In the bullring, she twisted at the waist, stretched both hamstrings, and rolled her right wrist to loosen it up. She had broken her wrist almost two years earlier, and it still had not healed properly. The pain flared up every time she rolled the palillo, her wooden helper sword, or when her estoque, her steel killing sword, was deflected by a bull’s shoulder bone. She tried to kill with her left hand, but the sword was difficult to maneuver and her accuracy was terrible.

“Señoras y señores,” came the blast of the loudspeaker, though the sound systems in portable bullrings like the one that afternoon in Móstoles, a suburb on the outskirts of Madrid, were so poor that it was impossible to hear the names of the bullfighters and the ranches and the programming of the feria, the town’s annual festival.

This article appears in Issue 23 of Alta Journal.

Honey Anne Haskin, then 23, was one of the youngest novilleras—aspiring female bullfighters—on the program and set to perform last. Appearing as Ana de Los Angeles, she was said to be the first American woman to perform in a bullring on foot in Spain. She was also the participant with perhaps the most unlikely story. Haskin had grown up an artsy teenage photographer in Los Angeles. There were no ranchers or matadors in her family. No uncles from the Romani neighborhoods of Andalucía or the dusty pueblos of Colombia or Mexico. She had learned Spanish just a few years earlier. But she was a rebellious kid who had bypassed college and taught herself how to fight a bull, and she was in the running to become the first matadora de toros in modern Spanish history.

She now stood tall in her secondhand traje de luces, the ceremonial suit of lights, with its gladiator jacket and skintight pants. She looked at the crowd with a stoic gaze, no makeup and a thin set of eyebrows, thin lips, and thin hair combed tight under her montera, the black silk bullfighter’s cap. Other novilleras were warming up next to her, a blur of capes and banderillas, or barbed sticks, and swords.

Haskin had appeared with Carmela from Zaragoza and Carmen Granada and Tencha Maria before. In the late 1970s, novilleras often performed together. Maria, a native of Madrid and the hometown favorite that afternoon, had become Haskin’s rival. At a prior performance, Maria had squared off against a bull that was tricky, obscenely large, and older than advertised. She could not finish the performance and was sent to the infirmary. Haskin was obligated to step in. Maria’s bull slammed Haskin against the tablas, the wooden boards lining the ring, nearly impaling her with its rack of horns before she killed it. Haskin remained in the ring to face her own bull afterward. This one was dangerous too, older and not appropriate for an amateur. There were moments during this event when Haskin thought she might die. Afterward, Haskin’s mother was furious with the promoter.

“How dare you give my daughter bulls like that?” she screamed like a protective parent lacing into an intramural ref over a bad call.

“Come on, Mom,” Haskin said, shrugging and pulling her away. She was a bullfighter, not a child. But her mom was right. The bulls had been too big and powerful. Her body ached for days from the thrashing, and she watched the point of the horn slash through her traje de luces like a scalpel.

Now, months later in Móstoles, Haskin had recovered, growing braver and more experienced with every performance. She had struggled with her weight but was exercising every day, testing out a juice diet, and feeling her best.

As the band struck up the first paso doble from the cheap seats, she scanned the crowd. Yes, her mother was there. Even though others in her family thought that moving to Mexico and Spain to become a bullfighter was unladylike
and a foolish career choice, her mother had always supported her. They were living together in Madrid, sharing a crowded low-rent apartment with a Portuguese American family with five kids. The youngest three had come to see her perform. As she gazed around for more familiar faces, the toril gate swung open. The first bull of the afternoon was out and loose in the ring.

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Haskin had driven there with her cuadrilla, or band of helpers, earlier that afternoon. Her capes, tailored traje de luces, montera, pink stockings, and zapatillas were all carefully wrapped in cloth. She couldn’t afford the leather-bound case that wealthier novilleras would have used to transport their ornate clothing. Only her swords were nestled in leather-bound sheaths. Everything was packed in the back of a station wagon. Previously, the cuadrilla was led by Paco Guerra, an old banderillero, a helper who placed the barbed sticks into the withers of the bull, and who had managed Haskin. But she managed herself now.

It was early September, late in the bullfighting season of 1977. The Spanish Falangists had lost their grip on power; a governmental ban prohibiting women from fighting bulls on foot had recently been overturned. The profession’s sexist barriers were crumbling, women’s liberation movements were gaining momentum, and a growing number of aspirants like Haskin were flocking to Spain.

It was a dangerous dream. The lure of fame and paydays and good bulls was irresistible for the novilleras, but many of them were unprepared and lacked experience. Even two- and three-year-old bulls can weigh a thousand pounds, and learning to handle their speed, sudden movements, and power can take a lifetime.

