Cristina SánchezSpain’s Star Matadora

Soy una mujer completamente normal, superfemenina. Me gustan las mismas cosas que a cualquier mujer, pero soy una mujer torero.

I am a completely normal woman, superfeminine. I like the same things as any woman, but I am a woman bullfighter.
—Cristina Sánchez

If you say “woman bullfighter” or “matadora” to a Spaniard, Cristina Sánchez is the first name that comes to mind. Although she was not the first woman to enter the ring, she is, to today’s generation, the most famous. At the height of her 11-year career, she received a whirlwind of media attention and popularized the sport outside of its usual fan base. For Sánchez, a career as a matadora was a childhood dream come true: “Bullfighting fills me ... it feeds my soul.”

 Beauty and the Beast

Cristina Sánchez was born in 1972, just two years before Spain lifted its ban on women fighting bulls. From the age of five, she was fascinated by the sport of bullfighting. Her father, Antonio, worked as a banderillero, the matador’s assistant who thrusts darts into the bull’s neck, and often took his daughter to work.

When she entered her teens, Sánchez started working at a beauty salon, but she knew in her heart that becoming a hairdresser was not her destiny. It was the call of the toro (bull) that led her to go and practice with the novice bullfighters and her father at the plaza in her hometown of Parla. Sánchez’s parents tried to discourage her bullfighting dreams, but her persistence and dedication helped her overcome their reservations.

While the art of the bullfight is in the combination of mastery of fear, respect for the bull and graceful interplay between the beast and the torero, there is a significant amount of physical stamina and strength required to handle the sword and muleta, as well as to sustain the dance-like positions involved in the seduction of the bull. Despite being barely over 5 feet tall —not much taller than the average bull—Sánchez was determined to learn the art form and do whatever it took, physically and mentally, to climb the bullfighting ranks.

In 1988, at the age of 16, she enrolled in Spain’s top bullfighting school, La Escuela de Tauromaquia de Madrid, attending afternoon classes three hours a day, seven days a week. (Out of one hundred students, there were five other females in the class.) Her training became a routine of running, swimming, gymnastics and endless hours spent in the plaza with other aspiring toreros.

“The man is born with the physical faculties to fight bulls. The woman must acquire them,” she tells Acquire them she did. When she finished school in 1991, Sánchez won the Best Student award, beating all the young men (and women) in her class.

 For the Love of the Bull

The matadora shows her skills at the Campo Pequeno bullring in Lisbon in 1996.

The star pupil would go on to collect several accolades over the next few years as a novillera. Traveling with her supportive father, Sánchez participated in more than a hundred performances. She continually demonstrated incredible fierceness and flair in the arena. These qualities would eventually carry her to the top of the bullfighting world and into the hearts of bullfight aficionados worldwide. During her successful novillera run, Sánchez slew approximately 240 bulls.

“Every problem in your life goes away in front of a bull. Because the problem, the bull, is bigger than all other problems,” says Sánchez. “Of course I have fear, but it is the fear that I will fail the responsibility I have taken on in front of all these people—not the fear of the bull. Death becomes unimportant when I am in front of him. I feel so good, it doesn’t matter if he kills me.”

The fact that Sánchez is a woman obviously made her visible in the sport, but she was also recognized for her cape and muleta work, the flourishes that seduce the bull to come closer to the torero. And fans were equally impressed by her “trophy case,” which had grown with every corrida, or bullfight, boasting more than two hundred bull ears and one tail. But it wasn’t until her alternativa on May 25, 1996, at Nîmes, France, that she received the ultimate honor. At the event, the 24-year-old Sánchez was officially established as a matadora.

 Leaving the Ring

Sánchez salutes the crowd after her last bullfight at Madrid's Las Ventas arena on October 12, 1999.

It seemed nothing could stop the bullfighting fever Sánchez had started. Attendance at arenas was up when she was on the bill, and the number of girls entering bullfighting schools was also on the rise.

However, the reality of being a woman in a male-dominated sport took its toll on the matadora. As her popularity grew, many successful male toreros refused to share billing with Sánchez. She became increasingly frustrated with the sport’s sexism and opted to retire in 1999.

At the press conference that marked her exit from the sport, Sánchez left her fans with these words: “I never thought it would be this hard, but I am very happy to have made history. I have achieved more than I imagined.” Indeed, Sánchez achieved more than anyone could have imagined: She not only proved a woman could battle a bull just as well as a man could, she captured the world’s attention doing it.

:: staff

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