Peruvian bullfighter Pablo Juarez Oliveros: ¨I would never kill a harmless animal¨

The world was shocked in July when Víctor Barrio Hernanz was pinned down on the ground and gored to death by a bull called Lorenzo in Teruel, eastern Spain. The matador´s death promptly raised new calls for a Spanish bullfighting ban. The animal´s horn pierced the 29-year-old´s aorta and lung and although he was rushed to the hospital, doctors could do nothing to save him. The award-winning matador joined an infamously select list of Spanish matadors that have been killed by bulls since 1966. On the 25th of July in 1971, José Mata died 48 hours after being taken down by a bull named Cascabel in Ciudad Real. Three years later, the Portuguese matador José Falcón was gored by Cucharero in Barcelona. Antonio Mejías Jiménez and Francisco Rivera were also killed by their opponents and the last matador to die from a bull fight in Spain before Barrio´s death was José Cubero. ¨Yiyo¨ was killed on the 20th of August, 1985. 

Not only matadors get killed during bullfights. In 1992, two bandilleros, who put little flags with prickly points in the top of the bull´s shoulders, lost their lives too. Over the past century, and according to Spanish newspaper El Pais, 134 people have been killed by bulls, of which only 33 were matadors. The death of Víctor Barrio, and the fact that according to tradition the bull’s mother had to be killed to sever the animal’s bloodline, caused huge upset around the world. Despite Barrio´s death being marked with a minute of silence in the first bullfight after his death, anti-bullfighting activists used social media to celebrate his doom and to attack bullfighting. Apart from bullfights, there are also bull runs, which are held in different parts of Spain. The most famous one is the one during the Pamplona festival. This nine-day San Fermín fest attracts thousands of visitors every year and ten people, including four Americans were gored during the run in 2015. Bull fighting was banned in the region of Cataluña in 2010 but it´s still deeply rooted in the Andalusia and Castile areas. The Canary Islands abolished bullfighting in 1991.

According to Humane Society International, approximately 250,000 bulls are killed in bullfights (corrida de toros in Spanish) every year around the world. And, so claims the website, these events preserve the idea that injuring and even killing an animal for amusement is acceptable. In 2016, one could easily wonder how the spectacle of bullfighting (along with cock fighting and dog fighting) still exists in the modern world. How fair is the fight between a bull and a matador? Does the bull have any chance before being pierced multiple times before suffering a slow and excruciating death in front of paying spectators? The Huaraz Telegraph spoke with Pablo Miguel Juárez Oliveros, a matador from the Áncash region, and we tried to understand a bit more about this outdated spectacle that also takes place in countries like France, Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and obviously Peru. But, before we head to the interview, we start with some facts on bullfighting.

The Spanish conquered South America centuries ago. Peru was a Spanish colony until 1821, but many Spanish (cultural) traditions are still to be found in the daily life of a Peruvian, and there is a strong Spanish influence in Peruvian politics, religion and its language. Think, for example, about chicken, pork and lamb, which were introduced to the Incas. Bullfighting obviously is another footprint left by the Spaniards; although some websites claim, surprisingly, that the origins of spectacles with bulls date back to ancient Greece and not Spain. An excavated wall painting in Knossos in Crete, dating from about 2000 BC, shows male and female entertainers confronting a bull, and grabbing its horns. Although the bullfights were fully developed in the Iberian Peninsula, they were very popular and important spectacles in ancient Rome before that. It´s incredible that the bullfighting we see in 2016 is pretty much the same as when it was practiced in 1726. Back then, it was Francisco Romero of Ronda, Spain who introduced the sword (estoque) and the muleta (the small cape used in the last part of the fight).

