Since 2009, I have traveled to South Texas to document bloodless bullfighting at a ranch called La Querencia. It’s illegal to kill the bull in the United States—the traditional end of the fight—so instead, the bullfighters grab a flower from the back of the bull to symbolize a clean kill. The owner of the bullring, Fred Renk, an 81-year-old former amateur bullfighter, recruits aspiring young bullfighters from Mexico to perform in these exhibition fights, and there’s no shortage of matadors who travel to the ranch in La Gloria to gain exposure and experience.
But every season the young female novilleras, who aim to join the ranks of only a few female matadoras, steal the show. I too am drawn to the strength that these women exhibit both in and out of the ring. Their beauty might initially draw the consistently large crowds, but once they step into the ring they must rely on the same attributes as their male counterparts: physical strength and training.
For this essay, I focused on two women in particular. The first is Lupita Lopez. A fourth-generation bullfighter from Merida, Mexico, Lopez carries on a proud family tradition. With the financial backing of supporters, Lopez traveled to the small town in South Texas to hone her skills and earn coveted cartels—top billing at a day’s fight. In March 2011, Lopez graduated to a new class of bullfighters—matadora de torros. She appeared in Mexico City’s Plaza Mexico—the largest bullring in the world—and became one of four female matadoras at that time. Despite her esteemed status, Lopez estimated after clenching the title that she had only three or four years left in her career before she retires to start a family.
Karla Santoyo, 24, from Aguascalientes, Mexico, is following in the footsteps of her father Paco Santoyo—a world-ranked bullfighter in Mexico. For her debut as a novillera, he handed down his traje de luces, the “suit of lights” bullfighters wear. Even with seven years of bullfighting experience, the first appearance in the traje de luces is a significant step on the way to becoming a matadora.
Lupita Lopez, dubbed the the Yucatán Princess, adjusts her hat as she prepares for a bullfight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in January 2011. Lopez has dreamed of becoming a bullfighter since she was 11.
Lopez's jacket hangs on the line outside Renk's house at La Querencia ranch in South Texas. Renk, her benefactor, helped raise money for the purchase of her bullfighter's uniform, the traje de luces ("suit of lights").
Raquel Martinez (right), the first female matador, helps Lopez prepare for a bullfight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in January 2011. Martinez is a friend of Renk and supports Lopez.
Lopez prays before a bullfight at Renk's ranch in February 2011. Bullfighting, a family affair, is all that she has ever known. Although she faces the same dangers as the bullfighting men in her family, she faces a host of other challenges unique to the handful of women of her rank in the world.
Memorabilia from a life devoted to bullfighting cover the walls of Fred Renk's home on his ranch in La Gloria. Renk, an 81-year-old former amateur bullfighter, fell in love with bullfighting while studying abroad in Mexico City. After returning from the Korean War, Renk says that all he wanted to do was fight bulls.
Lopez fights a bull at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria in January 2011.
Lopez fights a bull at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria. Before becoming a full matador, toreros often fight young bulls or test female cows for courage. If the female cows show aggression and fight well, the cows will be bred with a bull.
Lopez salutes the crowd gathered in La Gloria after a successful fight.
Paco Santoyo, a world ranked bullfighter in Mexico, sews a religious charm onto Karla Santoyo's shirt before she fights a bull at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in February 2015.
Santoyo waits for her turn in the Santa Maria Bull Ring in February 2015. Even as a ring headliner, Santoyo says that bullfighting is "a little bit complicated for a woman because it’s a world of men."
After pulling a flower from the back of the bull to symbolize a clean kill, Santoyo faces the crowd in the Santa Maria Bull Ring, who will judge her on her performance.
For her debut as a novillero when she was 19-years-old, Santoyo's father handed down his traje de luces, the "suit of lights" bullfighters wear. Even with seven years of bullfighting experience, the first appearance in the traje de luces is a significant step on the way to becoming a matador.
Santoyo says that though she loves the adrenaline rush, she is always nervous before a fight.
Now a 24-year-old veterinarian, Santoyo treats the bulls on her family's ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico when she is not fighting them in a bullring. Here, her mother and father help her dress before a fight in February 2017.
Santoyo puts on the final touches of her makeup before a fight.
Before her fight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring, Santoyo takes a moment to adjust her manta, or hat.
Santoyo steps into the arena at the Santa Maria Bull Ring February 2017.
Santoyo faces a bull in the Santa Maria Bull Ring in February 2017.
The crowd, a mix of locals and winter Texans—snowbirds who migrate south in the colder months—flock to the ranch to see young aspiring bullfighters.