Bullfighting in the Arena and Battling Outside of It

Bullfighting in the Arena and Battling Outside of It | ltc-a

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In November, a colleague at The New York Times invited me to an exhibition tennis match between Carlos Alcaraz and Tommy Paul at a historic venue: La Plaza México, the largest bullfighting arena in the world.

The arena, which opened in Mexico City in 1946, seats 42,000 and dwarfs the stadium next door, home to the professional soccer team Cruz Azul. Nearly 20,000 people attended the tennis match and the massive venue still felt empty. As I walked around, I saw many reminders of the arena’s history — statues and images of bullfighters — but no signs advertising future bullfighting events.

After the match, I learned that a federal judge had banned bullfighting at La Plaza México in 2022, following a legal challenge from a human rights group that argued the “degrading” treatment of bulls was detrimental to society. Supporters of bullfighting argue that the practice is an important part of the country’s culture and economy and has been for centuries.

I moved from New York to Mexico City last April to cover sports and culture in Latin America and had plenty to learn about the region and its traditions. My article on bullfighting, which was published online this month, detailed many legal battles that played out in real time.

My reporting began in earnest in January, a month after the Mexican Supreme Court overturned the ban on bullfighting at the venue. I knew instantly that there was a story, one that would spur debate and perhaps even surprise.

Many people associate bullfighting with Spain, a country that popularized the practice. So I figured a portion of Times readers would be intrigued to learn that the globe’s largest bullfighting venue was in Mexico City, the largest bullfighting city in the largest bullfighting country of the world. With the practice’s popularity waning in other countries and five of Mexico’s 31 states prohibiting it since 2013, I found it counterintuitive that bullfighting was now returning to an emblematic place.

With the blessing of my editor, Diego Ribadeneira, I spent a few weeks trying to understand the smaller picture — La Plaza México’s case — and the bigger one: the future of bullfighting in Mexico. The people on both sides are vocal and their movements strong.

To make sure I properly understood bullfighting’s history and context, I spoke with all sorts of people: bullfighters, the director of La Plaza México, the head of a national bullfighting association, ranchers, legal experts, animal rights activists, protesters and fans.

Last month, José Mauricio, a bullfighter I had met during my reporting, and Paola San Román, another bullfighter, allowed the photographer Luis Antonio Rojas and I to watch them practice in Santiago de Querétaro, a town about three hours from Mexico City by car. Though I had previously visited Seville and Pamplona, two important bullfighting cities in Spain, this was the first time I saw people killing bulls. Their carcasses were hauled away to a butcher shop.

Bullfighting resumed at La Plaza México in late January. On the first day of its return, Luis and I arrived early to observe the scene. We followed protesters outside the arena, roamed the venue during the event and observed the reactions of nearly 42,000 fans as five bulls were killed in the ring. (A sixth was killed in the corral after one bullfighter failed to do so in the arena and was booed by the crowd.) When I sat down to write later that day, I felt a strong sense of duty to thoughtfully and evocatively capture everything I had seen.

A few days later, the article was nearing publication when we learned of a new legal challenge — a temporary suspension — secured by an animal rights group. Bullfighting was, once again, on hold at the arena. I scrambled to track down details and tweaked the article to reflect the news.

We published the article on Thursday, Feb. 1. La Plaza México’s lawyers were able to overturn the suspension by Friday. The clash over bullfighting is clearly ongoing, and our article proved a timely explanation of a thorny subject.

When I returned to La Plaza México in January, I remembered a moment from the night I watched Alcaraz and Paul play tennis there. After beating Paul, Alcaraz was handed a sombrero, a trophy and a microphone. While answering questions, Alcaraz, who is from Spain, explained how thrilled he was to be in Mexico City and, particularly, in a bullfighting arena. And since he was there, he said, he needed to do “this,” swinging his arm to the side as if he were a bullfighter waving his cape.

The moment underscored how ingrained bullfighting culture is, though ironic that it took place at a venue where the practice had been banned. Two months after the match, I was back in the arena, watching the same motion — this time, with a real bull and cape — and writing about it.