Nearly a decade ago, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa warned that his beloved bullfighting was under threat.
“There is an attack on it, with orchestrated campaigns which in many cases are due to political motives,” the Peruvian-born writer told the people of the felicitously named town of Toro, in central Spain.
Many of Vargas Llosa’s fellow bullfighting fans have been echoing his words in recent days, lamenting what they see as a new, unconscionable level of political correctness being wielded as a weapon by opponents of the tradition.
Last week, the mayor of Gijón, Ana González, announced that bullfights would no longer be held in the northern city from next year onwards. The decision was a reaction to the fact that one of the bulls due to be killed during this year’s festivities in the city was named “Feminist” and two others were called “Nigerian”.
“Bullfighting is being used to express an ideology that goes against human rights and the city hall cannot go down that road,” said González, a Socialist, as she explained her decision, which followed a wave of outrage by feminist groups and others at the bulls’ names.
Gijón is by no means the first place in Spain to ban los toros. No bullfights have been held in the Canary Islands since 1991 and Catalonia introduced a ban in 2010. The Balearic Islands prohibited bullfighting in 2017, although a judicial wrangle led to the tradition subsequently being reinstated there.
However, this is the first time that the practice has been banned on anything other than animal rights grounds. The response to this development by those who support bullfighting has been as vociferous as the condemnation of the bulls’ names.
El Juli, one of Spain’s best-known matadors, who killed one of the “Nigerian” bulls in Gijón, took to social media to denounce the mayor’s decision. He insisted, like many others, that the contentious names were merely a coincidence as they were inherited from the bulls’ forebears.
Accusing González of using the incident to “stain bullfighting with political and ideological colours”, he called on her to apologise for her “lack of culture and ignorance”.
The right-wing commentator Rubén Amón, meanwhile, claimed that the mayor was “currying favour with the anti-bullfighting prime minister [Pedro Sánchez], being aware of the popularity of this measure in a society that is holier-than-thou, vengeful and hypocritical”.
As Amón suggests, the political fault-lines in the bullfighting debate have become increasingly defined in recent years. A 2019 poll by El Español showed that 56 per cent of people opposed los toros. In its breakdown of political allegiances, the same study found that voters on the left were more likely to oppose the practice, while support for it was much greater on the right.
The emergence in recent years of the pro-animal rights Podemos, on the hard left, and the stridently pro-bullfighting Vox, on the far right, has highlighted this trend.
The fact that one famous matador, Morante de la Puebla, has been an outspoken supporter of Vox, which is fiercely critical of feminism and hostile to immigration, has made bullfighting’s political alignments even clearer.
He responded angrily recently when Twitter deleted videos of one of his bullfights on the grounds that they encouraged “sadistic pleasure”. Many of Morante’s critics believed it was no coincidence that he killed the “Feminist” bull and one of the “Nigerian” animals during Gijón’s fiesta.
However, despite the difficulties bullfighting faces due to its political associations, its economic woes are arguably more pressing.
After suffering a huge blow during the euro zone crisis of a decade ago, the industry has struggled to recover. A total of 3,651 bullfights were held in 2007, just before the financial crisis hit, according to government figures. In 2019, despite several years of solid economic growth, only 1,425 were held.
Antonio Lorca, the bullfighting correspondent for El País newspaper, has been a long-time critic of the industry, which he says has consistently failed to attract new interest or create a viable business model.
“Bullfighting will come to an end,” he wrote recently, “due to the ineptitude of those in the sector and the indifference of fans.”
Last year, just 129 events were held, due to restrictions related to Covid-19. This season has started to get back on track with Madrid city hall, for example, giving its bullfighting sector an injection of post-Covid subsidies.
And yet, it looks increasingly likely that the pandemic, along with increased support for animal rights, political factors and sheer incompetence, will be yet another sword in the back of a tradition whose days appear to be numbered.