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Young people drive bullfighting's resurrection in Spain

A child plays with a ball in front of a bullfighting monument outside of Las Ventas bullring, in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of S...
Bullfighters followed by their assistants walk during the 'paseillo' or ritual entrance to the arena, before a bullfight with young bulls, at Las Vent...
A child waits for the bullfight to begin at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. Just under 2% of Spaniards attended a bullfi...
A child watches a bullfight next to a picador, a horse mounted bullfighter assistant, at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023....
Horses are photographed before a bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of Spanish bullfighting has been...
Photographers take pictures of Spanish bullfighter Alvaro Alarcon, right, before a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain,...
Spectators watch a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. Those aged over 75 were the least likel...
French bullfighter Yon Lamothe performs during a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death...
Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas looks on before a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The d...
A Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting young bull runs during a bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of Spanish...
Spectators watch a bullfight with small bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of Spanish bullfighting has b...
French bullfighter Yon Lamothe prepares to perform with Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting small bull at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March ...
Matador's assistant Adrian Navas Barrientos, 21, left, brother of the Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas watches a bullfight with small bulls at Las V...
Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas uses his sword to kill a brave Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting small bull at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sund...
Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas walks on the ring after killing a brave Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting small bull at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Sp...

A child plays with a ball in front of a bullfighting monument outside of Las Ventas bullring, in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of S...

Bullfighters followed by their assistants walk during the 'paseillo' or ritual entrance to the arena, before a bullfight with young bulls, at Las Vent...

A child waits for the bullfight to begin at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. Just under 2% of Spaniards attended a bullfi...

A child watches a bullfight next to a picador, a horse mounted bullfighter assistant, at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023....

Horses are photographed before a bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of Spanish bullfighting has been...

Photographers take pictures of Spanish bullfighter Alvaro Alarcon, right, before a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain,...

Spectators watch a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. Those aged over 75 were the least likel...

French bullfighter Yon Lamothe performs during a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death...

Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas looks on before a bullfight with young bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The d...

A Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting young bull runs during a bullfight at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of Spanish...

Spectators watch a bullfight with small bulls at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March 26, 2023. The death of Spanish bullfighting has b...

French bullfighter Yon Lamothe prepares to perform with Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting small bull at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sunday, March ...

Matador's assistant Adrian Navas Barrientos, 21, left, brother of the Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas watches a bullfight with small bulls at Las V...

Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas uses his sword to kill a brave Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting small bull at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Spain, Sund...

Ecuadorian bullfighter Mario Navas walks on the ring after killing a brave Fuente Ymbro ranch fighting small bull at Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, Sp...

MADRID (AP) — Álvaro Alarcón plays out the moment when he will enter Madrid's Las Ventas bullring for his final challenge as a “novillero,” or apprentice bullfighter.

The 24-year-old has been training in the dusty countryside outside the Spanish capital, and his skintight suit, delicately woven with beads and gold embroidery, is back from the tailor. If he can triumph this last time, he will be considered for the highest rank of “matador" — bullfighters who take on beasts weighing more than half a ton.

“From the moment you get up until you go to bed, and even when you are asleep, you are dreaming about what you want to do in the bullring,” he said. “Being a bullfighter is a way of life.”

The death of Spanish bullfighting has been declared many times, but the number of bullfights in the country is at its highest level in seven years, and the young are the most consistent presence as older groups of spectators drop away.

On a Sunday afternoon, Alarcón must kill two young bulls by driving a sword through their shoulder blades, puncturing the animals' aortas. He is cheered on by hundreds of children and teenagers among the 8,700 people who turn out to watch from the stands. In an age of almost unlimited entertainment choices, it's a serious statement.

It is now firmly a minority interest. Just under 2% of Spaniards attended a bullfight in the 2021-22 season, according to Culture Ministry statistics, but among them teenagers aged 15-19 were the largest group. Those aged over 75 were the least likely to attend.

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child urged Spain in 2018 to ban children from bullfights to shield them from “exposure to violence.” So far, the call has had little effect.

While bullfighting is nowhere close to drawing the crowds of half a century ago, it remains an important, if divisive, symbol of Spanish identity in the country’s south and central regions. Audiences are smaller, fans argue, but more committed.

Miriam Cabas is a 21-year-old bullfighter from the southern Andalusia region, and one of just 250 women who are registered as professionals in Spain. She has watched the profile of the crowds shift since she was a child in the stands. “It is true that bullfighting has decreased,” she admitted. “But right now, I perceive that the youth is booming and people are eager to know and go to the bullrings.”

For some right-wing youth, proudly associating oneself with symbols of traditional Spain, like sporting the colors of the flag on bracelets and polo shirts, or attending bullfights, has become fashionable.

But Alarcón grew up in a family that had no interest in bullfighting, with parents who were horrified when he wanted to join a school to learn the practice as a teenager. “I loved motorbikes, and anything related to extreme sports,” he told the AP. “I had never even seen a bull until I watched a documentary about bullfighting aged 13, and discovered this beautiful profession.”

Beyond the bullfighters themselves, the industry employs thousands of ranchers, plus event organizers and promoters, and even bullfighting critics who still write up reports from the events in prestigious national newspapers. “Álvaro Alarcón took two young bulls with fuel and momentum,” read a recent report in the El País daily, which noted that Alarcón was awarded with an ear severed from a felled bull.

África Calderón García, 20, is a seamstress for a Madrid tailor who crafts the intricate “traje de luces,” or suit of lights, that bullfighters wear into the ring. She grew up attending bullfights with her grandmother and will continue the tradition, though she considers herself someone who cares deeply for animals.

“It is an art form; it is Spanish culture,” she said on a break from weaving white beads onto a bright blue shoulder section. “People are not aware of all the work that goes on behind it and how well cared-for the animals are,” she added, citing a common argument among pro-bullfighting groups that the toro bravo breed lives a well-fed existence outdoors until they enter the bullring.

Young fans were outraged by the government's attempt last year to exclude bullfighting from a 400-euro ($436) subsidy given to 18 year olds to spend on cultural activities. A legal case brought by a bullfighting association ended up in Spain's Supreme Court, which found against the left-wing coalition currently governing the country.

The successful legal argument rested on the fact that bullfighting is protected as cultural patrimony in Spain by decade-old legislation passed to ensure its survival. “While this law is in force, bullfighting will be protected in Spain, although it is legalized animal abuse,” said Yolanda Morales, spokeswoman for Spain's Animalist Party, in a recent social media video.

Since the 1970s, once-iconic bullrings have shut down in Barcelona, Benidorm and Santa Cruz de Tenerife, and reopened as shopping centers, cultural centers and even nightclubs.

But for Antonio López Fuentes, a master tailor and Calderón García's boss, the government's action was just the latest attempt to proscribe a practise that kings, popes and Moorish rulers have all tried to stamp out over the past thousand years. "They (the young) think: ‘If you are trying to ban me from something, I am going to do it,’” he said.

The risks remain as high as they have ever been. On Alarcón's last night as a novillero, he was gored by a bull and left with three broken ribs. Following surgery, he texted: “I'll be back in the ring very soon.”