“You are what?!” I asked, not sure I had heard Pedro Pablo Pérez García correctly.
“I’m a Banderillero lidiador,” he repeated.
His answer took me back to my adolescence in Nicaragua, when on Sunday afternoons during the siesta hour, and with only a handful watching, the lone television station in the nation broadcasted bullfights taped in Mexico. It was during those quiet weekends that I learned to appreciate bullfighting.
That’s why, when Pedro repeated the answer, I knew at once that his job during a bullfight was to stab the bull with banderillas (decorated short lances) to help lower the animal’s neck in order to give the matador a fighting chance during the faena and then the kill.
“How does one become banderillero?” I asked Pedro — a native of Mérida, in the region of Extremadura.
“My grandfather was a matador who fans knew as El Hueverito. And my father was a real aficionado who encouraged me to become a bullfighter. As a youth, I enjoyed success as a novillero — an apprentice who works with steers. I was good, but not good enough to become a matador. But more than anything I wanted to be part of this profession, so I became a banderillero, and this has given me my livelihood for almost 30 years. I’ve now been walking the Camino for four years straight during the off season to burn the excess adrenaline and stay in shape.
During my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I’ve met pilgrims from a wide range of professions, but none as unique as Pedro’s.
“Have you ever been gored?” I asked, somewhat hesitantly.
“Twice,” he answered, with a hint of a grimace. “The first time was minor, in the left calf. The second time, however, it was another matter. Because of my carelessness, the bull caught me in the left thigh, but this time he lifted me in the air and caught me full force again on the right side of my chest.”
Pedro then lifted his shirt to show me a horrifying scar that started below his ribcage and ended at his armpit.
“The goring punctured my lung and my liver. The doctor who operated on me didn’t think I would survive. I spent a month recovering in the hospital before they allowed me to go home to my family.”
“Was it difficult to return to the bullring?” I asked.
“That is the moment of truth for any bullfighter. The slightest sign of fear and one’s career is over. Fortunately, I passed the test with flying colors,” he said with a smile.
I had one last question for Pedro, which I asked somewhat reluctantly because I knew he would react strongly.
“Pedro, outside of Spain, most people want bullfighting banned. They argue that it’s an antiquated and cruel sport.”
Pedro Pablo Pérez García waved his hand in exasperation and said, “There are far more important things for the world to worry about: famine, wars, the widespread availability of highly destructive weapons. Bullfighting is a spectacle that goes back long before recorded history. It’s engrained in the soul of the people of Spain. It’s not going away any time soon.”
Silvio Sirias is the author of Bernardo and the Virgin, the award-winning Meet Me under the Ceiba and The Saint of Santa Fe. You can follow him on Twitter @silviosirias.