How quickly we can accurately judge a foreign country’s national pastime depends largely on our own familiarity with it. For example, because of our familiarity with soccer, most Americans have quickly judged the sport and either love it or hate it. But when an event is so different from one’s frame of reference, making a judgment that’s both quick and accurate isn’t so easy, and because of these judgments, there’s hardly a foreign pastime more maligned than the Spanish bullfight.
Many see the corrida de toros, or Spanish bull ring, as a barbaric callback to the days of ancient Rome, where man faced off against animals in a fight to the death, and in many ways, this is true. The bullfight traces its roots as far
back as the 8th century, where nobles on horseback would fight bulls for sport. However, to say the fight itself is cruel would ignore both Spain’s history and the care and conditions used when raising the animals.
Spanish bulls are raised for the bullring similarly to how racehorses are bred in the United States: born to be in peak physical condition and provided great care, ample space and a healthy diet. Essentially, bulls in Spain are raised in conditions far better than they would otherwise see in the United States.
Because the bulls are raised in such pleasant conditions, the only problematic aspect of the bullfight is the fight itself. The bull is killed in every fight, without exception. Critics ask, “How could any decent, modern society so shamelessly glorify death?” The answer, of course, lies in Spanish culture.
When I was studying abroad, I had the experience of watching a bullfight in person, and I talked to a few spectators who were willing to help out an American college student who knew next to nothing of the Spanish language. From what I gathered, the bullfight is a metaphor for our own lives. However, rather than being represented by the matador, we are represented by the bull.
One particular person I talked to, named Cesare, gave a vivid explanation of the fight’s symbolism: “the bull is like
us because we have opportunity in life… We all eventually die, so are we going to do something… impactful before that happens, or are we going to do nothing and be forgotten? For the bull, it is an honor to fight for your life.”
The crowd’s respect for the bull is evident in how they treat the event. Breeders who raise strong bulls are respected. Matadors are cheered when they kill the bull as cleanly and painlessly as possible, and they are conversely booed by their audience if they put the animal in prolonged, unnecessary pain. The audience isn’t looking for bloodshed
for bloodshed’s sake; it’s clear that most people attend for the form, the tradition and the fight’s message.
Though many circles of American culture look down on killing an animal for sport, we think that way because of
how our culture was built. By the same token, much of Spain sees the bull’s death as an honor, rather than a tragedy, precisely because of how their own culture has formed. It’s easy to make a rash judgment about something we aren’t familiar with, but if we are going to criticize the bullfight, it is important to look at it through its own cultural context.