Though arenas are full, some Spaniards steer away from bullfights

``My name is Ainhoa, and I'm seven years old. All the boys and girls in my class think that bulls in corridas should not be killed, for what have they done?'' read a letter to the editor of El Pa'is, Spain's leading daily. Opinion columns throughout the summer have raged against corridas (bullfights) as ``barbaric and savage spectacles.'' Hundreds of balloons were released over a Madrid plaza during the start of the capital's bullfighting season proclaiming that ``torture is neither art nor culture.''

Yet this year Madrid's San Isidro feria or festival was a sell-out: The 26-day feria brought in a record $4.5 million. As fashion designers, TV personalities, and trend setters crowded into Madrid's plaza, the spring corridas were more than ever a social event.

The Queen Mother attended four fights. King Juan Carlos declared on radio that he was an aficionado and only his official duties prevented him from attending more fights.

But, as Spain adjusts to Europe following its 1986 entry to the European Community and pushes to modernize and ``behave'' like other Western nations, the controversy on bullfighting is alive again. Opposition to what is known as the fiesta nacional is associated with a curious revival of the fiesta.

The government has stepped in to regulate - and in some instances promote - bullfighting. The interior ministry even boasts of a special adviser on taurine affairs. Many of the ruling Socialists are bullfight aficionados.

``Yes, we are a progressive party, and it is a contradiction to be an avid fan, but I accept that contradiction,' says Pablo Castellano, leader of the party's left wing.

According to a Gallup poll one in every four Spaniards said the fiesta was a barbaric spectacle that must disappear. During Madrid's San Isidro festival, a poll showed 40 percent thought corridas should be banned. Polls in preceding years actually have found one-half of the country against bullfighting.

Coinciding with Spain's entry into the European Community in 1986, anti-corrida activity increased. The most visible organization is the newly founded ``Alternative for the Liberation of Animals.'' ALA uses the slogan: ``Madrid - 1992 culture capital of Europe ... without corridas.''

Pro-corrida lobbyists point out that economic interests are at stake, as the fiesta nacional keeps 158,000 people at work, from bull breeders to bullfighters.

Curiously, interest among Spaniards has been growing.

One indication of the revival is the avalanche of books on taurine themes published recently. Among a new series of biographies and essays put out by the Espasa Calpe Publishing House, a 1985 biography of matador Paquirri already is in its third edition. Paquirri died in the ring.

Says Espasa-Calpe editor Ricardo Lopez Uralde: ``In a world that is becoming too homogeneous, there is a movement to go back to one's roots and rediscover local customs such as music and bullfighting. And here, those customs have magic.''

However, a more insidious reason for the revival is that danger has returned to the arena. After two decades of ``insipid'' bullfights where the illegal practice of shaving the bull's horns brought interest down to an all-time low, the mortal gorings of two popular bullfighters in 1984 and 1985 jolted the Spanish public's awareness again.

``The death of Paquirri and Yiyo certainly had something to do with the renaissance of bullfighting in recent years,'' says Bill Lyon, an American who writes on bullfighting for El Pa'is.

Despite sharp outcries against the ``bread and circus spectacle'' of a man risking his life to please the crowd, risk is the one component of the fiesta which the aficionados are unwilling to forego.

When appointed special adviser on taurine affairs to present Interior Minister Jos'e Barrionuevo, Carlos Briones was asked by the minister - why not shave the bull's horns to protect the man's life? Mr. Briones said the practice would have to be announced on posters, the purity of the fiesta would suffer a blow, and hardly anyone would go.''

Those actively campaigning to ban corridas say bullfighting eventually will fade away - if only the authorities will let it do so.

``Not only are we branded as anti-Spanish in the street,'' says Francisco Mart'in, ``but what is scandalous is that no party nor politician will take up our cause. It still is taboo to say anything publicly against the fiesta.''

The Socialists have promoted bullfighting. The government has created official bullfighters' schools and local authorities have channeled public ``entertainment'' funds to corridas. Madrid's plaza is half owned by the city hall.

Says Francisco Mart'in: ``Before banning fights, a first step would be for authorities to stop using public funds for corridas and to stop promoting the schools.

A 1929 decree which bans from bullfights minors under the age of 14 systematically is flaunted. When ratified by the supreme court in 1985, Vice-premier Alfonso Guerra caused an uproar by turning up at a corrida with his young son.

However recent polls show those under 25 are most opposed to bullfights.

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