Friday, October 7, 2011

One of the people interviewed in Toni Strubell’s new, gorgeous 4-color book of interviews of leading Catalan personalities just published by Catalonia Press is Jennifer Berengueras, a member of the Prou (Enough!) group that was instrumental in shepherding the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia through the Catalan Parliament. Catalonia’s last ever bullfight will take place this Sunday, September 25, 2011  at the Monumental ring in Barcelona.

What Catalans Want is available in a full color gift edition (Amazon US | Amazon UK | Amazon Spain), more economical black and white edition (Amazon US | Amazon UK), Kindle (US | UK) and EPUB editions. You can also buy the three electronic editions altogether directly from Catalonia Press.

Jennifer Berengueras is an Anglo-Catalan member of the Prou [Enough] anti-bullfighting platform. On July 28, 2010 this group brought off the feat of getting the Catalan Parliament to abolish this blood sport for good. A year earlier, in 2009, the Platform had presented a Popular Legislative Initiative which raised the support of 180,000 signatures in favour of the ban.(1) There are to be no more corridas in the country as of January 1, 2012 [and indeed the last bullfight will take place September 25, 2011.]

Berengueras’ determination to campaign for animals’ rights stems from her childhood, when she was regularly besieged by images of bulls being tortured on TV. She remembers regularly bursting into tears ‘with a sense of rage and frustration’ after such scenes. Years later, when she went to University, she decided to study a subject connected with animals and nature. But it turned out not to be veterinary surgery, because, as she confesses, she didn’t have ‘the stomach’ to wield a vet’s scalpel on a pet. So she read Environmental Studies instead, specialising in ecology and the conservation of wildlife. Predictably, though, her more specific concern was for animals that suffer at the hands of humans in practices such as bullfighting and vivisection. Now she doesn’t cry when she sees images of cruelty to animals. Instead, she thinks of effective ways of getting it stopped.

Wednesday July 28, 2010 was a special day in your life.
It certainly was. On that day the Catalan Parliament put an end to five centuries of torture to bulls. By doing so I think our MPs not only showed respect for animals but also brought in a wave of democratic health for our nation. It was a day of great satisfaction and acknowledgement for the campaigning many people had been involved in for so many years. Nevertheless we cannot claim that our campaigning work is over. To achieve the complete abolition of bullfighting, there is still plenty to do. This is only the beginning of the end for this cruel practice.

What does the July 28th vote effectively mean?
It means that after January 1, 2012, bullfights will no longer be held in Catalonia. I am happy to say that an ample majority of Catalan MPs voted in favour of the bill. Perhaps what most moved me was the fact that after the vote, a good many of them actually stood and applauded us. I think it is a sign that Catalans—like the majority of Spaniards as well—are ashamed to be associated with this kind of activity. It is now time to evolve and to introduce ethical criteria when approaching the question of our traditions. The debate has boosted an awareness of the need to prevent cruelty to animals both at home and abroad. Indeed, the international support for our campaign was vital.

Deep down, what motivated you to campaign for an end to bullfighting?
Unfortunately, there are cruel animal-baiting traditions almost everywhere in the world. Even in civilized Denmark there is a tradition which involves bludgeoning dolphins to death!(2) In Spain foreign tourists often go to bullfights because they have no idea what’s involved. You see them leave the arena after the slaughter of the first (of six) bulls and you hear them rage, ‘I didn’t know they killed the poor animal!’ What they had seen in tourist brochures and TV publicity was the cocky matador swishing his gaily-coloured cape around his head, and they thought they’d love it. They had not been shown shots of the bull belching blood and falling to its knees with gore pouring off its back. I’ve seen whole groups of distressed foreign tourists leaving Barcelona’s Monumental bullring, some clearly in tears.

Aficionados(3) say bullfighting takes place on private premises, and accuse campaigners for prohibition of behaving like the Inquisition.
Every year they come up with some new argument. To insist on ‘respect for minorities’—as they now seem to do—is all very well. But that cannot entail tolerating the death, torture, and ill-treatment of animals. Frankly I don’t see myself as an inquisitor. But common sense and respect should put the idea of hurting other beings out of the question. It’s the same kind of case as paedophilia. Respect for minorities is fine as long as it doesn’t involve unnecessary harm to others, be they human or animal.

