The first and only time I visited Tijuana was for a bullfight. Perhaps one day I’ll return to Tijuana—but I know I’ll never return to a bullfight.
I can’t remember how old I was, but my guess is I was perhaps in my early teens. Growing up in Los Angeles meant that Baja California was a very simple weekend getaway, so my parents and I would often drive south over the border and spend holiday weekends in Ensenada. We usually took it pretty easy while there, spending hours browsing the leather goods shops aimed toward tourists or finding new places to eat. But that year, we decided to take a day trip to Tijuana to attend a big event that included lots of food, music, and a bullfight.
I admit I was excited. I had never been to a bullfight before; I’d never even watched one in a movie or on television. My idea of bullfights came from funny old cartoons, like ones with Bugs Bunny as a matador, and was influenced by the glittery, romanticized costumes worn by bullfighters, who seemed to me at the time so incredibly elegant and graceful. And I was eager to see what would happen. I was eager for the fight, for the battle between man and beast that I’d been promised. What I saw, instead, shattered me.
There was no fight. There was only torture.
As we sat in the packed arena, the first bull of the afternoon wandered into the ring, so casually and, like me, so unaware of what was going to happen to him. He meandered the perimeter, taking in the sights and sounds of the crowd. He was massive and strong, but so much more calm than I’d ever thought a bull would be. He reminded me of the peaceful, flower-loving bull Ferdinand, from one of my favorite childhood books, The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.
And then the picadors entered the bullring.
Picadors are bullfighters mounted on horseback, and their job is to kick off the event by circling the bull from the relative safety of their horses and jabbing at the animal with their lances. The goal is to stab the bull in the large muscle at the top of the bull’s neck—a muscle that aids him in lifting his head.
That first bull in Tijuana wanted no part in this spectacle. The picadors circled him and stabbed, jabbing their spikes into his neck, and the bull jerked backwards, confused. He didn’t charge back at the picadors or their horses. Instead, his body language asked them what they were doing to him, and why. The audience booed. “What a coward that bull is,” grumbled the men and women seated around me.
Each bullfight is divided into thirds, and the first tercio is the domain of the picadors. The second tercio belongs to the banderilleros.
So the picadors retreated and the banderilleros entered the ring next, each carrying a pair of brightly decorated wooden sticks, or banderillas, with barbed ends. They encouraged my timid Tijuana bull to charge, and when he did—only half-heartedly, and still confused—the men took turns stabbing the wooden sticks into his neck and shoulder muscles, already weakened from being continuously stabbed by the picadors. If inserted properly—and these were—the six sticks stay put in the muscle, flopping around as the bull moves and allowing blood to flow out of the animal’s wounds. The goal is to weaken the bull via blood loss, and to continue to damage those muscles so his head droops lower and lower as he loses strength. The banderilleros accomplished their goal that day.
The final tercio belonged to the matador, who walked out holding a cape in one hand and a sword in another. This is where that one-on-one “dance” happens, where the matador and the bull stare each other down and ask the fates who will survive. But still my bull wanted none of this. He had come to the climax of an event that hundreds of people had paid good money to see, and he didn’t know what to do as the matador made a few passes and aimed his sword. This sweet bull was thoroughly exhausted, his head hanging so low, when the matador quickly slid the sword into the bull’s neck, aiming for his heart.
The bull dropped to the ground, and it was over.
He was dead, after what felt like an eternity of torture but was, in reality, probably just twenty minutes or so. A few moments later, I watched as his limp, lifeless body was dragged from the ring, a bright trail of blood following him.
I had been in shock for the whole fight, my mouth open, my eyes hardly believing the viciousness in front of me and my ears unable to comprehend the bloodlust of the crowd around me. Now that it was over, I turned to look at my mom and my eyes quickly filled with tears.
I buried my head against her shoulder and cried. I cried for everything I’d just seen and heard, and for the life of such a majestic animal that had been cut short in such a senseless way. I cried for all the bulls that had come before him, and all the bulls that would come after. I kept crying as the second fight began, and I could only angle my face so it was completely pressed against my mom’s body and so I wouldn’t have to see the horrible spectacle repeat itself.
My mom held me tight, and when a man sitting behind us asked what was wrong, she told him it was our first fight and it was too difficult for me to watch. “Ah, poor child,” he said, sympathetically. “It’s tough the first time, but she’ll get used to it!”
No. I didn’t then, and I never will, and why would I ever want to?
I made it through the second fight crying the whole time into my mom’s blouse, piecing together the action from the shouts and cheers around me. But I couldn’t stay for the third. My mom nudged me toward the aisle and told me I could wait for her and my dad outside of the arena, so I ran. I sprinted up the steps and out of the arena, and sat down near the entrance to wait, my face red and stained with tears.
At one point, as I waited, there was a massive eruption of cheers from inside the arena. When my parents found me after the fight had ended, they told me the third bull had been so valiant and strong that the crowd had begged for his life to be spared—and it was.
If only that first bull had known to play by the rules of a game that he didn’t even know existed. If only he’d realized that being angry and aggressive and violent and murderous could have been the coveted “virtues” that might have spared his life…
I have a notoriously horrible memory, but this trip, some seventeen years ago, has been on my mind lately thanks to my upcoming vacation to Europe.
The final leg of that trip will be in Spain, which is a country I’ve dreamed of going to for so long. As someone with Latin American roots, I’ve always been fascinated by Spain and its culture and its colonizing influence on the countries where my parents were born and raised. So I’m splitting my time in Spain between two cities: Seville and Madrid. So much of what I think of as “Spanish culture” is really Andalusian culture, and I am so excited to just soak up the atmosphere in Seville before heading to a city as cosmopolitan as Madrid.
As I research activities in Seville, however, I most frequently come across suggestions to visit the city’s famed bullfighting ring, the Plaza de Toros. It’s a major tourist attraction in the area, thanks to its history, architecture, museum, and guided tours that make it a popular stop even if there isn’t a bullfight scheduled.
I love history, I love iconic design, and I want to learn as much about Spain as I possibly can in the few days I’ll be there—but I don’t think I’ll be able to bring myself to step foot into the arena, certainly never for a fight but perhaps not even for a visit to the museum.
I am haunted to this day by that trip to Tijuana. I think about it and I see that first bull die again in my memory, and I cry just like I did the first time around. At the very least, I can hold on to the knowledge that bullfights have increasingly fallen out of favor and have been banned in many places around the world—including in Spain’s own Catalonia. But there is still much work to be done.
Many bullfighting advocates argue it’s not a blood sport but a work of performance art—more ballet than battle. But that’s not nearly enough to redeem it, in my eyes. Besides, the arts are my entire life, and my career is in the arts. And this—the spectacle of watching an animal brutalized—can never really be art.
As the popular Spanish anti-bullfighting saying goes, la tortura: ni arte ni cultura. Torture: neither art nor culture.
If you want to learn more about the efforts to put a stop to bullfighting worldwide, visit the dedicated pages on bullfighting at the Humane Society website and the World Animal Protection website. Even beyond bullfighting, it’s been shown that tourism is a major contributor to animal abuse; World Animal Protection also provides information on how you can support animal-friendly tourism.