Commentary. The most famous ‘fiesta’ in Spain coincides with Vox’s election campaign. The barbarity of the running of the bulls enters the political equation.

Death in Pamplona

Entzun arren San Fermín zu zaitugu patroi, zuzendu gure oinarrak entzierru hontan otoi” (“We call on San Fermin, our patron, to guide us in the bull run and give us his blessing”) – this prayer is always said in the minutes immediately before the start of the bull run, and since 2009 it has been said three times in the Basque language as well.

If the anti-Sanchist coalition wins in the next elections on July 23, it might be that Vox, with a program that amounts to an open return to Francoism, will impose the exclusive use of Castilian Spanish for the Iberian Peninsula’s most famous fiesta as well.

After all, the Foral Community of Navarre traditionally votes for the right, and in Pamplona the last local elections were won by a mayor from the UPN, a conservative party opposed to Basque nationalism and promoter of a “Spanishist” identity. For now, at least, in the final stretch of the election campaign, this bull run is still conducted according to custom, with the prayer ending with the cry of “Viva! Gora!”

Everything is sped up nowadays: not only the duration of the bull run (some finish it in 2 minutes and 20 seconds), but also the time it takes to recite the prayer chant: it used to last about 25 seconds and was recited with the cadence of a waltz, but now it’s said in half the time, in a rush that eats up the last few syllables, as if everything is yielding to impatience, adrenaline, and the anxiety of starting, finishing and bringing the bull hide home. Most participants don’t realize it, but those three minutes can cost them their lives.

The last death was in 2009. The victim’s name was Daniel Jimeno and he was 27 years old; a great fan of the bull run, he was gored by the bull Capuchino in the Callejón, the final stretch before entering the bullring, where the path narrows to just nine feet wide and the bulls and runners are funneled together, bumping into each other, stumbling and tumbling over each other before flowing into the plaza. Capuchino’s horn pierced Daniel above his left collarbone, severed his aorta and vena cava and punctured his lung. He was the 15th victim in the history of the bull run; the first was in 1924, when a similar fate befell Esteban Domeño Laborda at the Telefónica corner, a young 22-year-old from Sangüesa. Hemingway based the character of Vicente Gironés in his Fiesta on him.

At eight o’clock sharp, the first flare goes off, the corral door opens wide, and, urged on by a ranch hand, six bulls and six steers begin the run, passing under the patron saint’s niche in Santo Domingo alley. They run chaotically, blinded by their impulsiveness and inexperience. The steers are the older animals who lead the bulls – mighty creatures, three years old and weighing about 600 kilos each – towards the bullfighting arena, where they will meet “death in the afternoon,” as Hemingway described it. They run, angry and frightened, for 850 meters, alongside humans from around the world, some clueless, often drunk, some professional bull runners: one can recognize the latter because in the minutes before the start, they are stretching, jumping to warm up, concentrating and saying a prayer facing a wall or barrier, then making the sign of the cross. During the weekend, the number of participants passes 2,000 and verges on 3,000: in the confined space of the bull run, this is equivalent to two or three people per square meter.

“¡Qué barbaridad!” (“What madness!”), the TV commentators exclaim, commenting on the impressive size of the crowd. The bull run course actually looks like any other street in Casco Viejo during the fiesta, when the crowds are impenetrable and a solid red-and-white mass, enlivened by an infectious frenzy, mills around in the streets. The whites of the shirts turn lilac as red wine is poured from traditional wineskins and plastic containers. Any Pamplonese will tell you that the clothes are thrown away at the end of the day, but for some, during the fiesta, the days simply never end.

It is a kind of madness, indeed, to see the scenes of humans shouting at the bulls, hitting them with their fists even though it’s forbidden to touch them; and the bulls slipping, falling down, getting back up and at the same time instinctively jumping over whoever ends up on the ground. If you fall, you must curl up in a fetal position and remain motionless, waiting for the bull to pass over you. But some, knocked unconscious by the impact, are lying on the ground at their full length and are trampled by others, both two-legged and four-legged. The daily medical bulletin typically reports less than a dozen cases of bruising and face trauma.

Technology offers analysis and statistics: the height, speed, heart rate, distance traveled by an athletic young runner. The three hundred police cameras are picking up those running with cell phones in hand (some are wearing a head cam), violating safety regulations. TV replays highlight close calls between the bulls’ horns and the runners, stumbles, sudden turns, leaps; and the computer offers helpful measurements of the length of the horns (60 centimeters) and their width (80 centimeters).

There is also the touristic impulse: for instance, the thousand balconies along the bull run that hold a total of four to five thousand people, with tickets running around €200 per person, including a guide and breakfast. The alternative is to perch on the barrier or on the low walls from as early as 3 a.m., in the few portions where it’s possible to watch the bull run on the street, such as on Calle Mercaderes, where the bulls arrive after City Hall and come around the bend at the entrance to Calle Estafeta. Runners should keep to the right, because the centrifugal force is pushing the bulls to the left side of the vallado – but a bull run doesn’t exactly take place on an athletic track.

The first who enter the bullfighting are those runners who have gone so far ahead that they aren’t actually running with the bulls at all; then the manada, the packed crowd, which generally goes straight ahead and enters the enclosure, greeted by the roar of the crowd in the stands. Sometimes, however, the bulls stop, turn around and charge at someone. There is a medical aid station every 50 meters along the route, and in the arena a team of trained surgeons is on standby to avert any human deaths. The bulls will meet theirs in the afternoon.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!