The last ‘corrida’ before the bullfighting ban in Catalonia

Barcelona hosted its last bullfight on Sunday. As of January 1st 2012, bullfighting will be banned in Catalonia. The Catalan Parliament decided to forbid this activity in July 2010, with a law that generated a substantial amount of controversy. Bullfighting is associated with Spanish nationalism, and the ban has been interpreted by many as a political stance, in addition to defending animal rights. In Catalonia, over the last decades, bullfighting has lost most of its popular support and only one arena has remained open.

CNA / Gaspar Pericay Coll

September 27, 2011 01:00 AM

Barcelona (ACN).- Sunday marked the last day that Catalonia might ever host a bullfight. Barcelona’s Monumental Arena was packed with bullfighting supporters, who paid a very high price to witness what was supposedly the last ‘corrida’. On July 28th 2010, the Catalan Parliament approved a law banning bullfighting in Catalonia from January 1st 2012 onwards. On Sunday, the last scheduled ‘corrida’ for this 2011 took place, being quite likely the last one ever. However, it is not completely sure. The People’s Party (PP) may pass a law at Spanish level overruling the Catalan law or the Spanish Constitutional Court may sentence against it, since the PP already appealed. Therefore, the ban may be suspended and bullfighting may be legal again in Catalonia. The ban has not only an animal rights dimension, but a political one, since bullfighting has been used as a symbol of Spanish nationalism, and therefore it has been perceived by many in Catalonia as part of an acculturation process aimed at diluting Catalan identity. Nevertheless, Catalonia has had a bullfighting tradition for many years and in particular during the 19th and early 20th centuries, coinciding with the mass arrival of workers from other parts of Spain during this period and that of Spanish homogenisation –when the Catalan language and many traditions were banned or marginalised–. In the early 20th century Barcelona had up to three fully functioning bullfighting arenas, and during that time was classed a capital for bullfighting. However, in recent decades, especially since the end of the Franco dictatorship, bullfighting has lost most of its popular support in Catalonia, and all the arenas were forced to shut down due to economic reasons, except for one. The only arena that remained open was the Monumental, in Barcelona, which survived thanks to the thousands of tourists, eager to live an experience that was fitting with their stereotypes about Spain. Last Sunday, tourists, supporters and critics all got together to witness the last ‘corrida’ in Catalonia.

Bullfighting fans and those defending its ban came together last Sunday in front of the only active bullfighting arena of Catalonia, Barcelona’s Monumental. Some supporters protested against the ban, while others did not want to miss the last ‘corrida’, including many tourists who flocked to the arena. Animal rights defenders also protested against the bullfight. Supporters waved banners with the Spanish or the Catalan flag, stating that bullfighting is an art, that it is a cultural tradition, or that it is their right to attend ‘corridas’. They also shouted Spanish nationalist mottos, and a few insulted those protesting against bullfighting, who congregated in front of the Monumental, as they have been doing over the last number of years each time there was a bullfight. The police were between both groups, and the situation was always under control and relatively calm, despite some isolated incidents when banners were broken. The ‘corrida’ ended with the supportive crowd carrying the ‘toreros’ on their shoulders along Barcelona’s Gran Via, in an improvised street demonstration. Despite the demonstrations and the controversy, the Monumental closed its doors on Sunday night, maybe for ever.

A ban coming from a Popular Legislative Initiative

The Catalan law caused a lot of controversy, since many interpreted it as an attack against a symbol of Spanish nationalism. However, the ban had been promoted by an animal rights platform, a civic platform called 'Prou!' (meaning “Enough!” in Catalan). They presented a Popular Legislative Initiative to the Catalan Parliament backed by 180,000 signatures from citizens to ban bullfighting in Catalonia. The platform proposed amending the Animal Protection Law which excluded bullfighting within its protection. The Parliament took the popular petition into consideration and began a series of hearings to analyse the issue.

