When Cristina Sanchez first ventured into bullrings with cape and sword, fans anticipated a bloody spectacle. They were sure the blood shed would be hers, not the bull’s.
She proved them wrong.
After slaying the required minimum of 60 small- and medium-size bulls as a novice, Sanchez was promoted to the rank of matador in Nimes, France, in May, becoming the first woman to achieve that status in Europe.
For an extraordinary performance, the crowd awarded Sanchez an ear from each of the two full-grown bulls--weighing more than a half-ton each--she killed in her graduation fight May 25. She was triumphantly carried from the bullring on the shoulders of her entourage.
Even before she became a matador, Sanchez had started building an international reputation. Last July, she fought as a novice in Mexico City’s Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bullring. Critics said Sanchez impressed the raucous crowd of 40,000 with her skill.
Sanchez appeared hooked on the adrenaline rush.
“I need this in order to live,” she said then. “The bull, the danger, death, it’s all that I need. When you enjoy bullfighting, you become addicted to it.”
Sanchez’s initiation in Nimes paves the way for fights in the world’s most prestigious bullrings as a full-level matador against full-grown bulls. The last female matador was Maribel Atienzar of Spain, who gained the rank in 1981 in Mexico and fought bulls mainly in Latin America.
Fernando Fernandez, a TV bullfighting critic, said there is nothing, aside from macho attitudes among some men, that would prevent women from excelling in the bullring.
“Bullfighting doesn’t require physical strength,” Fernandez said, noting that a bullfighter tries to execute a ballet of graceful moves with a deadly animal.
Sanchez, 24 and 5 1/2 feet tall, said her sex makes little difference in the ring.
“I have to fight bulls the same as any other bullfighter, because bulls don’t care if you are a man or a woman,” she said in an interview.
After the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, laws prohibiting women from becoming matadors in Spain were abolished.
But changing macho mentalities is another matter. Until the early 1980s, the owners of bullrings in Madrid and Sevilla opposed female matadors and barred them from performing in their arenas.
Even today, one of Spain’s most popular young bullfighters, Jesulin de Ubrique, says he won’t fight in the same ring with Sanchez.
Manuel Alonso, director of the Bullfighting Museum of Madrid, also questions whether women have the skills to fight bulls.
“Women lack reflexes and physical training when they fight a bull,” Alonso said.
But Sanchez has converted many disbelievers.
“At first, the real aficionados went to see me only because they wanted to see a woman get gored,” Sanchez said with a smile. “Now they tell me: ‘We came to see a woman, and we have seen a bullfighter.’ ”
Encouraged by her success, eight young women are training to become matadors at the Marcial Lalanda Bullfighting School in Madrid, where Sanchez trained.
“I know it is not easy to reach Cristina Sanchez’s level,” said one of the students, Marta Munoz, 18. “But she has paved the way for future girls to become bullfighters.”
Sanchez is acutely aware of her role-model status. It’s something that inspires almost as much fear in her as a bull’s horns.
“I am afraid [of being gored]. Very much so,” she said. “But I also have a fear of not living up to my responsibility.”