The yellow sand was drenched in blood as the sun began to set over the red bull ring in southern Spain. The famous May feria in Córdoba had ushered in the traditional wave of bullfights every afternoon, and my friends and I decided to join in. Several years earlier I witnessed my first bullfight upon arriving to study abroad in Salamanca, and I suppose the passing years had dulled my memory of this gruesome tradition.
The crowd hushed as the torero clad in tight sparkly pants straightened his back and inched closer to the bull. Directly in front of the panting animal who was cowering against the burnt red ring of the arena, the famous bullfighter lifted his sword and pointed it directly between the eyes of a massive bull. Giving a yell, he charged forward he slammed the thin sword in the back of the bull’s head for the death blow.
In theory, a bull should die immediately, but that day, and pretty much every time I’ve seen a bullfight in Spain, live or on TV, that never happens. Putting down my camera and covering my eyes, I try to hold back tears as the poor bull sinks to his knees and slowly dies. As the horses drag the dead bull off the sand floor of the bullring, I think to myself, never again.
For me, there is nothing noble, brave or majestic about bullfights anymore in Spain. It’s just a show, an act, and ultimately torment and death. Whatever glory or honor there was in the days of Hemingway and Goya, nowadays is lost.
As the torero proudly holds up one the bull’s furry little ears to the roaring crowd for approval, I can’t help but think back to a book my mom read to me when I was little: Ferdinand the Bull. Poor Ferdinand didn’t want to be in bullfights; he only wanted to sit in a field and smell the flowers. No more bullfights for me, only flowers. Did you read this book growing up?
In September during San Mateo, Logroño’s big week-long festival, once again the bullfights arrived in town. While many of my friends scrapped together the cash to catch an afternoon corrida de toros, I firmly and politely replied, with a “hell no, I’d rather sit through a Twilight marathon.” I was not about to witness a few more Ferdinands kick the bucket.
While the fiesta mayhem started to build, I began to notice posters around town advertising a bullfight called Recortadores with a charging bull, and a man all in white flying vertically over him. Specifically, someone had cut and pasted a Mariano Rajoy’s face on it (Spain’s Prime Minister).
Intrigued, I pestered a few of my local buddies about it who vaguely described it as bullfighting acrobatics. Even more intrigued, that night one of the bars was showing recortadores on TV in the Basque Country. Holy crap, it really was bullfighting acrobatics! Nudging my friends, I pointed up at the screen, “do they kill the bull?” Laughing, they replied that the bull isn’t injured or harmed at all. Basically the recortadores do tricks and jumps over and around the bull in competition. Ok, this I had to see.
Dragging my friends H and N with me to Logroño’s local Plaza de Toros, we grabbed cheap tickets, a liter sized cup of beer and a bag of sunflower seeds, and headed inside. To my surprise the bullring was only about a quarter full; I guess people are much more interested in death and gore than they’d like to admit. Don’t you think bullfighting acrobatics sound much cooler?
Adjusting my pañuelo, the typical festival bandanas worn around the neck in northern Spain, we grabbed seats close to the front; I had no idea what to expect. About a dozen young men walked out on the sand, all wearing white athletic clothes and running sneakers. None of the flashy, gaudy crap traditional bullfighters wear; these were manly men. Perking up in my seat, I forced myself to pay attention as they were introduced – walking in with a cocky swagger, number 6 was my favorite.
My mouth literally dropped open in astonishment over the next hour or so. To begin, they bull is let into the ring while several guys on the same team get it to charge and them and they run from it. After a few minutes, a lone recortador stands straight as a pin across the ring from the bull and calls at it so it will charge him, head on. Nobody is carrying any props – no capes, no swords, nothing. Just man versus bull.
With my hands covering my mouth, I watched as a deadly 1500 lb animal ran straight at this guy. At the last second, the recortador threw both arms in the air, deftly twisted to the side and arched his back while the bull brushed by him, with maybe an inch or two between his back and the bull. Talk about brave!
