Spain calls for ban on dwarf bullfighting shows for ‘degrading’ people with disabilities

Associations say the spectacles make fun of people with dwarfism, but performers argue that they have a right to entertain and that are “idols” for children

A show of bullfighting dwarfs run by the comedy troupe Diversiones en el Ruedo.
A show of bullfighting dwarfs run by the comedy troupe Diversiones en el Ruedo.

Spain’s Social Rights Ministry is calling for a ban on shows of dwarf bullfighters for “degrading” people with disabilities. These types of shows, which were common until recently in small Spanish towns and villages, see people with dwarfism fight a young cow and clown around. The Social Rights Ministry argues that this kind of entertainment undermines the dignity of this collective – an argument supported by disability associations.

The ministry, which is headed by Ione Belarra, of the anti-austerity Unidas Podemos, raised the issue on Friday, when it called for the cancelation of a show featuring bullfighters with dwarfism in the town of Zahínos in Badajoz, Extremadura. The show was organized by the comedy troupe Diversiones en el Ruedo (Amusement in the Ring), a company of 14 bullfighters, eight of whom are little people, which has been performing since 2015. Despite the ministry’s objections, the spectacle, also known as bullfighting firefighters, went ahead.

We have to ask ourselves what would happen if a similar show was made with people with Down syndrome, or sensory impairment, or any other type of disability. Would it be allowed?
Felipe Ordiz, Alpe Achondroplasia Foundation’s legal advisor

Spain is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and, according to Jesús Martín Blanco, the head of the department overseeing the rights of people with disabilities at the Ministry of Social Rights, “in the last [UN] compliance review, held in Geneva, we were told that this type of practice had to be abolished.” Martín Blanco, who suffers from bone dysplasia – a type of dwarfism, is particularly critical of the fact that these performances are aimed at an audience of children, who learn to degrade and humiliate on the basis of physical conditions. “If the children are going to laugh at a person in a bullring, they will surely laugh at me when they come out,” he says.

Carmen Alonso, from the Alpe Achondroplasia Foundation, whose son suffers from dwarfism, feels the same. “I have been trying to get these types of shows banned since my son was born, and he is now 29,” she says. “People need to understand that people with disabilities are going to be mocked, in many cases over 60% or 70% of the time. Walking down the street we have been pointed at many times, and people say things like ‘there goes the bullfighter fireman’,” she explains.

Felipe Ordiz, the Alpe Achondroplasia Foundation’s legal advisor, agrees. “These are shows based on humiliation,” he says. “If parents and city councils teach children that it is a laugh to make fun of those who are different, we are building an unhealthy society. We have to ask ourselves what would happen if a similar show was made with people with Down syndrome, or sensory impairment, or any other type of disability. Would it be allowed?”

According to the president of the Spanish Committee of Representatives for People with Disabilities (CERMI), Luis Cayo, banning these shows “is a long-running demand from people with disabilities that has never been picked up by any government. We are glad that the ministry is raising its voice and taking this request on board. The government has to act because they have the legislative power. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a process to modify the laws that allow these spectacles.”

I invite everyone to come and see if they are really laughing at them or laughing with them
Daniel Calderón, manager of Diversiones en el Ruedo

But not everyone supports the measure. “I think these attacks show a lack of respect and freedom,” says Daniel Calderón, the manager of Diversiones en el Ruedo, who is also a bullfighter. “Everyone should be able to work at what they want. We are all professionals; we are accredited with the Culture Ministry; we contribute to the Social Security system, and we do not want to live on subsidies, we want to fight. It’s our trade. I invite everyone to come and see if they are really laughing at them or laughing with them. It’s a show like any other. Contrary to what’s being said, they are idols for the children. The kids go down to the bullring; they do some bullfighting; they have a good time with them, and being of the same stature, they feel like the real thing.”

However, Martín Blanco believes that many people with dwarfism have not had the freedom to choose another job. Furthermore, the fact that people laugh at these bullfighters “not only has implications for themselves, but for the whole collective.” This is why the government is planning to implement a professional retraining program for the 70 or 80 people who work in this field in Spain. “We want to offer them a job that avoids precariousness, but with equality and dignity,” he says.

Arguing that these kinds of shows present people with dwarfism “as buffoons,” Martín Blanco, adds: “That’s something that should be eradicated by law. It is making fun of someone for having different abilities. That is why the ministry is going to direct all its efforts into abolishing these practices and banning these types of shows, which are still allowed by law.”

Issues related to bullfighting are, in principle, the domain of the Culture Ministry. When asked about this particular issue, a ministerial spokesman replied that the National Bullfighting Agreement was approved by the Labor Ministry, while the state bullfighting regulations were approved by the Justice and Interior ministries, suggesting that any reform to the current regulations will not be easy.

Shows in decline

According to recent data, these types of shows are no longer as common as they used to be. In 2019, there were 349 bullfights, of which only 11 were from comedy troupes, according to the Culture Ministry’s Statistics of Bullfighting Affairs. In 2020, there was almost no bullfighting at all due to the coronavirus pandemic. The troupe Diversiones en el Ruedo that performed last Friday in Badajoz does about 27 shows annually, so it is possible that some of these are categorized differently.

As Martín Blanco points out, these types of functions are usually only performed in Spain because they are closely associated with the world of bullfighting. “In France, there was a tradition of dwarf tossing and it was abolished,” he says. “Let’s hope that we will also be able to ban such things here.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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