Bullfighting is not as simple as some might think; there appears to be pre-fight treatment, there are three separate ´acts´ during the fight and there is a whole team that works alongside the matador in the ring. All in order to ´please´ the audience present in the arena or ring. The bull is a very passive animal and it´s a mistake to think that the bull gets enraged by the red colour of the cape that is used by the matador. The bull, like other mammals, is colour blind. The myth of bulls distinguishing red, yellow or blue was busted by the American television programme Mythbusters. They found that bulls charge whichever object that is moving the most. As a 1800 pound bull can easily hook an adult with his horns, the pre-fight treatment of the bull significantly diminishes the chances of the bull’s survival. The website claims that a bull is horrendously abused two days prior to the final fight, making its chances to actually harm his matador almost zero. It appears that the bull gets also wet newspaper stuffed in its ears, Vaseline is rubbed into its eyes to blur its vision and if this wasn’t enough, it gets a needle stuck into its genitals. The ´fair´ fight that the spectators witness is furthermore influenced by drugs that are used to pep the bull up or slow it down. Ultimately, the bull is kept in a dark container for a couple of days to disorientate it. When it is finally released from the dark it runs straight into the ring to face its killer and a contemptuous crowd. These accusations were strongly rejected by our interviewee.

The matador is aided by his assistants, which are the banderilleros who serve to insert sharp, harpoon-like barbed instruments into the bull´s body. Apart from the banderilleros, there is also a group of helpers on horseback. These men are called the picadors and exhaust the bull. They cut into the bull´s neck muscles with a weapon of six to eight inches long and two inches thick. This is actually the moment when the bull starts bleeding for the first time. Obviously the matador is the show´s star and he greets the bull with a series of manoeuvres and passes at the start of the fight. The bull´s natural instinct and centuries of special breeding make it come towards the matador. The matador is dressed with an traditional suit that can cost several thousands of dollars. The suit has a silk jacket heavily embellished in gold, super light trousers and a bicorn hat. The act of killing the bull should take no longer than six minutes in Spanish-style bullfighting and is executed by the matador. Previous to this act, the bull is already heavily injured by the banderilleros and picadors. The matador´s final act happens when he strikes his sword in the artery near the heart. This punctures the bull´s lungs and heart and if the bull is lucky, it dies. If not, it will receive further torture. When the bull finally gives up, it drops to its knees and lies down. Often its ears and tail are cut off by the matador as well. The bull is not the only animal involved in bullfights. As mentioned before, there are also horses involved, which often die too after being gored by the bull. The horses used in bull fights tremble with fear and because they are blindfolded. Additionally, they have their ears stuffed with wet newspaper and their vocal chords are cut so they are unable to make a sound in case they suffer an injury from the bull. Sadly, most of the time these are ´old´ horses, which have completed their working life, get a terrible reward in Spain for having been faithful and loyal to man.

Although bullfighting has been banned in many countries around the world, bullfighting is still very popular in Peru. Many Peruvians will most likely have heard of Concepción Cintrón Verrill, also known as Conchita Cintrón or La Diosa de Oro (The Golden Goddess). Conchita was a Chilean-Peruvian female bullfighter and perchance the most famous in the history of bullfighting. Bullfights take place at bullrings, which are called plazas de toros in Spanish. The largest venue of its kind is the Plaza México in Mexico City, which can hold 48,000 people. According to different sources, the oldest are the Plazas of Béjar and Ronda, in the Spanish provinces of Ávila and Málaga although other sites claim that the Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería in Sevilla, Spain would be the oldest in the world. In Peru, there are 56 official bullrings. Located beside the historical centre of the Rimac district, the Plaza de Toros de Acho is the oldest bullring in the Americas. Being the most prominent, it has a capacity of 13,700 spectators and was initially built of traditional materials such as adobe and wood. Other plazas de toros in Peru can be found in Trujillo, Cajamarca, Huancayo, Ica, Arequipa, Puno and Ayacucho. Surprisingly, there are still many countries around the world that have bullrings, although the rings have been given another use. Tourists can still find bullrings in countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Angola, Costa Rica, Mozambique and Uruguay although not all are open for public because of their poor state.

