She earned as much as $20,000 per bullfight in the mid-'70s, when the idea was startling. But now, just as Cristina S�nchez was entering the private world of men and bulls, trying to imagine what her life might be like 20 years from now...there was Angela, making her comeback at 42 on an artificial knee, for a fraction of what she once earned, in the small and dusty plazas scattered across the dry tableland of Spain. And for all her pain and sweat, today in her country one thing has not changed: Virtually no one believes that a woman has the strength to kill bulls, the agility to avoid bulls, the endurance to drive all night, sponge off the road dirt and confront the next bull and the next.
Ask an old matador about women matadors and he will lean back his head, blow out a plume of smoke as if he were in pain, and then wave it away with the back of his hand.
"Angela?" he will say. "Mala. Bad. No skill, no presence...nothing. Mala."
And Alicia Tom�s, the actress who took advantage of Angela's breakthrough and looked so fine walking into the ring in a matador's traje de luces ("suit of lights") for the three years that she fought bulls, until giving up in 1976? Another plume of smoke. Another wave of contempt. "Mala, mala, not serious about bullfighting...but pretty."
And Maribel Ati�nzar, who did it from 1975 to 1987, when she walked away in disgust at the age of 28, insisting that the promoters had boycotted her, and took up painting in Paris? Another plume of smoke. This time the hand wavers, jiggling the smoke back and forth instead of erasing it. "Not bad, she had valor.... Not good...but not bad."
And Cristina? The cigarette gets snuffed in the ashtray. Cristina is still a novillera, fighting two-year-old bulls that weigh 600 pounds, not the four-year-old, thousand-pound beasts that a full-fledged matador fights. Still, something about her is different.
"She has the courage and the desire," says Saugar, one of six professors at the bullfighting school. "She has the strength, the charisma. She has a better start than any woman bullfighter ever. But no one knows. She has not yet had the baptism of blood."
But now the baptism was about to occur. Now Cristina was lying half-conscious in the dirt in Cali, the bull was coming back for more, and Antonio's feet were fixed to the earth. It couldn't have been more than two seconds that he froze, maybe three...could it? He had spent his life testing his reactions to fear, discovering what his legs would do when he put them inside of flaming apartment buildings in Madrid during his 17 years as a frontline firefighter, inside of enclosed rings with a half-ton animal bred to kill during his two decades as a torero—and the legs had never failed him. But now, at 42, on an afternoon two months ago, he had finally found the thing that locked his knees and ankles, that drained him of his manhood: watching his child do what he did. "Impotente," he sighs, closing his eyes and rubbing his hands over them. "I was impotente...."
Here was the paradox: Until the horns were in his daughter, no one would truly know how good she was, but once the horns were in her, Antonio would never be able to live with himself. Yes, Cristina had seemed more than brave, sometimes brazen, in front of the more than 100 bulls she had slain so far. When a bull refused to charge, she would throw herself to her knees in front of it, as much an act of showmanship as of frustration, shouting at the bull as she yanked open the lapels of her glittering vest, daring it to come for her chest as she shuffled closer and closer to its head. "Above all," she would say, "I want to connect with the public. This is an art. What good is an art if you do not connect with the public?" One afternoon she had taken it too far, inching on her knees right into the bull's face, rubbing its head to mock it...and then finding herself on her back, 600 pounds of meat hoofing across her arms, while once more her father's legs went to ice.
One of Antonio's jobs as a member of Cristina's team was to run out with the cape and distract the bull when she was in trouble. Thus he was doomed to blame himself if she were ever hurt, to ask. himself why he hadn't been a half-step quicker, a half-blink more prescient; three seconds is all it takes for a bull to kill a human. "I hate working with her—I feel like I am having a heart attack," he says. "But I must hide it. I cannot pass my fear on to her." Some days he could barely control his imagination, some days he could barely control his feet; Cristina had to keep ordering him to return to his position behind the wooden barricade, to leave the ring to her and the bull. "�T�pate!" she would yell at him. "Cover yourself!"