In a bullring in the tiny town of Loeches, east of Madrid, Cristina Sanchez had her "baptism of blood" last month: a bull weighing 700 pounds knocked her down with the force of a runaway car. The bull tossed her into the air with its 24-inch horns, stamped on her, tossed her again, then gored her through the stomach. Next month it may happen again. "I can't wait to get back in the ring," says the 20-year-old Sanchez. "To be in front of a bull is a feeling so great that it can't even be described. Outside the ring I am a normal, shy girl. But in the ring I am transformed. I'm not a girl anymore, I am a bullfighter."
The masculine world of to is yet to be persuaded of that. Spanish women have tried for decades to win the coveted title of matadora de toros, which requires the killing of a full-grown, 4-year-old bull, "For purists, [women] have always been a sacrilege in the ring, a bad joke," says Bill Lyon, bullfight critic and scholar. "Spain is still the country that invented machismo." Women have occasionally fought novelties, wearing sequined skirts while facing young bulls. Some have fought in the official traje de luces (suit of lights). And a few brave toreras have earned grudging respect: Juanita Cruz, who fought in the 1930s until women bullfighters were banned; Angela Hernandez, who brought the case that overturned the ban in 1974; and Maribel Atienzar, who fought after the ban until 1987.
All were thwarted by forces stronger than the bulls. Cruz's career ended with the 1940 ban. Hernandez says she was blackballed by stubborn bullfight promoters, and Atienzar, who passed the initiation rite for matador status in Mexico, says promoters kept her out of the major rings at home in Spain. Many insiders say Atienzar was so good that male matadors were afraid to fight on the same bill with her. "To appear inferior next to Maribel would have been tantamount to a loss of manhood," says bullfight historian Muriel Feiner. "No one would risk it."
Now male bullfighters cannot avoid the challenge of women in the ring. Nearly two decades after the Spanish Supreme Court lifted the ban on female bullfighters, dozens of budding toreras train in coed bullfighting schools. A handful of graduates already have moved up to become novilleras, novice bullfighters who face off with 3-year-old bulls in smaller bullrings. Often they face an extra helping of abuse from the audience: cries of "Get back to the kitchen!" and "Go wash the dishes!" But more return each season to take up the cape and sword. And Sanchez, perhaps the most promising among the new female fighters, is poised to become Spain's first woman matador. A bullfighter of classic elegance, she has won praise from even the most hard-line aficionados. She has already killed 80 bulls this year, often winning their ears and tails for her flair and bravery.
Matadors and bullfight promoters claim that in the end, the bulls themselves will keep women out of the inner circle. "[Women] can only handle so much animal," says veteran bullfighter Pablo Saugar. Sanchez and promising novillera Yolanda Carbajal have yet to challenge 4-year-old bulls, which are bigger and smarter than the 3-year-olds they now face. But both women insist that physical strength is not the key. "Heart, courage, intelligence and grace are the requirements," says Carbajal. "The bull doesn't ask to see your identity card."