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He should have stopped all of this seven years ago in Navalagamella. He should have ended it that dusk as he was changing back into his street clothes in the town hall after another day of bullfighting, when he heard them shouting from the plaza outside, "Look! Look! A girl is bullfighting!" and he raced out onto the balcony in his underwear to discover his 14-year-old daughter rippling a cape in front of the beast.

A circle had cleared around Cristina. The teenage boys who had been waving their jackets, proving their manhood just a moment earlier in the plaza, had backed away. The cape flashed, the horns went by Cristina's stomach, and the crowd standing behind the makeshift barricades cried, "Olé!"

Antonio Sánchez remembers his first instinct. "I wanted to dive off of the balcony," he says. He remembers his second instinct, too. He paused for a second or two to watch her. Then he jumped into his pants, ran downstairs, yanked her off the plaza and put her in the car, shouting at her half the ride home.

Cristina let him shout. Her father was incapable of hiding it; she had glimpsed it in his eyes: Dios mío, he had thought as he watched her from the balcony in his underwear. She is not bad.

He should have stopped all of this two years ago in Getafe. He should have put an end to it that afternoon when the bull flung her into the air every time she tried to drive her sword between its shoulder blades—10 times, a dozen—sending her mother and youngest sister running from the plaza de toros in tears.

"Do you see how impossible this is?" Antonio had hollered at Cristina as she lay in the medical van afterward. "Look at you, bruised like a Christ! Do you finally understand?"

She looked up, covered with sweat and dirt, fighting to keep her voice from breaking, and said, "I knew it would be difficult, Papá. This is just another exam I have to pass."

A beautiful answer, but he should not have accepted it. He should have taken the $1,000 sword from her that day, taken the $2,000 costume and stopped this mad experiment that was filling plazas de toros in towns all around Madrid with curiosity seekers and noveltymongers, with narrow-eyed men and wide-eyed women. Because he knew he would hate himself for the rest of his life if she ever got seriously hurt. And here she was in the sand in the middle of a plaza in Cali, Colombia, crumpled like a dress that had slipped off its hanger, having been tossed by the bull and having landed on her neck in precisely the same way Julio Robles landed two years ago, when he was paralyzed for life, exactly the same way El Nimeño II landed a year before that, incurring injuries that eventually left him in a bathroom with a rope around his neck. And here was Cristina's bull coming for her again as she lay on the ground, and her father's legs were so frozen with fear that he couldn't make them go to her with his cape to draw the animal away.

He should have stopped all of this five years ago in Parla. . . .

There is no place in bullfighting for a woman. In truth, there is not even room in it for a bullfighter's wife. "Women do not support a man in this business," says Félix (Pirri) Saugar, a former torero from Madrid. "A matador's woman is just there, in a different world from the matador, waiting for him to come back."

Inside a corrugated metal pavilion on the northwestern edge of Madrid, about 80 boys ranging in age from 12 to 22 were practicing the rites that might permit one or two of them to enter this private world of men and bulls. Despite the hundred or so animal-rights activists who picket each year on the opening day of the season in Madrid, despite the explosion of publicity about the "new Spain," a bullfighting renaissance is under way, the number of bullfights having increased steadily over the past five years.

Some of the boys in the pavilion were bent in half, holding horns before them and simulating bulls, charging again and again at the capes of their classmates. Others were practicing the kill, driving a sword into a scrap of inner tube mounted atop a one-wheel metal cart with protruding horns. "Push the sword in harder!" demanded Juan Antonio (Macareno) Alcoba, a former matador who teaches at the Tauromaquia de Madrid bullfighting school. "It is not an olive! It is a bull!"

In the midst of all the boys and young men stood a young woman. Her brown hair was pulled into a braid on her neck. Her eyes and jaw were serious, hard. The carriage of her body, the arch of her back as she executed her capework were classical, austere, almost arrogant. After a series of competitions last October, a jury of experts selected her as the school's best torero. "I want to be the woman who changes men's thinking," Cristina Sánchez says. "I like that role. Why? Because I have the capacity. Bullfighting makes me feel very big inside. Bullfighting is to dream awake."

