I studied abroad in Peru winter of 2012 to observe the effects of tourism on the country’s culture and economy. I went with a group of about ten students, stayed approximately two weeks, and spent the majority of the trip in Cusco, the historical capitol of Peru. En route to Machu Picchu, a 15th century Inca site embedded in the mountains 50 miles northwest of Cusco, the group spent a night in the small mountain town of Ollantaytambo. We were lucky to have our visit overlap with the “Bajada De Los Reyes,” a weeklong festival celebrating the Epiphany, or revelation of Jesus as God the Son. The festival included parades, feasting, music and dance, and on the day we were in town, a bullfight.
I’ve been intrigued by bullfighting since reading Hemmingway’s Death In the Afternoon and was excited to witness one firsthand. I held my doubts, however, as to how much I’d enjoy it if the bull were to be slaughtered at the end of the fight. I also was worried that the locals would view my presence as intrusive; after all, I was attending as an English-speaking American with little knowledge of Spanish and a textbook understanding of Peru. Regardless, I suspended my anxieties and set out with a small group of classmates to the ring.
We arrived at the small, stone bullring at the edge of the town. It was bordered by a low cliff that extended into a sun-bathed field with tall grasses that swayed and rustled with wind. Carved into the bottom of the cliff were three rock shelves busy with villagers finding their seats. Watching from the top of the cliff was a group of men in trucker hats and jeans in front of a rumbling pickup piled high with sugar cane. I found a seat on the low rock wall beside the dirt path that led to the ring, wedging myself between an older woman with gray, braided hair and a man with a wide-brimmed fedora. The path was electric with activity; children playing tag, weaving between adult legs, tripping and scraping their knees in the dirt; old men and women tottering bent-backed toward the ring; young men and women shouldering woven baskets with melting chocolates and caramels, boiled corn snacks and perspiring bottles of beer, “Uno soles amigos, uno soles!”
Down below were three red-vested women raking the dirt floor of the bullring. Their long white skirts kicked up clouds of dust that followed close behind them. They moved around the ring slowly in a circle, the scrape of their push brooms could be heard just below the excited talking and laughter that swelled like waves on an ocean. The rhythmic thudding of a bass drum from the distant plaza made it seem as if the town itself was pulsing.
When the women left the ring, the thudding from the plaza grew louder. With it came with blaring trumpets, tapping snares, and blatting trombones. On a path below, leading from the edge of town to the bullring, emerged a colorful noisy marching band. Leading the band were young two men, clean-shaven and well dressed; one with a black leather vest and pants gold-embroidered from shoulders to calves; the other wearing a red vest and pants with silver embroidery at the edges. The matadors.
The crowd whistled and applauded their approach, and I applauded right along with them. A rise in anticipation could be felt among us. I thought to myself, ‘This is it, I’m actually about to see a bullfight!” The music came to a blaring, messy, triumphant end and the musicians took their places in the stands. The matadors marched into the ring, gave deep honorable bows, then disappeared behind a burladero, one of six wooden shields that lined the inside of the ring. Draped over the burladero were two capes, both yellow on one side and magenta on the other. The entrance gate was shut with a noisy clang. The cheering receded to a charged whisper. We all took our seats. The fight was about to begin.
The matadors alternated bulls. Each had a specific skill set in the ring that distinguished them from the other. The man in black was a slower, more dramatic fighter. His parrys were strong, cunning, his cape work languid and dark. He was a master of timing and his entertainment lay in his refinement. The yellow-vested matador was quick on his feet, jumpy yet graceful, and when at his best, flourished his cape so that it flashed in the sun. There were six bulls, fought one at a time, released into the ring from an unseen pen. Some were large with sleek fur and curved white horns. Others were smaller, weaker, their ribs rippling beneath patchy fur. All of them were angry, confused, completely unaware of why they were there at all.
The fighting of the third bull was the most memorable of the afternoon. The bull thrashed at the ropes tied to its horns and neck and threw its body at the wooden gate until it splintered and the wranglers could no longer restrain the animal. Watching the bull charge into the ring, ropes trailing from its horns and dragging in the dirt, I was overcome by the desire to see the matador in danger. And not just any danger: real, life-threatening danger. This, I told myself, was when the sport would be at its best.
The black-vested matador raised his cape as the bull charged furiously, narrowly missing its target; the matador pulled the cape just in time. The bull, wildly frustrated, turned and charged again, its right horn grazing matador’s belly. Sensing danger, he signaled for help from the yellow-vested matador, who taunted the bull with his cape from the opposite end of the ring. The bull, blind with rage, charged the yellow matador. He could not get out of the way in time and was knocked off his feet.
There was a gasp in the crowd. Cheering subsided like a wave breaking on rocks, replaced by a bubbling murmur. I myself felt confused and amazed. Was this supposed to happen? Was he really in danger? Yet there was another part of me that felt morbidly satisfied. I wanted this to happen, willed it to be.
The matador rolled from under the bull as it stabbed its horn into the dirt, dashing behind a burladero. Meanwhile, the black-vested matador reentered the ring wielding the muleta, the red cape signaling the final section of the fight. The bull charged immediately. The matador, with renewed focus, swept the muleta across the bull’s horns. The bull returned and was fooled again, and again and again, until they were locked in a strange, messy dance. The crowd yelled, “Olé! Olé!” Many rose to their feet. The bull was transformed from a merciless beast into a clown.
For his final move, signaling dominance over the animal, the matador approached the bull, now exhausted, muleta lowered. He knelt on one knee, inches from its twisted horns and snarling nostrils. Stared straight into its eyes. And when the bull did not attack, did not charge its enemy when completely vulnerable, we knew the fight had been won.
The wranglers lassoed the bull, now sullen and weary, and herded it back into the pen. The matador got to his feet and walked triumphantly around the ring, cupping his hat in his hand, holding his arms high above his head. Everyone was screaming and applauding. Some threw flowers, others blew kisses, someone tossed a plastic bottle of Inca Kola into the ring.
The fight I witnessed was neither traditional nor professional. It was held in a ring much smaller than those at the Plaza De Acho – Lima’s premier bullring with a seating capacity of 17,000 – and was fought by apprentice bullfighters, called novilleros. The most significant difference, however, was that the bulls were not killed at the end of their fights. I’m unsure how I would have felt watching a bull slaughtered for sport. Would I have seen it as an act of animal cruelty, or would the death signify some higher artistry, some dramatic gesture bringing natural conclusion the fight? I am not sure. But the thrill of watching a matador weave and work his way around a bull’s aimless fury, of watching someone face death and danger with such grace, was, in a way, beautiful; and if not beautiful, then thrilling at the very least. The fight brought people together, created an environment of togetherness and community, and despite my being a foreigner, I felt included, among friends. My hope is that I will return to Peru someday, to further understand its rich history and culture, and better understand its way of life, but for now, my memory of the bullfight will have to suffice.
*My apologies for the lack of photos of the bullfight itself. The camera containing these photos slipped out of my hands and fell into the Chicago River last winter.