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For Matadora, Bullfighting Is Her 'Absolute Truth'

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For Matadora, Bullfighting Is Her 'Absolute Truth'

Sports

For Matadora, Bullfighting Is Her 'Absolute Truth'

For Matadora, Bullfighting Is Her 'Absolute Truth'

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134623159/134633610" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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  • Lupita Lopez, 32, from Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, just became one of four professional female bullfighters — or matadoras — in the world. She was inducted into the tiny group on March 13, at the Plaza Mexico in Mexico City — the largest bullring in the world.
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    Lupita Lopez, 32, from Merida, Yucatan, Mexico, just became one of four professional female bullfighters — or matadoras — in the world. She was inducted into the tiny group on March 13, at the Plaza Mexico in Mexico City — the largest bullring in the world.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Lopez spends time with her benefactor, Fred Renk, at his home before a bullfight in La Gloria, Texas. Renk, 74, has been active in the bullfighting community for more than 50 years. A former novillero (novice bullfighter who has not reached matador status), Renk now runs a bullfighting school and arena on his property with his son, matador David Renk.
    Hide caption
    Lopez spends time with her benefactor, Fred Renk, at his home before a bullfight in La Gloria, Texas. Renk, 74, has been active in the bullfighting community for more than 50 years. A former novillero (novice bullfighter who has not reached matador status), Renk now runs a bullfighting school and arena on his property with his son, matador David Renk.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Lopez's jacket hangs on the line outside Renk's house at La Querencia ranch in south Texas. Renk helped to raise money for the purchase of her bullfighter's uniform, the traje de luces ("suit of lights").
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    Lopez's jacket hangs on the line outside Renk's house at La Querencia ranch in south Texas. Renk helped to raise money for the purchase of her bullfighter's uniform, the traje de luces ("suit of lights").
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Raquel Martinez (right) the first female matador, helps Lopez prepare for a bullfight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria, Texas, on Jan. 23. Martinez is a friend of the Renks and a supporter of Lopez.
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    Raquel Martinez (right) the first female matador, helps Lopez prepare for a bullfight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria, Texas, on Jan. 23. Martinez is a friend of the Renks and a supporter of Lopez.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Lopez adjusts her hat as she prepares for a bullfight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring on Jan. 23.
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    Lopez adjusts her hat as she prepares for a bullfight at the Santa Maria Bull Ring on Jan. 23.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Lopez puts the finishing touches on her traje de luces, the uniform specially designed for bullfighters.
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    Lopez puts the finishing touches on her traje de luces, the uniform specially designed for bullfighters.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Training marks on the back porch of Fred Renk's house are drawn permanently into the pavement.
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    Training marks on the back porch of Fred Renk's house are drawn permanently into the pavement.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Lopez fights a bull at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria, Texas.
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    Lopez fights a bull at the Santa Maria Bull Ring in La Gloria, Texas.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • "In the duration of a bullfight," she says, "these are 20 minutes of absolute truth."
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    "In the duration of a bullfight," she says, "these are 20 minutes of absolute truth."
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Here, Lopez tests four cows, one after the other, at the Santa Maria Bull Ring on Feb. 13. 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 the bull.
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    Here, Lopez tests four cows, one after the other, at the Santa Maria Bull Ring on Feb. 13. 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 the bull.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR
  • Lopez salutes the crowd after a bullfight.  Bullfighting is all Lopez has ever known and all she's ever wanted to do.
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    Lopez salutes the crowd after a bullfight. Bullfighting is all Lopez has ever known and all she's ever wanted to do.
    Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

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Last Sunday, a 32-year-old bullfighter named Lupita Lopez appeared in Mexico City's Plaza Mexico — the largest bullring in the world — and was inducted into the tiny sorority of matadoras, or professional female bullfighters. Lopez, 32, has wanted to be a bullfighter since she was 11.

