“We do not want food, we are hungry for bulls,” reads a banner outside the Santamaría Plaza of Bogotá, a brick coliseum constructed in 1931 that seats eighteen thousand spectators. Below, apprentice bullfighters –novilleros– have spent their days and nights under plastic tarps consuming nothing but saline solutions, since August 2nd in protest of Mayor Gustavo Petro’s city-wide ban on the sport in June 2012. After 30 days of hunger striking, Colombia’s Constitutional Court handed down a decisive verdict September 2nd, that the Santamaría Plaza can host bull- fighting once again.
For two centuries, red capes and gold-embroidered vests had survived progressive reforms in the nation’s capital. On my way to the arena, the silver-haired taxi driver echoed an increasingly common view: “It’s barbaric. We don’t raise cats and dogs just to kill them, why bulls? One issue is the livelihood of the fighters, and another is the massacre of innocent animals.”
Andrés, the twenty-three-year-old son of prominent bullfighter “Pepe” Man- rique, was eager to explain why they had been demonstrating: “We have been robbed of our liberty, culture, and work.” Gesturing towards a collage depicting artists and politicians at the stadium, he suggested that the capital had also lost a tradition that cut across social classes. “Rich or poor, politicians or farmers (…) they all used to get together on the weekends,” he said.
Inside the tents, the novilleros played dominoes on a stack of newspapers. At sixty-four, Alfredo Peña was the oldest of the group, and had worked with bulls for a half-century. “It’s too late for me, perhaps, but I am here so that the young will have the opportunity to fight in the arena.” He stated that some thirty-five thousand families are moreover supported by the industry nationwide, including ranchers, food vendors, publicists, drivers, and musicians.
When asked about the anti-bullfighting movement, which has rebuffed attempts to justify the sport on economic or cultural grounds, Alfredo became pensive. “We are trying to educate them,” he said. “We love bulls. We take better care of them than the food industry (…) a bull dies defending its honour, and then we also sell its meat.” He claimed that it was impossible, however, to understand the connection with bulls until stepping into the ring: “You become young again; you feel alive.”
In response to the high court’s ruling, the apprentices might find themselves with swords in hand once again. About nine months ago, Colombia’s Constitutional Court began reviewing a case presented by Felipe Negret Mosquera, President of the Bullfighting Corporation of Bogotá. He argued that Mayor Petro had breached his right to due process by unilaterally terminating the organization’s contract with the Santamaría Plaza, which was slated to extend until March 2015.
In October 2012, the institution upheld Law 916 of 2004, which classified the sport as a “cultural activity,” and specified that mayors and city councilmen could not prohibit bullfighting from any municipality in which it had been a longstanding tradition.
However, animal rights activists have argued that the same law, which stipulates that the wellbeing of the bulls must be protected, disallows their violent death. In Portugal, for example, the activity is permitted, but it is illegal to kill the animal at the end. In August, a Bogotá-based NGO gathered 25,000 online signatures against the return of bullfighting, to be sent to Magistrate Mauricio González.
It remains unclear if the Mayor will comply with the Court’s decision. On August 14, Petro, alongside his Secretary General and Minister of Culture, met with members of the hunger strike. “I will resign before reopening the bull- fighting ring,” he told them. Two days prior, he wrote on his Twitter account, “I invite the people of Bogotá to mobilize in favor of a city without death spectacles.” On August 25, several novilleros brought legal action against the Mayor for breach of legal duty and abuse of public office.
Some one hundred novilleros from across the nation descended upon the capital to show solidarity with the strik- ers and the Court’s impending verdict. On August 23, César Rincón, one of Colombia’s most famous bullfighters, had spent the night at the Santamaría Plaza, amid displays of flamenco dancing. The court’s verdict Tuesday – in favour of the Corporation – does not immediately signal a return of the bulls to the Plaza. As bullfighting season traditionally begins during the first weeks of a new year, the Mayor still has time on his hands, and the support of the anti-bullfighting lobby, to devise a legal strategy to keep this plaza closed to a highly contentious “spectacle.”