Her quest isolated her. Her friends each came once to watch her fight, then never again; they could neither bear it nor understand it. The deeper she threw herself into it, the smaller and further away became their conversations about clothes and movies and rock stars and boys. Her hunger to fight bulls had killed all of her other hungers. She had no boyfriend, went to no discotheques, smoked no cigarettes, drank no alcohol. Every choice, large and small, that she made each day was placed beneath the naked light bulb of a single question: Will it help me become a great matador?

She knew the odds she was bucking. She knew the history of women who had stood in front of bulls. Two hundred years ago, Goya slipped a female matador, La Pajuelera, into a tapestry cartoon for shock value, and except for a few women who appeared in village bullfights in the 1800s, that's where the idea remained, in the realm of fantasy and taboo, until a hermaphrodite named El Reverte smudged the line in the early 1900s. Having no success as a male matador, El Reverte grew his hair, pulled on a skirt, dabbed on some makeup and became a female bullfighter, La Reverte . . . with the same shortage of talent she had suffered from as a man.

Then came the real thing, Juanita Cruz, a teenager who declared her desire to fight bulls in the magazine Madrid Taurino while hiding behind a mask and the name Señorita X so that her family would not discover her heresy. By 1933, at the age of 16, she was doing it, attracting crowds so large that promoters ignored the prohibition against women matadors in the bullfighting bylaws. Out she walked into the center of the plaza, wearing a calf-length skirt because pants were considered unladylike. Her capework was brilliant, and her courage was cold; Juanita refused to run, even when she had dropped the cape and was helpless. "If I were a man, I would run," she said. "Most men matadors do. But if I run, someone in the audience will yell that I am running because I am a woman and I am scared—so I will not run."

"The famous matadors supported her," recalls her husband, Rafael García. "But the ones still trying to reach the top were furious. Some refused to appear with her. Others refused to alternate with her in the killing of the six bulls—they made her kill the first two bulls and then watch, as if she were just a sideshow."

She filled the biggest plazas in Madrid and Seville. Then the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, and the blood in the sand was not of the bulls. When the plazas de toros reopened after the war, Franco's regime enacted a law forbidding female matadors. Juanita, who had fought bulls outside of Spain during the war, drifted through Mexico and South America until 1947, performing in plazas, waiting for sunlight to come back to her country. Finally she retired and returned, so embittered by the prohibition and by the press's failure to defend her that she asked her husband, a few years before her death in 1981, to burn the suitcases full of photographs and articles about her career.

Behind the trailblazer, the trail went up in blazes. Women such as the Peruvian great Conchita Cintrón were permitted to be rejoneadores, who killed bulls from horseback using a lance. But no woman fought a bull on foot in Spain for nearly 40 years . . . until an orphan with bottle-blonde hair named Angela appeared. Angela Hernández had grown up in Seville and first stood before a bull when she was nine years old. She lost both her mother and father to cancer when she was 11, and she discovered one day on a farm that the only time she didn't think about them was when she was facing a bull. For three years Angela fought the ruling against female matadors and finally won in the Spanish Supreme Court in 1974, when Franco was busy dying. Then it was the bulls' turn to judge.

They broke her arms, wrists, fingers, clavicle, knee and back. They took two vertebrae from her spine, two centimeters from her height, ripped a 200-stitch gash in her back. They gored her 17 times. They tore open her face and made her tear ducts keep spilling tears down her cheeks in a sport in which a woman couldn't cry. As recently as 1989, a horn entered the back of her knee and came out the front, and when it was finished her foot pointed backward, and a single tendon was all that connected her thigh to her calf, which she held in her hands as she was carried out of the plaza. "I feel happy in front of a bull," Angela says. "I feel like Napoleon. I forget everything."

She earned as much as $20,000 per bullfight in the mid-'70s, when the idea was startling. But now, just as Cristina Sánchez was entering the private world of men and bulls, trying to imagine what her life might be like 20 years from now . . . there was Angela, making her comeback at 42 on an artificial knee, for a fraction of what she once earned, in the small and dusty plazas scattered across the dry tableland of Spain. And for all her pain and sweat, today in her country one thing has not changed: Virtually no one believes that a woman has the strength to kill bulls, the agility to avoid bulls, the endurance to drive all night, sponge off the road dirt and confront the next bull and the next.