In the department of Áncash, two famous rings are the Monumental Plaza de toros in Huari and the Plaza de toros Monte Carmelo located in Huallanca-Bolognesi. Smaller rings can be found in Ticapampa, Caraz and Carhuaz. Nationwide newspaper El Comercio calculated that in one year at least 650 bullfights are held and around two and a half million Peruvians attend at least one bullfight per year. There is no other spectacle in Peru, not even the national football league uniting, that so many Peruvians of different classes and backgrounds attend. The Huaraz Telegraph talked to Pablo Miguel Juárez Oliveros and asked if he made a living out of it and what his friends and family thought about him being a matador. Ever wondered what a matador feels when they kill a bull? We dared to ask Pablito this question, who was surprised with our interest in him and his profession, but at the same time he was happy to answer the questions. Our first question was how he got into bullfighting.
My father and grandfather were bullfighters so you could say that I come from a dynasty of matadors. When I was eight years old, my parents were firmly against me becoming a bullfighter. Maybe because of the difficulties of the profession or the high risks that are involved. Maybe it was to protect me, that they didn’t let me practice it. Anyway, I went to the Bullfighting School of Lima in Acho after my regular classes. Often I had to lie to my parents telling them that I went to play football. In May 1999, I had to fight a smaller brave female bull so my qualities and skills could be evaluated. My uncle informed my parents and my father showed up that day in Acho at the ring and when he saw me for the first time dressed as a bullfighter he started to cry. This was an emotional moment that I remember very clearly, and from that moment on, my father started to help me with my career. I integrated with a group of kids that were fighting with bulls between one and a half and two years old. This is bullfighting but without the killing part. The school took us around all bullrings in Peru and we attracted many spectators. When I was thirteen years old, I killed my first bull in a place called Caravelí, which is in the department of Arequipa. From that moment and onwards, I became a novillero, achieving a degree in bullfighting. And, on October the 10th 2010, I became a professional bullfighter having passed all categories from becerrista (one who fights calves) aspirant novillero, novillero, novillero with picadors and finally bullfighter. At the moment, I am the only professional bullfighter in the history of Áncash. I feel lucky to have seen the ins and outs of Peru because of my profession. I have fought many battles in inhospitable places that have shown me the good and the bad things in life.

Could you explain exactly why you wanted to become a bullfighter?
The reason is probably because from being very little, I have always seen my father getting dressed up before a fight. My mother was talking about bulls in our home. There were pictures of bulls on the wall. Although my father didn’t want me to become a bullfighter, he did take me to some bullfights in our area. My mother always wanted me to study administration, as my parents are the owners of a touristic ranch near Huaraz.

How famous are you in Peru?

Well, statistically, and you can check this in the El Comercio newspaper, I am amongst the ten best bullfighters in Peru. I am sometimes ranked fifth, sometimes a bit lower on a national level. During the year, our stats are sent to the national press; on, for example, where we participate, how many victories and how many ears we obtain, for example. According to this, they come up with a national ranking. I believe in Huaraz most people know who I am. As a Spanish proverb says; Nadie es profeta en su tierra (a prophet is without honour in his own land). I believe I am more famous in the south of Peru than in Huaraz itself. When I was still a novillero, I did most of the bullfights in Cusco, Puno and Arequipa and I have been to the smallest places that had a bullring. Honestly, if you ask the right person in Cusco or Puno, they will know who I am. But if you ask a random person who doesn’t care about bullfighting, that person will have no clue.

What is considered a victory in bullfighting?

Well as you know there are different stages or acts in bullfighting, which are called tercios (thirds). During these tercios the bullfighters are observed by a judge who calculates the trophies we obtain. For example, the lap of honour at the end of a bullfight, the number of ears we get hold of and the maximum trophy is two ears and the tail. Before the fight, we have to ask permission to the judge to change stages, meaning going from the first tercio to the second, and finally to the third but he is the one that is sort of the referee.

Can you make a living of bullfighting or do you have a part-time job alongside your profession?

My family runs the Posada de Yungar, which is a recreo, a sort of local ranch where we offer local and traditional food. Additionally, we also offer lodging and horseback riding. I help my family with their business and this helps me financially a little bit too. However, the bullfights pay very well, I can´t complain. It´s a risky profession as we are risking our lives and that´s why there are decent financial rewards. The reward depends a lot on the ring you´re at. When you´re fighting at a first category plaza, you get paid more than when fighting at a third category plaza. The plaza in Acho is first category; Caravelí will be in the second category and the smaller towns with bullrings, such as Jangas or Catac, are rings in the third category. Normally, the entrepreneur that organises the bullfight is the one that has to pay you for participating. To give you an indication of what we get paid. When it concerns a bullfight with the bull killed, we receive between 1,500 U$ and 2,500 U$ for our work. But this is not what I make; I have to share parts of this money with my two bandilleros and other assistants and another part goes to transportation and lodging costs. The bandilleros are very important because those are the guys that are distracting the bull and are basically protecting me if something goes wrong.