Aficionados also give ‘ecological’ reasons for preserving bullfighting.
Yes. Last year they came up with the notion that bullfighting helps conserve bull-breeding habitats. Aficionados insist that it’s thanks to bullfighting that the dehesa (the rolling grassland habitat scattered with holm oaks, typical of central and southern Spain) is conserved. I had the opportunity to speak before a European Parliament commission on this issue. The dehesa is not really a natural environment at all. It’s man-made. All right, it’s worth conserving. But bull-raising has almost no part in this, since it accounts for less than 5% of the whole dehesa area. The rest is protected by special measures that do not depend on bull-raising at all. In fact, the over-grazing, destruction of young trees, and disturbance to the subsoil associated with intensive bull raising is anything but ecological. And the claim that bullfighting ‘saves the species’ is absurd. The toro de lidia, or fighting bull, is not a species at all. It’s just another version of bos taurus. There are some six billion of them in the world. So I don’t think they’re in any imminent danger of extinction.

What is the European Union’s position on this issue?
The EU tends to stay neutral when so-called ‘traditions’ and religious beliefs are involved and yet, the EU is indirectly funding bullfighting. Some of the cattle farmers it funds rear bulls for bullfighting. Worse still, Regional Development Funds have been used to refurbish bullrings, as in the case of the ring at Haro in the Rioja region. Our organization is pressing for a ban on funding for activities involving cruelty to animals.

What shape has your campaign before the EU taken?
In 2008 we staged a protest to counter an aficionado bid to promote bullfighting with an exhibition at the European Parliament. In response, we outflanked them by placing a life-size white fibreglass bull at the entrance to the building. We asked MEPs to sign their names on it in support for a ban on bullfights. Three hundred MEPs signed, as did over two-thirds of the Parliament’s Brussels-based civil servants! We were amazed at our success. In contrast, only seven MEPs attended the pro-bulls show: five were Spanish, one was French and another Belgian. On the blog of the latter MEP there was soon an irritated comment about how he had been ‘hoodwinked’ into attending. The video presented at the event showed no gore, and made bullfighting look like courtly pageantry. Everyone knows the truth is different.

How strong is Catalonia’s anti-bullfighting movement?
People may think it’s a passing fad. But we have been on the road for over a hundred years. This can be seen by poring through the early 20th-century press. For years we have drawn up manifestos, sent protest postcards to institutions, and organized press campaigns and demonstrations of all shapes and sizes. But we realized this was not effective. We saw we had to make politicians change the law. The strength of our movement made them see they had to take us into account. So we decided to present what’s called a Popular Legislative Initiative (PLI) in the Catalan Parliament. This had never been done before anywhere in the Spanish State. And we won!

What did the PLI involve?
In June 2009 we got the 50,000 signatures we needed for the bill. They were officially validated, but the truth is we had another 130,000 in reserve. The truth is we had 180,000. Proportionally, it was like presenting 1,200,000 signatures in the UK. Then the Initiative followed the same course as any other bill presented in the Catalan Parliament. At first we hoped it would be voted on before Christmas 2009. But, this didn’t happen until seven months or so later. As regards party support, all we asked was that the opinion of the Catalan people should be fully reflected. So we banked on the parliamentarians prohibiting bullfighting, which is what the vast majority of Catalans want. As regards parties that have got a policy on this issue, ERC and ICV have abolition on their programs. The Catalan branch of the Partido Popular, on the other hand, openly backs bullfights. In the end, the Socialists (PSC) and CiU allowed their MPs to vote freely. We knew there was one staunch pro-bullfighting MP in the PSC, David Pérez—he has even promoted bullfighting internationally—but in both parties there were known to be MPs in favour, against, and undecided. We were right in thinking that the latter would end up voting in accordance with the will of the Catalan people.

What about the position of Barcelona City Council?
It actually declared Barcelona to be a ‘bullfighting-free’ city in 2004, coinciding with the Fòrum de les Cultures.(4) Some over-optimistic citizens assumed that this meant that bullfighting had been banned from our city forever. Unfortunately, though, this motion was altogether useless, because the city had no real powers and competencies on this kind of issue. So bullfighting continued to limp on unhindered in the city. It was the Catalan Parliament, which deals with matters of animal protection and public spectacles, that had the key. And this is why we had to create the Prou Platform and take the matter before the Parliament.

