Luis Bolivar – Colombia’s top bullfighter – emerges from a shiny car on a grey afternoon and is instantly the star.
He’s wearing dark glasses, despite the lack of sun. And although he’s preparing to hone his skills in the dirt ring of a Colombian farmhouse, the beauty by his side – clutching a Louis Vuitton handbag – is wearing high heels.
The 25-year-old matador stops graciously to greet two novice bullfighters, who are both in their early twenties. One responds nervously with the formal Spanish ‘usted’. The other calls him ‘maestro’ and looks as if he wants to bow.
Welcome to the world of bullfighting; closed, macho, archaic. It’s a sport on its knees – banned in parts of Spain; facing bans in Latin America. Yet there is no trace of that today. In Colombia, where this art was saved from legal extinction last summer, bullfighting still has a purpose. For many it is escapism in a country rocked by problems of more human artistry; war, displacement, a drug-ravaged economy.
Bolivar is very much his nation’s son. Despite his carefully cultivated first impression, he is humble, courteous. He was raised in the coffee region. His parents gave up everything – including selling their matrimonial bed – to help him pursue his dream. The ‘designer’ girlfriend, a student he met in his home city of Madrid, Spain, happily leaves him to his fame while she pursues her own career.
But, for now, this is Luis Bolivar. Maestro. The latest in a long line of smouldering young men wearing ‘suits of light’ transported directly from the 18th Century. He dazzles in sequins and lycra, entertaining thousands every week and making enough money to support a staff of 20.
What he does is controversial. Politicians in Catalonia, Spain – including the region’s capital Barcelona – banned the profession last summer. Across the pond, Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, is a well-known anti-taurino.
Last summer, the constitutional court here in Colombia, Bolivar’s homeland, rejected an outright ban, but ruled that bull fighting was cruel and said events could not be organised where they were not already traditional. Among Colombians there are plenty of haters. The arrival of bullfighting season in the nation’s capital, Bogotá, prompts a flurry of outraged graffiti.
It seems the net is closing. Does bullfighting have a future? If not, why do so many thousands of people – families with children – fill the bullrings every season? And how does it feel to face such a fearsome animal and slaughter it, leaving it dead and bleeding on the ground within the space of 15 minutes?
These are all questions for the maestro, but he’s nothing if not elusive. I drive more than 300 miles, sit through two different bullfights in two different Colombian cities and watch an entire afternoon of training before I can even speak to this boy from Cali with his feline figure, his Roman features, his self-consciously aloof manner.
First you have to meet the ‘family’. No bullfighter would dream of stepping alone into the ring – he’s flanked by two picadors (horsemen who wound the bull with a lance) three banderilleros (who injure the animal further with pointed sticks) and his ever-faithful mozo de espadas – a personal assistant who does everything from mopping the matador’s blood-stained brow to collecting his dry cleaning.
It’s a tight circle – a team unchanged since Bolivar turned professional in 2004. The matador met his personal assistant – or mozo – Armando Prieto when he was 13. The following year he won the scholarship that sent him alone, a precocious 14-year-old, to learn his craft in Spain.
Now Armando refers to himself as Bolivar’s ‘nanny’ and jokes that he sees his own family every day – in pictures. In reality, it’s perhaps once a year. The 35-year-old has two mobile phones and is answerable to his young boss 24-7.
“There is such an understanding between us that I know what Luis wants without him even speaking,” he explains proudly.
“I’m really grateful he chose me because there were a lot of guys who wanted my job. Even though I’m in the middle of the bullfighting life, I enjoy it like a fan. And, of course, it gives me the bread.”
That’s the important bit. A matador is only as good as his last fight. He’s reluctant to take a holiday in case his bookings falter. The team are paid per fight, which means that if Bolivar suffers a dip in form, a dip in popularity, that’s a lot of mouths to feed.
It should be too much pressure for this young man; this boss at least a decade younger than most of the people he employs.
But none of that is obvious when I watch him step into the ring for the first time, before an expectant crowd in Colombia’s second largest city, Medellin. Bolivar is clearly an expert in his field, a master of his profession. His movements are graceful and athletic. There is no trace of fear. He reads the bull’s movements so accurately that, at one point, he can even lean forward and stroke him on the nose.
I am reluctantly enthralled but, when the bull finally dies at this young matador’s feet – stabbed through the heart with his sword – I have a horrible feeling I’m going to cry. The middle-aged man next to me asks if I’m okay. He’s been coming to bull fights for 25 years, he says and, with surprising honesty, tells me the bull’s death is “the worst part”.
Later Bolivar will confess something similar. “At the moment of death I sometimes feel sorrow,” he admits. “If a bull has fought well and cannot be reprieved. But there are a lot of different feelings. Sometimes you want to kill the bull like the warrior it is. The bull doesn’t know what bull fighting is. It’s attacking to kill.”
Is he angry at this animal, I wonder. The matador looks astonished. “Angry? No, why would I be? Not even when it hurts me,” he replies. “The bull gives everything it has. I couldn’t ask for any more. Why would I feel anger towards the bull? It gives us glory.”
Oh, it’s easy to see why people hate it. Bolivar trains twice a day, in the gym and in the ring. He has the diet of a high-performance athlete. Even when he’s trying to live like a lad in his mid twenties – dinner with his girlfriend, drinks with friends – he does everything with “precaution and moderation”. He is utterly dedicated to his trade.
