After an almost seven-hour journey, the bus carrying “The Popeye Bullfighter and his Dwarf Sailors” slowed to a stop around the brick bullfight in Teruel. A brass band, clowns, children, wives, babies, the leader of the company and seven performers with achondroplasia, a bone growth disorder that causes the more common type of dwarfism, spilled out into the sun.
“Teruelo,” said Jimmy Muñoz, a 57-year-old comic bullfighter with the condition, as he got off the bus. “A very difficult place.”
Teruel, in eastern Spain, is known mostly for its Islamic Mudejar architecture, its star crossed Medieval lovers and a population density so low that it spawned a political party called Teruel Exist.
But Mr. Muñoz alluded to the city’s new status on the front lines of a culture war with political overlaps between conservative defenders of Spain’s bullfighting traditions and liberals who find them brutal, retrograde and, in this case, comical. bullfighting shows, in which some of the performers with achondroplasia take smaller 1-year-old bulls, illegal.
For its annual celebration this July, Teruel – which traces its founding to Christian soldiers repelling a Muslim attack by bulls with their horns burned and one in particular who survived to take a nap – rejected a May law passed by the Spanish parliament that appeared to be. ban comic bullfights. The law prohibited “shows or leisure activities” that use disability “to provoke public ridicule, mockery or mockery.”
“These shows ridicule, humiliate, mock and slander people,” said Felipe Orviz Orviz, 43, a lawyer and activist who also has achondroplasia.
As the Popeye bus headed for Teruel, the lawyer threatened legal action if the show continued and recounted how people mistook him for a performer and shouted “look at the dwarf bullfighter” at him during parties. The shows, he said, “are illegal.”
But defenders of the show cited another clause of the law, which states that “people with disabilities will participate in public shows and entertainment activities, including bullfighting, without discrimination.”
Benito Ros, an official of the Aragon region who is based in Teruel, argued that the comic bullfighters were laughed at because of their antics, not their stature, and that to ban them is to discriminate against their right to work.
“Our legal experts say it can go ahead because they don’t provoke ridicule,” Mr Ros said. “I have a clear conscience.”
At 12:22 pm on the day of the show, his office sent the organizer of the event, David Gracia, 47, a final authorization while he checked the bulls smoking in the stalls. “We’re defending freedom. They’re trying to turn this country into a moral dictatorship,” Mr. Gracia said. “I’m sick of talking about this.”
A few minutes later, the bus arrived.
“Let’s go, little ones,” barked Juan Ajenjo — Popeye, who doesn’t have achondroplasia — using the term the performers also used to describe each other. In the business for 42 years, he’s seen the number of performances crater in the last 15. “It’s not good,” he said of the new law. “The politicians don’t want the little ones to work.”
But they did a job. Amid all the back and forth between activists, lawyers and politicians, the performers – several of whom face real bulls during the show – said they needed the money, earning between 150 and 400 euros a day. Unlike their gigs as waiters or as entertainment in discos, this was an activity they were proud of, several of them said. And they had to go on with the show.
“We are artists and this is our dream,” said Mr. Muñoz, a married father of two who came to Spain from Ecuador 30 years ago. “This is the right to work, they can’t take it away from us,” he said. “There is a family that eats behind this.”
The troupe hit the streets to distribute stacks of leaflets, which, like the front page of that day Diario de Teruel, advertised them as “midget sailors.” A band playing trombones and pipes followed.
“We are not OK with the bullfight,” said Mariano Mateo, 66, a retired psychology professor who received a flyer. “And this is even worse.”
The performers crossed a bridge and entered the main Plaza del Torico, where the evening before, local children had run away from carts equipped with bull heads and horns, and now hundreds were waiting in line to ascend on a crane to the top of the city’s trademark column. , topped with a small brass bull wearing a red festive scarf.
The band played and the performers danced at the foot of the column, and Ezequiel Gonzalez, 67, clapped along with his grandchildren.
The show was “fun and educational,” he said, adding, “the kids asked if they were real,” referring to the performers.
About half an hour later, some of the performers took a breather in the shade. One slipped away for a day on the town, and others accepted the local delicacy of bread, ham and red peppers, which the mayor distributed to hundreds to celebrate the holiday.
