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A young matador perfects the art of bull slaying

During practice, Damian Castaño’s hands grasp the metal bar of the wooden practice bull, pushing it like a wheelbarrow through the sandy ring. His older brother, Javier, guides his mock opponent, beckoning Castaño toward the cues of his red matador’s cape.

Javier thrusts his chest proudly forward, his left arm and leg behind his back, luring the bull with his back arched. Moving confidently, with slow, deliberate motions, Castaño, 23, follows the red cape as a “good” bull would, reacting respectfully to the matador’s movements.

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This role-playing is a crucial piece of the younger brother’s education, but just one aspect of a training regimen that calls for years of study, both inside and outside the ring, for a profession that can be deadly even for its most skilled performers.

There is nothing casual about the choice Damian Castaño has made. He is all in, realizing bullfighting is not just a profession, but a way of life.

“My personal life has been totally affected… I basically do not have a personal life,” says Castaño. “I have no time for anything outside of bullfighting, but to be honest I don’t miss it. This is my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

He started young. At 8, Castaño enrolled at the city’s Escuela de Tauromaquia, a school for bullfighters. He attended formal schooling through high school, but spent the rest of his time in a classroom with 40 other young aspiring matadors. When he was 16, he decided to focus on his sport full-time instead of attending a university.

José Ignacio Sánchez, Castaño’s instructor, urges each young torero to develop his own personal style and adoration for the bull.

He also reminds aspiring bullfighters of their place.

“Now, Damian is waiting for the moment to become a matador. He is still learning and until the day when he becomes a matador, he is still a student,” says Sánchez, 42, himself a living example of the dangers inside the ring. He became a teacher at the School of Tauromaquia about five years ago after badly injuring his shoulder in a fight. Otherwise, he admits, he would still be in the ring.

Castaño grew up watching bullfighting in stadiums near Salamanca, attending his first fight when he was 2 or 3 years old. His family would bring him and his brothers as young boys. He attributes much of his skill and passion to growing up under the tutelage of his brother, Javier, who is also a torero.

“My passion started with watching my brother, I was completely surrounded by it because of my brother. It was hard to stay away from this kind of lifestyle,” he says.

According to Sánchez, there are three stages an aspiring matador must complete before graduating and becoming a professional bullfighter. The training is generally a seven-year process. The first five are spent in the classroom, with and without the practice bulls like the ones that Castaño pushes during his sessions. The last two years throw the student into the ring with real and fake bulls and on a farm with cows.

The mock bull “is one of the first things we practice with when we first start training. It’s one of the first things we learn, how to expect the movements of the bull, but each bull is different. You learn more and more with each bull. You learn what to expect and how to adapt to the differences,” says Castaño.

A wooden, straw-filled practice “bull” sits unused at Salamanca’s Plaza de Toros, as bullfighters practice behind it.

Maria Amasanti for the Boston Globe

A wooden, straw-filled practice “bull” sits unused at Salamanca’s Plaza de Toros, as bullfighters practice behind it.

The first stage, or “etapa,” does not involve live animals and is what makes up the first two-and-a half to three years of training. During the second etapa, students train with horses for two-and-a-half years. Aspiring matadors then train with novios, cows, for one or two years to round out the third etapa.

Castaño made his first public appearance in the ring when he was 16 years old. He discussed how amazing it felt to finally put on his traje de luces, the magnificent golden bejeweled suit only worn by matadors over 16 years of age.

“Certainly we were all very scared at the beginning, but as the years go by you learn to mentally prepare and to face the challenge,” he says. “Being older, more mature… I no longer feel scared for a bullfight. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s a learning curve… a long process.”

Since his first fight seven years ago, he suspects that he has killed about 400 bulls.

“I just try to keep improving every day and keep advancing as much as possible,” he adds.

There are constant reminders of the dangers they face. On a single Tuesday in May, three matadors were brutally gored, two by the same bull. Castaño speaks about it with little emotion.

“We prepare ourselves mentally that this could happen one day. We know that this is a risk. We assume this could happen every day, so we didn’t find it strange,” he explains. “If not today, then it could happen to us tomorrow. I don’t feel any more scared after this happened.”

Jose Ignacio Gascón, Castaño’s manager of six years, says that this makeup is part of what gives his pupil the drive to become a legendary matador. He has known Castaño and his brother Javier since they were children.

“Damian is a torero who as more time passes the better he gets,” says Gascón. “He is very focused and has a deep love and respect for what he does.”

Castaño’s family and girlfriend do not share his unbridled enthusiasm. Castaño’s father, according to Gascón, does not approve of his son’s profession. His mother has only been to the ring once to watch her son perform. Castaño’s girlfriend calls him before every match, terrified and concerned for her boyfriend’s well-being as he battles the 4-year-old bulls.

They also know that the risk does not come with the same potential financial upside as in the past. Spain’s current poor economic status and diminishing public interest in the art has greatly affected young bullfighters in recent years. Spectator sports such as soccer, motor racing and spending hours on the Internet have stolen popularity from bullfighting, according to Gascón.

“Right now is a complicated time for young bullfighters because of the economic crisis,” he says. “But if he is able to stick it out for a few more years when he has matured a bit more, I see a bright future for him. He could easily be one of the greats.”

That is why he works so hard.

Much of that training now takes place with his older brother. Castaño sets his alarm to 7:30 a.m. Monday through Friday. The day begins with an hour-and-a-half-long run before he heads to the Plaza del Toros, the sandy ring where he and his brother will moan and groan as they make the movements of a red cape and a bull.

Then they stretch so they are limber for a focused three-hour practice. Both Castaños drag out the hand-maneuvered bulls after they are done stretching. Some have bales of straw stuffed into their lower body to act as the target. The brothers first practice their form, alternating between matador and animal. After a while, they move to the straw bull and run through the tercio de la muerte 15 to 20 times.

Castaño’s feet quickly crunch in the sand as he pushes the mock bull. Javier groans and yells as he shakes the red cape toward Castaño, coaxing his opponent with his commands. As Castaño follows the cape behind Javier’s back, the older brother repositions it in front of his body and the young matadors repeat the maneuver.

Later, they will practice the tercio de la muerte, the final kill. Javier will hold the straw-filled mock bull as his brother positions himself about two feet from the horns, his body sideways to the bull’s wooden face. He will clutch his sword in his right hand and red cape in his left, the silver blade horizontal to his prey. Castaño will pretend to stare at the bull, but his eyes are fixated on the tender spot between the fake bull’s shoulder blades. He will pivot to face the horns before pulling the sword back like an archer and jab it forward again into the air. Once he is ready, Castaño will plunge the sword into the straw with one fluid motion, both cape and sword set in front of his body as he lunges. The idea is for the sword to glide into the center of the bull’s back while Castaño escapes unscathed to the left, avoiding the beast’s horns.

For this and so many thousands of times like this, it’s just pretend. But tomorrow at a match in Madrid, he will slay a bull for real. He lives for this act of pushing metal into flesh. It is singularly the most exciting and fulfilling thing he does, he says.

“It’s the best thing that could happen in my life.”

A group of 16 Northeastern University journalism students is in Spain for five weeks as part of a project to introduce them to life as international reporters. The online magazine that showcases all of the students’ work is at http://northeasternuniversityjournalism2014.wordpress.com
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