It’s pretty obvious, right? The event is designed in such a way that it’s meant to look as if there’s a risk of the bull winning. But those chances are significantly challenged by a system designed to enrage, distract, control, hurt and wear down the animal.
It’s obvious, yes, but these are the days of explaining the obvious, again and again. Even when you know it’s a controlled space, you still feel a certain anguish for the skinny guy in the funny suit who’s about to become roadkill. It’s a show for the crowd.
Take your regular bullfight. The bull is released to the arena, and an army of strangely clothed folks take different roles to control the outcome.
Apart from the matador, a typical bullfight has two picadores on horseback who spear the bull; three banderilleros stick flags on its back; and a mozo de espada, who’s pretty much the bullfighter’s squire. Some cuadrillas have more, like clowns to distract the beast.
And then there’s the arena itself, with its barriers and trap doors. There’s loud music and pasodobles. And the crowd participates chanting orders, singing and binging on sangría. There’s adrenaline. It’s exhilarating, exciting.
It’s carnage, and we love it.
Hemingway once wrote that for a country to love bullfighting “the people must have an interest in death.” That may explain a lot about Venezuela’s deep connections to “corridas”. We used to have one of the most important arenas for bullfighters: Valencia’s Plaza Monumental is the second biggest bullring in the world. Many generations of Cordobeses have delighted crowds in the Feria del Sol in Mérida, and their legendary parties have been recorded in the collective memory of that Venezuelan party town.
There are brief moments of glory, like that one time a National Guard almost got impaled by a horn.
César Girón is considered one of the great Venezuelan matadors of the 20th century, and he was a Maracay native. The bullring named after him is a beautiful structure designed by Carlos Raúl Villanueva, now in severe disrepair and invaded by squatters.
Corridas are part of the cultural heritage in Venezuela, but the spectacle cherished by so many is not what you’d see today, for instance, if you visit Maracay.
Bullfights in Maracay now take place in a rusty makeshift bullring set up next to the Military Club, in the middle of a breathtaking landscape with gaudy restaurants built for the olive green elite and its perezjimenista architecture. The tickets are not cheap, and the arena, although very small, isn’t usually full. An improvised, impoverished version of an old tradition that refuses to die.
Unless you get a chance to see someone like Erick Cortez, these days the local talent doesn’t offer much. Cortez is an experienced and well-known Venezuelan matador who lives abroad and last week travelled to Maracay for a special bullfight in his honor. He’s a charming guy who enjoys the attention. When he stepped on the arena, a meager crowd welcomed him enthusiastically. He acted as if he was in one of the arenas of yonder, surrounded by tens of thousands.
When the bull was released, it was skinnier and smaller than expected. It gave a good fight, though; it charged into the walls protecting the cuadrilla, and chased them energetically. Cortez, a very skillful matador, easily goaded and tired the bull with the help of his assistants, and finally gave it a swift blow for the perfect kill. The animal dropped in the middle of the arena.
The bull’s lifeless body was dragged away from the arena by mules on a carriage, but the mules were too weak and skinny and had to be forced to slowly drag the carcass.
The other bullfighters were not as dexterous as Cortez, and the whole thing became more chaotic and difficult to watch. People cheered asking for an indulto for the strongest bull – a rarely granted pardon of the bull by the corrida chairman or the matador. It’s a saludo a la bandera, the crowd knows the bull won’t be spared. Its death is a given sentence, they go to bullfights to see precisely that.
There was a sad, undignified ending to Cortez’s corrida. The bull’s lifeless body was dragged away from the arena by mules on a carriage, but the mules were too weak and dragged the carcass for an eternity.
Bulls don’t understand the corrida. They’re tired, confused, scared and overwhelmed by everything going on. And even if they understood, their only option is to participate and try as hard as they can to survive. They are trapped. There are brief moments of glory, like that one time a National Guard almost got impaled by a horn. And every once in a while, you’d be able to see a bullfighter being charged by the bull, the handful of cases when a bull wins the match. You may wonder, how does a bull fare when it kills the matador?
Imagine being the bull. Surprisingly easy, isn’t it?
Bullfighting is a controlled spectacle, just like our elections.
HT to Kristoffer Toft for the analogy.