Opinion, by Michael Royster
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Most Cariocas don’t know that Brazil’s second most popular spectator sport is the “vaquejada”; some four thousand vaquejadas reportedly occur annually throughout Brazil’s Northeastern outback, known as the “sertão”.
What happens in a vaquejada is that a “vaca” (actually usually a steer, not a cow) is penned in a small chute with a gate; two riders (“vaqueiros”) astride trained horses await along a fence in front of the chute, until the gate is lifted. Then, the steer is whacked and bolts out of the chute, onto a long open field lined with fences and spectators. The vaqueiros chase the steer, one on either side, the objective being to bring it down within a small chalk-marked area 50 to 100 meters from the gate.
How do they bring it down? Not with lariats or ropes, but by a rider grabbing the steer’s tail while his horse wheels off sideways; the rider yanks upwards and (usually) the steer tumbles ass over teakettle. The steer is slightly stunned, but they always get back up, if slowly.
The vaquejada reflects century-old customs in the sertão, because that’s how stray cattle were brought down in real life before fences became popular. Lariats and lassos are useless in a landscape filled with cactus, scrub brush and stunted trees about the same height as a steer’s horns.
A while back, Brazil’s chief public prosecutor took time off from chasing Petrolão criminals to file a case against the holding of vaquejadas, alleging that, even though they have been declared of national cultural value, they ought to be banned, just as cockfighting has been banned.
The suit sought to declare void a law from the Northeastern state of Ceará regulating vaquejadas, as contrary to Article 225-VII of the Constitution, which prohibits “practices which submit animals to cruelty.” The defenders of vaquejadas cited Article 215 of the Constitution, holding that “the State shall support and foment the valorization and diffusion of cultural manifestations.”
After more than a full year of debate, on the same day that a divided STF approved jailing criminals whose convictions have been upheld by an appellate court (yes!), an equally divided STF voted 6-5 against considering vaquejadas a protected cultural phenomenon; the majority deemed them cruelty to animals. Absurdly, the states now cannot regulate vaquejadas, even if the regulations reduce the possibility of cruelty.
The majority opinions, condemning vaquejadas, all seem to have been written by PETA, and reflect the cultural values of Brazil’s urban, educated, wealthy Southeast, which typically looks down its superior nose at the cultural values of Brazil’s rural, uneducated, poor Northeast.
The STF decision means vaquejadas are now per se illegal, just like cockfights or dogfights. Public prosecutors throughout Brazil have now been given carte blanche to impose their cultural values upon millions of Brazilians who disagree with them, and to prosecute those who promote vaquejadas; this means that, sooner or later, they will disappear.
The Curmudgeon, who rode in a vaquejada when he was living and working in the sertão, and saw many others, knows they are immensely popular two- or three-day events, which bring thousands of people together. To him, it seems a shame that they have been banished rather than regulated.
True, vaquejadas are not for the squeamish, but neither are ice hockey, mixed martial arts or even American football, which have no deep-seated cultural roots.
The Curmudgeon begs leave of his readers to diverge from his usual political commentary and venture into the cultural world far from Rio’s beaches.