Martinez: "I just went to the bullfights and got interested and one thing led to another.”
Invariably, she is hot, her discomfort compounded by being, trussed up in a heavy, constrictive suit. She is far from San Diego, from her husband and seven-year-old son. In a moment, men will come for her. They will take her to a dusty coliseum where she must march out before a screaming crowd. A bull will try to kill her.
“I knew that I wouldn't like the killing. But I really wasn’t interested in that part.”
At these moments Raquel Martinez draws no comfort from the fact that not one of the beasts has ever gored her. She thinks that only increases the odds that this time her luck will run out. So she stares at nothing, stomach twisting. I waited with her for her ride to the bullring before one recent corrida, and her tension so enveloped me I couldn’t speak. Then the scene in the hotel lobby where we stood took an absurd twist.
Two tourists from Texas, a man and wife, stepped up to the nearby desk clerk, asking for directions to the bullfight. When the clerk pointed out Martinez, clad in her traditional matador’s outfit, the couple gaped. Oblivious to Martinez’s distress, they bombarded her with chatty questions. Finally, the woman asked why Martinez had become a bullfighter.
Cape work at home. Mexican ranch owners began to realize that the striking blonde bullfighter could help draw crowds to fiestas and amateur bullfights.
“Well, I just went to the bullfights and got interested and one thing led to another.” Martinez responded, her smile plastered into place. The Texans nodded eagerly. Soon they went away, but for me the question reverberated: why would a thirty-four-year-old product of the Imperial Beach school system undergo this anxious prelude to the ritual that is bullfighting? To bullfighting, she had subordinated her family. For it she has gone hungry; has slept out in the street. Lies and corruption and politicking fill the matador's world — and yet it’s a world she has pursued relentlessly. Why?
What finally saved her was the fact that her grandmother’s uncle, Francisco Gonzales Bocanegra, was the man who wrote the Mexican national anthem.
I had first asked Martinez that question weeks earlier in her apartment off Fifty-fourth Street in Oak Park, and though more relaxed, she gave me an answer that didn’t differ substantially from that she offered the Texans. She wasn’t being coy. One of the things people notice first about her is her unpretentiousness. Her husband. Bill Robinson, says that the thing he likes most about her is her honesty. It’s just that she never talks about bullfighting with the poetry of a Hemingway or with the eloquence of some devotees.
The alternativa. As soon as the plans for Martinez's alternativa began to spread throughout the bullfighting world, “all my fights were canceled.”
She comes from a family of working-class immigrants and she never went on to college. "l was having too much fun playing. I think I was a teen-ager until I was twenty-three years old.” she explained with an unapologetic grin. She speaks with a fiat, prosaic twang that sounds more Southwestern than Mexican, even though she was born and lived in Tijuana (at the corner of Ninth and Quintana near the river channel) until she was three. But her cultural roots don’t give a clue to what she has become.
Raquel, Bill Robinson, Scotty. "When I thought Bill and I were gonna get divorced, I thought. ’My God. what am I going to do? I've got to take care of my son.'"
Her parents, married in Oaxaca, came north like so many Mexicans to make a better life. In Tijuana, Martinez’s father taught school, although he had to abandon that profession for lack of openings. So he moved his family to a house on Cypress Avenue in Imperial Beach (such a cross-border relocation was easier thirty years ago than it is today), and found work in an India Street auto parts distributorship in San Diego.
Raquel Martinez: “I know I’m not far from the top, from that big money. And I’m gonna be a millionaire.”
No one in the family particularly liked bullfighting. Martinez even remembers that when Channel 6 would broadcast the Sunday afternoon corridas. her parents would switch to another station.
Martinez says simple curiosity prompted her to go with some friends to Tijuana’s seaside bullring one afternoon in 1969. She was twenty years old. “I knew that I wouldn't like the killing. But I really wasn’t interested in that part. I was there to see the matadors.” She even remembers her stomach turning on a clumsy kill and thinking that she probably wouldn’t come again. But she also marveled at the way the famous Spanish matador, El Cordobes, held the crowd in thrall. There was blood, but to the vivacious blonde, the event also “seemed like a big party. It had a little bit of everything: drama, comedy, music, color. I had never seen anything like it.”
At that point, color and drama were lacking in her life. After graduation from Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, she had worked for about a year as a stewardess on a small (now defunct) Baja airline called Servicio Aero Baja, but when a hurricane almost caused one Puerto Vallarta flight to crash. Martinez returned home on the train, and hired on as an electronics technician at Honeywell’s Kearny Mesa plant, where she inspected circuit boards and wiring. The bullfight’s drama and glamour stayed in her mind, and she returned to the next week’s corrida, and to every succeeding one throughout the season. She began buying books explaining the sport, and one day she mentioned to a mailman friend that she wished she knew other fans. The friend told her that he delivered letters to a taurine club, and Martinez quickly contacted it.
The group was called Los Muleteros. and its members were more than mere fans of bullfighting; they actually practiced to fight bulls. They usually met in the Lemon Grove home of one couple, and Martinez says there she watched movies of famous matadors and received some of her first lessons in handling the bullfighting capes. She met with the group for three or four months before they formally admitted her to their ranks, by a vote that had to be unanimous. “They just wanted to make sure people were serious. But they could tell that I was.”
