I will never forget a sunny Tuesday in July four decades ago in northern Spain. We drove into Pamplona at daybreak and gathered in the street by the town council building with hundreds of other young men in white outfits with red sashes, berets, zapatas and other adornments. José, my Spanish compadre, and I wolfed down a bag of churros and a liter of cold milk. Most of the crowd had been up much of the night drinking wine and snacking on garlic. We were there for the “incierro,” running in front of the bulls, a part of the Fiesta de San Fermin.
When the cannon sounded, we ran with the crowd up the street toward the Plaza de Toros, the bullring. In what seemed like less than a minute I heard the pounding of hooves on the cobblestone behind me and I quickly plastered myself in a doorway along the narrow street looking backwards as the two longhorn steers (the guides) and eight fighting bulls stampeded by us. It dawned on me just then that you could get seriously hurt doing this and in fact, 37 were hospitalized the very next day. Like most young people who do this, I remember the event with some sort of silly pride at having survived it. I was terrified at the time, but of course, had to act like it was no big deal. In Spain and many other nations the running of the bulls provides a way to transport the bulls from the railroad to the bullring. The fact that people willingly get in the way has resulted in a longstanding tradition particularly associated with Pamplona.
Recently, I learned that ten communities in the United States are hosting the Great Bull Run in 2013 and 2014 along with a Tomato Royale battle. Richmond, Virginia hosted the first one in August 2013 at a motorsports park. When I first heard about this, the lack of traditional context or purpose made little sense to me. Merging the running of domestic bulls with a tomato fight like the one seen in La Tomatina Festival of Buñol, Spain, makes even less sense.
Community events tied to community traditions (like Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the Mount Fuji Festival in Fujinomiya, Japan) are a part of the fabric of the community and add to the rich cultural heritage of the area. Events that encourage positive health and recreation benefits or stimulate public consciousness about a cause (such as Tour de Fat by New Belgium Brewery or the Sustainable Living Fair in Fort Collins, CO) can be great fun and serve a purpose at the same time. But creating events that are designed simply to make money, simulate danger or have the potential to cause harm to animals in an urban setting seems particularly ill conceived. Copying events from another community is rarely as good as creating something unique that ties to local cultural traditions or positive objectives to improve health or raise awareness of local issues.
Events are a part of the intangible heritage of a community. They can strengthen a sense of place if they make sense within the context of the community or they can create dissonance if they seem out of place. Is this ten-city running of the bulls really a good thing for an urban community? Will the event become a valued part of the intangible heritage of the community? I will hope these bull runs and tomato battles will be short-lived, but who knows? American culture often is a hodge-podge so we will see. If it works for the promoters, perhaps a new tradition will be born, whether it makes sense or not.
Communities and institutions always have the opportunity to create events that recall their traditions, culture and real stories. We are at our best when sharing authentic or near-authentic experiences that reinforce the sense of place and promoters can still profit – a true win-win situation. When we create “real fake” experiences for fun and commerce as a community or institution we likely accomplish little of value other than to enrich the event organizers. Participating in the American Great Bull Run costs $60 a ticket in 2014. Who knows how much will be spent by the participating cities for extra security and other public services? Participation in Pamplona is free, considered part of a community festival. These large events require community cooperation. I hope that most communities learn to just say NO when this kind of idea arrives. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s what I should have said when my Spanish friends suggested that we run in front of the famous fighting bulls of Pamplona, but there it is a tradition and I chose to run.
– Tim Merriman