On the Front Line of a War Over Bullfighting Traditions

After a nearly seven-hour journey, the bus carrying “The Popeye Bullfighter and his Dwarf Sailors” slowed to a stop around the brick bullfighting ring in Teruel. A brass band, clowns, children, wives, babies, the company’s leader and seven performers with achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that causes the more common type of dwarfism, spilled out into the sun.

“Teruel,” Jimmy Muñoz, a 57-year-old comic bullfighter with the condition, said as he stepped off the bus. “A very difficult place.”

Teruel, in eastern Spain, is known mostly for its Islamic Mudejar architecture, its star-crossed Medieval lovers and a population density so low it spawned a political party called Teruel Exists.

But Mr. Muñoz was referring to the town’s new status on the front line of a culture war with political overlays between Spain’s conservative defenders of bullfighting traditions and liberals who find them brutal, retrograde and, in the case of comic bullfighting shows in which some of the performers with achondroplasia take on smaller 1-year-old bulls, illegal.

For its annual fiesta this July, Teruel — which traces its founding to Christian soldiers repelling a Muslim attack of bulls with their horns on fire and especially one that survived to take a siesta — has rejected a May law passed by the Spanish Parliament that seemed to prohibit comic bullfights. The law banned “shows or leisure activities” that use a disability “to provoke public mockery, ridicule or derision.”

Johny Lobo, left, and Patricia Rotundo, right, getting ready for the show.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
The audience at the Teruel bullring.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

“These shows ridicule, humiliate, mock and denigrate people,” said Felipe Orviz Orviz, 43, a lawyer and activist who also has achondroplasia.

As the Popeye bus wound its way toward Teruel, the lawyer threatened legal action if the show went on and recounted how people have mistaken him for a performer and shouted “look at the dwarf bullfighter” at him during fiestas. The shows, he said, “are illegal.”

But defenders of the show cited another clause of the law, which states that “people with disabilities will participate in public shows and recreational activities, including bullfighting, without discrimination.”

Benito Ros, an official with the Aragon region who is based in Teruel, argued that the comic bullfighters were getting laughs for their antics, not their stature, and that to ban them was to discriminate against their right to work.

“Our legal experts say it can go ahead because they are not provoking mockery,” Mr. Ros said. “I have a clean conscience.”

At 12:22 p.m. on the day of the show, his office sent the event’s organizer, David Gracia, 47, final authorization as he checked on the bulls fuming in the stalls. “We are defending freedom. They are trying to turn this country into a moral dictatorship,” Mr. Gracia said. “I have goose bumps talking about this.”

A few minutes later, the bus arrived.

Anderson Torres Perez.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
Jimmy Muñoz.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

“Let’s go, little ones,” barked Juan Ajenjo — Popeye, who does not have achondroplasia — using the term the performers also used to describe one another. In the business for 42 years, he had seen the number of shows crater in the last 15. “It’s not good,” he said of the new law. “The politicians don’t want the little ones to work.”

But work they did. Amid all the back and forth between activists, lawyers and politicians, the performers — several of whom confront real bulls during the show — said they needed the money, earning between 150 and 400 euros a day. Unlike their gigs as waiters or as entertainment in discos, this was a performance they took pride in, several of them said. And they had to get on with the show.

“We are artists and this is our dream,” said Mr. Muñoz, a married father of two, who came to Spain from Ecuador 30 years ago. “This is the right to work, they can’t take it away from us,” he said. “There is a family that eats behind this.”

The troop hit the streets to hand out stacks of fliers, which, like the front page of that day’s Diario de Teruel, advertised them as “dwarf sailors.” A band playing trombones and tubas followed behind.

“We’re not OK with the bullfighting” said Mariano Mateo, 66, a retired psychology professor, who got a flier. “And this is even worse.”

The performers crossed a bridge and entered the main Plaza del Torico, where the evening before, local children ran away from wheelbarrows fitted with bull heads and horns, and now hundreds waited in line to ascend on a crane to the top of the city’s trademark column, topped by a small brass bull wearing a red fiesta scarf.

Teruel, in eastern Spain, is known mostly for its Islamic Mudejar architecture, its star-crossed Medieval lovers and a population density so low it spawned a political party called Teruel Exists.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
In the middle of the arena, under a punishing sun, Mr. Ajenjo, left, blew his whistle furiously and the performers entered the ring in single file for rehearsal as the band played “Brazil.”Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

The band played and the performers danced at the foot of the column, and Ezequiel Gonzalez, 67, clapped along with his grandchildren.

The show was “fun and educational,” he said, adding, “the children asked if they’re real,” referring to the performers.

About half an hour later, some of the performers took a breather in the shade. One slipped away for a day on the town, and others accepted the local delicacy of bread, ham and red peppers that the mayor handed out to hundreds to celebrate the fiesta.

