Blood and patriotism
The weary butchers in the rubber boots at Las Ventas go about their work quickly when processing the bull that died by Juan del Alamo's hand. As they unhitch its bloodstained body from the horse team, I fix my gaze on the animal's face, the muscles still twitching.
"It's just the death spasms," Borja says. "Don't worry."
A crowd has gathered to watch. Toddlers perched on mom hips. A kid who looks about 10 covers his mouth with his shirt against the stench. Pulleys hoist the bull's body vertical by its hindquarters, and the image sticks with me: It's the moment the mammal becomes meat. Right then, the butcher room's red garage door slowly lowers closed, concealing everything except the strung-up hind hooves, just visible through the transom glass.
"In the old days they left the doors open," Borja says, almost nostalgically. "But now they keep them closed. Because of the antitaurinos."
It makes sense why they'd want to keep this spectacle from prying eyes. It's a visceral image -- one that won't win the corrida many new fans. And new fans are precisely what it needs right now to survive. Catalonia outlawed bullfighting in 2010; a year later, Barcelona turned its 110-year-old Neo-Mudéjar plaza into a monumental shopping mall. Bull meat subsequently disappeared from the marketplace, and if you believe the local butchers, nobody seems to miss it much. The number of bull-related events in Spain has fallen steadily from almost 2,300 in 2011 to just 1,736 last year, and today Las Ventas is only three-quarters full. The youth increasingly see it as a pastime for the old.
Further complicating matters, the controversy surrounding bullfighting isn't just about animal rights, but the entire concept of national identity. In Catalonia, which suffered decades of repression of its language and culture under Franco and now has a vigorous independence movement whose rallying cry is "Catalonia is not Spain," the bull's association with Spanish identity is a liability, not a selling point. Similar attitudes exist in other regions, including in the Canary Islands, where bullfighting has been banned for 25 years.
This growing politicization of the bulls is evident at Las Ventas Plaza, which is done up like a fever dream of Spanish nationalism, with red-and-gold banners decorating the place like cake icing. Borja gestures at them and grimaces. "That's what bothers me," he says. "There used to just be one, but five or six years ago they put up all these flags, as if claiming the toros for the right."