June 6, 2008
It’s June, time for local aficionados to reminisce about the just completed Feria de San Marcos in Aguascalientes, Mexico and to look forward to the annual Feria de San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain.
To paint a journalistic portrait of that feria, made famous by Ernest Hemingway, Bullfight World calls upon aficionado Jerry Roach.
Where do I begin? The drinking and the drunks, of course. It’s considered religious to drink during the Fiesta de San Fermín. The results are manifested in a celebration of joy. The drinking makes it easier to dance the jota and to sing their songs.
One year, at the end of the fiesta, I read in the local paper that there were 110 arrests for various offenses, during the eight days of the fiesta. Estimates of 500,000 people, celebrating ‘til dawn for eight days, yet so few arrests. Try that anywhere else in the world and watch what happens.
I think that’s what I like most about this fiesta, the fact that it is a perfect anarchy. No cops to speak of. The fiesta is policed by the people. If an uninitiated newcomer gets out of hand, he is immediately subdued by the people around him. Its pretty intimidating when 50 or so people wag their fingers at you.
So, the fact that the people believe that the spirit of their saint has descended upon their town for the fiesta creates an atmosphere that is hard to define. There are lots of stories of the origin of the fiesta. Fermín was the son of the Roman ruler of the town. He was converted to Catholicism, became the bishop of the town and in the second or third century, ventured into Gaul, to spread the gospel.
He was a charismatic figure who traveled all the way up to Amiens, France, where he met his demise at the hands of the city fathers, who arrested him. The officials planned for a public execution, but realizing that the people loved Fermín, they changed their plans and beheaded him, in his cell. He was buried in the cathedral of Amiens. In France, he is depicted holding his head, In Spain, he has his head on.
In 1717, Fermin’s, bones were returned to Pamplona. One of the stories is that when he returned, they planned a fiesta to commemorate the event and when there is a fiesta, there is a bullfight. In those days, the bulls were driven on foot to the plaza. Their last stop was the corral on the outskirts of town. They were driven through the streets to the bullring at dawn, while the city slept.
The locals were so excited by Fermín’s relics coming home, they decided to run with the bulls in the morning, because they felt that the saint would protect them. None was injured and they proclaimed such to be a miracle.
One runs with the bulls out of celebration and joy, knowing that the saint will protect you. It not supposed to be a macho thing, although for many, it has become just that.
There are famous runners who always wear the same trademark shirts. People know them by their jerseys. The traditional garb is all white with a red sash and a red panuelo, but the running stars usually wear something different, so their imagined fans can pick them out. The most famous runner is bald. Julien Medina, looks like Mr. Clean. Another always wears the same green shirt, every year. The ultimate is to be running in synch with the animal, positioned right between the horns in that blind spot that some aficionados say doesn’t exist.
Julian Medina the Basque master of teléfonos and the callejón will pick up an animal by waving his lure, a newspaper rolled up tightly, and lead the bull along until it has passed, then look for another.
Matt Carney the great American runner had a different idea. He liked to “join the herd”, as he put it. He would get up to speed and sidle over into the herd and stay there. He claimed that they accept you as part of the herd.
The guys that run Santa Domingo, down at the bottom, run down the street toward the bulls and then turn around and the bulls run by them. This practice scares the hell out of me, saint or no saint.
Then, there is the top of Santo Domingo, where the street narrows. This is where Matt Tossio, the American college boy, was killed. He made a mistake. He crossed from one side to another and got caught. The horn ripped open his aorta. He was dead, upon arrival at the hospital.
At the top of Santo Domingo is the ayuntamiento (city hall). It opens up there and it used to just open up into the plaza but now they have brought the fences in somewhat so it is more like a street, which leads to the curve. After the curve, it is approximately 600 meters to the post office, with no way out until the top, which opens up to teléfonos and the callejón. It is the downward sloping chute into the plaza, but the tunnel comes before the plaza and that is one scary place, as the sound echoes and it goes from 10 lanes to five, so the squeeze causes some pileups. One mozo was killed by suffocation, at the bottom of a pile.
My first fiesta was 1963. I have returned for 12 fiestas. Not enough!