Inside the walls of a medieval-style wooden stadium, the people of the Caribbean coast city Sincelejo have gathered to participate in one of Colombia’s most extraordinary festivals, the “corraleja de toros,” where the spectacle is not so much to watch a professional bullfighter defeat a beast, but rather to take on the thrill of the beast yourself.
Sincelejo’s corraleja, a bullfight where festival-goers themselves participate in the ring, began on Tuesday and will run through January 20.
What happens in the small Caribbean coast city each year in the third week of January is part of a longstanding tradition where cattle farmers used to bring the most prized members of their herd to the Plaza de Toros, a man-made wooden arena where locals came to cram into the tight seats and indulge in several days of music and dancing.
And they still do.
Indulging in the music and dancing is just as much a pleasure today as it was in the past. But even though the corraleja was originally a sort of cattle fair, the event transformed into something of a participatory bull fight when cattle farmers started offering rewards to whatever rowdy, risk-hungry type could perform a spectacular stunt during a dance with the bull. To perform a headfirst flip over the bull, for one, earns the amateur ‘matador’ a hefty sum.
The more daring the corralejas got, the more death became an integral part of the show. It is not unlikely that a festival-goer who chooses to participate gets seriously injured, possibly even gored to death.
In 1980, pressure on the wooden stadium caused the walls of the three-story structure to collapse, burying men, women, and children in the debris. The tragic day prompted Sincelejo to cancel the event for nearly two decades. It resumed in 1999.
Memories of death, though, are still strong. Balancing the thrill of the corraleja with death and animal suffering is a controversy the festival has grown conscious of in a Colombia where bullfighting has fallen under greater regulation.
In an interview with local media, Olga Barrios, Vice President of the Humane Society for Sucre, said “we do not want people or animals killed by the corralejas, and it does not hurt to reflect: How can you consider the indiscriminate abuse of animals to be culture?”