At each pass the bull made, I was sure one of these guys was going to get gored and trampled, but that never happened. All of a sudden, as one of the large bulls was charging a young guy, he ran back at it and instead of arching his back over the passing bull, he did a full front flip over top of him and proudly landed on his feet with his hands in the air. Holy hell! That’s not something you see every day.
Sometimes if they have a really hard time getting the bull to charge fast enough for a flip, a second guy will come out with a flag and get the bull to chase after him while the other does a flip. One time they even set up a stool and a guy did a backflip over the bull (see my video below).
Bulls are smart and after a while, they don’t feel like running any more, which means that the recortador has to get closer and closer to him to goad him into charging. The closer you are to the bull, the less dramatic the pass is because the bull isn’t as fast. This also means that they can’t do any jumps over the bull because he needs to be moving quickly. We only saw a handful of flips but my favorite guy, number 6, won because of his brave (or ridiculously stupid) trick.
While most of the leapers stood on their feet the whole time, number 6 was channeling Hemingway and preferred to face death head on, ON HIS KNEES. Yelling the equivalent of, “hey ugly bull, your momma’s so fat not even Dora can explore her,” steam came out of the bull’s ears and he charged like no tomorrow (ok, I made that up). Still kneeling on the ground with a total death wish, number 6 started the charging bull down and then at the last second feinted right and leaned left as the angry bull swerved by kicking up sand. Now ladies, that is brave.
He did it again later on, sweeping the competition away. You couldn’t pay me to stand in a ring with a charging bull, let alone do it on my knees. After finishing their tricks, each group eventually gets on their knees in front of the bull and salutes him before he is chased off back into his pen. No blood. No death.
At one point, one of the younger, more daredevil guys climbed on the back of the bull which I had mixed feelings about. Ferdinand (I’ve named all the bulls Ferdinand) was tired because he had been charging and chasing 4 different guys and there was nothing anyone could do or say to get him to charge again. So the twirled him around by the tail so he sat down, and then one of the recortadores climbed on his back while he stood up. Though incredible to witness, I did feel bad because Ferdinand was clearly tired and done with these fools, but he wasn’t hurt or injured in the process.
Now having experience both the acrobatic recortes and regular bullfights (corrida de toros) in Spain, I can heartily say I do not understand how anyone could go see a bullfight when there is this alternative available. Over the centuries, bullfighters have achieved “hero” status in Spanish culture around the world, when for me, there is nothing heroic about them. By the time a torero enters the ring, the bull is so badly wounded and exhausted, he barely charges and is on the point of dying. For me, there is nothing heroic about killing a dying, injured animal. And that’s coming from someone who has her head firmly in the clouds and in the Middle Ages, when hunting was considered chivalric. Nope, not anymore!
These recortadores, stripped down in basic clothes without the pomp, drama, flair or costumes of regular bullfights are the real heros. Insanely brave or insanely stupid, it’s up to you, but there is no questioning your cojones when you are on your knees staring a charging 1500 lb bull in the face. All I can say is that these guys deserve a hell of a lot more credit than they’ve been getting.
All in all, the recortadores were an amazing experience to witness. It still shocks me how little-known they are and how unpopular it is compared with regular bullfights. After over three years in Spain, and living in various regions too, I can’t believe I had never heard of the recortadores until this fall. The only downside is that it’s a lot harder to find recortes events in Spain, just note that it took me 6+ years to hear about them for the first time. According to the Wiki gods, it’s mostly practiced in Navarra, La Rioja (where I lived), northern Castilla and Valencia.
If you ever see a poster on the streets of Spain advertising the recortadores with Rajoy’s face glued on it, by god I urge you to go.
Have you ever heard of the recortadores or been to see one? How do you feel about bullfights? Would you go to a recortes now that you know it’s a nonviolent alternative to bullfights in Spain?
Excuse the video quality, I took this with my iPod.