Ask an old matador about women matadors and he will lean back his head, blow out a plume of smoke as if he were in pain, and then wave it away with the back of his hand.

"Angela?" he will say. "Mala. Bad. No skill, no presence . . . nothing. Mala."

And Alicia Tomás, the actress who took advantage of Angela's breakthrough and looked so fine walking into the ring in a matador's traje de luces ("suit of lights") for the three years that she fought bulls, until giving up in 1976? Another plume of smoke. Another wave of contempt. "Mala, mala, not serious about bullfighting . . . but pretty."

And Maribel Atiénzar, who did it from 1975 to 1987, when she walked away in disgust at the age of 28, insisting that the promoters had boycotted her, and took up painting in Paris? Another plume of smoke. This time the hand wavers, jiggling the smoke back and forth instead of erasing it. "Not bad, she had valor. . . . Not good . . . but not bad."

And Cristina? The cigarette gets snuffed in the ashtray. Cristina is still a novillera, fighting two-year-old bulls that weigh 600 pounds, not the four-year-old, thousand-pound beasts that a full-fledged matador fights. Still, something about her is different.

"She has the courage and the desire," says Saugar, one of six professors at the bullfighting school. "She has the strength, the charisma. She has a better start than any woman bullfighter ever. But no one knows. She has not yet had the baptism of blood."

But now the baptism was about to occur. Now Cristina was lying half-conscious in the dirt in Cali, the bull was coming back for more, and Antonio's feet were fixed to the earth. It couldn't have been more than two seconds that he froze, maybe three . . . could it? He had spent his life testing his reactions to fear, discovering what his legs would do when he put them inside of flaming apartment buildings in Madrid during his 17 years as a frontline firefighter, inside of enclosed rings with a half-ton animal bred to kill during his two decades as a torero—and the legs had never failed him. But now, at 42, on an afternoon two months ago, he had finally found the thing that locked his knees and ankles, that drained him of his manhood: watching his child do what he did. "Impotente," he sighs, closing his eyes and rubbing his hands over them. "I was impotente. . . ."

Here was the paradox: Until the horns were in his daughter, no one would truly know how good she was, but once the horns were in her, Antonio would never be able to live with himself. Yes, Cristina had seemed more than brave, sometimes brazen, in front of the more than 100 bulls she had slain so far. When a bull refused to charge, she would throw herself to her knees in front of it, as much an act of showmanship as of frustration, shouting at the bull as she yanked open the lapels of her glittering vest, daring it to come for her chest as she shuffled closer and closer to its head. "Above all," she would say, "I want to connect with the public. This is an art. What good is an art if you do not connect with the public?" One afternoon she had taken it too far, inching on her knees right into the bull's face, rubbing its head to mock it . . . and then finding herself on her back, 600 pounds of meat hoofing across her arms, while once more her father's legs went to ice.

One of Antonio's jobs as a member of Cristina's team was to run out with the cape and distract the bull when she was in trouble. Thus he was doomed to blame himself if she were ever hurt, to ask. himself why he hadn't been a half-step quicker, a half-blink more prescient; three seconds is all it takes for a bull to kill a human. "I hate working with her—I feel like I am having a heart attack," he says. "But I must hide it. I cannot pass my fear on to her." Some days he could barely control his imagination, some days he could barely control his feet; Cristina had to keep ordering him to return to his position behind the wooden barricade, to leave the ring to her and the bull. "¡Tápate!" she would yell at him. "Cover yourself!"

He had tried removing himself from it altogether, taking jobs with other matadors in other towns when Cristina was to enter the ring . . . but it was hopeless. His mind ran back to her, agonizing over what he might be doing at that very moment to save her, making him useless to anyone in either place. There was no way out of his dilemma: All true matadors would rather be gored than fail in the ring.

Sometimes he lay in bed at night, scourging himself. He was the one who had allowed Cristina to ride with him across Spain on the bullfighting circuit from spring until fall, who let her listen to the men talk of styles and tactics, of cowards and killers, in the same quiet, dreaming-aloud way that boxers do.

But when Antonio's guilt and fists could clench no tighter, he would rebel. It was not his fault that she had followed him like a shadow ever since she could walk, not his fault that her mother's love was cool, quiet, rational, and that his was as hot as the sun. He had told her she could not fight bulls for a living, but this was a force of nature, a piece of destiny. . . . My god, his birthday and the girl's were even the same.

