As a learner of Spanish, there are few words as difficult to pronounce as banderillas; and you can just plain forget about the term for the men who use them, the banderilleros. To non-users of Spanish, please note that the double ll is basically the equivalent of a “y” in English and the “r” is somewhat similar to an American “t” in words like “letter”. That should help you appreciate the obvious phonetic challenge at hand. It’s like trying to speak with a clothespin clipped on your tongue. If I tried using that word in a random conversation about daycare centers in the middle of, say, the Prado Museum, I can assure you no one would understand what I was saying. It is only in the tightly knit context of the bullfighting world would someone be able to, after a few seconds of undeniable perplexity, figure out what I was getting at.
The suerte of banderillas makes up the second part of the bullfight. Banderillas are miniature harpoons which can be likened to long, ornate shish kabobs. An object that dainty just doesn’t seem fitting to be stuck into the back of a profusely bleeding full-grown bull, but their colorful appearance belies their wickedness. At the tips is one razor-sharp toothed point which is specially designed to go in easily but not let go. Sort of like a Rottweiler or certain shirts made of polyester.
The act consists of the following: Either the matador’s assistants, or the very man himself, takes a pair of banderillas, one in each hand, and when the bull is close enough, attempts to plunge them into the back. This is repeated three times, and if my math serves me right, that comes to six poles in all. High marks go to those who manage to pin the sticks close to each other and on the upper back. Some bullfighters are very good at this technique and are especially adept at standing high and stiff some twenty yards away and getting the bull to start for them just after a few calls. If the bull doesn’t oblige, they may begin to take a few steps closer to further provoke the beast. Sluggishness on the part of the bull, or possibly boredom combined with poor eyesight, may require that the bullfighter continue his approach until he is nearly right next to it, at which point he kind of just says, “Oh, friggit. Take your goddamn stick.” For the most part, though, the bull falls for the bait and goes for the attack.
That’s when the meeting of the two becomes imminent. The torero usually skirts off at an angle so as not to take on the bull frontally, after all he isn’t a defensive end for the New York Giants, and he might even twirl around a couple of times as the animal approaches for cockiness’s sake. Then he gathers his bearings and just as the animal gets close enough, he drives the sticks into the back and finishes off the job with a great deal of elegance. Usually.
When well done, it can be one of the most spectacular parts of the fight, and I have admiration for the real pros. But there are two major factors that can prevent this fine spectacle from taking place: a dull bull and a cowardly torero. When you get the latter, the event turns comically pathetic. Sometimes this is valid because the animal can take an unexpected cut towards the man, but all too often the bullfighter’s flight starts the minute the animal starts its charge. The toreador starts high-tailing it toward the fence, on occasion throwing the banderilla behind him in the general direction of the bull without even looking behind. I have actually seen this happen, so this time at least, I am not exaggerating. And I think to myself, “This guy gets paid to do this? I could do this. And after a hernia operation.”
Which doesn’t mean being a banderillero doesn’t have its occupational hazards. In fact, six out of the last eight toreros to get killed by goring were banderilleros, which is surprising statistic because the matadors are gored far more often. All the time, really. I cannot say if the reason for this is lies in the fact that bulls have a special aversion towards men in tight suits taunting them with little twinkle-toed dances, or that the toreros position themselves in a way that makes them especially vulnerable to receiving a mortal wound, or whether it’s just plain bad luck. But I can completely understand the plight of the humble banderillero as he darts off to the safety by leaping over the ring wall and seeking protection, for he knows that if he somehow gets caught, there is a far greater chance he will be the object of a memorial service within a week than his colleagues. And no one likes to die on the job especially by having their heart mutilated by a horn. I can relate.