El Toro de La Vega: A Festival of Life and Death

A bull - no, it's not El Pelado

His name is Pelado - ''baldie.'He's a strapping, handsome bull weighing 675 kilos, and he was born and raised on a farm near Jerez de la Frontera. He has had the honour - and misfortune - to be chosen as el Toro de La Vega, the 'Bull of the Meadow'.

Every year on September 13, the town of Tordesillas - 28 km southwest of Valladolid, population 9000 - holds its annual event, one of the most controversial, and divisive in Spain. This event is described by its local Ayuntamiento as 'an ancient cultural rite in which men and women freely and voluntarily confront a bull.'

For the past six hundred years, at 11 in the morning, a bull is released into the streets of the town for the traditional encerrada. The crowds, taunting and fleeing in the path of the disorientated bull, would accompany him across the bridge over the Duero River and into a meadow. Here, unless the bull could pass a certain marker set down by the event's organizers, he would meet a violent end at the end of spears brandished by lanceadores. Only in 1993 and 1995 had the elected bull managed to reach this marker. And yet, on both occasions the bull died soon after, in one case from injuries sustained during the ordeal; in the other, from a gunshot to its head shortly after. According to the customs of the festival, the bull must be sacrificed.

The first event recorded by the Ayuntamiento de Tordesillas dates back to 1534. By the 20th Century the festival was beginning to court controversy, as attitudes towards animal cruelty changed. The Spanish activist and novelist Eugenio Noel in 1915 decried the event as 'a totally shameless procession taking with it as a trophy the guts of a masculinity which only a bull can lay claim to.'

'It is odious to see the little bull beside a solitary tree on the dusty track, snorting, bleeding, braying, a martyr to caprice. Its agony is the subject of mockery. It is pierced each time with greater villainy and barbary.'

However, modern governments initially proved to be far less concerned about anti-taurine cruelty than they were about the safety of the event's human participants. In 1908 the government sent its representatives along to ensure appropriate security measures were adopted so that there were fewer potentially harmful incidents to local citizens.

It was in 1954 that the tide turned, if only momentarily, with the first official move in Spain to dilute the bloodshed in taurine festivities. The Asociación Contra la Crueldad en los Espectáculos (ACCE) was created, and, led by the Minister for the Exterior Carlos Arca y Cuadra, there was a campaign to cull excesses in the more bloodthirsty events across the nation.

A tipping point in the way the Tordesillas event was viewed by the government came in its 1964 version, when the bull elected for the encerrada, was found to be not only in extremely poor health, but virtually blind. When the replacement bull escaped, after goring one of the mozos, the original bull was fetched once again, to be released and subsequently speared to death, despite its defencelessness.

The Tourism and Information minister Manuel Fraga - one of General Franco's most valued taskmasters - had recently promised to do away with all festivities characterized by 'maltrato animal' (by prohibiting the most bloody and barbarous corridas, it was Fraga's intention to enhance the artistic and cultural value of more civilized taurine festivities). This resulted in an immediate governmental ban on El Toro de La Vega. Yet in both of the years that followed the town flagrantly ignored the ban. When the issue was investigated, the festival's organizers claimed not to have inflicted any wounds on the animal. From 1966 to 1970 it went ahead, but without the lancing of the bull.

The flagging interest of the public in a diluted event led to protests from the local council and citizens. One bemused citizen wrote, 'they say we cannot kill the bull because it suffers much. but what about those other corridas where they are stabbed again and again? What happens then?'

This led to a u-turn by the government, who overturned the ban in 1970.

It was once again OK to kill El Toro de la Vega in public. In 1980 the festival was even declared Fiesta de interés turìstico de España.

In recent times the festival had attracted an increasing number of activists making their voices heard against the perceived cruelty of the event. A petition signed by 71000 people demanding its cessation was sent to the local government in 2012. Two years later, tempers boiled over at the most notorious event in recent times . Stones were thrown at activists who had lined up on the bridge aiming to prevent the event taking place. The human wall of activists was eventually broken up by by the Guardia Civil, allowing the encerrada to continue.

Under considerable pressure to take action with the event attracting more and more outrage, the local government of Castilla and Leon last year decreed that the kill must not be killed in public.

This decree led to the hasty - and reluctant - creation of a modified festival called El Toro de la Peña by the organizers.

Despite the new decree, this year over 200 animalistas converged from all over Spain at the event, bearing t-shirts with slogans such as 'La Tortura no es arte ni cultura' ('Torture is not art or culture'), determined to ensure no harm came to the bull. While local horseback riders participating in the event used spades instead of lances to 'torear' Pelado, the activists tried to hold back groups of infuriated locals who wished to take part. Feeling strongly that their rights and traditions were being abused, groups of locals shouted 'Tordesillas won't surrender!'

The numbers of visitors were down considerably on the previous year. 'Encerradas hay en todas partes...you can go to an encerrada anywhere, everyone's stayed at home or gone away on holiday,' complained a member of a local pro-festival group, voicing the opinion that without the customary lancing of the bull, there was nothing special about the festival. That el Toro de La Vega had lost its appeal.

'Today is a day of shame, the day of treading Tordesillans into the dirt,' exclaimed a speaker for the platform for the defence of the festival. 'The politicians have sided with the cowards and authoritarians. We are victims of manipulation and misinformation. We won't forgive this betrayal.'

Meanwhile a firework announced the end of the procession. El Pelado was led away from the public eye, the first bull to have survived the the gauntlet of Tordesillas in decades. Panting, more than a little confused, but with a glimmer of hope forming. Perhaps today wouldn't be the day?

According to an eye witness from the Huffington Post, Pelado was then allowed to graze beneath a tree. Upon which, the public having been driven away, a member of the Guardia Civil approached with an aesthetising dart-gun. Despite the new decree, El Pelado would not be making it to September 14, after all.

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