“After talking to the artists,” said the mayor, Emma Buj, it was clear that they “consider themselves bullfighters.”
The performers left the square, grumbling that they had not had time to really eat lunch, and returned to the dressing room of the bullring, a converted vet, which smelled of sawdust and was filled with clothes of uniforms, bags of wigs, cases filled of religious icons. , plastic trumpets and clown costumes.
“Let’s get out there,” shouted Mr. Ajenjo, 69, stripped down to a pair of flip-flops, sunglasses and blue shorts pulled up to his groin. The Spanish flag was tattooed on his left calf, the silhouette of a bull on the right.
The performers took off their official green Popeye company shirts, put out their cigarettes and went back to work.
In the middle of the arena, under a punishing sun, Mr. Ajenjo whistled furiously and the performers entered the ring one by one for a rehearsal while the band played “Brazil”. Mr. Muñoz shook maracas; Anderson Torres Perez, 32, played the bongos; Patricia Rotundo, 40, rocked a tambourine. Mr. Ayenjo threw his hands up in disgust when he realized that one performer had not returned from the city.
“Always the same guy,” he said. “I’m fed up with him.”
They worked out the gags, with Mr. Muñoz pretending to be a bullfighter to Mr. Torres Perez’s bull. For another routine, they acted as cadets to Mr. Ayenjo’s captain, who shouted at them that they were spinning wrong.
“This is the worst show I’ve ever put on,” he shouted as his former wife looked on.
“Ex,” she explained. “Ex.”
At almost 3 p.m., under a shaded tunnel, it was time for a break. The performers, several of them two-generation comic bullfighters who had previously worked in their native South America, passed the smiling baby clown who was fighting a bull on stilts. They got on each other’s nerves and applauded each other’s routines.
Ramon Moya, 46, a former bullfighter in the company, watched them with admiration.
“It’s even more dangerous for them,” he said, “because the bulls are taller than them.”
As showtime approached, Fabio Pabon, 40, the missing performer, returned. (“I had to go out and disconnect for a while,” he said)..
The shadowy half of the bullring began to fill with families. Spectators drank beer and spat sunflower seeds.
Mr. Muñoz appeared in a matching blue-sequined sombrero, waistcoat and bow tie. “We don’t want charity,” he said, “we want to work.”
The show started. Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Torres Perez did their toreador and bull pantomime, as two other men entered the ring in bull costume.
Then a real bull came in – young but still of formidable size. It stared at the spectacle before it and almost immediately jumped the fence. After a moment of panic, organizers got it back into the ring, and Mr. Ajenjo, Mr. Muñoz and Mr. Torres Perez fought it out with flowers from capes, umbrellas and a painted exercise ball. Mr. Pabon, full of courage, punched it with boxing gloves and lost a shoe.
“I’m going to say something important,” Mr. Ajenjo, out of breath, said into the microphone after the exit of the bull. Showing his company, he said that they are masters of their business and concluded: “The current politicians want to take away their rights. Thank you very much.”
Raul Saura, 40, a slaughterhouse worker sitting in the stands, said: “I’m laughing. with them,” as his 2-year-old daughter laughed at the show.
At the end, the performers appeared in the arena in pink-striped sailor shirts, and Mr. Agnes, in a blue Popeye sailor suit, faced a ferocious young black bull. The crowd roared at the close calls, especially when Mr. Ajenjo circled the bull on a motorcycle.
But then he sprained his leg and was rushed to the hospital. As his ex-wife bit her painted pink fingernails, the company took a lap of praise. The sailors waved their sailor hats. The clowns carried their children on their shoulders.
Back in the dressing room, the performers applauded as Mr. Agenjo staggered back to join them with a bandaged thigh.
“They are artists,” he said emotionally. “Like bullfighters or porn actors, it’s the same.”
Everyone changed and packed. In the arena, the teenagers who waited impatiently descended on the ring for the main event – testing their courage and dodging young bulls. Backstage, workers killed the first bull the company fought. The workers dragged its carcass across the yard to a slaughterhouse while the performers wheeled their suitcases to the exit.
“We came with fear,” said Mr. Muñoz, as he boarded the bus for the long ride back to Madrid, “that they wouldn’t let us perform.”
Rachel Chaundler contributed reporting.