Fighting another kind of bull

Spain's top female matador has quit, unable to overcome her colleagues' prejudice
CRISTINA SANCHEZ sat pale and composed as she made her first public appearance since her announcement on Tuesday that she was retiring from the pinnacle of her profession as a bullfighter. Usually seen in a tight- fitting, spangly suit of lights, her hair in a tight pigtail, she appeared austere in loose black and white, her hair falling about her perfectly made-up face.

Sanchez was the first Spanish woman to storm the male-dominated world of bullfighting at the very highest level. Now she claims it was the machista attitude of the Spanish male that finally drove her from it. "None of my colleagues would share a billing with me, so I couldn't get the good bookings. They never told me why. I became disillusioned and lost my enthusiasm. It's very painful, the worst that could happen to me."

Few can be surprised that Sanchez's historic career as Spain's first fully fledged female matador has ended this way. For more than 10 years, this slight former trainee hairdresser, who is still only 27, dedicated her life to perhaps the most dangerous art in the world, where few men triumph, let alone women. She reached the highest point one triumphant afternoon last year when she was carried shoulder-high from the main gate of Las Ventas in Madrid, the La Scala of the bullfighting world. But after that, as she admitted yesterday, everything started heading downhill.

"I thought after last year that it would all become easier and that all my years of struggling would pay off," she said, her voice trembling, "but to my surprise it became more difficult." She found herself excluded from all the main bullfight festivals, and wondered if, after all she had achieved, she was destined to trail round the B-circuit of village fiestas.

A bullfighting enthusiast confessed to me the other day the truth that her colleagues apparently did not tell her: "If a top bullfighter performs below par, and he is outshone that afternoon by the other fighter, then it's painful, but you accept it. But not if it's a woman. No bullfighter can accept being outperformed by a woman."

For years Sanchez fought against the prejudices of this male-dominated world, celebrated by Ernest Hemingway as epitomising the destiny of a man to face and conquer his fear of death. Women were considered to have no part in this. She faced sneers and sniggers from male companions who said you had to be on top form to kill a bull, so how could a woman do that if she were having her period?

Others considered the whole idea of a woman bullfighter a preposterous contradiction: a woman is subtle, a bull is crude, they said. Women are born to give life; how can they take it away? The toreador enters the ring flirtatiously and warily, like a woman, they say. But when the bull is dazzled and subdued, the fighter becomes a man, appropriating the bull's waning powers to conquer his fear by the final sword thrust, the penetration. How, they protest, could a woman do this?

Finally she achieved what tens of thousands of aspiring male bullfighters fail to do, and was acknowledged as having the skill and bravery to match the best, only to find that once she had proved it, they refused to accept her in case she did better than they. This implacable fact of Spanish life was what vanquished her, and will doubtless crush the hopes of other young girls toiling away in the bullfighting school in Madrid who look up to her as an inspiration. Sanchez was the first female graduate of the school. What would she say to them? For a moment yesterday she lost some of her icy aplomb. "What can I say to them? I'm not the best person to give them encouragement. It's a very difficult profession."

Sanchez is from Parla, a modest suburb of Madrid, and her father was an undistinguished bullfighter in his youth. Her parents, though initially wary of her career, backed her ambitions. She was single-minded, obsessive, with no interests apart from bulls. She has the neat limbs, serious expression and blazing, direct gaze of any young toreador.

After years of triumphs in South America - the traditional route to Spanish stardom - she was finally handed her sword as a matador three years ago in the French bullring at Nimes, in the company of a pair of Spain's most distinguished matadors. Last year, she had a crowning moment of glory at the San Isidro festival in Madrid.

Purists say that she is weak at "the moment of truth", at the kill, but she dismisses that as nonsense. "I've killed well countless times, over and over again." But the criticism enables ringside theorists to undermine her.

For a while it seemed that Sanchez had overcome the prejudices. She came to be taken seriously. But yesterday she revealed that this was all show, and that whatever she did the men were never going to let her enter their world.

"I never exploited my situation as a woman," she said. "I've fought, fought, fought like a true professional. I've written pages in the history of bullfighting, and I'm proud of that." She plans to fight a handful of good corridas at the end of season, "to have a good send-off, which I deserve." Even for Sanchez, having cojones wasn't quite enough.