Bullfighting in Mexico
It is still practiced here - but should it be?
“Bullfights in Tijuana!” I remember hearing these ringing advertisements on the radio and television when I was growing up in San Diego, California. Back then, the ads were so ubiquitous, the refrain became an earworm - a jingle I will never forget, and will always associate with the San Diego of my youth.
My grandfather was a bullfighting fan, and he’d go down to Tijuana’s grand Plaza Monumental to enjoy the spectacle and cheer for his favorite matadores. He never took me, but I know he wanted to. I suspect my parents probably forbade me going. I’ve never been to a bullfight, despite that family history and the blaring advertisements I grew up with. Now that I am a mature (some would argue with that) adult, I have lost my youthful enthusiasm for them.
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In fact, I rarely think about bullfighting as an actual event anymore; I just sort of stopped thinking of bullfighting in those terms, and assumed that the world had likewise moved on from it. Most of the towns I’ve lived or spent time in within Mexico have bullrings, but they’ve typically either been repurposed for equestrian events or parking lots; or they’ve fallen into disrepair from lack of use altogether. However, a recent Mexico Supreme Court ruling reminded me that bullfighting is still very much a thing in Mexico, as it is elsewhere.
A little background
What we know now as bullfighting originated in Spain centuries ago. The Spanish tradition of bullfighting was exported to Latin America during the Spanish conquest, and it became and remains very popular in several Latin American countries today: Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru all still practice bullfighting, as do Spain, Portugal and France. In most of these places, bullfighting has been banned in some areas, allowed in others. In Mexico, the states of Sinaloa, Sonora, Guerrero, Coahuila, and Quintana Roo have all banned the event1. The rest of Mexico’s states still allow it.
The practice of bullfighting itself hasn’t changed a lot over the centuries. The basic construct of the event is broken up into 3 stages: in the first stage, a matador (the primary “bullfighter”) enters a large ring, on foot, armed with a cape. He or she is accompanied by 3 banderilleros - these are sort of sub- or journeymen matadores who are armed with banderillas, which are long wooden sticks with sharp ends (sometimes the matador carries banderillas as well). An adult bull who has (ideally) been raised with very little socialization with humans, is released into the ring with the matador and banderilleros. The matador entices the bull using his cape, and the bull’s behaviors and actions are observed so that the fighters in the ring can understand best how to position themselves and how to engage with the bull. During this stage, a picador - which is a rider on horseback armed with a lance - enters the ring, wherein he or she drives the lance into the back of the neck of the bull. This is intended to weaken the bull, and cause him to focus his anger rather than spreading it around all the participants in the ring. The idea ultimately is to get the bull and the matador into a one-on-one engagement.
In the second stage, each of the 3 banderilleros attempt to drive their sharp banderillas into the bull’s shoulders. This is intended to re-engage the bull’s anger, after having been wounded by the picador.
In the final stage, the matador is left alone in the ring with the bull. This is the stage that most people are familiar with: the matador engages in a ritualistic and stylized pattern of passes wherein the matador beckons the bull with his cape, and narrowly misses (again, ideally) being gored by the bull’s horns. This stage ends when the matador, who is now armed with a sword, drives the sword between the bull’s shoulders, with the intent of rupturing the aorta or heart and resulting in the animal’s quick death. It should be noted that the fight does not always end this way: many matadores have been gored and seriously injured or killed by the bulls they are fighting.
Back to the Supreme Court
Mexico City is one of the federal entities in Mexico that hasn’t banned bullfighting. Mexico City’s giant 41,000-seat Plaza de toros México is the largest bullring in the world, and until recently held bullfighting events attended by masses of the city’s fans. But in 2022, a group of animal rights activists in Mexico City filed a lawsuit claiming that allowing bullfighting within the city’s borders constituted a violation of the citizens’ rights to a healthy environment free of violence. A Mexico City judge agreed with the claim and issued an injunction against bullfighting in the city.
But last month, Mexico’s Supreme Court overruled the injunction - siding instead with proponents of bullfighting who argued that the ban deprived them of the constitutional rights to engage in their chosen profession as well as various rights related to cultural heritage. So beginning on January 28, bullfights will once again take place in the city’s massive stadium.
I would tend to side with the animal rights activists in Mexico City. But I don’t live and vote in Mexico City, and I don’t want to slide down the slippery slope of cultural imperialism. I am a Mexican citizen, but my cultural values were shaped in the United States (although many of them have been - and are being - reshaped by my life in Mexico). I am sensitive to the idea of imposing my anglo attitudes on anything having to do with Mexico; and in fact, I actively resist doing so. I’m not sure if bullfighting transcends these cultural ideals, such that I should just keep my mouth shut about it. The Humane Society International unequivocally (of course) condemns the practice of bullfighting in the strongest of terms. But then again, their executive leadership is a sea of white faces.
For me, I guess it comes down to this: animals cannot advocate for themselves, and I believe that animals are capable of feeling pain and suffering. Animals know nothing about borders or national identity or cultural heritage. When humans subject animals to pain and suffering, in my estimation it is a reflection of humanity more than a reflection of identity. So yes, my desire would be that all of Mexico ban bullfighting. But I’m not going to judge it for not doing so. Moreover, I eat meat. An advocate of bullfighting could make a reasonable argument that my stance on bullfighting betrays some hypocrisy: I am ok with animals being killed by humans as long as the killing is in service of my ideas of why and in what fashion animals should be killed. Still, I could argue (maybe ineffectually) that the elaborate and drawn out death of the bull at the hands of the matador (and picadores and banderilleros) is in another league from the quick and efficient killing of animals solely for the purpose of food.
Clearly, bullfighting is a contentious subject in Mexico right now. The purpose of this article is partly to illuminate this current contention for those interested in what is going on culturally in Mexico, and partly to inspire you to think deeper about what your own perspective is. Let me know in the comments what your thoughts are on this practice, as well as the culture of treating bullfighting as spectacle and entertainment.
I am referring to bullfighting as an event rather than a sport, although some would consider it the latter. A reasonable argument can be made that bullfighting is not what the modern world would consider “sporting”, so I choose to use the term “event” instead.