Los Españoles (the Spaniards) and Sports
As explained previously, at least four peoples contributed to the sporting heritage of New Spain: Spaniards, Native Americans, Africans, and the offspring of these three races. Although cultural exchange occurred inevitably once Hernando Cortéz conquered the Aztecs in 1521, that exerted by Africans proved less significant. Spanish culture came to dominate, but only after absorbing the influences of the majority racial and ethnic group in the colony: the mestizos, or those descending from racial mixing between Spaniards and the indigenous population. The sporting heritage of Latinos, then, has been configured by the amalgamation of the respective values, ideals, beliefs, and traditions of these races.
The Spaniards who conquered the New World traced their origins to a line of invaders who had occupied the Iberian peninsula centuries before. The Celts overpowered the native Iberians during the seventh century BC; the Greeks followed the Celts in laying claim to the country until the third century BC. After the Greeks came the Carthaginians and then the Romans around 200 BC; the Romans’ stay in Hispania (as they called it) lasted until the fifth century when the Visigoths (a barbaric German people) overwhelmed Roman forces and for the next three centuries ruled Spain.
The Muslims followed the Visigoths. From northern Africa, they attacked Spain in 711 AD and extended their rule through much of the peninsula until 1492, invigorating Spanish life in the meantime. But the Muslims had never been warmly welcomed and a campaign—known as the reconquista—to remove them and reclaim Spanish civilization ultimately succeeded.
Of all those who had populated Spain, the Romans and the Muslims shaped the Spanish heritage most profoundly. The legacy of the Romans is today evident in every quarter of the Earth that Spain once colonized, from Chile, to the Caribbean, to the United States Southwest (and beyond), and even the South Pacific (e.g., the Philippines). It is witnessed throughout these lands in the ubiquity of the Spanish language (derived from Latin), in Catholicism as a primary faith, in the manner in which Roman law has been incorporated into legal systems, and in numerous customs observed.
Second to the Romans in molding the Spanish heritage were, as indicated, the Muslims. Present in Spain longer than any other outside power, the Muslims contributed much to Spanish civilization, among them equestrian and taurine practices. The methods of ranch management called for livestock to feed on the open range but then be driven to suitable grazing grounds, according to the season. Ranchers would round up and brand calves in the spring and then in the fall conduct another rodeo to select beef for slaughter. The Muslims also added their approach toward architecture and to the art of metallurgy (Muslim artisans produced fine cutlery, brass work, tools, and weapons—the latter used also in recreation). To Spain, the Muslims gave many of their customs (the Latin American custom of taking a siesta is a Muslim contribution), unique proverbs, sayings, and idioms as well as vocabulary. On the negative side, the Muslims strongly molded Spain’s perception of women as ones to be subservient to men and ones to be shielded from worldly temptations. La reconquista would as well engender sharp social cleaves between the gentry and the peasantry, for in displacing the Muslims and regaining lands through combat, the Spanish nobility gained immense social prestige and status.1
This heritage embraced a sporting tradition as Spaniards took pride in their physical readiness, whether for war or other contingencies. At the most basic level, sporting activity involved pursuing game for livelihood but also for fun and diversion. In the latter case, gentlemen went into the countryside riding horses, accompanied by their favorite greyhounds (some of them trained to kill wild boars), if not falcons and hawks or other birds of prey when tracking down hares or other small prey. Spaniards also engaged in competitive exercises; these served purposes beyond entertaining spectators. As in the case of other parts of Europe and later in the New World, those fetes observed the many holy days in the Christian calendar. But they also afforded males the opportunity to demonstrate their fitness and prowess, as in mock military maneuvers against infidels. Sports and competitive games, the domain of the wealthy in Medieval Europe, had the further intent of outwardly asserting the divide between nobleman and commoner. Public exhibitions of sporting events, therefore, involved the peasantry mainly as onlookers. The feudal upper class guarded its standing jealously and regarded match sports as their own avocation.2
In Spain, the well-to-do also took pleasure in horse games. Such friendly contests derived from Spain’s history as a cattle-raising country, something that evolved during the reconquista when semiferal longhorn Moorish stock roamed wild. By the late Middle Ages, horsemen had become so adroit at working cattle that they liked to flaunt their skills at public exhibitions. At such spectacles, cattlemen showed off their roping abilities, their talent for taking down cattle by flipping them from the tail, and dexterity for leaping from a horse at full gallop, grabbing a bull by the horns, and wrestling it to the ground. Such horsemanship was to have been expected in a society where the very word caballero (gentleman) implied expertly handling a caballo (a horse) not only by giving it subtle commands but also by mastering saddling, reining, and mounting and dismounting techniques.3
The Spanish nobility also engaged in a sport called zambras, a game inherited from the Arabs who in turn had imported it from Asia. The public event, intended to display horse skills and courage among the competitors, actually simulated military combat. On an open arena, groups of horsemen outfitted in full armor would fall into formation of three or four columns and position themselves on opposite sides. At a command, the first column would charge at top gait, flinging seven-foot javelins (in the form of canes) at each other, all the while protecting themselves with shields, trying to avoid bodily injury from the flying objects or a fall from the mount. As the first attackers exited the field, the second column launched its own assault, followed by the third, and the game of canes continued until the last of the competitors had taken their turn. Times that called for arranging the cane game included the knighting of a prominent figure, royal marriages, or the end of wars.4
Among the bloodier sports that fascinated the nobility was bullfighting, a contest some scholars trace to the Romans but others attribute to the Muslims who reportedly introduced it to Spain. Bold and ostentatiously dressed aristocrats during the latter Middle Ages rode into the arena (at times a town’s main square) for the decisive face-off: killing the bull with no more than a lance. The contest symbolized the ultimate brush with death, for the bull could always be expected to attack no matter how injured. The finish came only when the horseman quit (an unlikely occurrence) or when, as expected by custom, he sank his spear into the bull in a show of bravado, class, and grace (if unable to dispatch the bull, another brave caballero—in more modern times called a matador—stepped in to finish the task with sword in hand). The peasantry attended, but only to cheer on (or to acknowledge deference to) the men on horseback. The bull ring, after all, was a theater reserved for the brave hidalgo (a nobleman of second category) or for the caballero; it was a space where the gentry could exhibit individual equestrian agility and manliness.
In remote areas of Spain where lack of resources and facilities prohibited the staging of such exhibitions, however, villagers held their own version of the grand game (sans the glamour that accompanied the bullfights of the wealthy); in such cases, the bullfighter faced his adversary afoot. Both versions of the game got to be so popular in the peninsula that popes in the 16th century threatened excommunication on participants, but the aristocracy and plebian element apparently did not think it a transgression and ignored the warning.5
Cockfighting rivaled bullfighting in some quarters during the Middle Ages. With specially bred fighting roosters, aristocratic Spaniards took their birds to the fighting arena (arena de gallos) and pitted them in one-on-one competition until one of them died or fled in panic. As with bullfighting, the Church frowned on the act and in 1260 issued a ban of the sport, but Spaniards simply disregarded the prohibition.6