Researched and written by Abbie Rogers
Translation assistance by Carolyn Merino Mullin and Faith Josephs.

Sport? Art form? Cultural tradition? Act of cruelty? Bullfighting is a spectacle that has sparked much passionate controversy over the centuries, and particularly in recent years. Often considered a defining element of Spanish and Latin American culture, bullfighting is performed in various forms in countries around the world.

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These banderillas, barbed spears decorated with colorful paper fringe, play a key role in the traditional Spanish bullfight. The highly ritualized performance takes place in three stages. In the first stage, the tercio de varas, or “lances third,” the bull—specially bred for aggression, stamina, and a heavily muscled shoulder ridge—enters the ring. At four years old, he has spent his life with other bulls and has never experienced a bullfight. The matador and his assistants test the bull by instigating him to charge their capes. Next, two picadores enter the ring, each mounted on a blindfolded and heavily padded horse. While the bull attacks the horse, the rider repeatedly stabs the bull in his prominent shoulder muscles with a sharp lance to weaken the animal and cause him to keep his head low throughout the fight. Prior to the 1930s, the horses were unprotected and frequently died when gored by the bull.

The second stage, or tercio de banderillas, features these banderillas (meaning “little flags”). Three bandilleros each plunge two harpoon-like banderillas into the bull’s already wounded shoulder muscle, where they will hang for the remainder of the fight. The banderillas in the NMAS Collection were made by José Manuel Pacheco of Seville, whose family has been making banderillas and bullfighting prize ribbons since 1876. Pacheco refers to his work as a “traditional art” and explains that the colors used often symbolize the bullfighter’s hometown.

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By the third stage, the tercio de muerte or “death third,” the bull is exhausted from exertion and blood loss. The matador taunts the bull with his cape, leading him in a series of maneuvers to demonstrate the matador’s control and daring. Finally, the matador positions the bull before him and stabs a sword into the back of the bull’s neck. While an immediate death is preferred, it may take the bull up to fifteen minutes to die even with a successful stab.

Once the bull is dead, a team of mules drags his body from the ring. If he is judged to be particularly brave, the body may be dragged around the ring in a “victory lap.” If the matador’s performance is judged outstanding, he may be awarded the bull’s ears or tail.

Banderillas are also used in the rejoneo, a form of bullfighting in Spain and Portugal where the bull is fought entirely from horseback.

The morality of bullfighting has long been a contentious issue, with religious bans dating back to the 16th century. More recent criticisms include the use of Spanish federal funds and even funds from the EU to support bullfights. Animal advocates condemn bullfighting as a cruel blood sport that stresses and kills an animal slowly and painfully purely for entertainment. Animal protection organizations worldwide protest bullfighting using tactics ranging from legislative efforts to creative demonstrations.

In recent years, the Canary Islands and Catalonia—both Autonomous Communities of Spain—have banned bullfighting, and another fifteen Spanish municipalities have declared themselves Anti-Bullfighting Cities. Spanish Congress, however, is considering revoking existing bans, arguing that bullfighting is vital to Spanish “cultural heritage.” Other Spanish and Latin American cities have responded to the bans with proclamations that protect bullfighting as part of their culture.

banderillas postcardMany other countries, including the US—Texas excluded—prohibit bullfighting, although “bloodless” bullfights have gained popularity in some regions. In these events, described as “Nerf bullfighting” by proponents, the bulls are not killed in the ring and their shoulders are covered with Velcro pads. According to animal cruelty investigators and activists, the pads are too thin to prevent to bandilleras from puncturing the bull’s shoulders, and the lances frequently draw blood.

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