Inside a corrugated metal pavilion on the northwestern edge of Madrid, about 80 boys ranging in age from 12 to 22 were practicing the rites that might permit one or two of them to enter this private world of men and bulls. Despite the hundred or so animal-rights activists who picket each year on the opening day of the season in Madrid, despite the explosion of publicity about the "new Spain," a bullfighting renaissance is under way, the number of bullfights having increased steadily over the past five years.
Some of the boys in the pavilion were bent in half, holding horns before them and simulating bulls, charging again and again at the capes of their classmates. Others were practicing the kill, driving a sword into a scrap of inner tube mounted atop a one-wheel metal cart with protruding horns. "Push the sword in harder!" demanded Juan Antonio (Macareno) Alcoba, a former matador who teaches at the Tauromaquia de Madrid bullfighting school. "It is not an olive! It is a bull!"
In the midst of all the boys and young men stood a young woman. Her brown hair was pulled into a braid on her neck. Her eyes and jaw were serious, hard. The carriage of her body, the arch of her back as she executed her capework were classical, austere, almost arrogant. After a series of competitions last October, a jury of experts selected her as the school's best torero. "I want to be the woman who changes men's thinking," Cristina S�nchez says. "I like that role. Why? Because I have the capacity. Bullfighting makes me feel very big inside. Bullfighting is to dream awake."
Her quest isolated her. Her friends each came once to watch her fight, then never again; they could neither bear it nor understand it. The deeper she threw herself into it, the smaller and further away became their conversations about clothes and movies and rock stars and boys. Her hunger to fight bulls had killed all of her other hungers. She had no boyfriend, went to no discotheques, smoked no cigarettes, drank no alcohol. Every choice, large and small, that she made each day was placed beneath the naked light bulb of a single question: Will it help me become a great matador?
She knew the odds she was bucking. She knew the history of women who had stood in front of bulls. Two hundred years ago, Goya slipped a female matador, La Pajuelera, into a tapestry cartoon for shock value, and except for a few women who appeared in village bullfights in the 1800s, that's where the idea remained, in the realm of fantasy and taboo, until a hermaphrodite named El Reverte smudged the line in the early 1900s. Having no success as a male matador, El Reverte grew his hair, pulled on a skirt, dabbed on some makeup and became a female bullfighter, La Reverte...with the same shortage of talent she had suffered from as a man.
Then came the real thing, Juanita Cruz, a teenager who declared her desire to fight bulls in the magazine Madrid Taurino while hiding behind a mask and the name Sc�orita X so that her family would not discover her heresy. By 1933, at the age of 16, she was doing it, attracting crowds so large that promoters ignored the prohibition against women matadors in the bullfighting bylaws. Out she walked into the center of the plaza, wearing a calf-length skirt because pants were considered unladylike. Her capework was brilliant, and her courage was cold; Juanita refused to run, even when she had dropped the cape and was helpless. "If I were a man, I would run," she said. "Most men matadors do. But if I run, someone in the audience will yell that I am running because I am a woman and I am scared—so I will not run."
"The famous matadors supported her," recalls her husband, Rafael Garc�a. "But the ones still trying to reach the top were furious. Some refused to appear with her. Others refused to alternate with her in the killing of the six bulls—they made her kill the first two bulls and then watch, as if she were just a sideshow."
She filled the biggest plazas in Madrid and Seville. Then the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, and the blood in the sand was not of the bulls. When the plazas de toros reopened after the war, Franco's regime enacted a law forbidding female matadors. Juanita, who had fought bulls outside of Spain during the war, drifted through Mexico and South America until 1947, performing in plazas, waiting for sunlight to come back to her country. Finally she retired and returned, so embittered by the prohibition and by the press's failure to defend her that she asked her husband, a few years before her death in 1981, to burn the suitcases full of photographs and articles about her career.
Behind the trailblazer, the trail went up in blazes. Women such as the Peruvian great Conchita Cintr�n were permitted to be rejoneadores, who killed bulls from horseback using a lance. But no woman fought a bull on foot in Spain for nearly 40 years...until an orphan with bottle-blonde hair named Angela appeared. Angela Hern�ndez had grown up in Seville and first stood before a bull when she was nine years old. She lost both her mother and father to cancer when she was 11, and she discovered one day on a farm that the only time she didn't think about them was when she was facing a bull. For three years Angela fought the ruling against female matadors and finally won in the Spanish Supreme Court in 1974, when Franco was busy dying. Then it was the bulls' turn to judge.
They broke her arms, wrists, fingers, clavicle, knee and back. They took two vertebrae from her spine, two centimeters from her height, ripped a 200-stitch gash in her back. They gored her 17 times. They tore open her face and made her tear ducts keep spilling tears down her cheeks in a sport in which a woman couldn't cry. As recently as 1989, a horn entered the back of her knee and came out the front, and when it was finished her foot pointed backward, and a single tendon was all that connected her thigh to her calf, which she held in her hands as she was carried out of the plaza. "I feel happy in front of a bull," Angela says. "I feel like Napoleon. I forget everything."