By then Martinez was delighted to be devoting her weekends to the club, trekking to the ranches and little rings scattered throughout Tijuana and northern Baja, places like Cortijo San Jose, an amateur plaza in Tijuana’s beach area, Las Playas. There Martinez faced her first female calf. What happened then set the course for the years that followed, she insists. Although the baby animals are small, they run fast and are armed with sharp horns. “Even though it was just a hundred-pound calf. I felt like I was fighting a 500-kilo bull. But the first time I did it, I did it right, i got about five passes out of it. and I did everything right. If I had been tossed. I probably would have given it up.” ‘
In those days, 1970 and ’71, it cost about a hundred dollars to “rent” a female calf that had never been fought before. Martinez and three other club members usually would split that cost four ways. (At such fights, the calves were never killed but would instead be saved and raised for breeding.) Since the calves, like all fighting animals, became more cunning with each pass of the cape, animals that had already been fought cost thirty-five dollars or less, and Martinez adds, “Sometimes when I didn't have any money. I’d buy one of those cows.”
Soon, however, Mexican ranch owners also began to realize that the striking blonde bullfighter could help draw crowds to fiestas and amateur bullfights. So occasionally they would provide her with animals, she says. One day this caught up with her at a festival at the Mission Del Sol, a small rodeo ring (called a charro) located in the hills between downtown Tijuana and Las Playas. Before the start of the festival, Mexican officials showed up and declared it was illegal for Martinez, an American, to “work” in Mexico. Although she was receiving no pay, “I was still getting a free bull and bringing in the people, so that to them was working.”
Martinez quickly tried to dispel the problem by pointing out that she in fact is not an American, having been born in Tijuana and never having abandoned her Mexican citizenship. She offered her Mexican passport as proof, “but they didn’t believe me. They said I could have had it forged.” She says what finally saved her was the fact that her grandmother’s uncle, Francisco Gonzales Bocanegra, was the man who wrote the Mexican national anthem. “I could prove that, and that finally convinced ’em.” The incident taught Martinez to carry all her identification papers to any bullfighting appearance, since the immigration problem has recurred throughout her career.
Even in those early days, the idea of a bullfighting career slowly began to jell, Bill Robinson believes. Robinson first met Martinez eleven years ago, when he was working as the public information officer for the San Diego Model Cities program. One day a woman friend invited him to a Tijuana party feting a celebrated Spanish matador. Martinez also showed up at the affair, escorted by the elderly impresario who built Tijuana’s bullring by the sea, a former Mexican army officer named Salvador Lopez Hurtado, and known universally as “El Mayor” ("The Major”). Robinson and Martinez were introduced at the party. Two or three months later Robinson was out at the VIP Room at the Town and Country Hotel in Mission Valley. When a pretty blonde walked in and he asked her to dance, he recognized her as the amateur bullfighter. They started dating.
Robinson says she introduced him to the first bullfight he attended as an adult, one of the amateur corridas in the Tijuana area. Not long after, he had the opportunity to watch Martinez herself in the ring, and he says, clutching his heart, that he almost doubled over with a heart attack. Captivated by her involvement, he grew interested in bullfighting to the point where, years later, he presided over a South Bay club of enthusiasts. (Today Robinson, who now works as public information officer for the San Diego Police Department, also covers Tijuana bullfighting for the San Diego Union.)
So when Robinson and Martinez were married six months after meeting at the disco, Robinson had at least a hint of how important a role bullfighting would play in their lives. Tomorrow will mark Martinez and Robinson’s tenth wedding anniversary. and Robinson says he probably knows and understands Raquel better than anyone. Yet he still has trouble explaining the force that impelled his wife toward the bullfighting plaza. Robinson says die-hard aficionados blame their addiction on what they metaphorically call the gusano, the worm that enters their very being, never to be expelled. “It’s a cop-out term.” Robinson shrugs, dissatisfied. The gusano certainly had taken command of Raquel, but as the months after their wedding passed. Robinson noted the powerful impression made on his wife by the glittering, lucrative world inhabited by bullfighting’s top matadors.
Raquel was “the pretty one” of the two Martinez sisters, and often she was dolled up in ribbons and frills, even though the Martinez family had always lived perilously close to poverty, Robinson says. Raquel always hated being poor, he says; she yearned for more money. And the more she learned about bullfighting, the more it beckoned as a pathway to wealth. Before long, Robinson had discovered something else about his wife.
Despite the fact that she quit working at the electronics factory before her marriage. despite her homey charm. Martinez simply wasn’t — isn’t — a person who could tolerate life as a housewife. When in 1974 she became pregnant, she continued fighting for two and a half months. Only ruefully did she decline to fight at four months, and just three months after delivering her son Scott she was in the ring again. She became involved in the Portuguese-style “bloodless bullfighting,” a pursuit which took her all over California. Sometimes she would go as far as Ensenada for the opportunity to take just a single pass at a fighting animal. By about four years ago Raquel’s obsession for bullfighting had intensified to the point where she and Robinson began discussing seriously the possibility of her becoming a professional.
