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Running head-on into bull culture

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Bulls are a vital part of Spain’s culture. Bullfighting and the Running of the Bulls festivals, held periodically throughout the country, are iconic traditions that have been met with polarizing responses from Spain’s citizens.

Some chalk it up to a classic custom that has been around for centuries, and it always will be. Others believe it’s just a shallow display of animal cruelty.

Regardless of opinion, I was tasked, along with my fellow classmates, to visit a bull arena in the outskirts of Valencia as part of an assignment. We had little to no context as to what kind of event this would be.

Upon arrival, my friend Amanda said the place looked more like Tijuana, Mexico compared to the other places we had seen in Spain.

I had to agree with her— the event was held on pure dirt, the dust flowing through the air as people traversed through the path to find a good view of the action. The arena was hardly an arena at all for that matter; wood was stacked, assembled and fastened at an angle, bordering the event in a circle, for spectators to climb and sit on.

Photos by Denny Cristales | Signal Tribune
A bull, an animal that is synonymous with sacred
tradition in Spain

The exception was one side where bleachers were accessible for a fee. Below the bleachers was a ground-level space that directly observed the event at close-range, blocked only by bars that resembled more of a jail cell.

Located in the corner of the bleachers and stacked wood was a steel container— inside of it three bulls who were frantically and noisily banging the alloy in a way that insinuated, “Get me the hell out of here.”

My classmates and I, along with our professor and translator, arrived midway through the event. Inside the wooden structure, we saw a beastly leg stroke the ground backward with its hoof, a cloud of dust forming behind it. Attached to that leg was an even beastlier sight— a muscular and fat black bull who wasn’t particularly fond of the six or seven “gentlemen” who were poking him with sticks.

The alpha males voluntarily entered the arena in an attempt to, I could only assume, prove their manhood. It was a free-for all— people could jump in and out of the bull’s den if they had the courage.

Per the assignment, we took pictures of the event.

Positioned behind the wooden barriers, Amanda almost got pierced by one of the bull’s horns herself as he made his way toward her, and she misjudged the proximity of the creature through her lens.

That would be one of two close calls that day, but the danger wouldn’t come from the bull.

Later that evening, the oversized cow finally caught up with his provokers and trampled over two of them in separate incidents.

The first guy seemed to have sustained some mild injuries, as he was quickly escorted to an on-site ambulance and was treated for a lengthy amount of time.

The second guy managed to scurry out of the pit before things got too out of hand. Although visibly shaken, he seemed OK.

My attention was still by the ambulance with the first victim, as my friend Daniel and I were waiting to get a chance to talk to him for an interview.

I meandered to another part of the area in hopes of getting another interview while we waited, and that’s when I saw some commotion brewing up with Amanda and a group of other folk at a distance.
One of the girls had an issue with Amanda taking pictures of her crying, a reaction to seeing one of the men getting struck by the bull.

At the bulls event last month in Valencia, Spain, many of the locals took to center stage to confront the creature, taunt it and run away from it as part of the evening’s festivities.

The girl and the group behind her insisted Amanda delete her photos, or they would make her. The argument was going nowhere, and it was clear they were uninterested in hearing about our duty as journalists. I attempted to escort Amanda away from them.

It must have been a bigger scene than we thought, because as we turned away and made our way elsewhere, a horde of people were gunning right for us, and they didn’t look too amused. On the contrary, they were hostile.

Word must have spread about our presence as journalists during the brief encounter with the girl and her buddies, because this mob, by default, assumed we were there to stir up some trouble.

They circled us and swiped and yanked at Amanda’s camera to confiscate the pictures. I put my arms around her in my best attempts to shield them away, also urging them to leave her alone.

As I yelled, one man in the raucus crowd made eye contact with me, and for a split second, it looked as if he was going to punch me square in the face. I had never been punched before, and that would have been as good a time as any for it to be the first time, but it didn’t happen. Part of me wishes he did for the sake of a better story, but the idea of not having a black eye also works, too.

As we thwarted the crowd for a few seconds, some of the event organizers, dressed in purple, made their way into the horde of humans and helped ward them off, which allowed for our escape from the
claustrophobic vortex.

We gathered ourselves, found the rest of our group and decided to walk away from the area.

From there, we explained the situation to the police, who were already a presence at the bulls event, because I could only assume mobs attacking other people was a regular occurrence.

Our translator, Gema, was so helpful, as she defended our rights as student journalists and poignantly criticized the event organizers, who were judging our intent.

We finally retreated to a small store— with the idea that the group of hostiles could still be out there— and were allowed to stay there, thanks to a nice, older lady, until a taxi came by to transport us back to our area.

Our professor treated us afterward to one of the great mainstays in Spain— Lizarran, a delectable tapas restaurant— and that was that.

At the event last month in Valencia, there were three bulls featured throughout the evening, as participants willingly teased the creatures, per tradition in Spain.

Being exposed to the bulls culture in Spain was an insightful experience. In the country, the population is split down to two sides about the practice— pro-bull and anti-bull.

I fall in the anti-bull category. I think it’s inhumane to treat an animal in the ill manner that the bull is in Spain and other distinct parts of Europe.

In bullfighting, after a long display of teasing the bull, the matador wields his sword and plunges it into the back of the creature to signify the end of the fight.

Oftentimes during running events, the bull’s horns are set on fire to commemorate and add another sense of thrill to the occasion.

Daniel and I continued to report on the topic days after the event. We managed to interview a few locals, but one woman stood out as a bright spark.

Maria Diez Perez, a local in Valencia who just happened to be a journalist, gave her opinion about the tradition, calling it illogical and insensible. Her stance perfectly exemplified my own.

“My opinion is that in the past, yes, it has been a part of our culture— and it still is, always will be— but I also believe in the evolution of our society,” she said in Spanish. “In the present day, animal cruelty should be something that shouldn’t stand in our culture. All animals die, and we eat them […] but it’s one thing to have the human necessity to eat and then deriving pleasure from seeing that cruelty.”

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Running head-on into bull culture