A woman against the bulls Matador: Cristina Sanchez, the first woman accorded full matador status in Europe, takes on bulls and tradition in the macho culture of the Spanish bullring.

July 01, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JACA, Spain -- The first lady of the Spanish bullring is having an awful night.

The bulls are not cooperating. Cowards.

They are lying down like old sleeper sofas. If they could talk, these bulls would shout, "We've fallen, and we can't get up."

Cristina Sanchez, the matador who wears pearl earrings and a snarl, must somehow bring honor to these beasts. Dressed in her green and silver matador's outfit, her blond hair tied in a French braid, she uses her cape and muleta to bring these bulls along on a dance of death, creating art from dust and blood.

Eventually, she will arrive at "the moment of truth" and kill three bulls, one by one. She lunges wildly at the beasts, flying over the right horn of each bull, wielding a sword like a pool cue, but somehow missing the matador's kill-shot, the slicing of the aorta. It takes her three thrusts or more to finish off each of the animals. She is embarrassed. She looks like she is about to cry.

"I'm a bit upset," Sanchez says later. "The bulls didn't help me. I thought I'd kill better."

So another night passes in the long summer of Cristina Sanchez, the first woman accorded full matador status on European soil.

This 24-year-old bullfighter is crashing the ultimate boys club in the country that gave the world macho. Other women have fought bulls, but none has risen so high in rank in Europe.

After slaying small and medium-size bulls over the past four years -- a sort of apprenticeship -- Sanchez graduated to the bullfighting big time May 25 in Nimes, France. There, she became a full-fledged matador in a ceremony presided over by 62-year-old Curro Romero. The honor enables her to fight the biggest, baddest and oldest bulls.

A fighter's sensibility

Now, she goes from town to town with a trunkful of ornate costumes and a leather satchel bulging with three swords. Part rock star, part feminist heroine, Sanchez is the hottest personality in Spain, on the way to earning $1.5 million this year.

"I'm not macho," she says. "I have a sensibility for bullfighting."

She has strong legs and a solid, 5-foot-6-inch frame. In the ring, she can be as athletic -- and arrogant -- as any male matador, pulling open her jacket, puffing out her chest, daring the bull to charge.

Sanchez might not talk tough, but she surely is fierce. She once killed six bulls in an afternoon. She has been gored twice, once sustaining a 10-inch gash in her midsection.

She has endured taunts from male rivals who refuse to appear with a female matador.

"I want to answer them," she says. "I am Cristina Sanchez. I want to make it. It's like I have a devil inside. But my weapons are the cape and the sword in the bullring."

She has earned the affection of audiences -- and critics. Joaquin Vidal of Spain's main national newspaper, El Pais, wrote that Sanchez "has courage." But he has savaged her for her poor technique with the sword.

"What a good bullfighter," he wrote in one review. "And what a bad killer."

Gender is what sets Sanchez apart. In bullfighting, a woman's place is generally in the stands. Only four other women since the 1930s have achieved the right to fight the larger bulls, but all earned their living and their fame in Mexico and South America. When Franciso Franco came to power in 1939, he banned women from fighting bulls on Spanish soil.

For Spaniards, bullfighting is not a sport, it is an art, divided into acts in which the bull enters the ring a savage beast and leaves it, 20 minutes-or-so later, as a clump of flesh. To purists, bullfighting is about proving a man's worth in the ring. The matador must fight the animal in close, taming it, goading it, eventually making a last, killing thrust. Influential British theater critic Kenneth Tynan called the matador's art "the pursuit of honor through risk."

There is an element of sexual tension, too. The men, in tight-fitting clothes, move gracefully, alluringly, slaying female hearts as they slay the bulls.

Sanchez inverts bullfighting's sexuality. The woman becomes the heartbreaker -- and slayer. She's also become a heroine for feminists.

No limits

"Forget women space navigators, if a woman can become a matador, there is nothing she cannot do," wrote Elizabeth Nash in The Independent of London.

Sanchez's fans agree. In Jaca, perched in the Pyrenees, 300 miles north of Madrid, bullfights are rare events. The portable, tin can of a ring is shipped in by truck, along with the bulls. News that Sanchez is in town swells the crowd to nearly 3,000.

"It's about time a woman gets in the ring and has some courage," says Montse Ferrer, who has come to the ring in Jaca with four of her friends, all housewives. "Women can demonstrate that they can be as brave as men."

Asked what their husbands think of the spectacle, the women chime in: "Our husbands don't have a real opinion."

"We don't let them have one," Ferrer adds with a sneer. "They're working."

Even a grizzled, old cigar-chomping aficionado named Jose Sarasa admires Sanchez.

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