A month earlier, Lopez had traveled to south Texas, deep in the thornbrush country north of McAllen, to put on an exhibition fight at a bull ranch called La Querencia. The owner, Fred Renk, is a burly, 74-year-old former amateur bullfighter who swaggers about wearing his guayabera shirt open at the top, macho style. In the afternoons, you can find him in his cantina listening to Spanish guitar music, enjoying a beer buzz and talking up Mexico's hottest new lady bullfighter.

"She's gonna be great," Renk says, "She's got this quality and this desire to burn and create art. And you'll see it tomorrow."

Lupita Lopez tests a cow at the Santa Maria Bull Ring. Before becoming a full matador, toreros often fight young bulls or test female cows for courage. Katie Hayes Luke for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Lupita Lopez tests a cow at the Santa Maria Bull Ring. Before becoming a full matador, toreros often fight young bulls or test female cows for courage.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Renk is Lopez's patron in the style of benefactors who help aspiring boxers and opera singers get a start. He and his friends put up $10,000 for her sword, cape and intricately embroidered traje de luces, the "suit of lights" that bullfighters wear.

"We just took her on and we helped her. She fights and she fights well," he continues.

And she draws. Renk has promoted Lopez's appearance at his bullring as "the Mayan Princess."

Her appearance is striking: a cascade of dark hair; a fighter's arms; a dancer's body; and frank, disarming eyes.

During an interview, Lopez sits on a sofa in a guesthouse. She will not talk of animal cruelty. Bullfighting is a medieval entertainment, but it remains a cultural fixture in some Latin American and European countries as it is in her own family.

"I come from a family of bullfighters, from my great-grandfather, grandfather, father, uncle and cousins," she says. "And so coming from this family, obviously from the moment we wake up until we go to sleep, we talk about bulls."

Growing up in the city of Merida, on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, Lopez decided she wanted to be a bullfighter when she was 11. During her long apprenticeship, she faced the challenges of a young woman entering the quintessentially male domain of bulls.

"When I'm traveling alone, there are men who think that a female bullfighter is an easy woman. And promoters who think because they put me on a bill, I have to sleep with them. I think being a woman is an obstacle," she says.

Her gender cuts both ways. Some impresarios won't allow her to fight in their plazas. But others actively promote female bullfighters as a novelty and pay them more.

Lopez is married to an Italian filmmaker who tolerates — but doesn't support — her bullfighting career. She's been gored three times, once seriously in the groin. At 32, she figures she has three or four years left in her career. She'd like to have children.

Lopez waits in the Santa Maria Bull Ring before fighting her second bull of the day. Katie Hayes Luke for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Lopez waits in the Santa Maria Bull Ring before fighting her second bull of the day.

Katie Hayes Luke for NPR

Why does she do it?

"In the duration of a bullfight," she says, "these are 20 minutes of absolute truth."

On a recent weekend at La Querencia ranch, Lopez will not conclude the fight by killing the toro bravo, the brave bull, with a sword, as is customary. It's against the law. She'll be fighting and testing vacas bravas, brave cows, to see if they have the valor to be returned to the pasture and bred with a fighting bull. Under the rules of "bloodless bullfights," she will pluck a plastic flower from the black hide of their backs.

The stands fill up with tourists in caps and sunglasses, most of whom know nothing of the precision and danger of what they're about to witness. Finally, Lopez strides into the bullring in her blue and gold suit, her magenta cape over her shoulder, a long braid falling down her back.

She fights the animals in the classic style: with feet planted, back arched, caping to the right, haughty and graceful. The spirited young cows charge and jab with their sharp horns, just like their brothers.

That happened a month ago.

Up until this point, as a novillera, an apprentice, she had been allowed only to fight young bulls. Last Sunday, in the Plaza Mexico, Lopez graduated. She confronted mature, 4-year-old bulls that weigh 1,000 pounds and more.

Now, she can be called matadora de toros. She becomes one of four professional female bullfighters who are active in the world.

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