What type of clothes do you use for the events?

Bullfighters normally wear the same style of clothing, what changes are the colours. I have a couple of suits, for example a black one with silver and lilac one with jet black. The colours depend on the matador´s preference. You can choose your own colours. If you fight at a first category plaza you will have to wear an expensive looking suit. There are no shops in Huaraz or Lima where we can buy the suits but there are a couple of tailors that specialise in making the suits. All suits are handmade.

dditionally, the shoes are very important. They are very light weight because a matador needs to be able to move quickly and make short moves and passes. They look a bit like flat slippers similar to what ballerinas wear and are secured with a bow. The complete suit is called a suit of lights and contains a short and rigid jacket, two pairs of socks, pants that we wear underneath the suit itself. It takes us toreros (bullfighters) longer to get dressed than it takes a lady. It sometimes takes up to an hour and a half to get dressed. Understand that this is like a ritual. When we arrive at a hotel we first put out all our cloths, then we pray together and direct some words to God. Then we slowly get dressed, as each piece needs to be treated carefully and one by one. We get help from a mozo de espadas; who is the man attending to the matador during the development of the bullfight by providing all the accoutrements he needs (like capes, crutches, swords, and even handing water when it´s hot). We try to arrive up to five hours before the actual fight begins.

How do you train for your sport and how important is good physical condition?

That´s very important. The training we do is partly physical and technical. For example, this morning my team left at seven to start running to Hatun Póngor, which is on the road towards Casma. From this site we walk to a piece of land where we practice the toreo de salón. This is the learning and improving of gestures of bullfighting without a bull to improve our techniques. I consider bullfighting an extreme sport. Many people think that bullfighters are not afraid but I can tell you that this is not true at all; we fear the fight. The fear starts in the hotel when we start preparing for the fight. How can you not be afraid of a 500 kilogram enraged bull that wants to destroy you? Training is fundamental because one needs to be prepared, mentally and physically. That is why the practise during the toreo de salón is so important. Even though we practise without a bull, the person who gets dressed as the bull helps to improve our techniques. Mentally, it takes a lot to believe that it is a real bull but it works. We sometimes have up to ten people during the training. At cattle ranches we practise with cows, as the bulls are only used for bullfights. And as I mentioned earlier, the physical part is important because a bullfight can be very exhausting and a small mistake can cost you an injury or worse. Bullfighters normally don’t go to gyms because we will create muscles and we will lose elasticity and we need to be flexible. Apart from running we do stretching too.

In 2015 you were hospitalised in Víctor Ramos Guardia, what happened?

You are very well informed! On October the 11th in 2015 I had an accident. In general, 2015 and 2016 were sad years for matadors as three colleagues died while practising their profession. Apart from Víctor Barrio in Spain, the Peruvian novillero Renato Motta Del Solar got gored by a bull and died. Rodolfo Rodríguez ¨El Pana¨ a famous Mexican bullfighter died at the age of 64 after 32 days of hospitalisation following an accident during a bullfight in Ciudad Lerdo, Durango (Mexico). I am very aware, and always have been, that these things can happen, and so it did in October last year. I got gored in my belly and the wound was between seven and nine centimetres deep. Luckily it appeared to be a clean wound and no organs were damaged. It was a traumatising experience and I have been unable to practice bullfighting for eight months. I could easily have died, not because of the wound itself but because of the terrible circumstances of the hospital in Huaraz. I was at the emergency department at 5 pm and was operated on the next day at 4 in the morning. I felt useless and frustrated, but anyway. I have been practising again and in seven days I will face the first bull since my accident. The accident happened in Yungar, which is the town of my mother and family, but fortunately she didn’t witness the accident. Many people were crying actually, and there wasn’t even an ambulance present. I have no more complications and feel ready for my next bullfight.

In January you refused to kill a bull in the arena of San Antón in Puno, how did this happen?