The bull, by contrast, is a 500kg ball of burning, ferocious, untamed anger – wild and confused, tearing around the ring behind two enormous horns. The laws of nature suggest it should be the natural victor here. It should win every time. But, frankly, it doesn’t stand a chance. (“It’s not something you see every day,” Bolivar will later agree. “A man dominating a wild animal with a cloak.”)
Bullfighters generally avoid serious injury, although there are accidents. French bullfighter Sebastián Castella was gored in Medellin earlier this year, breaking his collarbone when the dying bull lunged at him. It’s not a career you would choose for your children. Bolivar spent his childhood waving a tea towel at the dog but, at first, his parents refused to accept his decision. His dad Sammy, who is present for every fight, looks quietly terrified. His girlfriend, 20-year-old Daniela Galarza, shudders when she recalls a time Bolivar was clipped and sent flying through the air. Other young matadors insist it is improvements in medical care and training that has increased their chances of survival – not a decline in risk.
Death is clearly on the minds of these men. The day of Bolivar’s final fight in Bogotá there is palpable tension in the hotel. The matador is skittish about his preparation. He doesn’t want to talk. Rodrigo Arias Monaguillo, who at 50 is Luis’s oldest banderillero, explains that the team avoid lunch on fight day – just in case the worst happens and they need surgery. (He also tells me, in his typically measured way, that the wives of bullfighters “always keep a black dress handy”)
The team insist the haters increase the myths about bullfighting. Before the Medellin fight they allow me into the paddock so I can see these six enormous beasts, all shiny coats and angry eyes. There’s no obvious weakening here – no blood-letting, no pinching, no antagonising. These animals might be twitchily awaiting a horrible fate, but they are clearly in their prime.
“It’s a lie that we do things to the animal,” Bolivar will later growl, the sharpness and arrogance in his tone at odds with his generally genial manner.
“I wouldn’t face an animal that was drugged or had been pinched in the eyes. I’m betting with my life.”
This is a matador who doesn’t believe bull fighting will ever be banned – “I don’t need a Plan B. My Plan B is to keep doing my Plan A,” – but he says he respects the anti-lobby. They just happen to be wrong. Too many jobs would be lost, from bullfighters and breeders to valets and soft drink sellers. Besides, he says, the world has bigger problems – “You just have to turn on the television to see death between humans. That’s what I don’t want to see.”
Strangely, Bolivar blames matadors like himself for the tide of public opinion against them. They didn’t do enough to contest the myths, to inform people, he says. Ironically, they didn’t put up a fight.
Others have less patience with this perceived ignorance about their world. Armando is still sore over a mix-up with his job title. Bolivar used to introduce his personal assistant by his correct title, mozo. The word means servant in Spain. In Colombia, it also means lover. It took some time for the pair to straighten that one out.
“That happens because people are not informed what a mozo is, what a banderillero is, what a picador is,” Armando fumes. “People should be more informed. They’ve not bothered to learn about my profession, they haven’t taken the time to know how to criticise it.”
Aside from the blood this sport, this ‘art’, has social flaws too. Male chauvinism is rife. There is a discussion about whether I can sit on the press bench, you know, being female. I get my way but luckily I foresee that there will only be one toilet, clearly marked ‘Men’. Interviewing the team is fun too. One request is met with: “Sure honey, but would you rather talk to my ear, or to the ceiling?”
(Armando also tells me the most famous female bullfighter quit prematurely. She became bored with the profession because the men were always trying to outdo her. In more than six years, he says, no woman has ever shown an interest in joining his staff.)
Back in Bogotá the rain is falling as the afternoon of fighting draws to an end. It has been fun seeing Bolivar so close – to note how he always reaches for his towel while the young Spanish bullfighter next to him remains dusty and dirty, his face splattered with blood. (This is the same Bolivar who casually reaches for a nail file to manicure his hands at our photo shoot – who repeatedly fusses with his hair) He will later tell me the crowds are drawn to the emotions of these fights – the happiness and the sadness, he says and the “bitterness when a bullfighter has a bad afternoon”.
Tragically, that is what happens here. The last fighter – the young Spaniard – fails to make a clean kill. The bull is left spluttering; choking agonisingly slowly on its own blood. The young matador stands sodden in the rain, a diminished, suddenly panic-stricken figure whose crowd is disbanding in a swirl of disgusted muttering. Eventually an older banderillero makes the decision. The bull is put out of its misery.
I am leaving too, picking my way through the pool of leaked blood as it mingles with the ringside mud like a First World War trench. A young policeman, obviously bred in the Latin mould, steps forward with his hand outstretched to help. Our eyes meet. He looks as sickened by the blood as I feel.
We follow the river of red until, predictably, I’m standing outside the door of the on-site abattoir. It’s a ruthlessly efficient machine. The body of the sixth bull has barely stopped twitching yet here are the other five, all chopped and clean, ready for hanging in the spotless, refrigerated butcher’s van parked outside. The bullfighters, meanwhile, are back in the ring, riding atop one another’s shoulders as they celebrate another afternoon passed without serious injury.
Perhaps this is the reason so many people profess to hate this sport. For most, all those meat eaters, it can’t just be the untimely execution of a majestic animal – that happens all the time. Maybe it’s just the fact the guy in the abattoir is wearing gold sequins and a silly hat.