At 4:30 p.m., the near-capacity crowd of 42,000 people at La Plaza México started restlessly whistling. They had waited since May 15, 2022 — a period of 624 days of legal challenges — for bulls to return to the world’s largest bullfighting arena, only to face another delay because of the hundreds of protesters outside.
When the parade of the afternoon’s three matadors and their bullfighting entourage finally emerged to salute the fans, the arena in Mexico City erupted. Then, at 4:58 p.m., the first bull charged out and raced around the ring.
Over the next two and a half hours last Sunday, fans cheered and jeered, shouted “olé,” smoked cigars, ate grilled meats and chips, drank beer and mezcal, and watched five bulls die with swords plunged into their spines.
“To see it here, the ‘olé’ and how the plaza rumbles, it’s indescribable,” said Erik Reyes, 30, a Mexico City resident who was in the stands.
Bullfighting, spread by Spain throughout its colonies in Latin America in the 1500s, has been at the center of a major legal fight over its return to the largest bullfighting city in the largest bullfighting country in the world. That battle has come to symbolize a larger war between tradition and evolving views on animal cruelty.
The legal whiplash continued on Wednesday, when a judge temporarily suspended bullfighting at La Plaza México — only days after it had resumed. La Plaza México officials have challenged the decision.
“No one who goes to a bullfight comes out a better person,” said Jerónimo Sánchez, an animal-rights activist.
Mexico’s first recorded bullfight was in 1526, according to a national bullfighting organization, and 326 plazas, or arenas, remain. Since 2013, five of Mexico’s 31 states have prohibited bullfights.
But for nearly two years, a legal fight had thrown the future of bullfighting in the country’s flagship arena into doubt. Arguing that the “degrading” treatment of bulls was detrimental to society, a human rights group successfully convinced a federal judge in 2022 to approve a suspension of bullfights at La Plaza México, even though the practice is allowed elsewhere in the country.
At the time, Mario Zulaica, 42, a former bullfighter and the arena’s director for the past eight years, was in Spain trying to hire bullfighters for La Plaza México.
“It hit me like a bucket of cold water,” he said.
In a typical year, La Plaza México hosted up to 30 bullfighting events, Mr. Zulaica said. The venue, he added, directly employed 2,000 people and provided work for thousands more, including at nearby restaurants and ranches that supply the bulls.
After La Plaza México officials appealed the decision, the Mexican Supreme Court revoked the suspension in early December, allowing bullfighting to return while the merits of the case were still being decided. So the plaza charged ahead, scheduling nine events through late March.
On Wednesday, a different federal judge thwarted those plans by imposing a new ban on bullfighting in the arena, acting on a petition from an animal rights group that argued that bulls should be given the same legal protection as other animals in the country.
Mr. Zulaica said later that lawyers for La Plaza México had already filed an appeal and hoped for a quick resolution. Bullfights had been scheduled Sunday and Monday.
“I’m more surprised than disappointed or sad,” he said. “Someone cannot be so intransigent that they don’t see that there were 40,000 attendees who showed that bullfighting is more alive than ever.”
While there are plenty of bullfights elsewhere in the country, Mexico City’s arena is the country’s leading economic engine for bullfighting and the premier stage for propelling a bullfighter’s career.
“You’re putting your life at risk to create art and create something magical,” said José Mauricio, 39, a Mexican who has been gored and who has broken a wrist and ribs in his 18 years as a matador.
Another Mexican bullfighter, Paola San Román, 28, added that the resumption of bullfighting at La Plaza México had been important to highlighting “this tradition and this culture.”
Before last Sunday’s bullfighting session, more than 300 protesters stopped traffic to the La Plaza México, carrying signs, banging drums and chanting. One sign read: “It’s not art. It’s torture.”
“No animal should suffer,” said Shantel Delgado, 29, a vegetarian who was dressed as a bull covered in red paint. “They all deserve respect like us humans. You can have jobs another way. For me, it’s not a tradition. It’s an aberration.”
Outside La Plaza México, some protesters spray-painted the arena’s walls (“murderers” was written often) and tried to pry loose a gate as police officers in riot gear held it up. They threw water and trash at the officers while also mobbing fans headed toward the arena.
Inside La Plaza México, a few fans made obscene hand gestures toward the protesters. And throughout the afternoon, there were intermittent rallying cries from the stands: “Long live La Plaza México!” and “Long live the liberty of the bullfights!”
Mr. Sánchez, the director of Animal Heroes, an organization that started a “Mexico Without Bullfighting” campaign five years ago, said “political willpower” helped propel the banning of bullfighting in some states and municipalities.
From Seville, Spain, Mr. Sánchez, 40, said he would never forget the way a bull cried after being stuck with banderillas — barbed darts that draw blood and anger the animal — at a bullfight when he was a teenager. He said his organization wants Mexico’s Congress to permanently prohibit the practice nationally. He argued that it was immoral to have standards for how to kill a pig at a slaughter, yet allow bullfighting to continue.
“We see it as a Roman circus,” Mr. Sánchez said. “We see it as an anachronistic spectacle. The new generations, when bullfighting is prohibited in all the world in a few years, will look back in astonishment.”
Mr. Zulaica said he understands that younger generations may be more conscious of the treatment of animals. But, he added, “we’re convinced that in a modern and diverse Mexico, we should aspire to a society of liberties, of respect and, more than anything, of tolerance for all cultural expressions — independent of personal tastes.”
José Saborit, the director of a national bullfighting organization called Tauromaquia Mexicana, said the practice remained particularly popular in some smaller towns and that, with the exception of soccer, no other events regularly draw 30,000 to 40,000 people the way La Plaza México does.
“If we want a world of prohibitions and moral imposition, then bullfighting is at risk,” Mr. Saborit said.
Workers in the bullfighting industry take care of the bulls by raising them for years and breeding them, he added, with only a smaller percentage of a mother’s calves eventually being killed in an arena.
Mr. Reyes, whose grandfather first took him to plazas in their home state of Veracruz, said he knows bullfighting is not for everyone and “undeniably and unfortunately for those who like this, it will die.”
“I’m not against it dying,” he added of bullfighting. “It’ll die sooner or later. But I’m against it being prohibited when there’s still a certain following.”
The reopening of La Plaza México ended raucously. Andrés Roca Rey, a Peruvian matador, struggled to kill his second and final bull of the night with a sword. After a third warning, Mr. Rey left the ring to a chorus of boos. As the stands emptied, the bull was taken back into the corrals, where it was killed and then prepared to be eaten as meat.
The streets around La Plaza México still teemed with life. People filled food stalls. Others ordered beer from nearby convenience stores to keep the festivities going.
When, or if, spectators will be able to return is up in the air.
Emiliano Rodríguez Mega contributed reporting.