Diego Rivas has been gored in the shoulder, knocked to the dirt and trampled by snorting bulls. But the 29-year-old Ambato native has always dusted himself off, picked up his red cape and gone back to the only job he knows: being a matador.

Now Ecuador´s voters may put him on the unemployment line.

On May 7, Ecuadorians will be asked to vote on a 10-point referendum that could give the executive branch more control over the judiciary, establish a commission to regulate media content, and rein in financial institutions and media conglomerates by prohibiting them from holding investments in other industries.

But the question that seems to be stirring up the most emotion here is one that would make it illegal to kill animals for entertainment.

President Rafael Correa has started campaigning for an across-the-board "Yes" vote in what is seen as a referendum on his five-year-old administration. While his center-left policies and ties to Venezuela's Hugo Chavez have alienated some in the business community, Correa remains a popular figure and is expected to fare well in the vote.

But on the question of bullfighting, he's bumping up against a legion of aficionados and those who see the vote as an encroachment on personal liberties.

At a recent bullfight were Rivas was the star matador, crowds chanted: "With or without Correa in Ambato we have bullfights!"

In February, some 15,000 people attended a bullfight and cockfight in Quito called "Bulls and Cocks for Freedom."

When the referendum was first formulated early this year, it also banned cockfighting. But in March, Correa said that because the event does not necessarily imply the death of the birds, it should be exempt.

Milton Calahorrano, the president of Ecuador's Union of Bullfighters, said that change in the referendum is a clear sign the government is more worried about politics than animal rights.

Bullfighting is largely practiced in the highlands of Ecuador and is seen as entertainment for the wealthy — a group that the populist Correa has targeted. Cockfighting is a coastal and lowland spectacle more popular among the poor, where Correa has his base of support, Calahorrano said.

"There's not a single difference between a cockfight and a bullfight," he said. "If the cock doesn't die in a fight, it's simply bad luck for you as a spectator and a bettor."

The union claims there are some 97,000 families that make a living directly or indirectly off the country's bullfighting industry. And Ecuador's prime bullfighting venues — including Ambato and an annual festival in Quito — draw tens of thousands of tourists.

The government has tried to appease aficionados by saying they are welcome to have bullfights if the animal is not killed.

But that's not bullfighting, said Calahorrano. "That's like a soccer match without any goals."

As Rivas pulled on his skin-tight traje de luces — the traditional bullfighter's outfit — he said the entire debate is hypocritical. In countries where they have no-kill bullfights, like Portugal, the animal is butchered immediately after the event, outside of the public view.

"It's much more honest to do it in the open where you and the bull face the ultimate consequences," Rivas said. "Not killing the bull is like an artist not signing his work."

If bullfighting seems out of place in a referendum that seeks to amend the constitution and tweak the balance of power, it's also calculated to get out the vote, said Vicente Albornoz, the head of the Cordes economic think tank.

"Nobody really understands why the bull issue is being included," he said. "I can only assume the government must have thought it would drive the 'Yes' vote, but I'm not so sure it will ... I know many people who are opposed to bullfighting but don't think the government should be trying to regulate personal preferences."

Ecuador is just the latest battleground in a global campaign to end bullfighting.

In Spain, the birthplace of the practice, the province of Catalonia outlawed bullfighting in 2010. In neighboring Colombia, legislators have pushed for — but failed — to outlaw the spectacle.

Ecuador has one of the oldest bullfighting traditions in the Americas, dating back to1536, said Juan Patricio Espinosa, of Citotusa, the company that organizes some of the country's most important events.

"Bullfighting is part of who we are in Ecuador and a part of how we look at life," he said. "People don't go to bullfights to watch an animal die, it has a deeper significance. A rose is beautiful because man has decided it's beautiful. In the same way, the bull's death has a greater meaning."

But anyone who can find something redeeming in an event where animals are tortured to death, needs to open their eyes, said Diego Barrera, with the Ecuadorian Foundation to Protect Animals.

Huddled outside the Ambato bullring with a few dozen protesters, Barrera was there to enforce a law that prohibits children under 12 from attending bullfights. He was also hoping to boost support for the referendum in May.

"Just because it's a tradition doesn't make it right, just because it's our culture doesn't make it right, and just because it's an art doesn't make it right," he said. "When we see blood running, we should recognize that there's suffering behind it."

Minutes before stepping into the bullring, Rivas prayed over a portable altar — covered in pictures of the Virgin Mary — that he carries with him to events.

He's been bullfighting since he was 16 and skipped college to refine his art in Mexico and Colombia.

"A lot of people study professions that they never get to practice," he said. "I've worked my whole life to get to where I am and to be able to make a living. I would just ask the country not to take this away from me."

Credit: By Jim Wyss, McClatchy Newspapers: photo credit: Dolores Ochoa / The Associated Press