In the parking garage of a small apartment building across the highway from Bogotá’s El Campín soccer stadium, a young man and his mentor practice bullfighting techniques under the light of an atrium.
As 18-year-old Andres Del Castillo sweeps a magenta cape, he emits a soft guttural sound. His chest is thrust forward, his lips are puckered and his mouth bulges. He ends the pass with one leg fully extended behind him, his foot in a point, the other firmly planted below. After the imaginary bull passes, his gaze lifts as he takes a few triumphant strides.
His teacher for the past six weeks has been Gonzalo Rincón, the father of legendary Colombian bullfighter César Rincón, who was famously lofted on the shoulders of his compatriots after four stunning performances in Madrid in 1991.
In Colombia, most teenagers play Xbox or soccer or chase girls, not bulls. Across the country, from large cities to small towns, bulls once formed an integral part of annual celebrations. Today, the Spanish colonial tradition is disappearing amid sometimes violent protests, changing cultural norms and a struggling business model.
The 77-year-old elder Rincón’s goal is to “evolve” the art of bullfighting with new expressions and movements that have never been tried before, much as when César Rincón enamored audiences worldwide.
The soft-spoken Del Castillo dropped out of high school at 17, but said training to be a bullfighter has made him more disciplined, but with great sacrifice. His father refused to talk to him for six months, and he works odd jobs to pay his rent.
On a recent afternoon, César Rincón watched a tienta, or a test of cows, from a viewing area above a small ring at the historic Achury Viejo bull ranch in the hills outside the capital.
“I think this is the lowest moment in the tradition,” said Rincón, a bull rancher in retirement who lives in Madrid with his father and spends four months of the year in Colombia. About a dozen bull ranches across the country have gone out of business in the last decade as fewer plazas and small towns host fights.
Meanwhile, ticket prices are too high for most Colombians. A lower-level seat in Medellín costs the equivalent of a monthly minimum-wage salary. Benjamin de Los Rios, director of Medellín’s Plaza de la Macarena, says pricing is part of a “vicious cycle” as international bullfighters that draw crowds command up to $140,000 per afternoon. The result is a half empty arena and fewer parents passing on the tradition to their children.
Before a recent bullfight at la Macarena, a protester who gave his name only as Juan G. for fear of threats from aficionados, led a protest of about 30 college-aged students from across the street.
“We don’t think that anyone has the right to torture anything, animals included,” the New Jersey-born Colombian said, noting that his parents had met at the very arena and used to take him to bullfights as a child. Policemen on horseback stood nearby, part of a contingent of 110 officers protecting the Plaza that day. “It’s a shift in generations. The country is changing and we want to do away with violence.”
De Los Rios blames Walt Disney. Like others, he claims when cartoons began to give human traits to animals, people began to treat them as human beings. In Colombia, schools also make environmental preservation and understanding of animal abuse part of the curriculum, with some teachers telling children that bullfighting is wrong.
For César Rincón, the beauty of the art and legacy left by the Spanish to the countries of Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru should be preserved.
“We have to teach our roots, the backbone of our tradition,” he said. “In Colombia, bullfighting is not an art, it is not a sport, it is a profession that is controversial. And since it is controversial, there is no form of government support.”
In recent years, anti-bullfighting advocates appeared to be gaining the upper hand. “Politicians have realized that they can win votes by saying they are against bullfighting,” said Colombian bullfighter Manuel Libardo, 28, who was voted Colombia’s best matador this year but believes Colombia’s bullfighting future is uncertain.
Bogotá’s ornate Plaza de Toros de Santamaria, with its broad Moorish façade built in 1931, has been shuttered for the past two years, the result of an anti-bullfighting campaign that won the support of the city’s embattled leftist mayor and former guerrilla, Gustavo Petro. Colombia’s other plazas suffered losses as a result, but recovered this year.
Colombia’s bullfighting association helped repay debts to reopen Cartagena’s Plaza de Toros this year for a single afternoon. More than 10,000 were on hand for the “mano a mano” between Colombian bullfighter Luis Bolivar and French bullfighter Sebastian Castella, who lives in Cartagena with his Colombian wife.
In Bogotá, with the likely ouster of Mayor Petro on corruption charges, aficionados are hopeful that bullfighting will once again reign in the “Madrid of South America.”