Battle Over the Bulls

Anti-taurino outside Plaza de Acho; photo c. Jorge Vera 2008

Miami Herald, A1, Nov. 21, 2008   

More and more in recent years, bullfighting in Peru has been attacked by activists who call it “cruel and barbaric”

 by Barbara R. Drake; photos by Jorge Vera

LIMA — Dapper in a grey suit and cap, Wencelao Espino Gonzales gazed at the pink walls of this capital city’s historic Plaza de Acho — the second oldest bullring in the world — and explained his lifelong passion for bullfighting.   

“It is a spectacle of energy and movement,” he said on a recent Saturday, “like a ballet between the torero and the bull.”   

“The most important moment is the kill,” the 83-year-old added, a throb in his voice. “Boom, it must be swift. [The Spanish bullfighter] Manolete, who fought here, never missed with his sword. He always killed on the first thrust. That is why he was great.” 

Aficionados like Espino Gonzales flock to the 242-year-old Plaza de Acho each October and November for the bullfight feasts of El Senor de los Milagros (The Lord of the Miracles), one of the premier bullfighting events in Latin America. The festival, which runs through November 23, lures top toreros from Spain and Latin America, who compete before crowds of up to 14,000 spectators, many from Lima’s wealthy, predominantly white elite.   

But in the last several years, the Acho bullfights also have been drawing another crowd: young anti-bullfighting activists, known as antitaurinos in Spanish.   

“Bullfighting is a cruel and barbaric spectacle that has no place in modern Peru,” said Roger Torres Pando, 25, national coordinator for Perú Antitaurino, an alliance of 20 animal-rights groups. “It’s not an art or a sport; it’s an extreme form of cruelty to animals. It must be banned.”   

"Enough of the cruelty"; photo c. Jorge Vera 2008

Perú Antitaurino has staged four series of protests at Acho since 2004, a few marred by violent confrontations. In October 2007, activists insulted bullfighters and spectators entering the stadium, prompting police to use tear gas. In a rout of irony, winds blew the tear gas into the bullring, temporarily blinding audience members and torero Vicente Barrera, who had to pause the fight.   

Protests erupted again earlier this month (Nov. 2) as the first corrida of the Senor de los Milagros festival got underway. About 300 activists from Perú Antitaurino rallied at the Plaza San Martin, in downtown Lima, against Peru’s longtime tradition as police in riot gear stood guard.   

“Bullfighters are cowards and assassins!” yelled the protestors, an assortment of college students, artists and actors, most in their early 20s. “Enough of the torture!”   

“Shame on the silence of the Catholic church,” read one placard. “Life is life. Respect it!”   

Uceda Leal turns his back to the bull, Plaza de Acho; photo c. Jorge Vera 2008

Unlike in Spain and other European countries with a history of animal-rights reform, the antitaurino movement is in its infancy in Peru, where an older generation clings to traditions from its colonial past. But the movement is growing.   

“Four years ago, we had about 100 activists in our alliance. Now we have about 2,000 people signed up,” said Torres Pando of Perú Antitaurino.   

The average age of antitaurinos is 20, said the organizer. In this Andean country, where the median age is 25, that makes the activists contemporary with the bulk of the population.   

“And most Peruvians think that bullfighting is wrong,” said Torres Pando, pointing to a recent University of Lima study of residents in the capital city and in neighboring Callao that shows a wide majority of those polled — 79.7 percent — disapprove of bullfighting, while 18.4 percent approve. He extrapolates those figures to represent all of Peru, not just the capital area.   

“We antitaurinos represent the true voice of the country,” he said. “Peruvians are fed up with bullfighting.”   

Freddy Villafuerte, a director of Taurolima, the organization that promotes the Senor de los Milagros bullfights, puts a different spin on the numbers.   

A dead bull is hauled out of Plaza de Acho; photo c. Jorge Vera 2008

As he is quick to point out, the university’s study from 2007 showed that 14.4 percent approved of bullfighting. This year’s study measured 18.4 percent approval, an increase of four percentage points.   

“That shows bullfighting is becoming more popular in Lima, not less,” Villafuerte said.   

Ticket sales for the Acho festival are another measure of bullfighting’s popularity. This year, individual ticket sales are up by as much as 10 percent over 2007, according to Villafuerte, with nearly 8,000 seats sold for the first corrida. In addition, sales of expensive season tickets (abonos) have increased dramatically.   

As of Nov. 2, about 1,500 abonos had been sold in 2008, compared to 1,350 in 2007 and 800 in 2006, Villafuerte said. That is nearly a 100 percent increase in two years. The abonos cost between the equivalent of $150 and $495 for reserved seats in the arena’s exclusive shaded section, with private boxes fetching $1,400 — no small change in this developing country where the average annual income is $2,920, according to Unicef.   

“It’s a sign that Peru’s economy is doing well,” said Villafuerte.   

Brisk ticket sales also reflect a perception among Lima’s elite that Acho is the new hot spot.   

Protester in Lima; photo C. Jorge Vera

“Acho is becoming the place to be in October and November — the place to rub shoulders with society,” said Villafuerte. “Even non-aficionados go to Acho because it is in fashion.”   

A ban on bullfighting in Lima, where five bullfighting festivals are staged each year, would be a coup for the activists. Perú Antitaurino hopes to achieve something bigger, however.   

The group is pressuring Congress to pass bill #496, a proposed amendment to the country’s existing Animal Protection law, which exempts bullfighting and cockfighting from its remit. If passed, the bill would make bullfighting forbidden throughout Peru.   

“The time has come to pass this bill,” said Torres Pando.   

“It’s an opium dream to think the ban could happen in Peru,” countered Villafuerte. “Especially in the provinces… impossible.”   

 “There are about 400 patron saints festivals in the provinces every year, each with corridas to the death,” he said. “The people demand a good fight, that the bull dies a noble death.”   

Torres Pando acknowledged that it will be difficult to change traditions in towns like Huancayo, Cajamarca and Junín where bullfighting is “very assimilated into Catholic fiestas.” Nevertheless, Perú Antitaurino plans to stage protests there in early 2009.   

Freddy Villafuerte, himself a bullfighter, thinks the activists are getting in over their heads. Not only are they out of touch with the cycles of rural life and the livestock industry, they also ignore contradictions in their ethics, he claims.   

“Many of the antitaurinos eat meat and anticuchos [grilled cows' hearts] but do not protest the killing of animals for human consumption,” said Villafuerte. “They accept that sacrifice but not the one in the bullring.”   

“Cattle die cowardly in massive numbers at slaughterhouses,” said Villafuerte. “I’ve seen them. A brave bull has been bred to fight for his life. It is part of the traditional bullfighting ritual to fight the bull to the death. In some cases, when the bull fights bravely, his life is spared and he goes on to live on a ranch to breed other fighting bulls.”   

“In my own case,” he added, “if I were a bull and I could choose [between the slaughterhouse and the bullring], I would die like a toro bravo — a brave bull.”   

Link to archived story, Miami Herald, Nov. 21, 2008; photos by JORGE VERA

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