During an era when young women from West Texas were expected to work menial jobs or take care of the home, Patricia McCormick bucked social conventions and became North America’s first female professional bullfighter. McCormick, who died in Del Rio on March 26, fought hundreds of bulls during her career as a torera and received top billing in stadiums from Mexico to South America. Rafael Solana, the great bullfighting critic, once called McCormick “the most courageous woman I have ever seen.”
Born in St. Louis in 1929, her love of the sport came during a vacation to Mexico City when she was seven years old. On a whim, the family caught a bullfight. McCormick’s mother was appalled, yet Patricia was transfixed, so much that for months afterward, she staged mock bullfights in her yard using neighborhood kids.
When she was thirteen, her family relocated to West Texas, where her father was chief engineer at Cosden Petroleum Corporation in Big Spring. She was a self-described loner at her small-town high school, prone to long walks to paint and sketch the stark, western landscape. After graduation, McCormick tried studying opera at the University of Texas, but she quickly realized she didn’t have the voice. She switched her major to music and art and transferred to what was then Texas Western College in El Paso. Once there, she began wandering across the border into Juárez and rediscovered the bulls. She watched fights at the Plaza de Toros and became a student of the form, reading books and practicing technique in her dorm room at night. “I had a WWI blanket my dad had given to me to keep warm, and I used that as my cape,” McCormick said in a 2007 documentary, entitled, The Texas Torera.
Before long, she left college and convinced Alejandro del Hierro, a retired matador, to be her mentor. McCormick had her bullfighting debut on September 9, 1951, in Juárez. According to the Big Spring Daily Herald, a bull trampled her twice and tossed her on its horns before she managed to plunge the estoque between its shoulders. Mexican critics described the 21-year-old as “green as lettuce,” but the crowd loved her, showering her with roses. The judges even awarded her the bull’s ear, signifying a superior performance. Reporters also noted that after killing the animal, McCormick, her clothes streaked in its blood, knelt down and caressed its head.
Over the next year, she honed her skills in the Mexican minor leagues, fighting in the small-town plazas, and in 1952, was invited to be the first American woman to join the Mexico’s matador’s union. She fought in stadiums for the next ten years, drawing thousands and becoming an international celebrity. She appeared in TIME, Sports Illustrated, and LOOK magazines and even wrote a memoir entitled Lady Bullfighter.
Although she received top billing with the elite matadors of her day, McCormick could never shake the title of novillera, or apprentice fighter. Elevation to the highest rank required an alternativa ceremony and sponsorship by a male matador, and none would do such a thing for a woman. On the circuit, McCormick couldn’t even travel alone. “I had to be escorted everywhere,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “I lived as a provincial Latin woman . . . On social occasions, I sat with the women.”
Though she faced the same dangers as her male counterparts, who marveled at the artistry of her cape work, her gender prevented her from achieving greater stardom in a sport dominated by men. “Had she not been born a woman,” one of Mexico’s elite matadors told Sports Illustrated in 1963, “she might have been better than any of us.”
Nonetheless, McCormick demanded to fight on equal terms. Many female toreras fought on horseback, dismounting only to kill (in Spain, women such as the Peruvian legend Conchita Cintron, were forbidden to even to leave the horse). She fought on foot, like a man, and kept her feet planted the whole time, moving only to pivot.
Her bravery came at a cost. She was gored six times. The worst was in September 1954 in Ciudad Acuña, Del Rio’s Mexican sister city. According to newspaper accounts, she turned her back while performing a quite, or a pass, and the bull caught her in the thigh.
“The horn went right up my stomach,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “The bull carried me around the ring for a minute, impaled on his horns. They gave me the last rites there. The doctor said, ‘Carry her across the border and let her die in her own country.’” She then spent six months recovering in a hospital, never wavering on her return to the arena.
By the late fifties, the sport started to shift. Other American toreras, such as the TV star and model Bette Ford, and San Angelo’s Patricia Hayes, had begun to garner celebrity and diminish the novelty. And the bulls were getting smaller. “I didn’t want to be known for fighting small bulls,” McCormick said in The Texas Torera.
McCormick fought her last bullfight in San Antonio in 1962 and then quickly dropped from view. She spent the next forty years living quietly in California, mainly focused on her artwork and rarely mentioning her fame. For a number of years, she worked as a secretary at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.
McCormick always considered herself a Texan, and in the early 2000s, by then in her seventies, she moved to Midland. While there, some friends encouraged her to take advantage of her fame. In 2006, the Ciudad Acuña honored her in its annual “Running Las Vacas” event, which brought McCormick back to a town where she was once considered a hero. Even though she’d been gone for over fifty years, residents still called out to her by name.
McCormick moved permanently to Del Rio, and in the years that followed, she enjoyed a small resurgence. In 2007, the Heritage Museum in Big Spring opened an exhibit on her life and career and invited McCormick to demonstrate her cape work. People waited two hours in line just to meet her. Her artwork, mainly of horses and bullfighting scenes, were displayed around the country. Even into her eighties, friends said, McCormick still sketched and painted and enjoyed long walks alone.
McCormick passed away at the age of 83. Her only surviving relative, a cousin, said her ashes would be scattered over the Gulf of Mexico, per her wishes, between the two countries she straddled her entire life.
Speaking in the documentary in 2007, the torera—still poised and lithe and holding her good looks—said she assumed the world had moved on, even though in her heart, she had always remained a bullfighter.
“It’s marvelous to be remembered,” she said.