TIJUANA, Mexico _ It’s bullfight season in Tijuana, home of the world’s third-largest bullring.
However, the 22,000-seat Plaza Monumental, the famed bullring by the sea, was completely empty Sunday afternoon, having closed in 2017. When matadors square off now against 2,500-pound bulls, they travel to the 3,000-seat Caliente Plaza de Toros where spectators sip on tequila and smoke cigars.
“It is cruel, but it is beautiful,” said 81-year-old Jose Enrique Santillan, who remembers seeing his first bullfight in 1944.
Santillan’s son, Miguel Ignacio, sat to his left on the front row. Both cheered as Diego Ventura, a Portuguese bullfighter who performs on horseback, somehow spun 360-degree turns on his horse while simultaneously dodging the raging bull’s horns.
“Going to a bullfight is like listening to Pavarotti or seeing a Rubens, or watching Joe DiMaggio at bat,” the senior Santillan said.
While his father romanticized the sport popularized in the US by Ernest Hemingway, the younger Santillan reflected on its dwindling popularity. In his opinion, organizers haven’t done enough to appeal to a wider audience.
“It’s too elitist, too expensive,” he said. “It’s going to be very hard for bullfights to grow here because they haven’t done enough to grow the fan base over the last 20 years.”
Such is the state of bullfighting in Tijuana.
Most would rather see its banned
A dwindling number of passionate fans pack small arenas to watch a sport that the majority of the population would rather see banned, according to recent polls.
Bullfighting in Tijuana survived a potential state ban in 2016. But now, local animal rights activists have turned their sights on a national ban. Earlier this fall, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador floated around the idea of a public vote to decide the sport’s fate.
At the height of its popularity, Tijuana had two bullrings that hosted 18 bullfights a year and sold out almost all of them, said Alberto Bustamante, one of the organisers behind Sunday’s bullfight.
Back then, most of the support came north of the border, with nearly 70 per cent of the people in the arena being Americans, Bustamante recalls.
“The streets near the plaza would be filled with yellow taxis bringing them from the border,” he said.
But shifting cultural views that regard bullfighting as animal cruelty, increased wait times to cross the border, and Tijuana’s rising crime rate have all contributed to the decline of American interest in the sport.
That lack of interest led to a drop in attendance, which took all of the profits away from hosting bullfights at Plaza Monumental. Hence the move to Caliente around 2017.
The move to the smaller arena also provides bullfighting some protections from any potential state ban in the future. That’s because Caliente Plaza de Toros is located within a large complex owned by Tijuana’s former mayor Jorge Hank Rhon.
The complex is also home to a casino, greyhound racetrack, a 28,000-seat soccer stadium, and Hank Rhon’s private zoo. Attendees of Sunday’s bullfight walked by cages filled with lions, white tigers, jaguars and bears on their way to the arena.
Hank Rhon has a concession permit from the federal government, which means the bullring within the complex falls under federal jurisdiction, not state.
State laws banning the bullfights lack teeth
“Any state law banning the bullfights would have no impact because the state has no jurisdiction there,” said Ivan Martinez, founder of a Tijuana-based animal rights group called ProvidAnimal TJ.
Now that the state ban is no longer a realistic option, Martinez has two strategies for ending bullfights in Tijuana. The first, is to simply wait out the fan base.
“They are going extinct,” he said of bullfighting aficionados. “They have fewer supporters every year.”
Martinez’s second strategy is less grim. And that is a federal ban. However, that strategy has significant road blocks.
Despite the Mexican president’s call for a referendum, activists are disillusioned by what they see as lack of action from his promise to expand animal welfare rights during the campaign.
The main problem with a referendum, activists say, is that it wouldn’t be legally binding in Mexico, therefore activists view it as an empty gesture.
“They do not exist in the law,” said Dulce Kim a Mexico City-based activist with Mexico Renace Verde. “They are not valid. They have no legal basis.”
A few individual lawmakers in Mexico City have introduced federal bans in the legislature, but they do not have support from the majority party, therefore there appears to be no political will to pass a ban, Kim added.
From 18 fights a year to just three
Supporters of the sport acknowledge that bullfighting is in decline. Specifically, they find it hard to attract younger fans who see bullfighting not as an art form, but rather as the mistreatment of animals.
“Every day we are fewer,” Bustamante said. “I’ve always said that we aren’t rejuvenating the fan base. They 18- and 20-year-olds are just not interested.”
In Tijuana, a city that once hosted 18 bullfights a year, now only three are held annually. And Americans willing to attend now number in the hundreds as opposed to the thousands.
“It’s not for everyone,” admits Alfonso Hernandez, who operates a tour company that brings Americans down to the bullfights.
Hernandez says he has experienced some push back from the PETA crowd and actively takes steps to protect himself and his business from controversy.
For example, Hernandez offers other tours of Baja including wine-tasting trips to Valle de Guadalupe and lobster lunches at Puerto Nuevo. However, the bullfights operate under a completely independent brand - Border Bullfights - out of concern that the backlash would impact the other tours.
He offers the bullfighting tours because there’s still a market for it, and because he’s a fan. He understands that some people consider it a form of animal cruelty, but believes that those who don’t like it can stay away. “No one is forcing you to go,” he said.
Of the Americans who do like it, they are a mixed crowd make up of curious hipsters and die-hard aficionados who have followed the sport for decades.
One way to potentially grow the Mexican audience, the younger Santillan said, is to borrow a page from the local baseball team’s playbook. The Toros de Tijuana (Tijuana Bulls) routinely give away free tickets to children.
“You see parents taking their kids,” he said. “But bullfighting continues to be too elitist. Here in Tijuana, there are not a lot of opportunities to get into the sport.”
His father believes the issues with bullfighting are much more complex. There are deeper generational factors at play here.
“We have lost the love of art,” he said. “You go to a movie now and it’s the Terminator shooting everyone. People don’t appreciate movies like ‘Casablanca’ anymore.”
The San Diego Union-Tribune/Los Angeles Times