MORALZARZAL, Spain — Jesus Mejias is only 14, but he’s already mapped out his future: he wants to become a matador and appear in the great bullrings of Madrid and Seville.
He’s just taken a big step to fulfilling that ambition at a trainee bullfight in this small town 30 miles north of Madrid.
Mejias stands at a little over five feet tall and his voice hasn’t broken, but his skills with the cape against a quarter-ton bullock wowed the local crowd. At the end of the faena, he drove his sword into the animal’s heart, killing it with the cool precision of a veteran.
“I want to be a great bullfighter,” he said afterward. “That’s why I’m here. Otherwise I’d be at home studying.”
Mejias and the other teenagers who took part in the event are part of the next generation of Spanish matadors. But they’re embarking on their careers at a time that bullfighting’s future is more in doubt than perhaps any other time in its three-century history — as Moralzarzal’s three-quarters-empty bullring attests.
The most obvious problem is economic. These days, cash-strapped Spaniards are unwilling to pay for tickets that can cost upwards of $65 for a hard seat under the burning summer sun.
Crippled by a prolonged recession, the country has a jobless rate of 27 percent and a strict government austerity program that’s mandated cuts to civil servants’ salaries, pension freezes and tax rises.
“This is an extreme situation,” says Juan Jose Rueda, owner of La Dehesa, a bull-breeding farm near Madrid. The 700-hectare estate’s calm beauty, of shady meadows where cows and bulls graze, hides what Rueda describes as the industry’s “chaos.”
“We’re selling our bulls at prices that have been dropping for a long time,” he says. “The sector is depressed, it can’t carry on like this.”
Bullfighting has been surviving in a bubble, he explains, much like the one that buoyed the real estate sector before the economic crisis.
Top bullfighters still command high fees — up to $400,000 per bullfight in some cases — and tickets remain expensive. But the demand is no longer there, especially as younger generations show less and less interest in the deeply traditional pastime.
In 2007, when Spain’s economy was at the height of its construction-led boom, around 2,700 official bullfights took place across the country. This year, Rueda reckons, there will be fewer than 500.
Big cities such as Madrid, Seville and Valencia are maintaining their traditional summer festivals, albeit with fewer ticket sales. But for the thousands of smaller towns that also have bullfighting traditions, such as Moralzarzal, it’s getting harder to justify paying for the bulls, bullfighters and all the organization that accompanies a week-long fiesta.
The local authorities happily subsidized the events several years ago, but now fewer and fewer can afford to.
However, there’s more that ails the industry than only the economic slump, says Antonio Lorca, the bullfighting critic for El Pais newspaper. He says the spectacle’s quality has declined because matadors prefer to face more docile and therefore less dangerous bulls.
“We’ve gone from having bulls that were fierce and aggressive to having animals that are weak, soft and good-natured,” he says.
“Bullfighting is based on the ferocity of the animal and the skill of the man facing it. But if the bull isn’t fierce, the whole thing loses its meaning… it’s like playing soccer without a ball.”
Rueda, the bull breeder, plays down the criticism, although he points out that it’s usually the bullfight organizers, rather than the farmers, who select the animals that will feature in bullfights.
Lorca also points to the bullfighters as a problem, saying that only a handful of first-class matadors remain in Spain. And he believes only one has the potential to be “the 21st century’s great savior of bullfighting.”
Jose Tomas, 37, has already retired from the ring once, only to make a spectacular comeback in 2007. Known for his high-risk technique, he has frequently been gored, and often emerges from bullfights with his traditional matador’s suit smeared in blood — his own and the animals’.
He almost died in 2010 from an injury to his groin in Aguascalientes in Mexico. He’s continued to bullfight since recovering, but mainly at lower-profile events.
Given the challenges facing bullfighting, it’s little wonder that half-a-million Spaniards have presented Congress with a proposal for the fiesta to be enshrined in law as a “cultural asset.”
Its supporters are concerned that an animal rights-driven ban on bullfighting implemented in the northern region of Catalonia last year could spread to other parts of Spain.
“Bullfighting will definitely disappear, we’ve already seen this in Catalonia,” says Sharon Nunez, of the animal rights organization Igualdad Animal.
“This has made the bullfighters and the bullfighting industry more aware of how weak they really are and how much they have to fight back.”