More than any singular attraction, however, the showpiece of the Fiesta de Quito takes place in the Plaza del Torros, the bullfighting arena. It is the 99th year of bullfighting in Quito. Daily highlights from the fights are emblazoned on the front page of every newspaper and the evening news includes analyses that would rival that of the American presidential debates.
With all this hype, it seemed sacrilegious to pass up an opportunity to see what it was all about. Nancy, however, couldn't let my cultural curiosity outweigh her sense of animal cruelty and decided not to join me. Luckily, my friend Chuck shared my interest and we decided to go together.
The area around the Plaza was a mob scene of pedestrians, cars, vendors, police, ticket scalpers, and people just standing around to vicariously share in the excitement. Chuck and I made our way to the entrance gate past the ticket-hawkers and crowds of women selling Panama hats, Fray Leon wine-in-a-box, and Budweiser tallboys. Public drunkenness plays a significant role in the appreciation of the bullfight.
In the ring, the brass-band kicked up the national anthem and the crowd memorably recalled the Battle of Pichinca. The matadors stood gathered in a group surrounded by others on horseback who would soon take part in the performance to come. The anthem finished with a flourish and, with a wave of his hat, the mayor of Quito signalled the start.
All bullfights follow the same three-part procession. Never having seen a bullfight previously, I hope connoisseurs will forgive me if I misinterpret the ritual. To the untrained it goes something like this: The bull is released and charges into the center of the circle. Immediately matadorettes begin signaling to the bull from the perimeter of the circle by flapping their pink capes. The bull charges from one end of the arena to the next, each time arriving just as the matadorettes duck behind a small wooden fence and out of harm's way. This period is either meant to excite the bull or tire him out, I was never such which.
There is a brief respite during which ornamentally adorned horses enter the ring. Each rider carries a long spear. The bull is more or less coaxed in the direction of the rider, who inserts his spear into the bull's back. The spear has a block on the tip so it can't penetrate too far, otherwise I suppose they could just kill the bull right then. The wound begins bleeding profusely. My dictionary of bullfighting explained that the reason for this procedure was to "relax" the bull. Somehow I think something was lost in the translation.
Following is what many would consider the "true" bullfight. To shouts of "Ole!" the matador entices the bull with his red cape. The bull charges, but you quickly realize what a dumb animal the bull is — it is drawn unfailing to the cape. If only once it would step a foot to the side ... The show that follows is more or less the same in every fight with the matador leading the bull around the ring with flaps of his little red cape. The better matadors displayed their bravado by turning their back to the bull only a few feet from its tired head tempting it to charge. They always seemed to know that it wouldn't.
At last, the bull grows weary and perhaps the crowd as well, the matador readies his saber to slay the beast. Done well, the bull is killed with one sudden stab behind the head, severing the spinal cord. Done poorly, it's as bad as you can imagine with the matador following the crippled bull around the ring repeatedly stabbing in an attempt to bring about its demise.
After eight repetitions of this ritual the crowd made its drunken way to the exits. We had seen two "ears," performances in which the matador is awarded the ear of the dead bull by grace of the crowd who has found his display of bravado particularly impressive. But in truth, none of it seemed that impressive. After all, the bull never has a chance. It seemed to me that the social ritual of attending the fights was more important than the ritual within the ring.
Ecuador's President Bucaram has recently said that he would like to abolish the fights altogether. Judging from the crowd's reaction when asked to show their support for the fights that seems unlikely, and next year the stands will again be packed with curious gringos and drunken connoisseurs shouting "Ole!"