“After speaking with the artists,” the mayor, Emma Buj, said, it was clear they “consider themselves to be bullfighters.”

The performers left the square, grumbling about not having had time to really eat lunch, and returned to the bullring’s dressing room, a converted veterinarian space that smelled of sawdust and was cluttered with racks of uniforms, bags of wigs, cases filled with religious icons, plastic trumpets and clown outfits.

“Let’s get out there,” shouted Mr. Ajenjo, 69, stripped down to a pair of flip flops, sunglasses and blue shorts bunched up to his groin. The Spanish flag was tattooed on his left calf, the silhouette of a bull on his right.

Patricia Rotundo.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
Feli.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

The performers stripped off their official Popeye company green shirts, put out their cigarettes and went back to work.

In the middle of the arena, under a punishing sun, Mr. Ajenjo blew his whistle furiously and the performers entered the ring in single file for rehearsal as the band played “Brazil.” Mr. Muñoz shook maracas; Anderson Torres Perez, 32, played the bongos; Patricia Rotundo, 40, rattled a tambourine. Mr. Ajenjo threw his hands up in disgust when he realized one performer hadn’t returned from town.

“Always the same guy,” he said. “I’m fed up with him.”

They worked out the gags, with Mr. Muñoz pretending to be a toreador to Mr. Torres Perez’s bull. For another routine, they acted like cadets to Mr. Ajenjo’s captain, who yelled at them for spinning the wrong way.

“This is the worst show I’ve ever put on,” he screamed as his former wife looked on.

“Ex,” she clarified. “Ex.”

At nearly 3 p.m., under a shaded tunnel, it was time for a break. The performers, several of them second-generation comic bullfighters who worked previously in their native South America, passed around the smiling baby of the clown who fought a bull on stilts. They ribbed one another and applauded one other’s routines.

Members of the group preparing for the show.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
Mr. Perez played the bongos during the show.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Ramon Moya, 46, a former bullfighter in the company, watched them with admiration.

“It’s even more dangerous for them,” he said, “because the bulls are taller than they are.”

As showtime approached, Fabio Pabon, 40, the missing performer, returned. (“I had to get out and disconnect for a while,” he said)..

The shady half of the bull ring began to fill up with families. Spectators drank beer and spit sunflower seeds.

Mr. Muñoz emerged in matching blue-sequined sombrero, vest and bow tie. “We don’t want charity,” he said, “we want to work.”

The show started. Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Torres Perez performed their toreador and bull pantomime, as two other men entered the ring in a bull suit.

Then a real bull entered — young but still of intimidating size. It stared at the spectacle in front of it and almost immediately jumped the fence. After a moment of panic, organizers got it back inside the ring, and Mr. Ajenjo, Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Torres Perez fought it with flourishes of capes, umbrellas and a painted exercise ball. Mr. Pabon, full of courage, punched it with boxing gloves and lost a shoe.

After the show.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
Juan Ajenjo, the director of the company, after being injured by a bull during the show.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

“I’m going to say something important,” Mr. Ajenjo, out of breath, said into the microphone after the bull exited. Pointing to his company, he said they were masters of their trade and concluded: “The current politicians want to take their rights away. Muchas Gracias.”

Raul Saura, 40, a slaughter house worker sitting in the stands, said, “I laugh with them,” as his 2-year-old daughter giggled at the show.

At the end, the performers appeared in the arena in pink-striped sailor shirts, and Mr. Ajenjo, in a blue Popeye sailor suit, faced a ferocious young black bull. The crowd roared at the close calls, especially when Mr. Ajenjo did circles around the bull on a motorbike.

But then he got gored in the leg and was rushed to the infirmary. As his ex-wife bit her painted pink nails, the company took a laudatory lap. The sailors waved their sailor hats. The clowns carried their children on their shoulders.

Back in the dressing room, the performers applauded when Mr. Ajenjo hobbled back to join them with a bandaged thigh.

“They’re artists,” he said with emotion. “Like bullfighters or porn actors, it’s the same.”

Everyone changed and packed up. In the arena, the teenagers who had waited impatiently descended into the ring for the main event — testing their mettle and dodging young bulls. Backstage, workers killed the first bull the company had fought. The workers dragged its carcass across the courtyard to a slaughterhouse as the performers rolled their suitcases toward the exit.

“We came with fear,” said Mr. Muñoz, as he boarded the bus for the long ride back to Madrid, “that they weren’t going to let us perform.”

Teruel’s bullring. The town rejected a May law passed by the Spanish Parliament that seemed to prohibit comic bullfights.Credit…Samuel Aranda for The New York Times

Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting.

Back to top button