Local journalist travels to Spain to ‘follow the bulls’

The Spanish bullfighter Morante de la Puebla passes a bull May 6 at Seville's La Maestranza Plaza de Toros during the April Fair.

Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer 

Editor’s note: Macon County News reporter/journalist Abraham Mahshie spent six weeks in Europe recently continuing his research on a book about bullfighting. The following relays some of his experiences while in Spain.

I was only on chapter 6, but bullfighting season in Spain had started again. I threw my dogeared Lonely Planet Spain guide in a suitcase, two pairs of nice shoes, a few notepads, my recorder, my flat newsboy cap for the “Sun” section of the plaza and cool, but stylish clothes for the bullfights and fairs in Seville and Madrid.

I had lived for four years in Spain and in nearly all my free time, I traveled and discovered the country by following bullfighters. I wrote freelance stories about bullfighting and its personalities – from the Michelin star chef Mario Sandoval, who cooks bull meat for high-end clients, to the cigar-smoking, eccentric bullfighter Morante de la Puebla. I took a 250-hour diploma course on bullfighting journalism at a Madrid university and I was granted press credentials at Madrid’s Las Ventas Plaza and a dozen other plazas across the country to work on a book about tauromaquia, the art of bullfighting, and tourism in Spain, seen through the eyes of bullfighters, each from a different region of the country.

When I left Spain last August, I chose to write from my family’s cabin in Franklin, where I could listen to the soft rush of the creek below, and look out into the treetops or take walks in the forest as I thought. I put up some old bullfighting prints and assembled a small library of bullfighting books I had accumulated in Spain, including the Cossío encyclopedia set, all the 6 Toros 6 magazines from my reporting period, thousands of images and videos and my dozens of notepads and hundreds of hours of interviews with bullfighters, ranchers, promoters, journalists, authors and aficionados, or fans. 

My goal was to describe the feeling and art of bullfighting through the voices, lives and experiences of modern matadors.

Seeing past the controversy 

to see the art

Two bulls are readied in a pen at the El Añadio bullfighting ranch and guesthouse in Jaén for a private tantadero, or practice session, with matador Curro Diáz.

In Spain and in the other six bullfighting countries, la corrida, the bullfight, is controversial. The bull dies. It is raised for 4-5 years in a wooded pasture with the best care to ensure it is strong, beautiful and fierce. But, the toro de lidia, or fighting bull, is raised to fight and die in the Plaza de Toros.

For more than 2,000 years, all along the Mediterranean basin, bulls have been part of sacrificial spectacles whereby an animal is killed and the meat is eaten by the townspeople on religious feast days. Modern bullfighting, which is about 150 years old, preserves this essence of ritual sacrifice but in a highly regimented, three-act performance.

The matador is the protagonist. He carries a fuchsia cape in the first act and a red muleta, or cloth, in the third act. In the first act, the bull’s back and shoulders are pierced by a lance from a bullfighter on horseback. In the second act, members of the bullfighter’s cuadrilla, or team, place banderillas, or sticks with colored paper and a hook at the end, into the bull’s back. The purpose of these stages and the passing of the bull by the bullfighter is to tire the bull and prepare it for death in the final moments of the third act. This is when the bullfighter retrieves a steel sword and plunges into the back of the bull, usually killing it within a minute. The three acts take a total of about 20 minutes to complete. There are three matadors and each will take turns fighting a bull twice for a total of six bulls each afternoon. 

There is blood, and many people do not like bullfighting. I have come to terms with the death of the bull because it dies quickly like other animals raised for food, and veterinarians have told me it does not suffer during the bullfight. I respect those who do not like bullfighting, but like the toreros, I do not believe it should be prohibited because what the bullfight offers in artistic value and sensory experience is unmatched in any other performance or event I have ever known.

If the death of the bull can be overcome, there is much beauty to be appreciated.

The bullfighter 

Abraham Mahshie stands outside the Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas in Madrid before the start of the month-long San Isidro bullfighting Festival.

My first memory as a child is walking up the giant steps of the Plaza de Toros in Mexico City with my parents and grandparents at age 3. I have flashes of the bulls dancing around the orange sand, the horses, the bullfighter’s red muleta and the banderillas. It was an impactful experience, but I did not attend another bullfight for 25 years.

In Quito, in 2006, a journalist friend and I attended a bullfight from the barrerra seats, front row, and it rained very hard. We saw the athletic bullfighter David Fandila, “El Fandi,” leap into the air to place the banderillas into the bull’s back and then trot backwards, just feet from the bull’s horns until it tired and stopped in front of him. The range of emotions that I felt that afternoon were fear, suspense, beauty and elegance.

There are the trajes de luces, the suit of lights, worn by the bullfighters, that sparkle in the afternoon sun. There is the paso doble music, played by the orchestra as the bullfighters make their paseíllo, or procession, at the start of the fight, and then again whenever there is a beautiful faena, or series of passes. There is the elegance and grace of the bullfighter, who resembles a ballerina in posture, gait and subtle, gentle dance with the bull, using the cape or muleta as his guide and only protection. 

Macon County News reporter Abraham Mahshie sits for an interview with fourth-generation bullfighter Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez in Ronda, Spain to discuss the Spanish tradition and Ernest Hemingway’s descriptions of bullfighting and the exploits of Cayetano’s grandfather, Antonio Ordoñez. Photo by Javier Carbajal

Bullfighters are performers, as the fourth-generation bullfighter Cayetano Rivera Ordoñez told me when I visited his country home in Ronda, which featured a photo of his grandfather, Antoñio Ordoñez, and Ernest Hemingway on the wall behind us. They are performers, he told me, but everything they do is real. When they are injured, they are really injured. When they die, they really die. 

