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A Woman's Place
Gary Smith
March 09, 1992
Novice bullfighter Cristina S�nchez intends to show Spain's male matadors that the bullring is not their exclusive domain
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March 09, 1992

A Woman's Place

Novice bullfighter Cristina S�nchez intends to show Spain's male matadors that the bullring is not their exclusive domain

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He had tried removing himself from it altogether, taking jobs with other matadors in other towns when Cristina was to enter the ring...but it was hopeless. His mind ran back to her, agonizing over what he might be doing at that very moment to save her, making him useless to anyone in either place. There was no way out of his dilemma: All true matadors would rather be gored than fail in the ring.

Sometimes he lay in bed at night, scourging himself. He was the one who had allowed Cristina to ride with him across Spain on the bullfighting circuit from spring until fall, who let her listen to the men talk of styles and tactics, of cowards and killers, in the same quiet, dreaming-aloud way that boxers do.

But when Antonio's guilt and fists could clench no tighter, he would rebel. It was not his fault that she had followed him like a shadow ever since she could walk, not his fault that her mother's love was cool, quiet, rational, and that his was as hot as the sun. He had told her she could not fight bulls for a living, but this was a force of nature, a piece of destiny.... My god, his birthday and the girl's were even the same.

She wasn't a child he could manipulate. She kept the world at a sword's length; she locked up her thoughts, but once she made up her mind, she was as hard as a stone. Sometimes she joked with the teenage boys aspiring to be matadors, but often she retreated so far into herself that she didn't seem to be among them. Maybe there was something else Cristina was killing when she jammed her sword into the bull. Maybe it was all those mornings as a child in school when she had panicked and forgotten everything she had studied the day before. Maybe it was all those nights when she had come home from the hair salon where she worked, closed her door so no one could see, and cried. That was her first job, after she took, at 14, the first exit that the Spanish school system offered. Awakening each morning at six in Parla, she had taken the long bus and subway rides to the hair salon 20 miles to the north in Madrid. By 8 a.m. she was making the coffee, doing the laundry and ironing, readying the dyes, gels, conditioners and mousses, trying to smile while she felt her life hissing out of her like hair spray. "Those fingernails, all of those long fingernails," she says. "All of those women pretending to be someone. The other two apprentices quit, leaving me to do the job of three. It was a concentration camp. I hated it."

The chemicals began to eat at her hands. Thank god for the allergy—it gave her a bad rash and an excuse; nobody could argue when she quit. When she thought no one was watching her in the kitchen, she began moving the dish towel like a cape. Her parents saw. They arranged a job for her as a clerk in her uncle's fire-extinguisher factory.

She kept coming up with excuses in the afternoon—doctor appointments, stomachaches. She kept showing up at the plaza de toros in Parla, joining the young matadors who practiced there with her dad. "It is only a hobby," Antonio kept reassuring the others. "It will pass."

But the mixed signals kept shooting off him like sparks. One day he was taking pictures of everything she did and showing them to everyone, so proud that he couldn't fit through the door. The next day he was seizing the one-wheeled cart with horns at the plaza and playing the most wicked of bulls, making 90-degree turns, knocking Cristina onto her back, screaming at her when she argued that no bull could move like that, telling her to leave and never come back, to go scrub the kitchen!. The words were out of his mouth before he could pull them back; she ran out the gate biting her lip...but soon he was stroking her shoulder, saying, "I am sorry, Cristina, I am sorry."

He couldn't shoot down her dream—that would be putting a gun to his own. Five times as a teenager his passion to be a matador had so overwhelmed him that he had leaped from the stands into the ring with his muleta—the fan-shaped scarlet cloth folded over a wooden stick—during the middle of a bullfight; once, during the world-famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, the police had hauled him away from the plaza and locked him in jail for four days. Then he met a 14-year-old girl who made his blood as hot as the bulls did. Suddenly he had a baby and a wife and a desperate need of a paycheck, so he settled for a life as a fireman and a banderillero. For a wad of pesetas worth about $500 from the matadors who contracted him, he would charge the bull at an angle, lean over the horns, place two barbed-iron-tipped banderillas in the thick hump of its withers and then spin away, slowing the animal and lowering its head so that the matador can come out with his cape and muleta and make art. But Antonio could not lie to himself. He had compromised.

One afternoon, a club of toreros he belonged to held a party on a farm outside of Madrid. The men were swapping tales, sipping wine, watching their children cavort in a ring with a one-year-old bull, when suddenly everyone's eyes were on Antonio's 16-year-old daughter. "Everybody out," the president of the club ordered the children. "Everybody except for this girl."

When she was done, the men conferred. "How about if she kills one next week in the plaza at Torrelaguna?" the club president asked Antonio.

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