Women Who Kill Bulls

From the Tauromaquia series by Francisco Goya

I have been a bit persnickety in my use of the term torero in lieu of the term matador, although native Spanish speakers do themselves use the term matador in the general sense. Technically, however, a torero attains full matador de toros status only after a long, arduous apprenticeship culminating with his alternativa, a special performance in a major ring “hosted,” if you will, by a matador who has previously been accorded the honor.

You will be spared any more quotations of Hemingway, who wrote Death in the Afternoon from the point of view of a fan, albeit a sincerely devoted one. John Fulton is a different case. When I found him, I forgot about Hemingway. Fulton was born to working class parents Philadelphia. From the age of twelve he was determined to be a matador.

John Fulton on the right,
Peter O’Toole’s double in Lawrence of Arabia

In the entire recorded history of the corrida, John Fulton is the only American matador who did his alternativa in Spain. The other two American matadors, Sidney Franklin, the great friend of Ernest Hemingway and James Michener, and the Puerta Rican whose name escapes me did their alternativas in Mexico and were confirmed in Spain later in their careers.

John Fulton not only became a matador de toros, he was an accomplished painter and an artful flamenco dancer. It is for the reason of these latter accomplishments, I think, as well as the fact that he was a lifelong bachelor, that in nearly everything written about him the author takes some pains to establish that he was heterosexual. I have been, of course, quite relieved to be reassured about that.

If you are curious to know something further about him you can read Tex Maule’s classic 1968 profile of Fulton in the Sports Illustrated archives. For a shorter rendition of his life, you can read his 1998 Times obituary, which also happens to be one of the better obituaries that I have ever read. See also the John Fulton Society, particularly for images of his art.

As a young man John Fulton lived in San Miguel de Allende for a couple of years attending art school and practicing his torero skills on the side at friendly ranchos in the area. He killed his last bull in the little ring here at the incredible age of 61, clipped his pigtail, and retired forever.

His book on the corrida from the point of view of a matador is the bible on the subject for the English speaking reader, as far as I am concerned. He titled it simply Bullfighting. My copy is getting worn. It is now out of print, which probably presages the extinction of the art itself in all civilized countries.

Historically, Latin America has been much more open to women in the bullring than has been Spain. It was Fulton who tipped me off on women in this business with his admiring comments about the great Conchita Cintrón, who began her remarkable career in Lima, moved on triumphantly to Mexica City, and hit the brick wall of prejudice in Spain. Someone or some few did a wonderful job of writing her story for the English language version of Wikipedia.

Fulton himself faced nearly insurmountable obstacles in his quest to become a full fledged matador in the form of prejudice as a result of his ethnicity and nationality. Although he does not say so explicitly, I suspect that he felt a kinship with Conchita Cintrón and toreras generally because of the bias that they, too, have had to overcome.

I know John Fulton would agree with the proposition that those who seek to excel in any endeavor in the face of implacable bias and prejudice cannot simply become as good as their competition. They must become better than their competition in order to have any chance at all at even mediocre success.

Things have changed in Spain:

Matador Cristina Sánchez, age 24 in 1996,
Plaza de las Ventas, Madrid

Sporting a shiner.

These are adornos, crowd pleasing gestures to demonstrate mastery of the bull. Some adornos can be tasteless and show profound disrespect for the bull. I have no problem with adornos such as this, in case Cristina cares about my opinion.

Cristina Sánchez carefully establishing her image.

I am aware that many of the women of Cristina Sanchez’s caliber prefer to be described as toreros, in the masculine, just as many women of the stage prefer the term “actor” instead of “actress.” I will happily and generally accede to their wishes out of respect for them.

It is just that in the case of the young woman whom I saw perform on Sunday, I prefer the feminine torera for good reason because of the distinctive manner in which she does what she does in this early stage of her career.

Poala San Roman, cool as a cucumber with her sword already blooded from a failed first attempt on her first bull.

In the photograph of her in the preceding entry, she is holding an ear from this same bull. In the concluding part of this three-part series tomorrow, we will take a look at what happened in the interim.

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