She wasn't a child he could manipulate. She kept the world at a sword's length; she locked up her thoughts, but once she made up her mind, she was as hard as a stone. Sometimes she joked with the teenage boys aspiring to be matadors, but often she retreated so far into herself that she didn't seem to be among them. Maybe there was something else Cristina was killing when she jammed her sword into the bull. Maybe it was all those mornings as a child in school when she had panicked and forgotten everything she had studied the day before. Maybe it was all those nights when she had come home from the hair salon where she worked, closed her door so no one could see, and cried. That was her first job, after she took, at 14, the first exit that the Spanish school system offered. Awakening each morning at six in Parla, she had taken the long bus and subway rides to the hair salon 20 miles to the north in Madrid. By 8 a.m. she was making the coffee, doing the laundry and ironing, readying the dyes, gels, conditioners and mousses, trying to smile while she felt her life hissing out of her like hair spray. "Those fingernails, all of those long fingernails," she says. "All of those women pretending to be someone. The other two apprentices quit, leaving me to do the job of three. It was a concentration camp. I hated it."

The chemicals began to eat at her hands. Thank god for the allergy—it gave her a bad rash and an excuse; nobody could argue when she quit. When she thought no one was watching her in the kitchen, she began moving the dish towel like a cape. Her parents saw. They arranged a job for her as a clerk in her uncle's fire-extinguisher factory.

She kept coming up with excuses in the afternoon—doctor appointments, stomachaches. She kept showing up at the plaza de toros in Parla, joining the young matadors who practiced there with her dad. "It is only a hobby," Antonio kept reassuring the others. "It will pass."

But the mixed signals kept shooting off him like sparks. One day he was taking pictures of everything she did and showing them to everyone, so proud that he couldn't fit through the door. The next day he was seizing the one-wheeled cart with horns at the plaza and playing the most wicked of bulls, making 90-degree turns, knocking Cristina onto her back, screaming at her when she argued that no bull could move like that, telling her to leave and never come back, to go scrub the kitchen! The words were out of his mouth before he could pull them back; she ran out the gate biting her lip . . . but soon he was stroking her shoulder, saying, "I am sorry, Cristina, I am sorry."

He couldn't shoot down her dream—that would be putting a gun to his own. Five times as a teenager his passion to be a matador had so overwhelmed him that he had leaped from the stands into the ring with his muleta—the fan-shaped scarlet cloth folded over a wooden stick—during the middle of a bullfight; once, during the world-famous running of the bulls in Pamplona, the police had hauled him away from the plaza and locked him in jail for four days. Then he met a 14-year-old girl who made his blood as hot as the bulls did. Suddenly he had a baby and a wife and a desperate need of a paycheck, so he settled for a life as a fireman and a banderillero. For a wad of pesetas worth about $500 from the matadors who contracted him, he would charge the bull at an angle, lean over the horns, place two barbed-iron-tipped banderillas in the thick hump of its withers and then spin away, slowing the animal and lowering its head so that the matador can come out with his cape and muleta and make art. But Antonio could not lie to himself. He had compromised.

One afternoon, a club of toreros he belonged to held a party on a farm outside of Madrid. The men were swapping tales, sipping wine, watching their children cavort in a ring with a one-year-old bull, when suddenly everyone's eyes were on Antonio's 16-year-old daughter. "Everybody out," the president of the club ordered the children. "Everybody except for this girl."

When she was done, the men conferred. "How about if she kills one next week in the plaza at Torrelaguna?" the club president asked Antonio.

"Do not even think of it," he replied.

So how did he find himself walking out the door with her a week later, lying to his wife, Mary Carmen, that Cristina was only going to kill a small goat? How did he find himself fighting to keep the grin off his face when it was over and the crowd had insisted that his girl have the highest reward, both of the bull's ears and its tail? "She was perfect," he recalls. "She was harvested."

