You won’t be gored by a 1,300-pound bull, but you could get popped on the back by one of the 400 roller derby skaters who have come from all over the country for this weekend’s New Orleans-style re-enactment of Spain’s El Encierro — the Running of the Bulls.
This event has hordes of locals and tourists, adorned in red and white, running and squealing through the streets of downtown in the heat of July.
San Fermin en Nueva Orleans kicks off Thursday with Spanish-themed dinners and parties throughout the weekend. The highlight of the festival, the Running of the Bulls, starts at 8 a.m. Saturday at The Sugar Mill, 1201 Convention Center Blvd.
The founder of the New Orleans San Fermin, Mickey Hanning, never expected the festival to grow beyond friends running through the streets with Big Easy Rollergirls playing the role of the bulls.
“Two hundred people showed up the first year. I was expecting maybe 50, because I only knew about that many people,” Hanning said. “We are expecting 10,000 to 12,000 people this year, because that is what we have had the last few years.”
Tracey Bellina, a founder and a Big Easy Rollergirl, was a “Rollerbull” for the first three years of the Running of the Bulls. Now she organizes roller derby skaters to come in for the event from all over the country.
“The route is not even a mile long. It is just under a mile, it is very crowded and hot, but also a lot of fun,” Bellina said. “People love taking their picture with you and your costume.”
In typical New Orleans style, the roller girls have developed their individual bull personalities, going all out with horns and costumes.
“In the fourth year, we decided to have a best-dressed roller girl and a best horn competition, further encouraging them to get crazy with their costumes,” Bellina said. “It is a great way for them to show their personalities, and we don’t care what they wear, as long as it’s red.”
After traveling to Pamplona, Spain, in 2002 to participate in the Running of the Bulls, Hanning became hooked on Spanish culture and wanted to bring the experience back to New Orleans.
“That whole experience was so surreal. It felt like I was watching myself from above. I could see the whole thing, and when it was over it was like I was floating on air,” Hanning said.
The idea for San Fermin en Nueva Orleans took shape when Hanning saw a friend dressed up as someone who was going to run with the bulls one Mardi Gras.
After recruiting his wife and some friends, they had their first Running of the Bulls in 2007, and what started as a one-day event has turned into a four-day festival. There’s a wine dinner Thursday at the Bourbon Orleans, a free Spanish-themed party at 5 p.m. Friday at the Sugar Mill, and a free concert Saturday at Maison, 508 Frenchmen St. On Sunday, starting at noon, Maison hosts a day of Ernest Hemingway lookalike contests and dramatic readings, also free, in honor of the novelist who made Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls famous.
Although the rollerbulls may not be able to match the heart-stopping speeds of over 15.5 miles per hour, which the average bull can reach in the narrow alleyways of Pamplona, the women will still have participants running and squealing as they try to pop them from behind.
“It is a lot of fun and very exhilarating to pop somebody on the butt or back and have them scream,” Bellina said. “It feels like you have a bit of power.”