A life-size bronze bull atop a plinth guards the entrance to Tordesillas, the small town in the northwestern province of Valladolid that has made international headlines in recent years over its centuries-old tradition of running a bull to ground each September in nearby woodland, and then spearing it to death.
Standing next to the statue on an overcast Saturday morning is José Antonio Rico Ovejero, who for 28 of his 43 years has taken part in the Toro de la Vega event.
But a decision by the regional government of Castilla y León to spare the animal has angered him and many others in Tordesillas. “It’s like somebody walking into my house and changing the curtains,” he says in exasperation.
Tordesillas has been attacked. The anti-bullfighting lobby comes here each year and insults us. Now they have banned a fiesta that has deep roots here. It’s as though they had pulled down a monument Jesús López Garañeda, local historian
“There is no fiesta if the animal isn’t killed. The whole point is to be down there: just you and him, in his territory. It’s just your intelligence against his bravura. And you offer the animal the most valuable thing you have: your life,” says Ovejero, a local civil servant who was gored in the leg in 1993, leaving him “clinically dead for three or four minutes.” Ovejero says that as a child he wanted to be a bullfighter, and in 2001 he won the Toro de la Vega tournament after spearing the bull to death.
But the event has attracted growing numbers of animal rights activists, who are determined to have it banned. In recent years there have been standoffs and fisticuffs with locals during the event, as well as an enduring campaign in the media and social media between supporters and detractors.
In response, this village of 9,000 has closed ranks, with many local people feeling that they are being unfairly attacked, explains Jesús López Garañeda, who has written a book about a tradition that dates back to the time of Christopher Columbus.
I am saddened that this decision wasn’t taken by the town hall before the regional government did
Mercedes San José, local councilor
“Tordesillas has been attacked. The anti-bullfighting lobby comes here each year and insults us. Now they have banned a fiesta that has deep roots here. It’s as though they had pulled down a monument,” he adds.
Ovejero believes the tradition would have died out a decade ago if not for the media coverage: “There are fewer and fewer people prepared to put themselves in front of the animal, and those values and principles are no longer being handed down to new generations.”
“I am saddened that this decision wasn’t taken by the town hall before the regional government did,” says Mercedes San José, the only member of the local council prepared to come out publicly against the event. She ran for office on behalf of a platform called Tordesilla Toma la Palabra (Tordesillas Speaks), set up by the Communist Party-led United Left at last year’s municipal elections to call a referendum on whether to continue with the Toro de la Vega.
San José won more than 400 votes, giving her a seat in a body dominated by eight Socialist Party representatives and four from the conservative Popular Party, who overcame their differences to organize a joint press conference last week to protest the regional government’s decision. They also said they would work toward holding this year’s Toro de la Vega.
So what happens between now and September? “We’re going to pursue this in the courts, so that this year at least, we can hold the event as we always have,” says Francisco Hernández, president of a regional bullfighting federation.
Javier Campos, the councilor in charge of the annual fiesta, has called on local people to spoil their vote in the June 26 general elections in protest. The Toro de la Vega Trust, whose motto is Without roots, nothing, has posted a note on its website inciting supporters to take the law into their own hands: “Now is the time to break the law. The time has come to forget about peace and prepare for war. It is time to continue fulfilling our ancestral traditions in spite of everything. It is time to kill the Toro de la Vega.”
English version by Nick Lyne.