Her bedroom walls were soon covered with pictures of bulls and matadors and little cutouts she had scissored off matchboxes that demonstrated all of the traditional passes a torero could perform with his cape. Her mind flew far away from the stacks of receipts in her uncle's factory. "Bulls or office work," her uncle finally said. Bulls, uncle, bulls. She quit that job in 1988 and began attending the 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. school for bullfighting in Madrid, one of a score that have opened in the past 15 years around Spain as an alternative to the old route into the ring, a haphazard system of apprenticeship that often drove teenage boys to take mindless risks in village bullfights to catch someone's eye. As darkness fell, Cristina often rushed straight from the school to the plaza in her town for more practice. In the morning she jumped back into her sweats, straightened up the mess her parents and three sisters had left behind in their rush to work and school, and hit the road to jog two or three miles or work out with her dad at the firefighters' gymnasium. It became an all-day regimen. "The man is born with the physical faculties to fight bulls," she says. "The woman must acquire them. The bull gives gifts to no one—not even to a woman."

Her flourishes with the muleta impressed everyone. Her capework was solid. It was the kill that frustrated her most. It was not a lack of strength or desire to kill that plagued her; she felt no remorse, saw no blur in the line between her pet mongrel Estarky—who exuberantly played the role of the bull whenever she wanted to practice her capework—and the 50 bulls she is scheduled to put to death in 1992. It was a problem of technique, repetition, self-confidence, of standing in profile two yards from the bull's skull with the sword handle cocked back by her chin, drawing the animal's head down with a flicker of the muleta in her lowered left hand, forgetting the horns for one heartbeat and driving for the meat between the shoulder blades and down to the aorta, doing it right so many times that the motion became grooved, allowing her to kill consistently on the first or second try instead of the fourth or fifth.

"It is not a problem of sentiment," she says. "I consider the kill as just part of my job. The bulls would be killed by a gun in a slaughterhouse if they were not killed this way—is that any better? Here they die fighting, in front of hundreds or thousands of people. This is an animal born to take part in an art. This breed would not exist if not for bullfighting. When I am preparing myself to do it, I am thinking only of technique."

Still, there was something shocking about seeing a woman look down those 30 inches of steel and then bury them inside an animal so grand; something that permitted Cristina to pick and choose among promoters' offers for which aspiring male matadors would have fallen to their knees. She will earn about $10,000 this year—far from the $3 million that the handful of stars in her profession earn, but already enough to call bullfighting her job. But in exchange for that, each time she makes the slow opening procession into the plaza, wearing just the faintest makeup, wearing the dark blue traje de luces because it makes her look taller and thinner than her pink one, she has to brace herself for the whistles and catcalls.

"If you are as bad as the other women matadors I have seen," a man shouted one afternoon a few years ago in Valdilecha, where the bullring was formed by barricading off a square that has a fountain in the center, "I will throw you into the fountain!" Her father's temper flared; he offered the man a deal. "If Cristina is bad, you can throw her in the fountain," he said. "But if she is good, it is you who go in." The bet was made. The flowers and hats flew into the plaza when Cristina was done; the crowd demanded that she cut both ears. Without hesitating, the heckler climbed over the barricade, walked to the fountain and immersed himself.

"I would have to put plugs in my ears not to hear the comments," Cristina says. "Those who scream at me to go to the kitchen have to know that they strengthen me and motivate me to fight bulls with even more anger, with more desire to demonstrate that women, just as men, deserve an opportunity, and let us put an end to all those centuries of discrimination. I want to make the machistas eat their words. Sometimes I even throw the ears directly to them."

No, Antonio told himself when he watched her parading around the ring after such a moment, with one of the caps flung to her by the crowd cocked on her head, with a dozen flowers cradled in her arms; no, he couldn't have stopped her, any more than he could raise his hand and halt the wind. Telling her about the horn he had taken in the scrotum wouldn't have done it, nor would talking of the one he had taken deep in his arm, nor the one in his back that damaged the sciatic nerve, nor the one across his cheek that had made him wonder if people would think he was a Gypsy. Hell, the horns had given Antonio his nickname: Scar. Nor would sitting her down with the professor at school, Agapito (Serranito) García, whose career had been ended by a broken back, nor making her listen to another professor, Faustino (Inchausti) Tinín, who had lost his leg when a bull tossed him onto his sword, nor taking her to the tomb of a graduate of the school, José (Yiyo) Cubero, who took a horn in his back seven years ago that went straight through his heart and came out his chest.

