This article originally appeared on VICE Spain
Like most people, Darío, Daniel, Ivan and Sergio are worried about what other people think of them. "Everyone in Spain assumes that if you like bullfighting, you're an old fascist. That's not true, though," Ivan told me.
The four friends are regulars at their local bullring – Las Ventas, in Madrid. And they are not wrong about the opinion many locals have of their hobby. I, like many other people my age, grew up being told that bullfighting was mostly appreciated and encouraged by old, rich men – some, of whom perhaps even had fascist inclinations.
Nowadays, the sport is definitely far less popular than it used to be, and I assume that thanks to continuing activism by animal rights organisations, my generation of Spaniards doesn't naturally accept bullfighting as part of our culture anymore. But Darío, Daniel, Ivan and Sergio see themselves as part of a growing group of young bullfighting enthusiasts, desperate to protect the tradition. A reason for that could be that the four of them also grew up a short distance from Cuellar – a small town in the north of Spain that is home to the oldest Running of the Bulls festival in the country.
Wanting to find out more about their love of bullfighting, I met with them on one scorching hot afternoon in Madrid at a bar near Las Ventas. They had just enjoyed a bullfight, which by the way they tend to refer to as "the party".
"When I go to a bullfight, I feel so elated – I can't compare it to anything else," Sergio started. "For the audience to completely lose themselves in the ritual, they have to understand that the bull could kill the fighter at any moment. The bullfighter is doing something you'd never be able or dare to do yourself. That's what makes it so thrilling for me."
"It's about life and death," Darío added. "When the bull suffers, we suffer. When the fighter suffers, we suffer. If things go wrong, we go home feeling like shit. To really understand what the ritual represents, you have to know about its history."
For those who enjoy watching a man in a cape chasing and trying to kill a horned animal, bullfighting isn't just a sport, it's also an art form. "A fight isn't just a fight. There are many books on the subject – plus art exhibitions and film screenings concerning the ritual's history are often set up in the spaces surrounding the rings," Ivan informed me.
"And then, there's the sense of community," Daniel offered. "The bullfighters are our heroes, but when you go to a fight, you can easily bump into one of them, because they're so accessible – that allows fans to feel their lives are just like ours, except for the fact that they are actually brave enough to fight a bull."
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That could all sound like fun and games, were it not that according to animal rights activists, bullfighting kills 250,000 bulls a year. When the bullfighter Ivan Fandiño was fatally gorged during a fight in June, thousands of people took to social media to celebrate his death.
Nevertheless, the four men believe that being against bullfighting is a fad, and that criticism is actually dying down. "I get the sense that less people attend anti-bullfighting protests these days, than they once did," Sergio claimed.
Daniel said he doesn't mind critics expressing their opinions, as long as they're not abusive. "Everyone should be free to go out and protest for what they believe in," he declared. "But we are also repeatedly called murderers, and I don't think that's fair. We are just people watching a show that is completely legal."
Darío added that he feels those claiming bulls shouldn't be killed for sport, just don't know enough to appreciate the origins of the tradition . "If you grow up learning about the sport the way we did, you realise that the bull has character and for that reason he's treated with respect from the moment he's born. When they enter the ring, there is a genuine struggle for power between the bull and the fighter," Darío said. "We idolise the bull because we think of that animal as superior to humans."
In their view, nobody reveres the bull more than the bullfighter himself, because they are partners in the ritual. "When the bull is killed, it is a sacrifice to god or nature – the whole act is meant to make you understand there is a higher power, whatever that might be, to which humans and animals are of equal importance. Bullfighters are ready to die in the ring, too."
Ivan is less understanding of the critics. "There are people who think that the meat they buy in the supermarket grows on trees, but that also comes from an animal that has been sacrificed. And often that animal is not given the chance to fight for its life," he said. "If we didn't value the rituals involved in bullfighting, then, sure, we'd just be a bunch of guys who love watching an animal being killed."
If the bullfighting industry wants to avoid becoming extinct, it needs to start attracting a younger audience. Since 2007, the number of bullfights in Spain has dropped from 953 to 398, as TV audiences and live spectator figures continue to dwindle in most areas. Bullrings like Las Ventas have been making efforts to attract a new generation of fans by making the sport more affordable. "A young person's season ticket costs €100 [£88]," Daniel said. "That has helped fill previously empty arenas with young fans who couldn't afford the normal season ticket price of €400." As a result, Las Ventas sold nearly 1000 more season tickets last year compared to the previous one, while selling a record 40,000 tickets on their opening day.
But my new friends aren't interested in occasional spectators – they want young people to become invested in the tradition. "Real fans value the bull as much as the fighter, which is a fundamental part of bullfighting," Sergio said.
No matter how many people call them fascists and murderers, it's clear that Darío, Ivan, Sergio and Daniel are determined to do anything in their power to keep the tradition alive. "Bullfighting is pure poetry," Darío said. "It has a way of elevating my soul."