That was a wild aspiration. A handful of other women had achieved widespread respect in the bullfighting world over the years, but none of them had ever become a full-fledged matadora — the status which permits the wearing of the revered and traditional “suit of lights.” In fact, the laws in Spain had explicitly prohibited women matadors until as recently as about five years ago. In Mexico, where women weren’t legally prohibited from achieving that professional status, only two women (a Spaniard and a Colombian) earned that rank — and they did so in small provincial plazas before disappearing from the pages of bullfighting history.
Both Robinson and Martinez were fully aware of the chauvinistic prejudices pervading the world of corridas. They recognized another hurdle, likely insurmountable. “Bullfighting is a rich man's sport.” Robinson says. Most would-be matadors begin fighting bulls in their teens, and almost all have a rich father or powerful patron able to buy the bulls for the novice’s fights (which today can cost as much as $2000 to $4000) and to support hint through the years when he will receive little or no pay for his performances.
In contrast, when Martinez withdrew Robinson's and her savings from the bank early in November of 1978, the total amounted to about $300. Nonetheless, she packed her three-year-old son into her Ford Pinto station wagon and hit the road for Mexico City. Today she says she didn’t perceive the move as a threat to her marriage. “I trusted Bill; he trusted me. And he knew more than I did how much I loved bullfighting.” She says neither of them knew what would happen w'hen she got to the capital. “We just knew that I had to give it a try, at least.” Martinez says she figured she’d be back in a month or two.
She had one asset. Through the bullfighting clubs in San Diego, Martinez had made friends with a few men who had similarly sought their fortunes in the bullfighting world. All had failed, but before Martinez set off, she received from them a list of twenty-seven bullfighting contacts — managers, impresarios, newspaper writers, and the like — in Mexico City. Once there, Martinez stayed with relatives of friends, and began making acquaintances.
She says when she called the first through the twenty-sixth persons on her list, “most of them said. ‘Great. Let’s get together first and have a little dinner, and maybe go dancing.” At that point, she would forget them. She claims that after the twenty-sixth one had disappointed her. she called Robinson and announced. “Well, honey. I guess it’s not going to work out.” The only remaining name was that of Jesus Munoz, known in the taurine world as “El Ciego” (ciego means blind, a reference to Munoz’s thick spectacles.) Ciego slept during the day and worked at night, functioning as a sort of one-man bullfighting news service, Martinez was told. A former matador himself, he made his living both from bullfighters who paid him to publicize their accomplishments and from newspapers who paid for reports on the outcome of corridas.
Martinez says when she showed up one evening at the office in Ciego’s home, the long-haired gentleman barked an order for her to sit down, and demanded to know how much money she had brought. "I was frightened stiff. I'd never met anyone so harsh like him.” She told him none, and waited, quaking, for him to return his attention to her. Hours passed before he finally snapped at her to show him her portfolio of pictures taken during various fights.
At first he sneered at them. But Martinez says little by little, the old man’s face brightened with interest. Finally he told her to return; he’d see what he could do. About a month passed, she says, during which time she trained daily (jogging, exercising, practicing with the cape), attended bullfights, and listened avidly to Ciego’s discourses on the bullfighting art. At last he booked her into a festival near Guadalajara, watched her perform there, and agreed to take a chance on managing her career.
It was an extraordinary stroke of luck. Ciego possessed both extensive connections and an unflagging talent for promotion. and he set about employing both in Martinez’s service. The result was that he began securing for her not only semi-professional engagements (called noviIladas) but also enough money — usually — at least to cover his protege’s expenses. Martinez is vague about the amounts; she says it usually varied between 10,000 and 40,000 pesos (around $400 to $1600 at the exchange rate at the time), sometimes with expenses covered in addition. She says Ciego’s ability to promote her as a novelty explains why she got paid, in contrast to most novices. “They’d announce me as ‘The Woman Bullfighter, Raquel Martinez.' And I’d draw the people. I was brave. And I wanted to be a bullfighter, and a lot of times I’d do better than the men.”
And so the weeks stretched into months, punctuated by visits to small towns all over Mexico. Among the most heart-breaking of them were the trips — Martinez estimates there were at least 200 — that she made in the expectation of fighting, only to arrive and leam that the impresario had simply lied; that in fact no bullfight would be held. “When I know I’m gonna fight, I really train like an animal. I would really sacrifice to prepare myself, to get my mind going, and when I’d get there and be ready to fight and have my mind high and there was nothing. . . .”
Surprises of a different sort also greeted her occasionally. There was the time in Jalostofitlan. in Jalisco, where she was scheduled as the number-one draw on the bullfighting card. When she arrived from Mexico City, accompanied by another upcoming young bullfighter friend, it was three in the morning, and bitter cold. Although they pounded furiously at the doors of the town hotel, no one would open up. Finally, they spread out their capes in the wide doorway of a tall building and curled up underneath the stiff, heavy material.
