Social Update: La Tomatina Festival

Located an hour west of Valencia, Spain, Buñol is home to an annual tomato fight called La Tomatina Festival. Attracting tourists from Europe and around the world each year since the 1940’s--with few exceptions--the town has seen its small celebration burgeon into an-all out frenzy. Festivalgoers flock to Buñol every last week of August--the height of Spain’s tomato harvests--to hurl over a hundred thousand kilograms of tomatoes each year; that’s enough tomatoes to cover more than 150 football fields!*

An Uncertain Past

There are a few versions describing the origin of the present-day festival, but the most common begins with a different festival in the summer of 1945. According to local elders, a group of young kids was heading into Buñol to attend the Giants and Big Heads Festival, or Gigantes and Cabezudos Festival. At some point during a parade, a performer donning a big head costume fell over. Whether the young kids were responsible for his tumble is unclear, but shortly after his fall, they joined in on the parade as if they were performers, which infuriated the fallen performer. The performer responded by engaging any willing participants in fisticuffs. In response, the young people raided a local vegetable stand and pelted the performer with the vegetables. This fight most likely spread, involving other spectators and performers until either running out of vegetables or being broken up by the authorities. The ensuing year, the young people decided to recreate the previous year’s melee by bringing their own tomatoes from home and starting a food fight. Of course, the city intervened using police power. This reenactment continued until the early 1950’s when it was prohibited by the city. At some point, participants were jailed for recreating the fight. The townspeople retaliated by conducting a funeral procession wherein a giant tomato was placed in a coffin and carried through the city. Ultimately, the city allowed the fight to take place each year and, since the 1980s, has provided the tomatoes for the fight.

A Multiday Affair

La Tomatina Festival has evolved since its inception. The one-day event has turned into a multi-day affair, complete with pre-party adventures and post-party send offs that are as diverse as the tourist companies that host you. For example, some companies offer libation tours for the thirsty traveler, while others offer boating adventures with sweeping views of the so-called Spanish Riviera.

In the days leading up to the festival, Valencia celebrates its grape harvest by hosting La fiesta de la Vendemia. As if getting smothered in plant matter isn’t enough, on the night before La Tomatina Festival, townspeople walk through Valencia pleading with the Gods for enough water for the subsequent harvest in an event called Noche de la Zurra (or night of music). Onlookers are on hand to provide the water and wine necessary for pleading participants.    

On the last Wednesday of August each year, approximately 20,000 people converge in the La Plaza del Pueblo of Buñol, to throw more than 100,000 kg of tomatoes. As the clock strikes 11am, participants lower their goggles, a cannon fires, and the tomato flinging ensues for one hour. One hour may seem like a blink of an eye, but getting pelted with over-ripened tomatoes for an hour can seem like an eternity. After the fight, participants and locals wash down the streets to prevent damage caused by the acidity of the fruit. Dance parties then proceed into the wee hours of the morning.

An Economic Boon

There is no doubt that the festival is an economic boon for the region, especially since the Mediterranean climate makes August one of the prime travel months. Moreover, companies such as Disney have gotten into action. Recently, Disney produced Al Rojo Vivo, where La Tomatina Festival puts Mickey in a precarious position as he attempts to evade a provoked bull. Even Google has made reference to the festival in an ad, albeit very briefly.

Recognizing the economic potential, other countries have taken a stab at hosting their own event. In 2015, Melbourne made a valiant attempt at recreating the Spanish festival. Instead, it turned out to be a food fight hosted at an EDM festival, complete with outlandish costume regalia and violent encounters.

There are very few events that bring out the youth in you like La Tomatina Festival. If you are looking for a wild adventure steeped in cultural tradition, La Tomatina Festival is sure to please. If you can’t make it out to Spain, check to see if there is a more convenient location here in the states as tomato fights begin to crop up at a festival near you.