Blanca, Spain, isn’t a town that anyone would choose to visit. I’m not saying this to be cruel; I am saying this as a purely objective observer. First, it is a pain in the ass to get here. The nearest airport is Alicante, and this requires two hour-long bus rides (the ALSA to Murcia, then the LAT #42 to Blanca) through the region’s swerving, mountainous terrain. Second, there is nothing to do here. There is a local tourism office just off the main drag, whose storefront windows are covered with posters advertising kayak excursions through the nearby Seguro River. Occasionally I’ll see tiny herds of orange-vested visitors while running errands, but I assume that most of these adventurers aggregate here from around the region. I doubt any outsider would sit through two buses just to kayak (if you think about it, you can kayak almost anywhere). Third, this town is very poor. This fact struck me as soon as I stepped one foot off the LAT regional bus. Wrinkled old men sit in clusters on benches, mouths agape with apathy in the arid heat. Walking along the main drag, you will find cheap Chinese “bit of everything” tiendas, a lottery, a worn-down casino, and many, many bars. The stray cats here exist as parallel manifestations of the town population: scrawny, matted, and slow-moving. The streets are dirty, with crushed beer cans, cigarette butts, and cat feces. It seems like a hard life.
Yet I am here. I ended up in Blanca, Spain, after being accepted into an artist residency that sits on the town’s edge (in remodeled chicken coops, of all things). I have been here one month, and I will continue for one more month. And, in spite of the above facts, I am fascinated by this forgotten place.
When I arrived in August, Blanca was in the middle of its annual summer festivities. Blanca is one of the few remaining places in Spain that hosts a two-week Feria de los Toros, or Bullfight Fair. During this time, the central town plaza is converted into a temporary bullfighting ring, and the town becomes alive with all-night concerts, encierros or “Running of the Bulls” ceremonies, and yes, traditional bullfights. In a traditional bullfight, the bull is slowly killed through a dramatic sequence of stabbings. Also, a traditional bullfight contains multiple bulls, each larger than its predecessor. After one bull dies, its sad corpse is dragged offstage to make way for the next unsuspecting creature.
As an outsider, it is easy to condemn bullfighting as a needlessly cruel practice. However, in an area this isolated and impoverished, it is easy to understand why the tradition lingers. It would be difficult to relinquish something that brings life and excitement to such a stagnant place…regardless of who is hurt in the process.
I didn’t plan on watching the bullfights, but my studio happens to have a large, panoramic window that overlooks the entire town of Blanca.
Up here, I could see everything. I saw the townsfolk pile into the arena, and I could hear choruses of cheers as the matadores danced around the poor, fated beasts. I saw not two, not three, but four bulls as they were slowly killed in this bizarre ritual. I couldn’t help but wonder: how on earth did this become a tradition? Bullfighting contains such a strange cast of characters, all in such strange, flamboyant costume…I could not understand the victory in killing a confused animal, especially when the initial wound is delivered by a picador (a picador is an armored man on horseback, and he lances the bull so that it bleeds out during the entire matador performance). If the victor is decided before the battle begins, they why watch the show?
The bullfighting was made even more perplexing through the rest of the itinerary in Blanca’s Feria de los Toros program. The festival concluded on August 15, which is when Blanca celebrates the feast day of its patron saint, San Roque. On this day, there was a second bullfight, followed by church-related festivities. Something absurd and violent was paired with something pious and wholesome. On the event program, the bullfighting was dubbed, “Fiestas en Honora San Roque.” Bullfighting in honor of the saint. Now this is a paradox that one can spend a lifetime dissecting. Perhaps bullfighting the singular exception to Jesus’ pacifist doctrine.
Although I don’t necessarily agree with the practices of Blanca, I can say that I am grateful to have witnessed this dying fragment of Spanish culture. It is so easy to dismiss the traditions of isolated, rural communities…but these practices often offer clues about the hidden beliefs within a collective, national psychology. Blanca has killed all of its bulls for the year, and a truck full of men came last week to tear down the makeshift arena. The town is quieter now, as if in a dazed hangover after two weeks of frenzy. Only forty-five weeks now until the next Feria de los Toros.