Another time, alone in Tabasco, Martinez performed well in the bullfight, but afterward the impresario disappeared, leaving her to pay the hotel bill he had agreed to cover. “I had enough money to pay it. but it left me with only five pesos." She hadn’t eaten before the bullfight and thus was ravenous, yet the only thing she could afford was an apple. She lacked transportation to Villahermosa. where she was scheduled on a plane home. So she caught a ride with the man who had purchased the dead bulls (to sell as meat back in Mexico City). "The meat smelled just horrible. He dropped me off in Villahermosa. but I had to walk a long way to the airport with all my things, and when I finally got there the airplane had been canceled. But it worked out good, ’cause they returned me my money. I went back by bus. but then I had money. I could eat!"
At times she says she was able to take her son with her to the fights, but two things limited the extent to which this was possible. One is the fact that a large segment of the public in Mexico thinks Martinez is single. They think so because this is what the Mexican press has consistently reported. Oddly enough, virtually every news story which has appeared about Martinez in the U.S. has touted her status as a wife and mother — yet south of the border, the fiction of her maidenhood persists. Martinez explains it by saying, "It’s bad enough being a woman and being a bullfighter. But being a wife and mother, too — it just wouldn’t go.” (In similar fashion, the Mexican press routinely mis-reports bullfighters’ ages, to make them look younger. Thus Martinez’s "public” age in Mexico is twenty-five, instead of thirty-four.)
Martinez says it wasn’t so important to conceal her motherhood in small towns in the Mexican hinterlands, so in those cases she could take Scott with her, although money was a second limiting factor. Thus she often traveled alone, entrusting her son to the care of friends in Mexico City. The solitary travel posed problems on more than one occasion, such as the time she checked into a small, cheap hotel in Puerto Vallarta. Seeking privacy, she’d picked a room far from the lobby and had just settled in when she spotted the figure of a man pacing back and forth outside. Nervously, with her pulse racing, she undid her bullfighting swords and withdrew the largest among them. When the intruder climbed up on a chair to enter an open portal, Martinez ran outside and charged at him. "I figured if he thought I was scared it would be worse. I said, ‘Come on! I kill bulls with this sword. To kill you would be very simple.’ ” Her would-be attacker fled.
Counterbalancing the lows, however, were triumphs. “I’ve fought in places, like in Yucatan, where the Mayan Indians live. And I’ve done so well there that the poor people, the poor Indians, were so happy with my performance that they would come up when I was touring the ring and give me a hundred pesos. Back then a hundred pesos would be four dollars! And here were these poor, poor people who don’t wear shoes, who don’t have anything. and I’d say, ‘No. no. I don’t want your money.’ But they’d get mad if I didn’t take it.” In other places, bullfighting fans would rain insults upon her before the fight, then afterward carry her out on their shoulders; beg her pardon, humbly, respectfully.
Slowly, steadily, her bullfighting was improving. With each fight she learned something new . and in the quiet intervals in Mexico City, she trained daily, often practicing the cape work from eight in the morning until mid-aftemoon. She returned to San Diego only three or four times in the two years after embarking on the road to professional status. She missed her husband. she avows, but she felt that both he and she had committed themselves to a road full of sacrifice that inevitably would reward them both handsomely.
A time did finally come, she says, when her brother-in-law began to warn her that perhaps Robinson had turned to someone else for companionship. Martinez felt torn between disbelief and guilt at having abandoned her husband. For the most part, however, she blocked the question from her mind. Then one day she shattered four bones in her hand during a bullfight. She flew home unexpectedly and when she knocked on her front door, she heard female laughter. Robinson opened the door and cheerily admitted her to the living room. where another woman lay stretched out on the sofa, watching TV. “When I saw her I just closed my eyes. I just didn’t want to see it; to see her with Bill.” Robinson quietly suggested that perhaps the time had come to start talking about divorce.
“It really took a lot out of me and out of him.” Martinez says today. Surprisingly, however, she looks back on the trauma as having benefited her career. “Because I had been doing well, yes, but I could have done better. I wasn’t really giving it all I had. I’d felt I have a husband who supports me. I have a place to stay. But when I thought Bill and I were gonna get divorced, I thought. ’My God. what am I going to do? I've got to take care of my son.' And from thereon I was just automatically better. Braver. All of a sudden it shot me up. Because then bullfighting was all I had. It's all I knew how to do.”
Martinez says that heightened resolution remained with her even after the divorce proceedings came to a halt. Martinez and Robinson had undergone three divorce hearings; their separation was due to become final within six months. Yet Martinez says she had never stopped loving her husband. “It was terrible divorcing him. When the lawyers would ask me if I had anything bad to say about him, I couldn’t think of anything.” What brought them back together was a call to Martinez one night informing her that Robinson had had a stroke. At the news. Martinez says she felt as if she was dying, and when she spoke long distance with her husband at the hospital, “We both cried on the phone, and that was it.”
So they reconciled. Yet still Martinez remained in Mexico City, pursuing her career. I recently asked Robinson if he ever simply asked his wife to give it up. to choose between bullfighting and her family. He shook his head no. “One night in bed she told me that bullfighting is more important to her than me or Scott. It’s a hard thing to accept. . . At the same time that fact had long become obvious to him — as had the futility of asking her to change. Today Robinson seems to have made an uneasy peace with the fact that he’s not like her; he could never tolerate all the misery his wife has endured in pursuit of her goal. Paradoxically, her very single-mindedness is another of the things he most respects in her. “I’m sure that I'll never in my life meet anyone else who has gone after something with as much fervor as she has.”
