The Washington Times - August 22, 2008, 12:03AM

By Francisco Collazo

Translated by: Julie Schwietert Collazo


Compared with the bull fights in Mexico City, where they carry names like “Jalapeno,” “Guajillo,” or “Habanero”, or whether they are killed at the end of the festival, as in Spain, the bulls in the Colombian corralejas are simply beasts that will live to see another day and another corraleja. They are the protagonists of this event and the memories it produces: 20 bulls in all, offering a true spectacle of entertainment and horror, four hours of danger and fury that characterize the bull fights, Colombian style.

Columbia Corralejas (Photo by Francisco Collazo)

In the sand, there’s more than one bull and more than one torero; in fact, there are more than 100 men intoxicated with bravado, alcohol, and the music of the band that is there to enliven and stimulate the courage and valor of the participants without leaving the spectators out. It’s everyone against the bulls.

The day is hot, humid with the sweat and alcohol of the participants. Blood is expected, as is tragedy, and perhaps, even death. For the past 20 years, the corraleja has been the celebration of men and beasts.

There is food of every type to fill eyes and stomachs: bagre (a bottom feeding fish typical of the region), cheese arepas, coconut flavored rice, and corn tamales. Each vendor offers us his products and price wars explode on every street corner, just like the vallenato and cumbia music that blasts from loudspeakers without ceasing. Here, you don’t talk, but yell, and one hears accents from every part of Colombia: Medellin, Cali, Bogota, and all parts of the coast.

Here, Colombia is celebrating, or at least it seems that way. Rich ranchers and poor farmers, fishermen, nannies, and retired workers… all are in attendance. Today, they’re wearing new clothes, vivid and festive; the men with their typical guayabera shirts, hats, and ponchos; the children with their little hats and bowties, marked with symbols of their Colombian flag.

The corralejas ring (Photo by Franciso Collazo)
The ring is constructed of old wood, tree trunks, and lumber that’s been recycled from other corralejas. There is only one exit, which also serves as the sole entrance for thousands of spectators.

There is no safe escape; equally preoccupying is the fact that there is only one ambulance to attend to dozens of men injured by the bulls or by other accidents that are sure to occur here.

The absence of police is notable. Security depends upon the behavior of the participants, or perhaps it’s the presence of the powerful ranchers that inspires respect and order all on its own… these are the men who have dominated the ranching region on the edge of the Magdalena River for centuries.

The costumes are diverse and designed with great imagination: men dressed as women, people wearing different colored wigs, and painted faces. Among the participants we find veterans of past corralejas who proudly show off their dozens of scars, each one its own story inscribed in the skin like lethal medals from wars long past.

Fireworks escape from the stands, their explosions mingling with the increasing intensity of the band and the shouts of the injured and the women and children who are terrorized by their first experience of the corraleja. There’s blood on the sand, and it’s not from the bulls!

Here, everything is for sale and everything has its price. It’s possible to rent a liquor vendor to fill your glass to the rim before you even notice that it’s half empty.

The corralejas are national festivals. The bulls confront a mass of men who are tense with challenge and glory. It’s a battle between life and death. Here, everything else is forgotten. It’s an escape for some and an opportunity to make money for others.

The entry costs between 1200 Colombian pesos and as little as 1000 pesos for the stands in the full sun. There’s free entry for those willing to observe the event under the stands, where there are no seats but capacity for everyone who wants to be there, along with the poor people, who constitute the majority.

The social class differences are marked: up in the stands and in the shade are the ranchers, businessmen, and other members of the moneyed class. The businessmen pay those who confront the beasts to carry banners that advertise their businesses and offers of the day.

On the day of the official start of the corraleja, there is a parade of school bands, each with its own costumes, themes, suits, and uniforms. Expensive paso fino horses, mounted by rich ranchers and farmers from miles around march down the dark streets of Mompox.

Columbian Corralejas (Photo by Francisco Collazo)
There are dance schools of men in black face and blacks disguised as artists. There’s a king and a queen, children mimicking doctors, nurses, and teachers, and everything is full of color and a style that’s decidedly Caribbean. The women move their hips, inviting men to dance; the men flirting in return, yelling back and forth.

The mayor and first lady of Mompox are at the head of the parade, without regard for what anyone will think or say about them, moving with the music of the town and its people. They are happy, enjoying all that the festival has to offer. After all, today isn’t a day for meetings and political debates. Today, they won’t pass laws or receive dignitaries.

It’s a democratic party: everyone’s an expert in what they do or don’t do. After all, this is Colombia, and these are the corralejas. Ole!

Francisco Collazo, a private chef and multimedia producer, is a contributor to Donne Travels and Donne Tempo and maintains Collazo Projects.  He is currently traveling in Colombia.