For many Spaniards bullfighting is an honorable, centuries old tradition. Meet the teenagers who hope to follow their forefathers into the ring…
In Chinchon, Spain, 45km south-east of Madrid, it is a beautiful sun-drenched day with a carnival atmosphere in the city centre.
It seems everyone, from the oldest resident to the youngest infant, has come to the Plaza Mayor where the feast of St James is being celebrated with bullfighting.
Next is a 'novillada' – a fight between a young matador – normally about 16 years old and fresh out of bullfighting school – and a young bull.
The sombre-looking boy checks his flamboyant suit and sharpens his sword, interrupted occasionally by girls jostling to have their pictures taken with him.
As music rings out around the stadium, safety checks are completed, gates are fastened and the novillero and his team gather at the ringside.
Seconds later the stable guard pulls a catch and an angry young bull comes crashing out of the toril gate to the thrilled screams of young children on their parents’ shoulders.
As the bull gathers its bearings, the young matador approaches with banderillas (barbed sticks) in each of his hands.
When the bull charges, attempting to gore him with its horns, the boy leaps aside and plunges the sticks into its back.
Then in the final third of the fight, with the bull's back pin-cushioned with decorated spears, the young man demonstrates his skill with the muleta – a red flannel on a wooden stick – seemingly dancing with the wounded bull before plunging his sword between the animal's shoulder blades, severing the aorta.
Horses then drag the carcass out of the ring to butchers waiting outside where it is sold as meat, and the novillero tosses its severed ears to boys in the crowd who jump to catch them.
This is a right of passage and a gathering of generations ending in, ultimately, a bloody ritual of death. This is the ‘planeta de los toros’ – the world of the bulls.
According to Manuel Sánchez, a 15-year old bullfighting student at the Escuela de Tauromaquia in Madrid, the attraction to the sport is a mixture of national pride and respect.
“The whole town loves you when you are a matador,” he explains.
“You are upholding a very important national tradition and people respect that. They respect that you are risking your life to entertain them, and it makes you a very honourable person.”
Sánchez’ father was a matador before him and Manuel is keen to follow in his footsteps.
“I watched my father fight bulls when I was a boy and I heard how the crowd reacted when he played to them, I wanted to be just like him,” he says, smiling.
Asked whether he’s pursuing a sport regarded by many to belong to the older generation, he laughs.
“An old man wouldn’t last very long in the bullring,” he says. “Go to any fight and look at the crowds. There are many young families with children, and the matadors themselves must be fit and agile. It’s a sexy sport, and it draws a lot of female interest.”
While Manuel’s father is now retired, his son will, this coming season, fight his first bull in front of an audience.
He will be looking to make his mark on the ‘escalafon’ or league table reserved for professional matadors and novilleros.
As a novillero he must take the alternativa, a ceremony in which he is proposed and seconded by two other matadors if he wishes to become a matador himself.
Further along the path to recognition and, hopefully, a long life of bullfighting is 17-year-old José Rios.
José has already undertaken a number of fights, and spends the majority of his spare time either training or watching videos of bullfights.
“I don’t mind the demands it makes on my time,” he says. “I’ll be a great matador or I’ll do something else. If you want to do this job professionally, you have to be very serious about it. Many people have been killed or injured badly because they let their concentration slip for just one second.”
José believes bullfighting now is as popular as it ever was, but admits some of his peers have not been receptive to his choice of career.
“Many young people are competing to study at the best [bullfighting] schools,” he says.
“It is an important cultural tradition for all Spanish people and it remains popular, otherwise the bullrings would have been pulled down to make way for something else.”
He acknowledges that it not for everybody.
“It’s a personal choice,” he shrugs. “I have taken some abuse from some of my peers, but this is a part of my culture and it’s not for one group to tell another group what they can and cannot do. If they want to opt out, then fine, but bullfighting is part of what our country is.”
With TV companies fighting to air live bullfighting in Spain; schools turning away students in France, Latin America, and more recently in the US; and, specialist enthusiasts’ organisations in countries as diverse as Sweden and Indonesia, interest in bullfighting appears to be on the increase.
José maintains that at the end of the day, he doesn’t feel bad for the bulls he will slaughter in the ring.
“If a bull displays exceptional bravery and the crowd petitions the president of the bullring towards the end of the fight, he will grant a pardon and spare the bull's life.
“The bull then becomes a stud. So it has every chance to live,” he says.