Let me explain to your readers what happened. Before we start with a bullfight, a contract is signed. The contract has the conditions of the event but also with a couple of clauses. One of these clauses stated that if a bull has participated in another event a couple of days before the fight, I have the option to leave the fight. You should understand that this bull goes straight for the matador and there will be no tercios because the bull will go straight for a kill. So in Puno I noticed that it was not a fresh bull and I decided not to kill the bull. I played a bit with the bull but left the arena. Later in the press they stated that because of a caprice I would have rejected to kill the bull. So I had to release a letter to the press stating what really happened. Additionally, it was raining a lot that day and that made the sand heavier, which makes it even more dangerous.

Bullfighting being a controversial sport, have you ever received threats or intimidations on social networks?

Quite a lot honestly. If I were to show you my Facebook messenger, you´d be surprised. Sometimes I get introduced to someone at a restaurant or other public place and they tell everyone that I am a matador and then they immediately start a discussion. Some start a to offend and touch me, which is not nice. Well, luckily, I have always known how to manage these situations and I always respect if someone thinks differently. I guess it doesn’t affect me much because I am really well aware that this is, just like you mentioned in your question, is a controversial topic. My point of view of bullfighting is simply a different one. People that are looking to intimidate me are normally always focused on the blood and death involved in the spectacle. Or as they call it; cruelty. But they might not understand what´s behind the whole game. For example, there are more than 50 dances in Peru that are directly related to bullfighting. In Peru there has been bullfighting for 5000 years, and Áncash is a very popular place for bullfighting. The whole Callejón de Huaylas has bullrings or has organised bullfight events, starting from Ticapampa, Catac, Huaraz (Challhua),Recuay, Toccla, Jangas, Yungar, Anta, Taricá, Carhuaz, Tinco, Caraz etc. Not all those places organise events to really kill bulls, but they all have (had) their events with bulls, buffaloes or cows involved. Pablo Ruiz Picasso did many paintings with bulls in them. Furthermore, Peru has a long tradition with Peruvian Paso or Peruvian Horse breeds and cockerels that are used in spectacles as well. Both these animals, as the Spanish bull used in bullfighting, are not domestic animals and cannot be domesticated. A passionate bullfighting fan will observe, for example, the aesthetics during the fight. I am sure that these are things that an anti-bullfighting activist doesn’t take in account. They invent things such as putting Vaseline in the bull’s eyes or something. In whole my career, I have never seen this done to a bull, I wouldn’t like it either. The bull needs to be psychically well. I believe it´s not right to compare a cat with a lion or a zebra with a domestic horse. The Spanish fighting bull (Toro Bravo or Toro de Casto) is not a domestic breed but is selected primarily for its mix of aggression, strength, energy and endurance. An anti-bullfighting activist believes that if all the bullfighting would stop, the killing of the bulls would also stop. What they miss is that this breed will become extinct because it cannot be used for something else. I also know a lot of people that like bullfights but detest the fact that the bull is killed. But, little do they know that the bull or cow, either way it will end up in the slaughterhouse. And the people organising the bull runs or bullfights offer the meat to all visitors at the end.

But returning to the topic of the threats, most threats I receive are via Facebook. And these people don´t threaten me anonymously, but often have their entire profile visible. Regularly, they are from Lima or somewhere else, but not from Huaraz. The more I think about it; mostly these are insults, not that many threats but still. It bothered me in the beginning but not anymore. In the beginning I would start a discussion to defend what I do, but in the end I have to respect that they think differently and I will not be able to make them change their minds. I normally read the first couple of sentences and when I see that this is someone insulting me, I stop reading and delete the message. I remember that you contacted me on Facebook even though you were not a friend, so I read the first couple of lines and saw that you were genuinely interested in contacting me, and that´s why I replied, and the result is that you are sitting here interviewing me.

What do your friends and girlfriend think of the fact that you are a matador?

Haha, well I am single so don’t have to worry about that. My parents and family obviously support me in my profession because they know how much it cost me to get where I am now. I had a relationship for seven years with a girl who was anti-bullfighting. The moment we met, she told me this straight to my face. She said she would respect my profession but didn’t want to know anything about my job. In seven years she never asked me how I did at events. I turned 30 earlier this year, but you may write down that I am still 28, I won´t get upset [laughing out loud].

Could you describe what it feels like when you´re in the centre of a bullring?

