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Mexico's female matadors return to the world's largest bullring

Spectators wait for the start of a bullfight at the Plaza México, in Mexico City, Jan. 28. Bullfighting returned to Mexico City after the Supreme Court of Justice overturned a 2022 ban that prevented these events from taking place in the capital.
Fernando Llano
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AP
Spectators wait for the start of a bullfight at the Plaza México, in Mexico City, Jan. 28. Bullfighting returned to Mexico City after the Supreme Court of Justice overturned a 2022 ban that prevented these events from taking place in the capital.

MEXICO CITY — Hilda Tenorio feels at home in Plaza México, the world's largest bullfighting arena, approaching an angry bull that outweighs her by some 1,000 pounds. It is her 17th appearance here. Wearing a shimmering suit of pink and gold rhinestones, Tenorio waves her cape — and the bull charges.

But Tenorio is nervous. It is only her second bullfight in four years, after a hiatus that began when a bull gored and nearly killed her in 2019. She couldn't eat solid food for three weeks and needed reconstructive surgery on her face. She had returned to the ring out of sheer commitment — she wouldn't let a bull dictate when she would retire.

"The biggest scars are the mental ones," says Tenorio, 37. "There is no recipe for overcoming such a trauma."

Tenorio's appearance is also unique for another reason. It is among the first bullfights held in Plaza México in two years, after Mexico's Supreme Court recently reversed a 2022 ban on bullfighting in the capital.

The high court's decision breathed life into a centuries-old tradition that has faced declining popularity, animal rights protests and outright bans in some countries. It's legal in six other countries — Spain, France, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. But amid this fight for survival, bullfighting is also in some ways entering the modern era, as a growing number of female bullfighters challenge preconceptions about women's abilities and demand to be treated on equal footing as their male counterparts.

Mexican bullfighter Hilda Tenorio participates in a bullfight event at the Monumental Plaza de Toros Mexico in Mexico City on Feb. 9. Bullfighting resumed Feb. 4 in the capital after it was banned in 2022.
Alfredo Estrella / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Mexican bullfighter Hilda Tenorio participates in a bullfight event at the Monumental Plaza de Toros Mexico in Mexico City on Feb. 9. Bullfighting resumed Feb. 4 in the capital after it was banned in 2022.

"There is a belief that the braver you are the more macho you are. And for that reason a woman cannot be as brave as a man," Tenorio says. "Female bullfighters were overlooked."

Alexander Fiske-Harrison, author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, likened female bullfighters to women playing Shakespeare's Hamlet or Macbeth. "If the setup is such that it is defined by masculinity, you are subverting expectations," he says.

Tenorio didn't think about expectations when she became interested in bullfighting. She was 12 years old and a natural athlete when she saw her dad watching a bullfight on television. "I was amazed to see the images of the bullfighters controlling the bull," she says. "And they did it so calmly. I said to myself, 'I can do that!' "

It didn't occur to Tenorio until years later that all the bullfighters she saw were male.

"When you're a kid — and it's something we should learn from children — you dream big and think that nothing is impossible." In addition to being a bullfighter, Tenorio is also a general-practice attorney.

Tenorio says that in the entire history of bullfighting, just 16 women have become matadors, the highest rank a bullfighter can achieve.

A faded mural of bullfighters decorates the Plaza de Toros México bullring in Mexico City, Dec. 12. Mexico's Supreme Court overturned a 2022 ban on bullfighting in Mexico City, opening the way for events to resume.
Fernando Llano / AP
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AP
A faded mural of bullfighters decorates the Plaza de Toros México bullring in Mexico City, Dec. 12. Mexico's Supreme Court overturned a 2022 ban on bullfighting in Mexico City, opening the way for events to resume.

It wasn't until 1974 that women in Spain were even allowed in the bullfighting ring. Today, of 10,554 licensed bullfighters in Spain there are 803 matadors —and just seven are women, according to Spain's Ministry of Culture.

But while female and male matadors fight the same size bulls, they are almost always segregated into separate events.

"It goes against what female bullfighters have fought for for so long," Tenorio says. "We fight the same bulls as the men do. The same weight and size. And we should be able to mix with the male bullfighters. That would be true inclusion."

Fiske-Harrison says male bullfighters have historically not wanted to mix with women. If a male bullfighter sees a fellow male close to being gored, "you still wouldn't run in to help until he is literally bouncing on the point of the bull's horns," he says. But if a male bullfighter sees a female in distress, they face a conundrum: "If you run into the ring to protect the woman it's a massive failure of professional courtesy." On the other hand, he says, male bullfighters break the "chivalric code of being a knight or gentleman" if the woman is, in fact, gored.

"I think the matadors may have taken the line that there is no upside for them," Fiske-Harrison says.

Opponents of bullfighting see no distinction between male and female bullfighters. The tradition amounts to animal cruelty, they say — a sometimes slow and agonizing slaughter of a majestic animal.

In banning bullfighting in Mexico City in 2022, a judge said its practice violated resident's rights to a healthy environment free from violence.

For a city that has a nearly 500-year history of bullfighting, the ruling was a stunning turn of events. A panel of five Supreme Court justices overturned that decision in December without explanation. Tenorio clerked at the Supreme Court from 2017 to 2021 helping draft opinions. She left in order to pursue bullfighting full time.

Now, Tenorio was making a triumphant return to the world's biggest stage. Early in February, she appeared with two female bullfighters — fellow Mexican Paola San Román and Colombian Rocío Morelli. Unlike a few weeks earlier, when the 42,000-seat arena was jam-packed with spectators, the arena for the women's bullfight is just a quarter full, if that. Vendors hawk beer and snacks as a mishmash of spectators — rich, poor, children and the elderly — oscillate between cheers and boos.

Gabriela Rodríguez says she came specifically to see the female bullfighters. A motorcycle aficionado and adrenaline junky, Rodríguez says even she could never imagine taking on a 1,200 pound bull. "Imagine a woman confronting a massive animal like that! I mean, I wouldn't do it," she says.

Colombian bullfighter Rocío Morelli participates in a bullfight at the Monumental Plaza de Toros México in Mexico City in February.
Alfredo Estrella / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Colombian bullfighter Rocío Morelli participates in a bullfight at the Monumental Plaza de Toros México in Mexico City in February.

Everyone in the stands seems to hold their breath when 30-year-old Morelli walks to the center of the arena and falls to her knees, pink and yellow cape in hand. As the bull charges, Morelli swishes the cape and the enormous animal misses her by inches.

About 20 minutes later, Morelli again faces the bull alone. She raises her sword and thrusts it into the bull's neck, killing it on her first attempt. The crowd cheers wildly and spectators pull out white handkerchiefs and start waving them, the sign of a great bullfight. Morelli is awarded one of the bull's ears as a prize.

Tenorio is next. She's the more experienced bullfighter, but she looks shaky. When it comes time for the kill, she stabs the bull but the sword doesn't stick. After various attempts, she stabs the bull repeatedly in the neck. The bull teeters but still doesn't die.

As the crowd boos, the bull is led out of the arena to be killed behind closed doors.

A week later, Tenorio says it was a difficult night. She did her best to train but she wasn't in tiptop form, she says. Plus, the trauma of being gored still haunts her.

She says, "I've still got a ways to go before Hilda Tenorio is back like before."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Green
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