Cayetano’s father died in a plaza in 1984 when Cayetano was just seven years old. He avoided bullfighting his whole life, but after graduating with a film degree from California, he had to know to what the two dozen or so members of his bullfighting family dynasty dedicated their lives. He picked up a capote and he killed his first bull at 27 and became a professional bullfighter the following year.

Cayetano does not need to fight bulls for a living. He is an Armani and Loewe model. He sells real estate, and he has investments. But he needs to fight bulls to feel alive. We discussed Hemingway’s works on bullfighting – “Death in the Afternoon,” “The Sun Also Rises,” “The Dangerous Summer” – and we pondered whether modern society was no longer interested in this ancient art. 

Abraham Mahshie interviews Jaén bullfighter Curro Diáz and discusses flamenco at the El Añadio bullfighting ranch and guess house in Spain’s olive oil country. Photo by Javier Carbajal

In the past three years in Spain, I interviewed bullfighters from humble and wealthy backgrounds, from the agricultural fields of Murcia and Jaén, to the Andalusian cities of Jeréz, Seville, Córdoba and Granada. One chapter is written from the perspectives of those who knew the last Basque bullfighter, Ivan Fandiño, who I saw fight six bulls in 2015 before he died in a French plaza two years later. 

With matadors from across Spain I discussed Spanish wine, ham, cuisine, landscapes, art, festivals, Moorish and Roman architecture and whether the bullfight should continue.

One bullfighter, Juan José Padilla, lost his left eye and hearing in his left ear to a bull in Zaragoza in 2011. He returned to the ring and fought six more years, wearing an eye patch and garnering the affectionate name “The Pirate” from his legions of fans. At his home near Jeréz, Padilla told me that he returned to the ring despite being a father of two small children in order to show them that anything could be overcome.

A plate of traditional jamon iberico (Iberian ham), or cured ham, olives and tempranillo wine at Bodeguita Romero in Seville.

I interviewed the bullfighter Diego Urdiales at a vineyard in his home region of La Rioja, famous for its delicious, full-bodied wines. Over an afternoon of wine and roasted lamb ribs at Bodegas Finca La Emperatriz, we discussed cuisine, the wines that he grew up with and the many styles of bullfighting. 

I met Serafín Marín in Park Güell in Barcelona for an interview and photo shoot. The quixotic park was designed by the Spanish artist Gaudi with wavy stone columns and broken colored tiles forming crosses and iguanas in a garden with expansive views of the city. We spoke about the bullfighting prohibition in Catalonia and the dagger effect it had on his career.

I met the young female novillera, or amateur bullfighter, Rocío Romero before a fight in Valladolid where she was thrown into the air by a bull’s horns after executing a series of dangerously close passes. She fell and broke her ankle, taking four months to recover. I met her again for a photo shoot in the orange garden of the Moorish palace in her native Córdoba. She told me why she left gymnastics to become a bullfighter, how inspiring it made her feel and how she wanted not to be treated or viewed differently because she was a woman. I also interviewed the only female Spanish matador to fight at Madrid’s Las Ventas Plaza, Cristina Sánchez, who came out of retirement to fight once in 2016. Both will be part of a chapter on women in bullfighting.

The stories I heard from bullfighters are life stories, human stories. They are stories of success and failure, of family, of struggle and search for self-realization. Bullfighters are the most philosophical and artistic interview subjects I have met in my journalistic career. They think deeply about life, perhaps because they have been so close to death.

When I returned to Spain several weeks ago, I wanted to be close to the bullfight again to re-inspire my writing, and perhaps recover some bullfighter interviews I was not able to secure before I left Spain. I achieved both, but I achieved so much more. 

Abraham Mahshie, right, and a friend, enjoy the casetas, or tent parties, at the April Fair in Seville.

I enjoyed the bullfight and Spanish culture with friends from the U.S. and my close Spanish friends. At Seville’s April fair and Madrid’s San Isidro Fair, I became reacquainted with journalists, bullfighters, flamenco singers and aficionados who I had interviewed before. I secured an interview with the bullfighter Curro Diáz at the El Añadio bull ranch and guest house in Spain’s stunning and peaceful olive oil country, Jaén. There, I watched him practice in open fields and a closed ring, after which the part gitano, or gypsy, bullfighter and I discussed the relationship between bullfighting and flamenco.

Part of the fun of Seville is getting lost in its many cobble-stoned alleyways, only to emerge with a spectacular view, this of the city’s Moorish-inspired cathedral, converted from a mosque in the 16th century.

In these past days, I have witnessed dramatic moments in the plazas with my favorite bullfighters interviewed for my book, including Miguel Ángel Perera, who was carried on the shoulders of his comrades through Madrid´s puerta grande, or great door, and into the street of Madrid after a triumphant performance.

The sounding of the horns, the bright and hot Andalusian sun, the gold glimmer of the sand, the grandeur of the plaza and its arches, the solemn march of the bullfighters, the slow muleta pass of the bull that almost seems to freeze time — these are all part of a feeling that only the bullfight can create.

Follow Abraham´s book progress, including interviews, photo shoots, bullfights and more on Instagram and Twitter @AbrahamToros.