Nevertheless, the novelty of a woman in the ring could sell tickets. Already, Paco Rodriguez, a Spanish promoter, was putting together a troupe of novilleras. They were good-looking, talented, and ready for bookings. Many, like Alicia Tomás, the nervy and gorgeous actor from Barcelona, were stepping into the ring alongside picadors on horseback, to face three-year-old bulls. New training and business opportunities for women were opening up across the bullfighting world. Soon the moment would arrive when a novillera would be invited to take the alternativa, face full-size bulls on foot, and become the first matadora de toros in modern Spanish history.

Haskin wanted to be the one.

In Móstoles, the plaza was full, and Haskin was on the corrida poster: “Art and Bravery are her qualities, from Los Angeles, United States.” The poster was plastered everywhere around the town, which now resembled a fairground, with bands playing and the streets mobbed.

Haskin and her sword handler found their way to an address near the bullring. The promoter of the event had recruited a local family to give Haskin a room in their house to shower and prepare.

Haskin followed her host into a modest bedroom, where she laid out her equipment and wardrobe. Her sword handler then started the elaborate process of helping her dress in her traje de luces, an outfit so old that the gold from the brocade had faded to copper. At least this worn, secondhand suit of lights fit her better than the ones she had rented in the past. Those had been made for men. They weren’t big enough in the hips. The jackets were too boxy in the shoulders. The bibs of the taleguillas were too tight. The majority of these costumes, like every other element of the spectacle, were not made with women in mind. It was not the mundo de toro, she often thought. It was the mundo de hombre.

No matter. Haskin had fought hard to be there. To get a booking. To get paid. To stand in front of a cow on a ranch, to take a few passes. Soon, she thought, she would book enough performances to have her own traje made. In an envelope, she kept clippings of the bordadas, their golden threaded patterns, and colors she loved most. Tobacco and gold. Wine and gold. One day soon. As she laced up her blouse for the performance in Móstoles, she knew that behind every button lay a sacrifice.

She had left Los Angeles as a teenager several years after her parents’ divorce. Her mother had been an actor, on contract at 20th Century Fox, and struggled to earn enough to support her children on her own. She picked up and moved to Mexico City.

Meanwhile, Haskin’s father had remarried. She would never forget the afternoon he told her, “I have a new family now.” It didn’t make sense to her. Even though he’d remarried, she was still his daughter.

Haskin’s anger and alienation grew. Her family had already moved around L.A. so many times when she was younger, living in Bel-Air, Nichols Canyon, Hollywood, Van Nuys, Woodland Hills. She now slept on couches and in guest rooms. She enrolled and reenrolled in high schools, never staying long enough to keep friendships. Her passions were photography and sports. But why bother? She would have to move in a few months. Why bother with anything? School felt like a prison. She was an outsider, alone, and without resources.

When Haskin began training to become a matadora, watching sporting events grew painful. The Olympics were the hardest to watch, with their feel-good stories about loving fathers pushing their kids. These athletes often had parents who supported their careers, paid for the best coaches, and spurred them to succeed. Why couldn’t her dad do the same for her?

Yet her dad was in part responsible for her career. Her parents had introduced the fiesta to her family. Her dad had packed the car up and driven them across the border to watch a bullfight in Tijuana. Her parents had become members of Los Aficionados de Los Angeles, one of the oldest bullfighting clubs in the United States and where her dad purchased his first capote, the pink-and-yellow cape. He gave it to Haskin later, after they moved to Playa del Rey. They’d go to an alley near their house, and he’d teach her how to make passes with the cape.

As a young girl, Haskin looked up to her father and came to idolize the famous matadors they saw in Tijuana. As she got older, she started going to the same bullring with her friends to take pictures that she then developed herself. She built her own darkroom in her bedroom. And yet, later, even as she was earning a chance to perform among the best in Spain, her father rarely sent her letters. He did not know how far she had come or that she would be in Móstoles today. He had never asked. He had never seen her perform.

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Haskin placed the montera over her hair and adjusted her suit of lights, then she and her sword handler left for the ring. They ducked into the back near the patio de caballos, where the horses and dragging mules were milling around, she and the other novilleras twisting and turning in the anxious air, until finally the trumpets of the band sounded and the ceremonial procession began. Her elbow snug in the silks of her paseo cape, an honor once reserved for Spanish nobles, Haskin was amazed to think that she had arrived at this moment by hitchhiking through Mexico with a loaded Walther P38 9-millimeter pistol for safety, prowling the ranches for cows.

She had not planned to become a bullfighter. After she graduated from Santa Monica High School in 1971, she moved to Mexico City to live with her mother and take pictures with her new Mamiya/Sekor. She walked around the capital snapping images of mariachis in the markets and taco stands on the streets. On weekends when corridas were happening, she trekked to the Plaza México, the city’s bullring and the largest in the world. Once, to get better shots, she moved from the cheap seats down to the tendidos, or better seats, then gained entrance to the callejón, the passageway that lined the bullring, where she rubbed shoulders with sword handlers, ranchers, banderilleros, and hangers-on.