Almost all of the city councils that have passed anti-bullfighting motions in the State and abroad seem to be in Catalonia.
Yes. To express opposition to what in Spain they call the ‘National Festival’ is much less of a taboo here than it is in Spain. Maybe because we are more European… But people are now beginning to campaign in Spain, too. There too, a large majority of citizens also feel embarrassment about bullfighting. Gallup did a rather conservative survey on this in 2007 and found that 73% of Catalans were clearly opposed to bullfighting. Other surveys over the years have given figures of 80% and 90%. Even in Andalusia, normally thought of as the heart of ‘bullfighting Spain’, 68% of the population now reject bullfighting outright! In South America anti-bullfighting feeling is as widespread as in Spain. Aficionados are in fact a minority everywhere, even in toreador territory. Bullfighting was banned in the Canary Isles in 1991 and nobody even noticed. Abolishing this practice in Catalonia has raised fury of a suspiciously political hue.

What do you make of the role played by ‘cult’ bullfighter José Tomás in recent bullfights in Barcelona?(5)
Tomás’ bullfights were staged in Barcelona’s Monumental bullring with a specific strategy behind them. They started just after the city had been declared ‘bullfighting-free’. In 2004, the owner of the ring, bullfighting empresario Sr. Balañá, had declared that he was fed up with losing so much money on the bulls. Other empresarios elsewhere grew afraid the closure of the Monumental might lead to a domino-effect closure of others in Spain. So they began to invest heavily in Barcelona. They had the brilliant idea of bringing back José Tomás, a retired torero who was game to making a much awaited come-back—in Barcelona of all places—as marketing strategy. Bus-loads of regular aficionados were brought in from all over Spain, while special planes were laid on for Madrid’s jet set. The media and the Ministry of Culture, which subsidizes bullfighting handsomely, did their bit. OK, admittedly there were Catalan aficionados at the José Tomás fights. But the whole affair had a decidedly crusading air to it. In any case, the bull lobby’s claim that it was the aficionados of Catalonia who had filled the arena was quite absurd. At Tomás’ latest corrida in Barcelona, we actually watched arena officials give out handfuls of free tickets at the door. But the official line given in Madrid papers spoke of all tickets having been ‘sold out in 50 minutes on-line!’ The funny thing is that José Tomás ended up publicly scrapping with dramatist Albert Boadella,(6) one of those most intent on using him for political purposes.

I gather aficionados take a poor view of your protests at the bullring gates.
Yes, before we opted for the ILP strategy, we used to protest at the gates of bullrings. We were generally hailed with all kinds of insults. At one corrida a man came up to me brandishing a coin with the face of Franco on it, and shouting, ‘The Generalísimo would put you in your place for sure.’ Another time a short-haired girl and I were holding a banner and a gentleman came up to us yelling, ‘You’re nothing but red lesbians!’ Incidentally, very rarely are we insulted in Catalan. A survey carried out by El Mundo newspaper published a photofit picture of the typical aficionado: male, over 65, Partido Popular-supporting with a marked preference for blondes!

What do they actually do to the bulls before the fight?
We used to base a lot of our campaigning on explaining the really sordid things they do. But just seeing what happens during the fight is quite enough. Apart from that, aficionados can always claim that those unseen practices are pure invention. They generally file down the bulls’ horns to make them less of a threat. But of course that also affects their sense of distance. What they do to the bulls in the ring should suffice to sicken normal people. Sticking the banderilla darts in the bull’s back,(7) piercing its lungs with a sword, and then using the cape to swing its head around to cause further injury… All the actions carried out in a corrida are designed to destroy a bull in the most cruel fashion imaginable.


  1. An Iniciativa Legislativa Popular (ILP) is a provision under Catalan law through which any measure presented with the support of at least 50,000 signatures of Catalan residents collected within a 120-day period has to be considered by the Catalan Parliament.
  2. This is a reference to the Faroe Islands, not Denmark itself.
  3. “Aficionados” is the Spanish word for bullfighting enthusiasts.
  4. An international cultural festival promoted by the City Council that was a notorious flop. One critical journalist remarked that, in contrast, the anti-bullfighting motion had been ‘rather more successful’.
  5. Barcelona’s Monumental bullring had been an increasingly secondary venue in the bullfighting calendar, with a continuous decline in audiences, until charismatic bullfighter José Tomás chose to make his return from a five-year retirement there, in a series of highly-publicized fights that, as the text indicates, were heralded as a demonstration of a continuing enthusiasm for bullfighting in the city.
  6. Catalan actor, writer and theatre director Albert Boadella became prominent for his radical productions in the 1970s, when he was arrested by the Spanish authorities. Since the 1980s however he has moved towards a position ever-more critical of most currents of Catalan nationalism, and in particular has been an enthusiastic supporter of bullfighting.
  7. Spikes that are stabbed into the bulls’ back, and the red capes used for bullfighting.

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