On the front line of a war over bullfighting traditions
By Jason Horowitz
After a nearly seven-hour journey, the bus carrying “The Popeye Bullfighter and his Dwarf Sailors” slowed to a stop around the brick bullfighting ring in Teruel. A brass band, clowns, children, wives, babies, the company’s leader and seven performers with achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that causes the more common type of dwarfism, spilled out into the sun.
“Teruel,” Jimmy Muñoz, a 57-year-old comic bullfighter with the condition, said as he stepped off the bus. “A very difficult place.”
Teruel, in eastern Spain, is known mostly for its Islamic Mudejar architecture, its star-crossed Medieval lovers and a population density so low it spawned a political party called Teruel Exists.
But Muñoz was referring to the town’s new status on the front line of a culture war with political overlays between Spain’s conservative defenders of bullfighting traditions and liberals who find them brutal, retrograde and, in the case of comic bullfighting shows in which some of the performers with achondroplasia take on smaller 1-year-old bulls, illegal.
For its annual fiesta this July, Teruel — which traces its founding to Christian soldiers repelling a Muslim attack of bulls with their horns on fire and especially one that survived to take a siesta — has rejected a May law passed by the Spanish Parliament that seemed to prohibit comic bullfights. The law banned “shows or leisure activities” that use a disability “to provoke public mockery, ridicule or derision.”
“These shows ridicule, humiliate, mock and denigrate people,” said Felipe Orviz Orviz, 43, a lawyer and activist who also has achondroplasia.
As the Popeye bus wound its way toward Teruel, the lawyer threatened legal action if the show went on and recounted how people have mistaken him for a performer and shouted, “Look at the dwarf bullfighter,” at him during fiestas. The shows, he said, “are illegal.”
But defenders of the show cited another clause of the law, which states that “people with disabilities will participate in public shows and recreational activities, including bullfighting, without discrimination.”
Benito Ros, an official with the Aragon region who is based in Teruel, argued that the comic bullfighters were getting laughs for their antics, not their stature, and that to ban them was to discriminate against their right to work.
“Our legal experts say it can go ahead because they are not provoking mockery,” Ros said. “I have a clean conscience.”
At 12:22 p.m. on the day of the show, his office sent the event’s organizer, David Gracia, 47, final authorization as he checked on the bulls fuming in the stalls. “We are defending freedom. They are trying to turn this country into a moral dictatorship,” Gracia said. “I have goose bumps talking about this.”
A few minutes later, the bus arrived.
“Let’s go, little ones,” barked Juan Ajenjo — Popeye, who does not have achondroplasia — using the term the performers also used to describe one another. In the business for 42 years, he had seen the number of shows crater in the last 15. “It’s not good,” he said of the new law. “The politicians don’t want the little ones to work.”
But work they did. Amid all the back and forth between activists, lawyers and politicians, the performers — several of whom confront real bulls during the show — said they needed the money, earning between 150 and 400 euros a day. Unlike their gigs as servers or as entertainment in discos, this was a performance they took pride in, several of them said. And they had to get on with the show.
“We are artists, and this is our dream,” said Muñoz, a married father of two, who came to Spain from Ecuador 30 years ago. “This is the right to work; they can’t take it away from us,” he said. “There is a family that eats behind this.”
The troupe hit the streets to hand out stacks of flyers, which, like the front page of that day’s Diario de Teruel, advertised them as “dwarf sailors.” A band playing trombones and tubas followed behind.
“We’re not OK with the bullfighting,” said Mariano Mateo, 66, a retired psychology professor who got a flyer. “And this is even worse.”
The performers crossed a bridge and entered the main Plaza del Torico, where the evening before, local children ran away from wheelbarrows fitted with bull heads and horns, and now hundreds waited in line to ascend on a crane to the top of the city’s trademark column, topped by a small brass bull wearing a red fiesta scarf.
The band played, and the performers danced at the foot of the column, and Ezequiel Gonzalez, 67, clapped along with his grandchildren.
The show was “fun and educational,” he said, adding, “the children asked if they’re real,” referring to the performers.
About a half-hour later, some of the performers took a breather in the shade. One slipped away for a day on the town, and others accepted the local delicacy of bread, ham and red peppers that the mayor handed out to hundreds to celebrate the fiesta.
“After speaking with the artists,” the mayor, Emma Buj, said, it was clear they “consider themselves to be bullfighters.”
The performers left the square, grumbling about not having had time to really eat lunch, and returned to the bullring’s dressing room, a converted veterinarian space that smelled of sawdust and was cluttered with racks of uniforms; bags of wigs; and cases filled with religious icons, plastic trumpets and clown outfits.
“Let’s get out there,” shouted Ajenjo, 69, stripped down to a pair of flip-flops, sunglasses and blue shorts bunched up to his groin. The Spanish flag was tattooed on his left calf, the silhouette of a bull on his right.
The performers stripped off their official Popeye company green shirts, put out their cigarettes and went back to work.
In the middle of the arena, under a punishing sun, Ajenjo blew his whistle furiously, and the performers entered the ring in single file for rehearsal as the band played “Brazil.” Muñoz shook maracas; Anderson Torres Perez, 32, played the bongos; Patricia Rotundo, 40, rattled a tambourine.
Ajenjo threw his hands up in disgust when he realized one performer hadn’t returned from town.
“Always the same guy,” he said. “I’m fed up with him.”
They worked out the gags, with Muñoz pretending to be a toreador to Torres Perez’s bull. For another routine, they acted like cadets to Ajenjo’s captain, who yelled at them for spinning the wrong way.
“This is the worst show I’ve ever put on,” he screamed as his former wife (“Ex-,” she clarified, “ex-”) looked on.
As showtime approached, Fabio Pabon, 40, the missing performer, returned. (“I had to get out and disconnect for a while,” he said.)
The shady half of the bull ring began to fill up with families. Spectators drank beer and spit sunflower seeds.
Muñoz emerged in matching blue-sequined sombrero, vest and bow tie. “We don’t want charity,” he said. “We want to work.”
The show started. Muñoz and Torres Perez performed their toreador and bull pantomime as two other men entered the ring in a bull suit.
Then a real bull entered — young but still of intimidating size. It stared at the spectacle in front of it and almost immediately jumped the fence. After a moment of panic, organizers got it back inside the ring, and Ajenjo, Muñoz and Torres Perez fought it with flourishes of capes, umbrellas and a painted exercise ball. Pabon, full of courage, punched it with boxing gloves and lost a shoe.
“I’m going to say something important,” Ajenjo, out of breath, said into the microphone after the bull exited. Pointing to his company, he said they were masters of their trade and concluded, “The current politicians want to take their rights away. Muchas gracias.”
Raul Saura, 40, a slaughterhouse worker sitting in the stands, said, “I laugh with them,” as his 2-year-old daughter giggled at the show.