True Splat: Behind “La Tomatina”

There are rules to the Tomatina.

In their great wisdom, the Spanish have come to publish guidelines for their annual by-the-thousands tomato fight. No whipping soaked tee-shirts as weapons, for one. No throwing shoes or anything of beanball substance. Just squished tomatoes. Those you can throw at anyone in sight. For one hour.

It takes place in Buñol, a small town in Valencia. At 11 a.m. one day each August, 30,000 people–stop and think about that number–crowd into the old town’s cramped plaza and let fly with 145,000kg of squished tomatoes. 145 metric tons. Squished tomatoes, remember, because a whole tomato flung at close quarters is a concussion inbound, if not pushing the non-deadly edge of force. Tomato trucks rumble by, dumping ammo while the palpable hits mount and gutters fill.

At one hour, the horn blows. 30,000 people stop, heart-pumping, sticky, that last unthrown tomato squished in hand. One hour. At 11:59, slopping tomato pulp at someone’s kisser is good fun. At 12:01, it’s assault. At 12:01, you and your fellow combatants stand, or whatever is your best posture based on conditions and chemical intake, awash pink in tomato goop. You scrape the flesh from your stinging eyes (unless clever you thought to wear goggles–acceptable by rule). The town begins to hose down the streets. A rinse yourself, and your hair and skin have never gleamed brighter.

I’ve never been to the Tomatina. Would I actually get into the scrum? Likely not, writerly me. But oh, the epic people-watching from a high balcony, a serrano plate and rioja in reach. Let the Tomatina begin, my friends. I toast your bravery.

In every culture on this earth, people find perfectly-human moments of expression. Moments like Buñol’s tomato free-for-all, now after 70 years a major tourist festival. Things so wonderfully ridiculous offer a path into our wonderful ridiculousness of humanity. An inner state that dreams up a tomato festival, that feeds off its energy. This was my first inspiration for “La Tomatina” (Lowestoft Chronicle #31, Sept. ‘17). Opened internet browser, saw tomato fight, had to write that.

Not just the what of it. That deeper why. As in, why someone travels who knows how far, pays who knows how dear the coin, risks who know how severe a pelting to pelt away in return. Sure, for some it’s a party. For others, more than they may understand, it must be inner abandon, an access to our animal selves. Maybe a better or worse self. Depends on why you’re there, who you target.

What if someone had drawn the tomato-fighting spirit into their soul, needed at animal level that cleansing power of release? Layer in another ancientness at play: people have lived and died in the Buñol area for 50,000 years. It’s just the last seventy that tomato fighting matured into rules of engagement. Humanity again, a region connected to time, cycling, cycling.

My early story drafts play with voice and concept, looking for the there there. Unusually for me, I had this general story quickly. Tomato fights for inspiration will do that, I guess. I had to find an outer relationship to La Tomatina that paralleled a more important personal relationship. A relatable one. If La Tomatina was born from protest–and why else does someone whip that first tomato–then protest needed to be core to the narrator. So, a strained relationship. Or a long-term one, cycling back to Spain with the years. A marriage. An annual purge of grievances.

I cycled too, through narrators. Eventually, the narrator became the wife and that marriage became Monica and Elliott. For Monica, if it cleansed her soul to splat that first protest splat, then after such buoyant release, after going home, after the daily grind resumes and marital close-quarters close back around her, she’s jonesing for next year again. Of course, as a writer, we never give the Monicas of the world what they want.

Maybe that’s too on-the-nose, but sometimes so is life. Ask the Spanish. 50,000 years of humanity built that plaza, drew those crowds, and drove them to start whapping tomatoes at each other. In time, they made rules. Monica just follows them.

Time. Rules. Life. Bravo, Buñol.


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