The bull seemed suddenly aware that not only was he doomed, but that he had been duped, publicly humiliated.
Bullfighting aficionados would say it’s “traditional,” not “antiquated.” One fan told me a few days after the fight that you have to grow up with bullfighting to appreciate it. He explained that the event was layered with small traditional flourishes. For instance, he said, each trumpet melody has its own meaning, and the judge of the bullfight, known as the presidente, decides which will be played. This lined up with the relaxed-yet-attentive vibe at Plaza México. Mostly quiet after the start, the spectators erupted in unison during the first great ole, seemingly out of nowhere. Then came whistles, cheers, and more oles at various points in the proceedings.
IS VIOLENT DEATH, LIKE Hemingway says, really “one of the simplest things of all and the most fundamental?” Violence, like anything else, happens in context. A bullfight is a lavish and carefully orchestrated ritual. It hardly feels simple or fundamental, even in the primal way that hunting does. Before being liberated by death, the bull is made to suffer through pre-ordained phases of injury at the hands of the picadores and banderilleros. He is humiliated and taunted by the matador, who postures with mad ego, making light of death, and light of his alleged opponent. It is true that on rare occasions, the bull is granted a pardon for displaying exceptional courage, but it seems to me that for the unknowing animal, what we call courage has a lot more to do with survival instincts.
When the third bull of the day entered the ring, thick and wild-eyed, it occurred to me that until that very moment, he had lived a charmed life. He had been bred for strength, raised for four years on a large ranch, pampered and prepared. He would die a miserable public death, and afterward he would be butchered for meat. Is this worse than the life of typical beef cow, who after six months alongside his mother is sent to a crowded feedlot to be fattened up with grain and injected with antibiotics for another six months before meeting his own inglorious death by captive bolt pistol? Obviously this is a false choice. More ethical options exist. But the hypothetical is worth considering. Which life and death would you prefer?
At Plaza Mexico, death was the main concern, and yet it did not appear to be a concern at all. It was merely inevitable. Outside the arena, streetside vendors sold stuffed bulls to children without irony. Despite a growing anti-bullfighting sentiment in Mexico, there were no political protesters to be seen. Inside, after a particularly magnificent performance against his second bull, El Juli was awarded its ears as trophies. Silveti was awarded an ear, too. The trumpets played on, and the groundskeepers raked the dirt in the ring where the bulls had been dragged away.
Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His work has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, The Daily Beast, and The Best American Sports Writing. He founded the baseball blog Pitchers & Poets and is a founder of The Classical.