A SMALL group of Mexicans is making bullfight lovers - and the businesses that cater to them - see red.
The group is trying to put a stop to the corrida, a ritual that has been a part of Mexico since shortly after the New World and the Old World collided in the 16th century.
Last week, animal-protection advocates met in the Mexican capital with a few dozen veterinarians, legal experts, writers, and psychologists for the International Anti-bullfighting Congress of Latin America.
"We are going to have more meetings like this one and take other steps to convince people that it is shameful that this cruel and inhumane custom is part of Mexico," says Leonardo Diaz, a member of a Mexican association that promotes the enforcement of animal-protection laws.
"The human sacrifices of the Aztecs were also once part of Mexican life and culture, and they even had religious meaning, but that was stopped, too," Mr. Diaz says.
Though attendance was relatively small, determined participants insisted that this first convention - which drew delegates from Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Central America, as well as Mexico - will not be the last.
Mexico's enthusiasm for bullfighting has been compared to Japan's relationship with baseball: Both are imported customs that have become something of national passions. Outdoing Spain, Mexico boasts the world's largest bullring - capacity 50,000 - in Mexico City. The country counts more than 300 rings, where every year thousands of specially bred bulls are slaughtered before millions of spectators and television viewers.
Bullfighting enthusiasts say the custom, which dates back to ancient Greece, is an art as well as a vital part of the Spanish-speaking world's culture at a time when culture is being watered down by globalization. But opponents call bullfighting a barbaric vestige of the Roman Circus. They say it would have no place in a world where human and animal rights are increasingly valued were it not that the fights have become big business.
Mexican bullfight opponents point out that Televisa, the country's largest television broadcasting corporation, is a major promoter, giving the corrida heavy coverage during the November-to-April season. Advertisers include many of Mexico's largest companies. Even Pepsi-Cola advertised at this year's preseason fights for novice matadors.
Bullfight opponents complain that advertising by foreign companies like Pepsi promotes a practice that would never be allowed in the United States.
"Why is it that so many tours from the US to Mexico promote the bullfight as an essential part of a trip to Mexico, when this is something that Americans would not tolerate at home?" asks Esther Hidalgo, president of a federation of Mexican animal-protection groups, FENASBA.
Opponents claim some progress. More young Mexicans are taking up the cause of animal rights, they say. In addition, they point to a six-month-old law in Mexico that requires bull rings to employ a bolt pistol to kill injured bulls. The problem, says National University of Mexico veterinary-science professor Pedro Cano Celada, is that Mexico has few inspectors and little political will to enforce the laws.
They acknowledge serious setbacks as well. In 1992 Spain reversed a 63-year-old law forbidding children under 14 from attending bullfights. But the most formidable foe, opponents say, is the rising tide of media promotion that is creating a new pool of spectators. Diaz, who lives in Xochimilco, just southeast of Mexico City, notes that his town's long-dormant bull ring was reopened a few years ago.
"I have two friends who were opposed to bullfighting and its barbarity, but then they were attracted by the advertising and the media fascination with it," Diaz says. "Now they are actually bullfight fans."
Even if they remain relatively few in number, Mexico's bullfighting opponents say they realize after organizing their first conference that they represent a threat to some people. The first two hotels they tried to reserve abruptly cancelled the booking when they discovered the nature of the conference - and this despite a deep slump in business for Mexico City hotels. Then several scheduled speakers began receiving death threats, forcing one to cancel his participation.
Despite such difficulties, the anti-bullfighting activists say their biggest foe is an indifferent public. "The great majority of Mexicans are not interested in bullfighting, but they don't take any part in opposing it, either," says Ita Osorno, president of the Proanimal Committee of Mexico City. "Those are the people we have to reach."