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Mickey Hanning had the unique experience of participating in the “Encierro,” or the “Running of the Bulls” in Pamplona, Spain. The annual event is part of the seven-day festival of Sanfermines, which honors San Fermin, the patron saint of Navarre.
So when he spotted a friend dressed in similar fashion during Mardi Gras, he thought, “Why not start a similar festival in New Orleans?”
Considering that the city was under Spanish rule for almost 40 years and the French Quarter has such strong Spanish influences, the idea seemed fitting. However, having live bulls running through the narrow streets of the French Quarter was clearly not possible. Luckily, Hanning’s friend had a solution.
“My friend was a member of the Big Easy Rollergirls then,” Hanning explained, “and she asked the team if they would be interested in the role of the bulls. They eagerly accepted.”
The result was the inaugural San Fermin in Nueva Orleans event, held in 2007, which replicated and paid homage to the world-famous Running of the Bulls. Fourteen members of the Big Easy Rollergirls roller derby team charged the streets of the Quarter as “roller bulls” with dressed participants fleeing ahead to avoid being “gored” by the skaters.
“The first year, it was strictly promoted through MySpace and by word of mouth,” Hanning said. “We expected a 50 to 75 person turnout but got closer to 200.”
Now, the New Orleans’ version of Encierro is an annual event, occurring every July. The Big Easy Rollergirls still mimic bulls, but are now joined by roller derby leagues nationwide. Each year the event has grown.
“In 2008, we added a Friday night event [called El Txupinazo, after the opening party in Pamplona] to accommodate the folks who were coming in from out of town and wanted more than that one party to fill the weekend,” he said. “We changed the end venue of the Encierro, and the crowd grew to an estimated 1,000 people. That’s when we knew we were on to something big.”
In 2009, Hanning added Saturday night and Sunday morning events (Fiesta de Pantalones and Pobre de Mi) to accommodate the 4,000 or so people in attendance. In 2010, they moved the festivities to a larger location in the Central Business District with a new Encierro route in order to accommodate the estimated 8,000 participants, Hanning said.
“This year, we figured we’d have a crowd of more than 10,000, so we wanted to make the actual running of the bulls a bit easier,” Hanning explained. “The wider streets of the Central Business District at the beginning of the route allowed quicker starts for the skaters. The final estimated attendance was closer to 15,000, with nearly 400 roller bulls, and people came from across the U.S. and Canada.”
This year’s event featured an appearance by Rolling Elvi (plural for Elvis) and an after-party with Latin music, sangria and food. The race is free and doesn’t require registration, but participants must wear the traditional costume of the Spanish festival — a white shirt, white pants or shorts and a piece of red cloth tied around the waist and neck.
Hanning said he wants to continue to offer the event for free, but increased costs due to insurance, security, emergency personnel and the like are making it difficult.
“The future is bright,” Hanning said. “We are exploring options and hope that our fans/participants grant us some leniency due to the growth. We’re also hoping that the city continues to embrace the event and that more residents will get involved in the spirit of San Fermin.”