Azores: Running with the Bulls in Terceira

Every Sunday from May to September, Terceira Islanders take to the streets for “tourada à corda,” a celebration of tradition, tenacity and togetherness. Touradas are similar to running with the bulls, except this bull is at the end of a long rope, which allows for the five men called pastores to control its direction and advance (to some degree). Another distinction is that the bull is not killed at the end of his run, though I doubt this fact will mollify PETA or any vegans.

The tourada has a state fair vibe to it: mobile vendors sell whole crabs, ice cream and donuts, older men in short-sleeved button-down shirts tucked into their starched blue jeans line up behind street level barricades while women and young children sit along the volcanic stone hedge walls that are prevalent in the Azores. 

Young men, eager to prove their bravery through bravado approach the bull head on, stomp their feet and wave their arms. Once the bull charges, it’s imperative to have a nimbleness about you, to react decisively and climb a wall ninja style.

Across many cultures the bull represents determination (AKA stubbornness), unpredictability, stamina, and an unbreakable will. The 400-year-old tourada tradition plays with this symbolism, and provides Azoreans with an adrenaline rush I’m not sure any other local activity could. Maybe cliff diving? Bars and restaurants offer highlight reels of the most spectacular leaps, dives and dodges. On occasion, a man misjudges, falls prey to the bull and is trampled or gored to death.

I was initially apprehensive, but the longer I watched, the more anxious I was to participate, even wearing a dress. I spoke to the pastores during an intermission, while the bulls were crated and spectators bought snacks.

At the start of the next round, I joined the older men in jeans at a driveway lined with hydrangeas. I didn’t even see the bull coming our way, but I followed the tide of men scurrying up the driveway, laughing maniacally. It reminded me of sneaking into haunted (abandoned) houses as a teenager, the thrill of the unknown eliciting giddiness, the perceived anxiety worse than any real danger. Later, the pastores amused themselves by letting out the rope’s slack and allowing the bull to chase me, the only woman runner, all the way to the safe zone, demarcated by two white stripes on the road.

Pastores removing rounded-tip brass covers from a bull’s horns.

The mere fact this tradition continues to exist ruffles some feathers. Maybe it is time to phase it out, though I’d approach it from the perspective that men dying in an attempt to prove their masculinity is problematic, rather than an animal rights issue. Something I’ve come to realize through living for over two years in a rural South African village as a Peace Corps volunteer is culture is more deeply embedded than a tick after a long hike. Merely proclaiming “it’s wrong, it’s evil!” without understanding the history or value behind the tradition doesn’t motivate practitioners to reconsider. Speaking up against what you perceive as injustice is a moral imperative, and part of an informed advocacy campaign is one which appreciates the value in the why, and offers alternative traditions. Practitioners must be partners in the change process, not simply on the receiving end of intolerance, benevolence or cosmopolitan ideas. As long as the touradas are tied to masculinity, and without a meaningful substitute, they will continue despite condemnation or deaths.

After being chased by the bull, with adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I walked around the corner and through the airport parking lot to hop on a 30 minute flight. Next stop,  Graciosa.

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