Banners and posters supporting the Matadors in front of Santamaría bullring.
When I first spoke with novice matador Andres Manrique, outside of the once grand Santamaría Bullring, he hadn’t eaten anything for 29 days. He and 14 colleagues were deep into a hunger strike that started a month earlier, in protest over a ban on bullfighting in Colombia’s capital Bogotá. The ban, handed down two years ago by Mayor Gustavo Petro, came in response to major pressure from young Colombians and animal rights organisations. The flipside was that it left matadors such as Andres out of work.
The protester's camp.
It’s not surprising that the issues surrounding bullfighting in Colombia are complex. The sport has been a part of the culture here since its introduction in the 1800s. The Santamaría had played host to up to 100 bullfights per year, becoming an icon for Latin American matadors. Since the ban, the bullring Santamaria has remained a cultural hub for concerts and other activities of the district, but the conditions of the structure have deteriorated. This sense of dilapidation is not improved by the gaunt-looking protesters.
I arrived to find Andres cleaning his hands. He told me he’d just sewed his friend Pablo’s mouth closed, and hence he will be the one talking to me. According to him two of the six bullfighters on hunger strike had been forced to leave because of health issues that included peeing blood to almost having a stroke.
Pablo sewed his lips together in protest.
Regardless the protesters seemed pretty strong, thanks in part to considerable community support. The matadors were setup with double tents, drinking water, an ambulance provided by the district, blankets, and even a puppy the police donated. For a hunger strike that started out with just a few blankets, conditions were good.
The police gave the protester's a dog to show their support.
I never thought I would sympathise with a bullfighter, but some of their claims made sense. Andres told me they didn’t receive any notice that the bullring was closing but rather suddenly found themselves out of work, without any compensation. Matadors train intensively from a young age, leaving little time to develop other job skills. For people like Andres, bullfighting isn’t just a sport, it’s an industry, a fraternity, and a future.
Which doesn’t make it any less of a contentious issue in Colombia. Anti-bullfighting organisations like MAC (Colombian Anti-bullfighting Movement) argue that we need to abandon idea that bullfighting is part of art and culture, and focus on the pain the bull feels just for the sake of the spectacle. Together with various animal rights organisations like PETA and ADA Colombia, MAC staged counter protests, in some cases taunting the hungry matadors by eating chicken in front of them.
More experienced matadors support the novice bullfighters.
But the issue of bullfighting extends beyond the fate of the animal. Many see Colombian bullfighting as a spectacle for the rich. Tickets are expensive, starting from $45 dollars per show, meaning many average Colombians simply can’t afford to participate in this part of their culture. It’s a sentiment shared by the bullfighters, who told me that often, they themselves couldn’t afford entry to see more experienced Matadors.
Despite how you feel about bullfighting as an institution, it’s impossible to ignore the injustice of having your livelihood yanked out from under you with little warning. As a basic matter of rights, if they had received notice, compensation, or support, they would have more options for a future outside of the ring. Perhaps this would have avoided the hunger strike, as well as the legal action they filed against the city. Sadly in Colombia, basic human rights aren’t a high priority.
The bullfighters practice their skills with this homemade.
Today, a day after I first met them, Santamaria’s matadors are all thrilled. The Constitutional Court has stated they can re-enter the bullring. The court also found that bullfights can recommence up until March 2015, when the current contract between the stadium and bullfight organisers, Corporacion Taurina de Bogota, runs out. It’s the decision Andres and his colleagues have been waiting for, but with a growing distaste for their sport among Colombians, who knows how long before it becomes history altogether. In the meantime, the bullfighters remain on strike, and will continue to protest until the court’s decision becomes a reality.
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