Not long after her marital reconciliation, Martinez’s resolve gave promise of finally paying off. In the spring of 1981. Tijuana’s wealthy and powerful business magnate. Alfonso Bustamante, declared that the time had come for Martinez to gain professional status. To do so. she needed to undergo the ceremony known as the alternativa. Staged in the form of a regular bullfight, the alternativa required the presence of two other matadors to fight and to participate in the ceremony. Although Martinez had fought as a novice maybe sixty times — far more than the requisite number — many in Mexico’s bullfight world bitterly opposed her becoming a full-fledged matadora, since as such she would be permitted to wear the traditional suit of lights; and that, to many Mexican men. is like putting Levis on the Virgin Mary. Thus it took the magic touch of a Bustamante, who was a long-time friend of Martinez’s, a committed aficionado himself, and Tijuana’s bullfight commissioner, to bring together all the elusive elements.
Bustamante planned the alternativa for last September 20. in Tijuana, and after some searching he finally found two matadors willing to fight alongside the woman. Yet even with Bustamante's energetic backing, Martinez still wasn’t sure the event would actually take place until about two weeks beforehand. It wasn't until then that the Mexican bullfighters union relented and accepted her as a member, a necessary prerequisite to the ceremony. Wen armed with the union status, Martinez lacked something else as she donned for the first time a white suit of lights which she had borrowed for the occasion.
She says most men who are going to receive their alternativa get plenty of practice facing the full-grown animals — those more than four years old — at a bull-breeding ranch before the big event. This is a crucial form of physical and psychological preparation, since only with the alternativa does the bullfighter publicly begin to fight full-grown bulls. Martinez had yet to fight one of these mature bulls, though she expected to. But as soon as the plans for Martinez's alternativa began to spread throughout the bullfighting world, “all my fights were canceled.” she says. “For two months before my fight, no one would even give me a cow. All I could do was train with my manager. I'd cry myself to sleep every night. I’d ask my manager. ‘Why? Why are they doing this to me?’ Her answer to herself was that she’d finally met male chauvinism on an organized level.
The day before the event. Martinez and her manager drove to the downtown bull-ring in Tijuana to size up the animals she would face. Eying the large beasts, her spirits sank. “I asked my manager. Do you think I can handle that?’ And he told me. ‘You're gonna handle that and more.’ ” Indeed, the next day. even though a crush of news reporters compounded her agitation. Martinez managed to win from the judges an award of one ear for her performance in fighting and killing her first bull. “A lot of the bullfighting critics had come up from Mexico City,” Martinez says. “And they gave me the greatest reviews. They said, ‘She succeeded. She was brave.’ ”
I didn’t attend that event, but I’ve discovered that different people who did offer dramatically conflicting reports about Martinez’s performance. Long-time observer Virginia Spiller, the San Diego Union reporter who covered the event for that paper, praised the quality of Martinez’s cape work and asserted that her killing of the first bull was technically perfect. “I thought she did beautifully,” Spiller says today. A less effusive assessment came from Wallace Burdge, another bullfighting authority and a friend of Martinez’s since her days back with the local bullfight clubs. To his eyes, Martinez’s movements looked “a little jerky,” less fluid than they should have been. “I was with her in the room ahead of time, and she was very, very tense. Very tight. Given that. I think she did as well as could be expected,” he says.
Much harsher is Lyn Sherwood, the sporadic publisher of an Orange County bullfighting magazine. Sherwood flatly accuses Virginia Spiller of lying in her report about the kill; he alleges that Martinez’s sword entered the bull’s side not perfectly, but very low, somewhere between the third and fourth ribs. He further charges that Martinez demonstrated none of the artistry that distinguishes a good bullfight from “a bloody rodeo.”
Sherwood admits that his general perception of Martinez is colored by a profound revulsion for the idea of women becoming matadors. “I’m a traditionalist,” he declares. “And due to purely male-minded chauvinism, I don’t approve of a woman in a suit of lights. ... They look ridiculous. ... A woman in a suit of lights looks like a dyke.” Despite that prejudice, even Sherwood is generous in assessing Martinez’s courage. He says he has heard that since her alternativa, impresarios in other plazas around Mexico have “thrown bulls at her that no matador would consider fighting except in his wildest nightmares. She has faced these monsters, I understand, with dignity and honor."
Following her alternativa, Martinez experienced a lull of a month or so, then began facing the bulls almost weekly last winter. She fought — now as a professional — in towns like Tlaltenango, Durango. Torreon, Mazatlan. Villahermosa. Cancun, Merida — more than twenty corridas in less than six months. She concurs that at times she was given bulls in the clear expectation that they would “take her head off.” As often as not her performances brought her honors. Furthermore, they gave her crucial experience.