Fear. A lot of fear. The three things I feel are fear, tension and responsibility. There is a lot of pressure on the shoulder of a bullfighter when he or she is in front of a big crowd. But when the bull is released, this is when this all slides off your shoulders and you have to concentrate on the fight. You can have a bad stomach, or a broken fingernail at the start, but all this should belong to the past because when the bull comes out, it´s between you and him.

How do you feel when you come to the point of killing a bull?

Is there a red button I can push to skip this question? This is the question I get asked the most, maybe a thousand times. What people mostly ask is if I feel grief when killing the bull. I will be honest with you. When I was young, I knew very well that killing is part of the game. I don´t like an animal to suffer, and believe honestly that his death should be swift. I feel a huge responsibility to kill it quickly without having it punctured over and over again before it finally dies. Maybe the best part is when we are able to spare one’s life, although this doesn’t happen that frequently. When a bull is really strong and brave, the audience has the option to ask the juez de plaza to spare the bull´s life. This bull is not killed afterwards but is taken to the stables again and will be able to enjoy the rest of his life in the field. And a true fan of bullfighting won´t be upset of not killing the bull because he will be able to recognize the qualities of both the matador and the bull. Every year there are many bulls whose lives are spared by the matador. I can´t recall the number of bulls that were not killed by me, but I am sure that there are many videos on YouTube. Like I said, I don´t mind the question, but normally these are girls asking this question. At la Posada de Yungar we have many animals such as geese, horses and guinea pigs. I have adopted a couple of street puppies as well, and this is something that might surprise people. They think that because I am a bullfighter, I am also killing guinea pigs or geese daily. I wouldn’t be able to kill a domestic animal that is unable to defend itself. The bull is able to defend itself and save it´s life on its own. I believe we´re living in a world with many double moral standards. Nowadays we try to humanise the animals. I have a dog that is not a human being. I haven’t taught it to pee in the toilet or to sit next to me on a chair when I am having lunch. It´s an animal and I respect it for being my best friend and this doesn’t mean that I am mistreating it, does it? The dog is one of the noblest animals in the world, but we human beings should not try to humanise it. Let me tell you another small family anecdote. My mother has insisted many times that I should learn to slaughter guinea pigs. I have had the knife up to five times ready, but couldn’t cut his throat. I really can´t, I can´t even watch it, when my mother prepares guinea pigs, I am off. I would never kill a harmless animal.

If Peru decides to ban bullfighting tomorrow, what would you do?

This is not as easy as it seems. Politically seen, I think that 80% of the Peruvian congress go to bullfights. The most known politicians are taurinos. For example ex-presidents Alan Garcia and Alejandro Toledo, but also the current president of Peru Pedro Pablo Kuczynski has been spotted at bullfights. I believe the only ex-candidate to the presidency openly against bullfighting has been Veronica Mendoza [Mendoza was the presidential nominee for the 2016 general elections running with left-wing party Broad Front for Justice, Life and Liberty (Frente Amplio in short and Spanish)]. All the others go to bullfights. If one day Peru decides to ban bullfighting, this won´t depend much on the anti-taurinos or on the pro-taurinos. It´s pretty much a political item but also an economical item. Earlier this year, in January, the congress approved the Animal Protection Act, which punishes animal abuse up to five years of prison. However, neither cockfighting nor bullfighting were included in this Act. Now I wonder why that would be? This is because bullfighting is a massive business for many people. Like I said before, my family has a business so it won’t be the end of the world but I believe that the fiestas in Peru would not be the same without the bull activities. When not being a bullfighter, I would probably dedicate my time to organising events. I also am capable of singing a bit. I don’t know if you might have seen a video of me but I really like to sing. When I was 12 years old I won a singing contest becoming the best 12-year-old singer in Áncash.

I am open for discussions with anti-bullfight activists too, they have called me in the past for meetings but I have never done that. But I am happy to answer all questions as you have seen today and defend my point of view. I have to admit that you were very well prepared and I liked your questions. I have been interviewed before by a local magazine and they asked me how many bulls I had killed. Questions should give a view on both sides. I like the interview and would like to thank you for your interest. I believe that there are many questions that I have never been asked before and I promise that I have answered all questions frankly and truthfully.

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