La Tomatina: How A Protest Led To Spain’s Tomato Festival
Image Credit: Tomatoes | Image Credit:

The origins of the La Tomatina festival aren't entirely clear. Legend has it the festival originated in a street brawl in the town of Bunol in Spain in 1945. During the dispute, participants began throwing tomatoes at each other. This incident kicked off the world's largest food fight, and the townspeople have continued staging the event each year ever since. The tradition was officially recognized in 1952, and, in 1980, the city council took over the festival's organization. Today, the event attracts more than 30,000 people each year.

Another popular origin story claims that a singer at a festival gave a dismal performance, and the disgusted audience grabbed produce from the nearby vendors’ carts and tossed it at the stage. There's a political story as well: it is said that the people of Bunol expressed their discontent by aiming tomatoes at civic leaders outside of the city hall. Spain faced a torrid economic and political climate in the 1940s under the dictatorship of Franco, so it’s easy to see why such a tale would find favor, but it is more fiction than fact. Food rationing was common in Spain at the time, so it's unlikely that the average Spaniard would waste vegetables on politicians.

A ban on tomato-throwing festivities in the early 1950s may have done more to increase La Tomatina's popularity in the early years. In 1957, the citizens of Bunol took out a ceremonial tomato burial to express their displeasure with the ban. They tucked a large tomato in a coffin and carried it through the streets of their town in a funeral procession. Two years later, the authorities lifted the ban, and they took over the reins of the festival in 1980, helping organize it ever since. It appears that democratic dissent won the day in a dictatorship in Spain. 

Now, La Tomatina is planned and conducted every year by the town of Bunol. There are rules that participants have to follow as issued by the local town council. The rules of the festival are simple: the food fight is meant to be fun, but it's also a good opportunity to learn about Spanish culture.

Thousands of people gather in Plaza Mayor to watch the food fight. The buildings in the vicinity cover their windows and doors in preparation for the event. When the trucks arrive, they unload tomatoes on the ground. The participants then try to reach the tomato-covered pole before everyone else. While the competition is fierce, the food isn't the only thing people throw at each other.

If you enjoy Spanish culture and parties, you'll love La Tomatina. If you're not afraid of the heat and being covered in tomato juice, this is the party for you. 

La Tomatina is a street party that takes place on the last Wednesday of August in the Valencian city of Bunol, just 30 kilometers from the Mediterranean Sea in the eastern part of Spain.In 2017, a food fight at La Tomatina in Bunol used 150 tons of tomatoes! That's over 300,000 pounds of tomatoes in two hours. Most of the tomatoes used in this event are over-ripe and are from the Extremadura region of Spain.

The crowds get so dense that is becomes hard to move around. And it gets messy. So messy that tourists are advised to wear closed-toed shoes. Thousands of people swarm around the square where the ‘fight’ takes place. The contest begins with the retrieval of a ham slice from a greasy pole and finishes with a one-hour tomato fight. While the tomato-throwing may not be for the faint-hearted, the event is still tremendous fun and an unforgettable experience.

The festival also features cooking contests, live music, and various other activities. The town's normally small population of around 9,000 people swells to over 40,000 during this weeklong celebration. 

La Tomatina has inspired many imitators in other countries. The city of Reno in the U.S. began its own tomato-fight tradition in 2009. The Tomato Battle is an organization that sponsors tomato fights throughout the United States. Their claim to fame is that they buy only tomatoes that are unusable. As tomato capitalism continues to grow, companies are getting more creative. One company even provided stain-removal capsules for participants at the first New York Tomato Battle in 2013!

Interestingly, the organizers of La Tomatina have tried to keep attendance at the event under 20,000 participants. That may have to be changed in the coming years, as the festival only grows more popular with each passing year.