Adrian Romero, the senior matador who fought with Martinez at her alternativa. says he saw her fight in Zacatecas this past May and “she was seventy percent better than she was at her alternativa. . . . She’s more in control now. She's more professional. She’s more settled.” He says, “She’s in the process of becoming really good.” and he attributes all the improvement to sheer experience. By last winter, getting more fighting experience had in fact become Martinez’s urgent quest. Clearly, her original goal had shifted. Having achieved the professional status, Martinez had grown convinced that she could rise to become one of the top four or five stars, or figuras, in Mexican bullfighting. Only as a figura will she earn the big money, several thousand dollars per engagement.
To become a top figura, Martinez says she will have to be invited to fight at the Plaza de Mexico in Mexico City, the largest bullring in the world. There she'll have to display her artistry’ beyond dispute. If she manages to do that, she thinks no one will be able to stop her momentum. She took a big step toward fighting in the Mexico City plaza this spring when she fought and won top honors at the bullrings in both San Luis Potosi and Aguascalientes. both of which rank among Mexico’s handful of major plazas. The next logical step, she contends, would have been to appear this summer at one of Tijuana's two plazas, both extremely important in the bullfighting world. In fact, she returned to San Diego in early June with high hopes — only to plunge again into the cauldron of bullfighting politics.
Even though Martinez's alternativa took place in Tijuana last year, that fight was a special event and it occurred outside the regular bullfighting season, which normally runs from May through mid-September. (The first seven fights are scheduled at the downtown bullring, with the second seven shifting to the seaside Plaza Monumental.) By the middle of last month. Martinez had resigned herself to not being invited to fight at the downtown plaza; she reasoned that her successes in Aguascalientes and San Luis Potosi had begun to evoke chauvinism in the bullfighters union in Mexico City, which books matadors into Tijuana's downtown plaza.
Instead, her hopes shifted to the seaside bullring, which is also operated by the Mexico City union, but which was built and is still owned by her old friend "El Mayor” Hurtado. Despite their longstanding relationship. Hurtado never helped Martinez during her lengthy apprenticeship. In fact, the two lost contact during that period, but Martinez had heard of Hurtado's implacable opposition to any woman wearing a suit of lights. Because of that prejudice, Hurtado had publicly declared that Martinez would never fight in his Tijuana plaza or in the other plaza he owns in Ciudad Juarez.
Yet when I showed up at Martinez's and Robinson’s apartment on a Sunday morning late in July, both were buoyed by fresh hope that the major would relent. They had just returned from Los Angeles, where a mutual friend had brought together Martinez and Hurtado in a gracious, marathon dinner. In the course of it, Hurtado had aired his feelings at length. "It's just that to him bullfighting is almost a sacred thing. And he thinks a suit of lights on a woman seems disrespectful,” Martinez said sympathetically. In response, she had argued that "if a woman wears a suit of lights, she really has to be qualified. But I think I’ve proven that a suit of lights belongs to me more than it does to a lot of matadors.” The dinner discussion hadn't changed the impresario's opinion, but he had invited Martinez to join him in his private box at the Sunday bullfight.
So Martinez, was flushed with anticipation as she scurried around the apartment. She had carefully applied her makeup and had swept her freshly curled, white-blonde hair back from her face, fastening it with a large plastic comb. She wore a bright red dress, set off with white polka dots and trim. Donning several gold chains, she stood before Robinson and asked. "Is this too much, honey?” He reassured her it was not.
Image is every thing in the bullfighting business, she commented to me with a wry moue. "I have to be the flashy bullfighter.” Moreover, Martinez acknowledges that she consciously exaggerates her femininity in public appearances outside of the bullring. She claims that many Mexican women who have gotten involved with bullfighting have been lesbians, and in reaction to that, "I like to wear sexy things. I enjoy ’em. particularly after a bullfight. It gets the bad thoughts out of their minds.” She imagines becoming a top figura and being secure enough to publicize her husband and son in Mexico, ending forever any slanders about her sexual orientation. "I cannot wait for that day.” she says.
This afternoon, however, upon reaching the downtown bullring, she went one way and her husband and tow-headed son went another. Only after the corrida, when Martinez finally emerged from the major’s private box. did she beckon for Robinson and Scott to join her. Hurtado, a slender man who wears a thin mustache and rimless sunglasses, stood to her left, aloof. He wore a blue-gray polyester suit, and a black turtle-neck sweater. Adding to the vaguely clerical image was a large cross made of clear stones which hung down to the middle of his chest. Fully cognizant of Martinez's marital status, he greeted Robinson politely. Around them, people surged, offering greetings, commenting on the bullfight. In the center of it. Martinez looked luminous.
Only reluctantly did she bid a respectful good-bye to Hurtado. Even then several knots of fans stopped her on the way back to Robinson's car. As her husband finally drove toward the border, Martinez bubbled over with details of her afternoon. “I did well, honey. I really did well.” she said, bouncing up and down in her seat. Throughout the bullfight, people had streamed into Hurtado’s box. many greeting her with as much excitement and reverence as they extended to Hurtado. Her obvious popularity had to have strongly impressed the aging impresario. And her knowledge of bullfighting had worked to her favor, she was sure. Gleefully she described how Lyn Sherwood, also present in the private box. had drawn Hurtado's scorn by making several grossly ignorant comments. Hurtado had ordered Sherwood to shut up, had declared that he knew nothing about bullfighting. Martinez said triumphantly, “This has been a really good day for me. Everything was great!”
