“Matador” to entertain: is there a future for young bullfighters in Spain? | bullfighting

On an afternoon in March 2023, the young bullfighter David Fuentes faced five bulls in a bullring in the Andalusian town of Montoro. Between each death there was the dull sound of a drum, accompanied by the applause of an ecstatic audience. In response to flowers thrown at him from the bench, Fuentes “threw the severed ears of the bulls” which he killed with his sharp butt.

Description is by photojournalist Owen Harvey, who spent several weeks, between March and June 2023, observing and recording bullfighting culture in Spain. The project resulting from this incursion is called The matador and was published as a photo essay in THE Guardian, recently. “Due to the growing division of opinion regarding the slaughter of animals for entertainment, I went to Spain in search of the next generation of ‘killer hopefuls'”, written in the long text he shared with P3 about the project.

And he found it in Malaga, Montoro and Jaén, in the south of the country. “I have met young men who feel they have learned respect, courage and discipline through the teachings of bullfighting. Some are already descendants of bullfighters and the culture surrounding this performance of strength, movement and machismo is part of their life inside and outside the arena.”

David Fuentes is one such case. “In my family there are bullfighters, heifers [aprendizes de toureiro] and my grandfather is the tailor who dresses the matador before the bullfight”, explained the young Fuentes to the photographer. It was his grandfather who sewed the costume he wears in the shows. “It is obvious that bullfighting is what connects them,” he says Harvey. And that may be one reason the tradition lives on, but it won’t be the only one.

There is, in Harvey’s view, a political divide between those who support or reject the tradition, with the more conservative sectors of Spanish society being those who most support bullfighting. Despite having been approved in Spain, in 2013, a law that determines that bullfighting is a cultural heritage, the number of bullfights taking place in the country has decreased year by year. In 2011, for example, 2,290 bullfighting shows took place in Spain; in 2022, after the impact of the pandemic, there were 1,546. In 2007, in the first statistical study carried out by the Spanish Ministry of Culture and Sports, 3,651.

And despite the fact that only 1.9% of the Spanish population has attended a bullfight, in 2022 those who do it the most are men (double the number of women) and are between 15 and 19 years old. The figures are close to those of 25 to 34 and 65 to 74. “So the picture is complex.” The number of women who practice bullfighting and that there is an official registration is derisory: since 2015, it has never exceeded five in the whole country. “There are also bullfighting women in the bullring, but they are definitely in the minority”, confirms the photographer. “During my stay in Spain, I only saw men fighting.”

The young men photographed by Owen Harvey belong to the largest consumer segment of this type of cultural product, which makes his project all the more relevant. “I visited Spain to understand what bullfighting can still offer young bullfighters and what losing it could mean for them.”

Apprentice bullfighter Rafael Quesada Gabrieli explains to the photographer that, despite the death of animals, “bullfighting defends many values, such as love and respect —​ both for the bull and for the people” and that, if it was dying out, Spain would “lose part of its essence”. “We would lose part of our culture and our tradition, but also jobs. The pasture where the bulls live, as well as the breed lydian bullwould go out.”

Young bullfighter David Fuentes, from Montoro, agrees. “Bullfighting generates a lot of jobs, from cattle herders to almond vendors next to the bullring. Towns and local businesses make a lot of money from the people who attend these events.”

Harvey believes that, despite the downward trend in the number of events organized and the efforts of anti-bullfighting movements in Spain, the future of these young people is not threatened. Apprentice bullfighter Rafael Quesada Gabrielle believes that “bullfighting has a lot more supporters than you might think”. “Bullfighting will adapt to the digital age and, in the future, will reach a much wider audience.”

According to PETA, at least seven thousand bulls die every year in Spanish bullrings; the animal rights organization considers bullfighting to be “the ritual killing of a helpless animal”.

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