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.