Next to us a car full of young Mexican men pulled up. One stuck his head out of the window and asked hopefully. ”Is that Raquel? Raquel Martinez?” At her happy affirmation, the questioner beamed and gave the thumbs-up signal.
“I'm going to be fighting down here.” Marlinez shouted.
“Really? What dates?” the men demanded.
“I don't know yet.” she answered.
In fact, she told her husband, Hurtado still hadn’t made an explicit commitment to invite her to fight in his Tijuana ring, but she had dissipated one threatening cloud. Martinez's manager had booked her to fight on August 1 in a small ring in Ciudad Juarez, an engagement that would conflict with another bullfight scheduled in Hurtado's much larger plaza in that city. Hurtado had asked Martinez about the conflict, and she had explained that she only had accepted the fight because she was told it was being held in Hurtado’s honor. That seemed to placate him, she said.
When I talked with Martinez about a week later, however, she said her manager had decided to change the date of her fight in Juarez to August 8, a move guaranteed to avoid antagonizing Hurtado. In return, the impresario had promised that his son would attend Martinez's fight and assess her abilities. Because the fight was beginning to look so important, she was flying immediately to Mexico City to train with her manager, then together they would head for the city across the border from El Paso. Texas. If the fight there went well, she looked likely to appear in Tijuana on August 22 or 29. she told me hopefully.
But when I caught up with her and her manager. Ciego Munoz, in Juarez on the afternoon of Saturday. August 7. Martinez’s good humor had evaporated. She complained about the peso devaluation which has just occurred, a move that would vastly shrink her earnings from the fight. And she claimed that one of Hurtado’s associates had been spreading negative information about her and the fight. Furthermore, the pre-fight jitters had already begun.
The afternoon would bring her little to dispel them. Martinez says when she first entered the bullfighting circuit as a novice, one of her hardest adjustments was to her manager’s insistance that she shun any hint of a social life. “I’d ask. ‘Why? Why?’ She says one day she rebelled and went out in the middle of the afternoon to a restaurant frequented by other bullfighters. Accompanied by her son. she ate dinner and sipped only on lemonade, but “by the time I got home, my manager was calling me. He yelled, I heard. I already heard! You were drunk! You were dancing! You were smoking! You can’t go out. You can't do anything because people talk and they’re gonna talk bad.’ " Martinez says stories commonly circulate about young male bullfighters who grant homosexual favors to wealthy patrons in order to advance their careers, and her vulnerability as a subject of such rumors has been even greater. “I've done it all clean and honest. I guess that's why it's taken me so long. But I have to be careful. I have to act really respectful so they don’t get any other ideas, like maybe there’s a chance for them along that line.”
So she spent that Saturday afternoon in Juarez watching television. She went out that evening only to grab a hamburger and to train for about an hour in an empty sports stadium under the moonlight. But even the training session was cut short by a nerve-wracking wind that whipped Martinez’s capes out of control. When Sunday dawned, the wind had slackened but brought in puffy gray clouds that smelled of rain.
At her manager's insistence she did ride over early in the afternoon to the ring, a small facility used primarily for rodeo events. There her manager drew lots to determine which bulls she would face, but Martinez felt that seeing them would only increase her worry. Instead she shook hands with the brown-faced men who bustled amidst the preparations already underway for the six o’clock fight, and soon she escaped back to the hotel.
Shortly after 4:00 p.m. I found her pacing around the room, dressed in jeans and a tank top, her glumness reinforced with an acute irritation she directed first at Ciego, who was innocently engaged in trying to improve her rented bullfighter’s hat. When a room service waiter delivered a shrimp cocktail but forgot a ham sandwich Ciego had ordered. Martinez carped that the hotel restaurant was the worst she'd ever seen.
Finally, she began the lengthy process of donning her heavy, ornate bullfighting suit. (Since taking the alternativa she has used part of her earnings to buy four of the suits of lights, which can cost up to $5000 apiece.)
She slipped her house keys under one corner of a mattress. “If something should happen to me so that I can’t come back here, you’ll know where these are,” she instructed me. Finally her manager walked up to her and helped to slip on the stiff jacket. Patting her shoulder, he murmured, "Buena suerte" (good luck). He already had laid out four religious drawings — three Virgins and a Jesus — on one of the hotel room tables. Now Martinez dropped to her knees for about thirty seconds of prayer. Out in the hotel lobby a few moments later, she fended off the Texans, then discovered that the man assigned to take her to the ring had failed to materialize. “How could this happen! How is it possible?” she screamed at Ciego in the substitute car he finally corralled. “What brutes they are,” Ciego muttered in Spanish.
It was only after Martinez and the other scheduled bullfighter and their helpers had marched into the plaza, only after Martinez had taken her place behind a wooden shield to watch the other matador fight, that she began to change. I sat no more than fifteen feet behind where she stood, and w hen the other matador’s first bull tore into the ring and thundered across it. I saw the air of distraction drop from Martinez’s features. The crowd screamed when the maddened animal unexpectedly leapt across the wooden fence into the narrow corridor that separates the spectators from the fighting arena. But Martinez was impassive. As the action progressed, as the horse-mounted picador smashed his long javelin-like sword into the bull’s heavy neck, as the blood pulsed out and painted the animal’s side a bright red, her face was mask-like, frozen into the stillness that betrays absolute concentration.