A controversy based on identity feelings

It was at this point that the controversy increased its resonance. Controversy surrounded the parliamentary hearings and the entire legislative process. It was mostly inflamed by some Madrid-based media, true flagships of Spanish nationalism. Both Spanish and Catalan nationalists accused each other of quarrelling over bullfighting, being motivated by identity-based reasons more than animal rights or cultural reasons. Nevertheless, bullfighting has very scarce support in Catalonia. Many think that bullfighting would have disappeared in Catalonia by itself, as it had been becoming more and more marginal, where only one arena remained open, Barcelona’s Monumental. Popular support for bullfighting in Catalonia had largely decreased over the last number of decades, and the Monumental Arena survived thanks to tourists. Despite curious foreigners, the Monumental Arena lost money many years, although its owners stated that lately the financial situation had improved.

Bullfighting, a symbol of Spanish nationalism

Bullfighting has been, for centuries, presented by Spanish nationalism as “the national party”, the maximum celebration of Spanish pride. Bullfighting was and still is extremely popular in Andalucía and Castilla, with large crowds in Madrid and Seville. However, in Catalonia, bullfighting has had marginal activity over the last number of decades. Certainly it was very popular in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th but slowly lost support and especially over the last 30 years. Bullfighting was popular in Catalonia coinciding with the mass arrival of workers from other parts of Spain, as well as with periods of Spanish homogenisation; periods when Catalan traditions struggled to survive and to find their own spaces to express themselves, and when the Catalan language was most of the time, persecuted or, at least, marginalised. In recent collective memory, the Franco dictatorship (1939-1975) made use of bullfighting as a way to spread a homogeneous image of Spain and Spanish nationalism, both abroad and within the State; an image that still persists around the world. Bullfighting is a stereotype of an unreal homogenous Spain. Many Catalans perceive bullfighting as an imposed tradition, intimately associated with Spanish nationalism.

Catalonia does not have a bullfighting industry

Bullfighting is also an industry, employing many people especially in the centre, south and west of Spain, where bulls are raised and where most of the bullfighting arenas are located. Arenas are also located along the Mediterranean coast as they are a huge tourist attraction. However, in Catalonia no bulls are raised and only one arena remains active, located in Barcelona. The rest were closed or have been torn down.

Some consider bullfighting an art

Many claim that bullfighting is an art, pictured by artists such as Goya and Picasso, and deserves special protection. In fact the People’s Party (PP) will use this argument, combined with the tradition, to try to declare bullfighting a “cultural interest good” at Spanish level, which may overrule the Catalan ban. However, this formula is still not clear, as the PP's President Mariano Rajoy recognised this Monday. Moreover, the PP has appealed the Catalan law to the Spanish Constitutional Court, hoping it will declare the ban illegal and bullfighting will be able to return to Catalonia, not needing to the aforementioned initiative at Spanish level.

Regarding the tradition, it is deeply rooted in some parts of Spain, but that is no longer the case in Catalonia, as it has practically vanished over the last number of decades. There are bullfighting spectacles documented in Catalonia in the Middle Ages, but it was not a widespread tradition until the end of the 18th century. Bullfighting was a widespread tradition in southern and central parts of Spain, but not so much in Catalonia until that time. It coincided with the formation of the Spanish-nation State, when links with other parts of Spain were tightened and there was a process of Spanish enculturation of Catalans by the Spanish centralist power.

Catalonia has other traditions with bulls

However, Catalonia has a rooted tradition of spectacles using animals, many coming from Medieval times. Most of them were banned many years or even decades ago due to the respect of animal rights. This is the case, for instance, of a shocking festivity that was banned years ago, consisting of throwing a live goat out of a bell tower the day of the Patron Saint. The only ones that remain are bullfighting and 'correbous', which consists of making a bull run in the middle of a crowd, sometimes with something attached to its horns. When bullfighting is banned, only 'correbous' will remain, which are popular in southern Catalonia. In the ‘correbous’ the animal is not harmed physically, but it is exposed to a highly-stressful environment. Many are also now asking to ban ‘correbous’, but its widespread popular support in some counties make some political parties still consider them a cultural exception.