Pandemonium, Conchita Cintrón and Duende – What female bullfighters can tell us today

In 1994, while living in Mexico City, a friend visiting from the U.S. invited me to go with him to see a bullfight. Having never been, and curious, I went. We arrived by pasero at the famous Monumental Plaza, the world’s largest bull-fighting stadium, that sunny afternoon, entering the stadium with excitement to witness this historic sport. I hid my trepidation, unsure how I’d feel seeing the gory details.

I was surprised how beautiful and powerful the mesmerizing and deadly performance between bull and fighter, stepping in grace, towards each other’s demise. The scene took my breath away. In the sadness of the eminent death was the grace of the dance of intimate movements back and forth, explosions of vibrancy in color, and the courage of both in facing off against the most powerful instinct in us all: the will to survive.

I had no idea I’d end up being a spectator at the stadium’s second only truce between bull and fighter, white handkerchiefs waving the signal to the judges that they had been witness to a great match.

Here is one of my photographs from that day.

Monumental Plaza, on the day the bull won. Photo by Catherine Herrera
Monumental Plaza, on the day the bull won. Photo by Catherine Herrera

I understood without a doubt how some consider bullfighting an art form. On that moving day at the plaza, I remember wondering if there were any women matadors, and imagined researching the topic for a documentary I’d make. As I inquired further, access seemed to be my greatest challenge and I found it hard to imagine I could get past the rule that women are not allowed down into the theater. I moved on to other projects.

Boy, did I have something to learn from Conchita Cintrón, La Diosa de Oro.

La Diosa de Oro, Conchita Cintron Cintrón was born in 1922 to a Puerto Rican-born West Point graduate and an American mother. By the time she was three years old, Conchita’s family had relocated to Lima, Peru where she first rode a pony. Conchita went on to master riding, and began a career in ullfighting at 13 years old, joining a small handful of female bullfighters in the world.

La Diosa de Oro, Conchita Cintron
La Diosa de Oro, Conchita Cintron

Cintrón was born in 1922 to a Puerto Rican-born West Point graduate and an American mother. By the time she was three years old, her family had relocated to Lima, Peru and Conchita had her first pony ride. She went on to master riding and begin her bullfighting career at 13 years old, joining a small handful of female bullfighters in the world.

Cintrón first performed in the Plaza de Acho in Lima in January of 1938, before making a huge splash at the Plaza del Toreo in Mexico. Her presence was reported to have “caused pandemonium in the stands.”

But nothing stopped Conchita, not even when she was gored by the bull Chicianero in Mexico City in 1940. After being taken into the infirmary, she refused medical treatment and returned to the ring where she quickly finished the dance, slaying the bull.

Conchita was no stranger to creating excitement in the crowds.Performing in Spain in 1949, a country that issued a law preventing women from killing bulls on foot as a matadora, but allowed women to kill a bull on horseback. The reasoning for the law is suggested to be that a woman, in the case of being gored, might have to be disrobed in front of the audience.

During the 1949 season in Jaén, Spain, La Diosa de Oro rode her horse and brought the bull to its nearing end. Rather than turn the bull over to the Matador as law and custom required, Conchita approached el Presidente’s box to ask permission to dismount for the kill.

Permission was denied. By law she was required to leave the arena. Instead, Conchita dismounted, grabbed a sword and capped the bull, preparing for the final kill. Dramatically, as Conchita goes in with the sword, she drops it to the ground, steps out of the bull’s path, and simulates the kill by touching the bull’s shoulders with her fingers as he rushes by. Pandemonium breaks out, red carnations rain down into the ring as men throw their hats into the air.

The bull is killed by the matador as Conchita is lead from the rink and arrested for violating the law preventing matadoras from killing while on foot. Rioting by fans lead the regional governor to eventually pardon and release her.

In the words of Orson Wells, who wrote the introduction to her memoirs, Conchita Cintrón’s record is “a rebuke to every man of us who has ever maintained that a woman must lose something of her femininity if she seeks to compete with men.”

Conchita’s skills and presence in the ring was described as the essence of “duende,” resulting from her craft and skill in displaying grace, style and bravado.

I was curious about this notion of duende and checked it out on Wikipedia. Duende is a term first popularly used by Federico Garcia Lorca in describing the development of the aesthetics of duende in an lecture he gave in 1933 in Buenos Aires entitled Juego y teoria del duende (Play and Theory of the Duende.)

Lorca describes the duende as an earth spirit, somewhat diabolical, in that this spirit helps an artist recognize the limitations of intelligence, often bringing on an illness or challenge. A battle ensues, the artist must fight for her life and in the process creates memorable, transformative art.

Unlike the muse or creative angels, the duende’s transformative spirit impacts the audience as well, leaving the impression of being deeply moved by a work of art, a performance, creating a moment of intuitive connection that goes beyond philosophical explanation or theory, rather, its spontaneous creation by the artist and spontaneous receiving from the audience: the true wish of the communicator.

Well, here is a toast to Conchita for sharing duende with her audiences, and in life. Conchita Cintrondoc passed away earlier this year in 2009.

Oh, and by the way, Gemma Cubero del Barrio and Celeste Carrasco codirected and produced the documentary Ella es El Matador (She is the Matador), which is just beginning to release throught the support of Tribeca’s All Access Festival program. Kudos! Visit their site to learn more:

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