Spain and its former colonies have long been considered laggards when it comes to women’s rights. While American women were burning their bras, their sisters in Spain and Chile, to name but two, still needed their husbands’ written permission to open bank accounts and start businesses. Despite this institutionalised machismo – or perhaps because of it – Latin countries have also produced strong female role models: consider Dolores Ibárruri, “La Pasionaria” of the Spanish civil war, or Eva Perón of Argentina. Even in the bullring, amid the ultra masculine scents of blood, sweat and cigars, women have played a part – none more so than Conchita Cintrón.
Concepción “Conchita” Cintrón won admiration throughout the Latin world for her skills as a bullfighter on foot and on horseback – the only woman to do both. Her death at 86 has revived tales of the elegance and courage of the matadora known as “The Blonde Goddess”.
Unafraid to challenge authority in a male world, her greatest act of defiance came in 1949 when she took on Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator. Although rare, women took part in Spanish corridas, or bullfights, but were banned from dismounting their horses and challenging the beast on foot, as a matador would. The fear was that if a matadora were gored her clothing might be torn which would offend notions of decency. Instead, women worked as rejoneadoras, in the Portuguese style provoking the bull with lances from atop their steeds.
In the Andalucian city of Jaén, in what was to be one of her last billed performances in a Spanish ring, Cintrón rode to the presidential box and sought permission to fight on foot, which was refused. Despite that, she dismounted to confront the bull, sword and cape held before her. As the bull charged, she dropped her weapon into the sand, feigning the final blow with her fingers between its shoulder blades. The male understudy assigned to kill the bull did his job but Cintrón was arrested on the spot. Yet so great was the crowd’s rowdy approval she was immediately pardoned by the regional governor and given the trophy of the bull’s ears and tail.
Although she continued to fight for another year the event was an apt end to a remarkable career. Born in 1922 in Antofagasta in Chile, her father, Frank, was the first Puerto Rican to graduate from the West Point military college in the US while her mother, Loyola Verrill, was from a US academic family of Irish extraction. Conchita grew up in Lima, the Peruvian capital, where her father worked for a US company after leaving the army. From an early age she showed prodigious aptitude in equestrian disciplines. Under the tutelage of Ruy da Cámara, the noted Portuguese rejoneador, she was encouraged to apply this prowess to the bullring. She also received instruction from Diego Mazquiarán, a Basque torero famous in Spain for fighting in an overcoat and killing an escaped bull in Madrid’s main commercial boulevard. According to a later interview in Vogue magazine, Cintrón practised stabbing doomed oxen at an abattoir to get used to the idea of killing. At first she merely wounded them. Then someone pointed out that she was closing her eyes and missing the vulnerable spot behind the horns. Once she steeled herself to keep her eyes open, she could strike a lethal blow that would despatch the creatures swiftly and cleanly.
She made her debut as a rejoneadora in Lima’s Acho bullring in 1936 at the age of only 13. Her first appearance as a bullfighter was in Tarma, in the central Peruvian Andes in 1938. She went on to fight bulls on foot and horseback in Venezeula, Colombia, Mexico and even San Francisco. In Mexico she became a star, mastering both styles of bullfighting and becoming one of only a few who combined the two in a single bout. She was seriously gored twice, in Bogotá, Colombia and Guadalupe, Mexico. In both cases she insisted on finishing off the bulls before being taken to hospital. Despite the dangers of the ring, Cintrón was known for her composure. “I have never had qualms about it,” she said in a newspaper interview in 1940. “A qualm or a cringe before 1,200 pounds of enraged bull would be sure death.”
Apart from staying alive, Cintrón’s biggest challenge was making her mark in Spain, home of the modern bullfight and of a fastidious fight-going public. She fought – on horseback – for the first time in the country in 1945, in Sevilla’s iconic Maestranza arena. Appearances in Madrid and Barcelona followed. In all, she presented herself in 38 corridas that first Spanish season. In Ceuta and Melilla, Spain’s north African enclaves, she obtained permission to fight like a man with cape and sword but no horse. In rural festivals and private corridas she was also allowed to appear on foot.
“For the systematic detractors of female bullfighting, the appearance . . . of this beautiful, svelte, magnificent rejoneadora and standing torera was a hard blow,” wrote Jose Maria de Cossío, then the country’s greatest bullfighting authority. “The stupid legend of the butch woman bullfighter has been roundly defeated by the extraordinary femininity of Conchita Cintrón.”
Cintrón was also regarded as an intellectual, counting among her friends the Spanish painter Ignacio Zuloaga, poet Federico García Lorca and US writer and bullfighting fanatic Ernest Hemingway. After retiring in 1951, Cintrón married Francisco de Castelo Branco, a Portuguese aristocrat and nephew of Ruy da Cámara. They lived in Lisbon where she wrote two books about bullfighting, and worked as a journalist and diplomat. She had a son who survives her.
In the preface of her autobiography, Memoirs of a Bullfighter, Orson Welles, referring to the Jaén incident, wrote she ended her career in a “single burst of criminality”.
“You can’t keep a lady waiting forever, and there came an afternoon when she decided that she had waited too long.”