La Tomatina – The Lovely Tomato Festival

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By the look of its name, “La Tomatina” might make you think of the word tomato, or in Spanish, tomate. That’s because La Tomatina is currently the largest tomato throwing event (as well as the largest food fight) in the world. Each year on the last Wednesday of the month of August, the Spanish city of Bunol erupts with a riot of dancing, drinking, fireworks and plenty of messy tomato-throwing fun. The name Tomatina is the word tomate altered with the ending “–ina” added to it to mean lovely. So La Tomatina is the lovely tomato festival.

The origin of La Tomatina was during another Spanish festival, Gigantes y Cabezudos or Giants and Big Heads in October, 1944. In this festival, people dressed up with giant masks over their heads. A group of kids wanted to join in and entered the area with their masks on. One of the kids somehow tripped and fell over and landed near a street grocery. Thinking some of his friends tripped him, he started to throw tomatoes at them. This started a food fight and soon not only the kids who started the fight were throwing food but also people from the festival as well.

Even Bunol city officials were provoked into the fray. The store owner eventually called police and the people were forced to all pay the grocer for the food they had ruined. The next year, the kids and others returned with their own tomatoes and repeated the fight but instead three weeks before the Gigantes y Cabezudos festival. Every year the festival grew until the entire town was celebrating on the last Wednesday of each August each year.

Want to participate in this one-of-a-kind Spanish food fight? Keep reading below to learn more.

Over time, La Tomatina has grown to a fight of over 30,000 participants, but not without plenty of government interference. In 1950, the regime of Francisco Franco deemed the festival without cultural or social value and labeled it a violent display of public vandalism. But people still tried to keep the Tomatina alive. From 1950-1954, La Tomatina was attempted every year but the police always intervened and fights always ended before everyone had thrown all their tomatoes.

In 1955, the supporters of the Tomatina from Bunol flooded the streets of the city for the Burial of the Tomato or “El Entierro del Tomate.” The people protested the ban of their town festival, which in five years had become an established tradition. They marched down the streets with a giant tomato in a miniature coffin towards the plaza of Bunol where the festival had always begun. It was a real funeral for the Tomatina. Funeral rites and songs were performed. In 1957, the government relented, agreeing to allow the festival only if the Bunol city government supervised the planning and execution of the event. The tradition of La Tomatina was in place.

The first event of La Tomatina is removing a tethered ham from a lard greased wooden pole. It takes many attempts and more than one person to reach the ham. After the ham is freed, the start of the annual fight is signaled by firing water cannons. Bottles and other objects that could injure participants are prohibited in the fight. Trucks full of tomatoes then roll down the roads of Bunol. People ride in the back and shower the people on the streets with ripe tomatoes. People on the streets then hurl the tomatoes among themselves. The tomatoes must be squashed with the hand before throwing them. A rule that is official but hardly ever followed is that clothes cannot be ripped off opponents. Tomatoes and tomato pulp are flung around and the whole area near the Bunol plaza is dyed pink. The fight ends an hour after the first water cannons with another blast.

In 2002, La Tomatina of Bunol was classified as an International Tourist Festival. The event is currently organized every year by two participants of the original Tomatina. La Tomatina really is an expression of freedom and a protest against powers that seem out of common people’s control. Both the powers of the individual and the group importance are enumerated by the event. The greased pole is an obstacle that everyone must help each other to overcome so that the festival can begin. The ham represents the powers that be. It is impossible to climb the pole alone. After the ham is down everyone is free to do mostly what they want with the tomatoes. Every tomato represents a choice and the choice of a person influences how the individual progresses.

The whole event is a symbolic representation of how the collective people have more power than any man, whether king or peasant, and that one man can not fundamentally rise over another permanently. It is a festival that shows that even the most oppressive of governments can never have ultimate control over the hearts and souls of its citizens. La Tomatina is an act of defiance to the powerful because within the fray of the fight, every man is equal, and ultimately, only armed with a tomato.