To understand the state of bullfighting in Spain's northeastern Catalonia region, you need look no further than Las Arenas. The striking, late 19th century arena with faux Moorish arches, located near Barcelona's central Plaza de España, once pulled in thousands of bullfighting aficionados for the traditional and gory Sunday corrida (the Spanish word for "bullfight"). Today, it is being converted into a shopping mall.
After decades of both intense anti-bullfighting activism and benign neglect (Las Arenas hasn't hosted a bullfight since 1990), Catalonia may become the first of Spain's autonomous regions to officially ban the sport. At the end of October, the Catalan parliament will begin the first round of voting on a popular initiative that seeks to outlaw bullfighting completely and establish one more difference between the region and the rest of Spain. If the initiative survives the vote, lawmakers can propose amendments before a final vote is held, probably by end of year.
"It's a sign of popular support for the measure that we were able to collect 180,000 signatures three times the number we needed to present a legal initiative before parliament," says Jennifer Berengueras, spokeswoman for Prou (the word means "enough" in the Catalan language), the association that organized the campaign.
Indeed, Catalonia has long led the movement to do away with what is still referred to in Spain as the "national fiesta." In 2003, the region passed a sweeping animal-protection law that, among its many measures, restricted towns without bullrings from building them and prohibited all children under age 14 from attending a corrida by placing the equivalent of an R movie rating on the event. The following year, Barcelona's municipal government declared the Catalan capital an "anti-bullfighting city" in a nonbinding resolution; 70 other Catalan towns and cities have since followed suit.
Why are so many Catalans opposed to bullfighting? Some point to the region's generally progressive political tendencies, especially when it comes to animal rights. "As a coastal [region], Catalonia has always looked toward the rest of Europe, so certain sensibilities and ideas enter here first," explains Oriol Batista, a city councilman in Mataró, a town that was among the first to impose a no-kill law for abandoned pets.
But in this highly autonomous region, others see the rejection of bullfighting as a rejection of Spain itself and thus a promotion, in the Manichean logic of such things, of Catalan identity. In Catalonia, after all, people dance sardanas instead of flamenco, prefer their death-defying feats in the form of castellers (human towers comprised of people standing on the shoulders of others in ever-smaller circles) and turn every Barça vs. Real Madrid match into a bout for national honor. More substantively and controversially the region requires all students to be educated in the Catalan language and is engaged in an ongoing series of debates with the country's central administration in Madrid over governance of the region's infrastructure. For many, bullfighting especially given its association with the Franco regime, which promoted it as a unifying national spectacle in the 20th century fits squarely into an "us vs. them" mentality.
"Bullfighting used to be extremely popular in Catalonia," says Matthew Tree, a Barcelona-based author who writes frequently on Catalan identity. "But things change. Franco made it a bastion of fascist Spain, and that switched off a lot of Catalans. It was forced on them as this aggressively Spanish thing, and that was offensive to them."
Tree lives near Barcelona's one remaining bullring the city used to have three and he collected signatures in favor of the initiative to ban the sport. As he describes it, the only people who regularly fill the stands are tourists. "You get all these drunken tourists who come and yell their heads off as an animal is brutally killed. And they're only there because they think they're in a normal part of Spain, and that's what you do in Spain."
But Josep Rull, congressman for Convergence I Unio (CiU), a centrist nationalist party, objects to that depiction. "This is not about Catalonia rejecting Spain," he says. "We have our own long tradition of bullfighting. This is about Catalans rejecting bullfighting from within our own tradition because our values have changed."
CiU's deputies are likely to cast the critical deciding votes on the initiative in parliament. Although some pro-autonomy parties like the Catalan Republican Left will be voting for the motion in a bloc, the more conservative CiU is allowing its deputies to vote their conscience. And that may just be enough to pass the ban. "There are some within the party who see bullfighting as a tradition worth protecting," says Rull. "But there's a larger group I count myself among them that believes we shouldn't treat the torture of animals as a public spectacle anymore."
Luis Alcántara is afraid that group will be large enough to undo 11 years of work. Since 1998, he has run a bullfighting school in Hospitalet, just outside Barcelona. His enrollments were hurt by the under-14 provision of the animal-cruelty law that was passed in 2003, and these days, he has only nine students practicing their capework on an abandoned football field. He worries that the initiative will put him out of business altogether. "Nobody here really hears about us," he says. "We go to a corrida and then go home until the following Sunday, and we don't have any power. But there are plenty of Catalans who still love the bulls."