Then it was her turn to fight, and again, she changed before my eyes. She is a small woman, only five feet, two inches tall and 120 pounds. But after taking her first pass at the bull, she seemed to grow. Her gestures broadened. Each time she completed a series of passes and turned her back on the bull, she tossed her head in exaggerated defiance. When she faced the middle of the curve of spectators who only half-filled the small ring and dedicated the bull to them, Martinez moved with the certain confidence of a star.
At other moments all the artifice vanished. During the first two segments of the bullfight (when the bull is being jabbed by the picador and then stabbed by the banderiileros), she rushed out from behind the wooden shield again and again to lend assistance. At more than one point, she bellowed at the cape-wielding assistants to stay away from the bull, to preserve it for her. When the time finally came for her and the bull to claim center stage, she seemed to draw round after round of passes out of the panting animal before plunging her sword into its back. After it finally sunk to its knees, Martinez strode to the center of the ring and, with exquisite timing, knelt down to bring some of the brown earth to her lips in the suggestion of a kiss.
“She has a lot of guts,” the Mexican bullfighting critic next to me murmured. “It takes an awful lot of courage to go out there and face that.” He offered the opinion that Martinez’s style could stand refinement; her kill was slightly off. “She needs practice. But she knows that. She’s honest.” Despite his critique, the judges awarded Martinez two ears, an almost extravagant honor. In her second fight, she won one. and when she emerged from the ring, a wave of Mexican men surged around her, clasping her hand, thanking her.
I expected Martinez to be jubilant, but instead, to my surprise, the mood in the car back to the hotel was black. Her bulls were cowards, Martinez and her manager raged. They had forced her to change her style, substituting bravura for artistry. Compounding the gloom, Hurtado’s son had not shown up. Now there was only vague talk about a Tijuana fight sometime in September.
A few weeks earlier, I had asked her how long she thinks she can continue. “I know I can’t keep fighting much longer.” she had answered me. Although she’s in top physical condition, she doesn't know how much longer she can endure the mental strain. Maybe a few years. But she’s certain that her success won’t take much longer than that. “I know I’m not far from the top. from that big money. And I’m gonna be a millionaire,” she predicts bluntly. “I just know it. I have everything to make it. Sometimes I watch the figuras and I think. God, I’m better.’ I’ve already passed a lot of matadors who’ve had a lot more experience than I’ve had. So I know I am going to be the top figura. I hate to talk that way, but I have to have my mind on it.”
Once she becomes a millionaire, she says she and Robinson and their son will finally be able to move out of the plain little apartment and Robinson will be able to leave behind the pressures of the police department. Martinez would like to buy a bull ranch; she says she’d feel at ease if she could just live near the animals.
One swift thrust of a bull’s horn could change her agenda, of course, but Martinez is almost counting on a goring. “It has to happen. The odds are high for me since I’ve never even had a small horn wound. I know it’s gonna happen, but I have to accept it as part of the job.” As for the chance of dying in the ring, Robinson says his wife would relish that over any possible form of death. “That for her would be the ultimate head trip. If it happened. she’d like her body to be cremated and the ashes scattered over the bullring in her home town.”
One morning not long ago I watched Martinez train as usual on the asphalt parking lot behind her apartment building. The sun was hot, so she wore shorts and a sleeveless top. her hair pulled back into a pony tail. She lugged out two capes, one a special practice muleta weighted down to help build up her strength and endurance. After warming up. she began passing it next to her. first to one side, then to the other. “I pretend this is the bullring.” she explained. 'This |she gestures in back of her] is the fence. And 1 know the bull’s gonna come that way. I gotta do it serious, ’cause when you train, you gotta train everything — where you leave the bull, when you walk away.”
She continued the motions, her body arcing into curves. The studied physical grace contrasted starkly with her face. Unlike many pretty women. Martinez at times seems completely unself-conscious about her looks. As she works the cape, her chin forces downward, her neck cords bulge, her brows furl. The comers of her mouth tug down into an exaggerated unhappy clown smile. Slowly, she began to grunt: “Hup!” and “Ha!” and I thought about her answer when I asked her how she feels toward the bulls themselves. Once she has taken her first pass and the dreadful nervousness vanishes, she says she laughs to herself. “I love the dominating of this wild animal. The bigger the bull, the better it is. I laugh . . . thinking, okay. bull. I’m gonna dominate you. No matter how bad you look. I know I’m gonna be your master.”
And when the moment comes to kill the animal, sometimes she feels sorrow for it, she says, but she consoles herself with the thought that it was bred to die fighting. Never does she hate her hooved opponent. “I think the bull is my best friend.” she said dreamily. “I think my enemies have been the men, and my friends have been the bulls. The bull gives me everything I want. The bull gives me glory.” Out in the burning sun. she drew imaginary bulls toward her over and over again.