She couldn't be dissuaded by fear or anguish, because the bull had become the antidote for every fear, every anguish—not the cause of it. "Every problem in your life goes away in front of a bull," Cristina explains. "Because this problem, the bull, is bigger than all other problems. Of course I have fear, but it is fear that I will fail the responsibility I have taken on in front of all those people—not fear of the bull. Death becomes unimportant when I am in front of him. I feel so good, it does not matter if he kills me."

It was only in her sleep that this argument disintegrated. Only in the dream she had that the bull was coming for her, no matter where she ran in the ring, coming for her even when she jumped the wall and hid in the audience, coming for her. . . .

Finally, Antoniop felt his legs moving. Finally, Antonio felt his throat thawing: "Heyyyy, heyyy!" he shouted at the bull as he raced across the sand in Cali, flapping his cape, kicking up dust, anything to distract the animal's eyes, its ears, its horns, anything. The bull took the lure. Cristina staggered to her feet, blinking, and then came Antonio's next heart attack, while he was still hyperventilating from the first: Would he permit his daughter to risk the kill while her head was fogged and her legs were reeling? Or would he cut out her heart in front of the crowd and pull her away from the bull?

Deep under it all, deep, lay the thing he dreaded most—the telephone call home. The silence on the other end of the line if he had to say, "Mary Carmen . . . Mary Carmen, something happened. . . ." Because already his wife's headaches and stomach cramps were so severe from worry during this trip for three bullfights in Cali that she had missed three days of work at the leatherware shop. She said she was beyond the anger she first felt toward her husband and daughter when she learned that Cristina was going to fight, she said she had resigned herself to it, she said, "Now I just try to stay out of the way, because Cristina is doing exactly what she wants." But everyone knew how airtight a seal Mary Carmen could put on her feelings, how bad it must be if she stayed home from the leatherware shop. Sure it disturbed Cristina that her obsession made her mother suffer so, but then that small grin would come to Cristina's lips, that chilly truth upon which greatness depends: "But I forget all about her suffering once I am doing it."

Where was the seam in her armor? Those who had stood before this animal didn't have to see her expose it to know. "I know about the ride to the bullring, I know about the panic," says José Antonio Carratero, a young matador who helped train Cristina. "I feel pity for her. She can capture the audience because she moves differently from a man, she is very feminine. They may have sympathy for her, but the bull will not."

There is no turning back now. By December of this year she plans to make the jump to three-year-old bulls and leave the school. Two or three years later she hopes to be ready for the torero's "diploma" ceremony, the alternativa, when she will become a full-fledged matador facing four-year-old bulls. And that, says Maribel Atiénzar, who gained her alternativa in 1981, is when the men will move to shut her out.

"She must be always ready for struggle, always be ready for war," says Maribel. "Because the men in toreo will let a woman go so far, but in the end, they will close the door. Some toreros will refuse to work with her, some promoters will refuse to contract her.

"I will never forget what Antonio Ordonez [Spain's most famous bullfighter of the 1950s] said to me when I told him that it was my dream to get my alternativa and fight four-year-old bulls. He told me, 'If women are capable of fighting four-year-old bulls, what are men going to do to stand out from them? All that will remain for us is to give birth.' "

Antonio: Mary Carmen? ¿Cómo estás? Sí, everything went well. No problems, Cristina was great.

Mary Carmen: What do you mean, no problems? How is she? I heard it on the radio—that fall she took was very bad. How is she?

Antonio:(Gulp) Radio? It was on the radio in Spain?

Mary Carmen: Yes, it was broadcast live—how is she?

Antonio: Fine, Mary Carmen, fine—she fell, but you heard it, she got up and killed the bull. Believe me, it was nothing.

Mary Carmen: Antonio. . . .

Antonio: It is the truth, Mary Carmen, she has only a little scratch on her head, it was nothing at all. . . .

A few days after their return from Colombia, Antonio stepped out of the car with the two photographs of Cristina in her traje de luces taped to the rear window, entered his apartment and stared at the trophy she had won as the best apprentice matador in Cali. Which was greater, he was asked, his fear or his pride?

He shook his head. He took a deep breath.

"My fear is always greater than my pride," he said. "I still do not know. . . . What should I do? Do you understand? Cristina is my daughter. Cristina is a woman."