Terra: Bullfighting in San José, Costa Rica
Bullfighting evokes images of sequin-studded matadores in full regalia, sword in one hand and cape in the other. It is an intricate ballet, a dance with death. While recently conflicted with changing perspectives on animal cruelty, the sport lives on as a grisly testament to the triumph of man over beast.
In Costa Rica, none of this applies.
We are brought to the San José fairgrounds, near midtown. Flickering lights and wafting smells of fried food paints the scene more like the local county fair, instead of a Latin American ecoparadise. There is a Pizza Hut tent. Enough said.
Passing through the first orbit of food trucks and carnival rides reveals a stadium of no small proportion. We purchase our tickets and make our way to the concrete and wooden risers that circle the arena. The grounds are well-lit, and you can’t help but notice the large Cruz-Roja (Red Cross) booth located near the broadcasting tower. Cameras and rigs hint that the event is televised, later to be confirmed by the local news’ highlight reel.
In Costa Rican bullfighting there is only one winner. Each bull champions the bout by default. Oscar, our guide to all things Tico, carefully lays out the rules.
The bull is released into the center ring with a rider, much like a western rodeo (sans saddle). After the rider is inevitably thrown from his mount, the bull is free to roam the coliseum. In addition to the discarded rider, any man, woman, or child who is either foolhardy or drunk enough is encouraged to taunt the roaming bull into charging. There are no weapons to defend oneself. If you dodge, you survive. And thus the show plays out for all to see.
Inebriated young men wear fuzzy neon hats and taunt the adversary. Sometimes the bull takes interest, other times he loses focus. Some bulls just don’t seem to give a damn. Other beasts charge into the crowds with such force that there is no choice but to take the bull by the horns. Those who fall to the assault are carried into a small opening in the wall where the Costa Rican Red Cross await.
This much is clear… This is obviously what people do when healthcare is universal and free.
The spectacle carries on for a few hours, and one by one young men (mostly) are carried to the Red Cross for first aid. While the execution differs greatly from their Castilian cousins, the intent remains the same. Death comes to us all, and the allure to meet it roaring and snarling head-on is unmistakeable.
I had my moments, the gravimetric pull to enter the ring with the dozens of other young thrill seekers. To hear roar of the crowds, and taste the dust as the bull slashes his horns inches from my skull.
Costa Rican bullfighting is a paradox, and an anthropological opportunity that is not to be missed.
Michael Van Etten
The LEAF Project
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