Men, women and children gathered before dusk Saturday behind the Portuguese community center in Artesia. They packed the bleachers that circle the dirt ring with its high wood walls painted red. The three-day holiday weekend Festa da Bola would be filled with soccer, laughter, food.
But on this evening, the main attraction was a bullfight.
It was billed as a "bloodless bullfight" -- in which the animal is not killed in the ring.
"But they are anything but bloodless," said Jane Garrison, spokeswoman for an animal welfare group called Animal Cruelty Investigations.
On Saturday night, a humane officer who works with the animal group interrupted the show "when he discovered the bullfighters were using long wooden sticks with several-inch sharpened nails on the end to stab, torment and infuriate the bulls," according to a statement that the group posted on its website. The officer "saw blood and puncture wounds on the bull when the animal was being returned."
It's unclear whether the officer completely halted the evening's events. The Los Angeles County sheriff's station in Lakewood confirmed that he requested assistance and that two deputies were dispatched to help him. He confiscated 36 sticks, Garrison said.
Today, representatives of the animal welfare group plan to call on the district attorney to prosecute, under animal cruelty statutes, the Kern County-based company that supplies bulls for these events.
"No animal should ever be made to suffer for so-called entertainment," the group's statement says.
But beyond the debate over animal cruelty, what happened Saturday night opened a window onto a clash of cultures: the growing movement to extend welfare protection to animals not thought of as pets versus a close-knit Portuguese community that sees this sport as a cherished tradition, not the least bit cruel.
Although most Los Angeles residents may be surprised to learn that there's bullfighting going on at any time in a sedate leafy neighborhood blocks from a Starbucks, in fact it takes place throughout the state. The sport of bloodless bullfighting dates back centuries in Portugal and the Azores.
On Monday, members of the Portuguese community staunchly defended the ritual as benign while they enjoyed holiday activities at the Artesia DES Hall -- the anchor for their community. Though not officially tied, there is a close connection to the Catholic Church: DES stands for Divino Espirito Santo, or Divine Holy Spirit.
"What I want everyone to understand is that we do not harm any animals," said Christina Rocha, a 28-year-old nurse, as she sat in the bleachers Monday behind the hall. Instead of a bullfight were women's volleyball games. Rocha said the bullfight takes place only once a year.
Rocha attended the bullfight Saturday night but saw no blood. "We wouldn't bring our kids to see that," she said, adding that any nails on the sticks -- or banderillas -- wouldn't pierce the bulls anyway because the animals are blanketed with Velcro padding.
A senior law enforcement specialist with the Humane Society of the United States disagreed. "They'll tell you that the padding on a bull's back is enough to keep from puncturing the bull," said Eric Sakach, a Sacramento-based Humane Society official. "But it's only an inch to an inch-and-a-half deep. It does hurt the bull. Is it enough to kill the bull? No. Is it enough to make the bull mad? Yes. And it's completely not in keeping with the law."
According to the California Penal Code (Section 597m), any bullfight exhibition -- even a bloodless one -- is against the law. There is one exception: "bloodless bullfights . . . held in connection with religious celebrations or religious festivals," the code states. And Artesia's Festa da Bola has its roots in religious traditions.
Jose Avila, editor of the Modesto-based Portuguese Tribune, said the bulls fight for about 15 minutes each and then go off to a slaughterhouse. But before that, he said, "For four years, that bull is free. He does what he wants. He eats what he wants. . . . The bull is treated like a king."