight years ago, and my housemate Ryan, hung a bullfight poster from Spain advertising El Juli in our breakfast nook. El Juli is the Michael Jordan of bullfighting. Knowing his reputation, I was expecting someone older. However, seeing him live and in person this weekend, I said to Mario, "wow--he looks really young!"

To which Mario responded, "He is. He's only 24 at most."

Woah. 24 and he's been wicked famous for YEARS? Amazing. Bullfighters can start their professional careers at the ripe old age of 16, and apparently El Juli has been famous since he began.

In US culture, bullfights have the reputation of being barbaric. To the untrained eye that doesn't understand what's going on and what constitutes a good bullfight, sure, it can appear to be public animal cruelty. But it's not. (Or, at least, should not be.) In order to appreciate a bullfight, sit with someone who understands it. Fortunately for me, Mario does.

In essence, the bullfight is all about showing off the bull and what a fine specimen of animal it should be. I say should be because sometimes the bulls used don't have much power, or aren't fast, or their knees buckle under them, or they get jumpy. What sets a good bullfighter apart from a mediocre one is how well he shows off the strengths of the bull. While bulls aren't wild animals, they also aren't trained pets, so getting a bull to do what you want it to do, is a bit of work, especially considering that all bulls have different temperaments, strengths, and weaknesses. The bullfighter has all of 30 seconds to figure this out before he's expected to impress the cheering (or jeering) crowd with this animal.

For my first few bullfights, I had to steel myself every time the bull entered the ring, chanting to myself, "the bull will die, the bull will die, the bull will die." Once I accepted the fact that the end was very near for this beautiful creature before me, I could appreciate the bullfight for what it is. Let's face it: bulls are not wild animals meant to live out their natural lives in peace and dying at a ripe old age. Bulls of this type have been domesticated for thousands of years, so long that they no longer come close to resembling their wild brethren. The entire reason they exist is to feed humans. It's not a pretty fact, but true. And the vast, vast majority of bulls and cows die a grisly death in the slaughterhouse. In fact, many bulls live all or much of their lives in squalid conditions in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). However, the life of a bull raised for bullfighting is every animal's dream--running around on pasture, eating grass, left alone by humans for most of the time. [Note: a bullfighting bull is not supposed to have any contact with a human on two legs until they enter the bullring. All their previous contact with people is with people mounted on horses.] In the bullring, the bull's death is meant to be a quick (and therefore as painless) as possible. Isn't this much more humane than slaughterhouses and CAFOs? Let's face it, livestock do not die natural deaths.

The crowd at the bullring wants both the bullfighter and the bull to do well. In a way, it's rather like 4H showmanship. However, the bullfighter has to woo the crowd as well as the judge. Therefore, he gets his animal to turn in circles, taking care to show off the animal's best side and hide any flaws. As a potentially dangerous and unpredictable animal, the closer the bullfighter gets to the bull, or the bull's horns, without getting gored, the more excited the crowd gets. A good bullfighter knows how long to play with the bull. After too long, the bull gets tired and the crowd gets bored. However, if the bullfighter doesn't show off the bull long enough and kills it before it's worn out, the crowd sees it as a waste of a good bull and will stir itself up against the bullfighter. Therefore a good bullfighter needs to read both the bull and the crowd well.

And then, of course, he needs to kill the bull quickly at the end, which is easier said than done when only armed with a sword that needs to be stuck in the bull's neck, over the horns. Last weekend, one of the bullfighters seemed good, up until he tried to kill the bull. Nobody wants to see the bull suffer. So that bullfighter lost his audience.

This is why bullfighting is really more art than a sport. Because more often than not, either the bull or the bullfighter lack something, be it sturdy feet or strength on the part of the bull, or good timing or the ability to kill the bull on the part of the bullfighter. Most of the time, the crowd is left a bit disappointed. But every once in awhile, both the bull and the bullfighter are excellent, moving together in a dance, as if they can communicate clearly with each other. It's a magnificent sight to watch. The hope of seeing this dance is what keeps us coming back, despite all odds of being disappointed.

The last two weekends, those hopes were richly rewarded.