Life and Death in the Bullring

On July 9, matador Víctor Barrio was fatally gored in the chest, becoming the first Spanish torero to die in the ring since September 1985. Earlier that same year, I had first visited Spain as a high schooler and seen my first bullfight—Spain became my passion, the bullfight became my fascination.

In 1988, I returned to Spain as an exchange student in the burgeoning town of Las Rozas de Madrid. During the weeklong Fiestas de San Miguel (the Festival of Saint Michael), I attended many bullfights and ran with the bulls without incident. My passion and fascination grew.

I returned to Las Rozas in 1993 to visit my surrogate Spanish family, who introduced me to José Luis Ruiz Azañedo, a novillero (novice bullfighter) who fought under the name «Finito de Las Rozas» until his recent retirement from the ring. We became fast friends and remain so to this today despite the fact that my love for the bullfight has now mostly turned to disgust. My love for the Spain, however, remains strong.

In preparation for a book I was writing, I interviewed Finito in 1998, airmailing him a list of questions—“email? what’s email?” You may find one of his answers interesting in the wake of the death of Víctor Barrio. The original Castilian appears first (a little bit of classwork for new students of the beautiful Spanish language), and my English translation follows.

¿Cómo te sientes en el momento de matar un toro?  ¿E inmediatamente después?

Es muy complicado expresar con palabras lo que en ese momento se siente; porque cuando estás toreando existe una comunicación y un acercamiento entre el toro y el torero que es difícil de olvidar sobre todo cuando el toro es bravo y se entrega totalmente a la faena que le hace el torero, en esos momentos a la hora de colocar al toro para morir tienes que mirarle a la cara y sientes entonces el tener que matar a un toro que te ha ayudado colaborando estrechamente para el triunfo del torero, a lo largo de toda la faena.

Dependiendo de como haya sido el toro, los sentimientos del torero fluctúan entre la satisfacción de ver morir a un toro que ha luchado noblemente en la faena, la rabia si el toro no era lo que se esperaba y, en algunos casos la alegría de haberlo matado si no ha sido un buen toro para poder pensar en los siguientes.

(How do you feel at the moment of killing a bull? And immediately afterwards?

It’s very complicated to express in words what one feels in that moment because when you are fighting there exist a communication and a relationship between the bull and the torero that are difficult to forget, particularly when the bull is brave and it gives itself totally to the torero’s faena [final series of passes made with the red cape], in those moments when in comes to positioning the bull in order to kill it, you have to look it in the eyes, and you feel the need to kill a bull that has helped you, closely collaborating in the torero’s triumph throughout the faena.

Depending on how the bull has been, the torero’s feelings fluctuate between satisfaction of seeing die a bull that has fought nobly during the faena, anger if the bull wasn’t what was hoped for, and in some cases happiness of having killed it if hasn’t been a good bull in order to think about the next ones.)

The toro that killed Víctor Barrio was neither satisfied, angry, nor happy; it was simply being a fighting bull.

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