El Tío was her entry point. He was an elderly Mexico City photographer, and he and Haskin became friends. When the winter season finished in Mexico City, El Tío went on the road, hitting the pueblo circuit and following the bulls, novilleros, and matadors to the next festival. And so did she.

After several months, she didn’t want to take photos of bulls and bullfighters anymore. It wasn’t enough. She wanted to get closer.

“I want to torear,” she told El Tío.

“Are you sure?” he said, warning her that becoming a bullfighter was an impossible dream. Even the most talented needed funding, relationships, courage, and that special something extra. Plus all the luck in the world to avoid the horns.

Haskin understood the risks. Her mind was made up.

“Well, I know two novilleros that train up at the charreada in Mixcoac,” he said, referring to a neighborhood near the Plaza México. “If you want, I will go up there with you and introduce you. Maybe they will start teaching you.”

They went together, and the novilleros showed her how to hold the capote, the muleta, and the estoque and demonstrated the methods that have been passed from bullfighter to bullfighter over the centuries. She struggled to learn the technique for killing. Her forearms throbbed. But she continued, training with the two men and then others for months. At night, she watched and rewatched the grainy, soundless recordings she’d made on her little Super 8 camera of matadors making passes in the ring.

Her addiction set in quickly. Caping the cows and calves, she felt her adrenaline spiking, the power in her hands as the animals charged and circled her body. Her mind was clear, her focus intense. The opportunities to practice at the ranches were so few, and the sense of elation was so strong, that she spent most of the first year hitchhiking around the country to ranches, desperate for more passes.

One afternoon, she trekked to Tlaxcala, a ranch-heavy state outside of Mexico City, for a practice session with three-year-old cows. In attendance was Antonio José Galán, a matador from Spain known for his unique and bold killing technique. Galán was coming off his best year, having booked nearly 100 bullfights, and was considered among the best in the world. He was a guest of honor and watched Haskin perform. Her timing was in perfect sync with the cow. She was linking passes. Extending them. Galán was impressed. He pulled her aside.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

She was confused.

“Why don’t you go to Spain?”

Galán explained that the laws had changed. In the summer of 1974, Ángela Hernández, an aspiring matadora in Spain, had won a legal case that allowed all women to perform the same jobs as men. Women who dreamed of becoming matadoras were flocking to Spain, Galán said.

Haskin had not yet heard the news.

“They are looking for toreras behind every door,” Galán told her. “Now that it’s legal, every promoter wants to put on a torera!”

She followed his advice, and now here she was, in Móstoles.

The first bull came through the chute. The peóns flashed their capes and directed the animal around the ring to study its behavior. Bulls are like puzzles, and to trick and tame them requires a mix of intelligence and instinct, bravery and skill. Was the bull favoring the right horn or the left? Was it charging straight, swerving, or bucking up?

In the callejón, Haskin and the other novilleras watched Carmela closely. Like many would-be matadoras, Carmela had learned to fight bulls on horseback, a practice dating back centuries. In the 18th century, as the position of bullfighter became more dangerous and moved from horse to foot, a number of notable matadoras emerged. And in the early 19th century, the artist Francisco Goya captured the first female star, Nicolasa Escamilla, known as La Pajuelera, in a well-known sketch.

Then Spain issued its bans against women bullfighters, first in 1909 and lasting until 1934, then again under Franco from 1940 to 1974. The prohibitions forced aspiring toreras to flee to places like Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and other former Spanish colonies that still promoted bullfights. The most talented was the sassy and confident Conchita Cintrón. Raised in Peru and a savant with horses, Cintrón had a successful career as a bullfighter, appearing alongside more than 750 bulls, often for solo performances or with legends like Antonio Ordóñez.

Cintrón was also a rebel. In 1949, she gave a despedida, her retirement performance, on horseback in Jaén, a part of southern Spain famous for its endless olive orchards. At the finale, she rode to the presidente of the ring’s box and asked him for an exception. For her last performance, could she dismount her horse and kill the bull on foot?

Permission was denied. She intended to do it anyway. She got down from her steed and flashed the muleta. Instead of plunging her sword into the bull, however, she dropped her estoque to the sand and boldly tapped her hand against the animal’s withers, simulating the act.

Bushels of red carnations flew down into the arena from delighted aficionados. Cintrón was taken away in handcuffs, arrested for violating the ban. Ardent fans pleaded for her release, and she was pardoned.

“You can’t keep a lady waiting forever,” Orson Welles, the director and bullfight aficionado, wrote of Cintrón.

Her example helped other women to enter the ring, even a few Americans. The most accomplished was Patricia McCormick from Texas, who appeared in more than 300 corridas during the 1950s. In one performance, she was so severely gored that a priest said last rites for her (she ultimately recovered). Her male rivals talked about how far she could have gone and how much she could have earned. If only she’d been born a male, they said. Her top rival was Bette Ford, a model and actor from New York who was believed to be the first American woman to perform in the famed Plaza México. Ford and the others were revolutionaries, breaking down barriers with their own guts and blood. They found a way to showcase their art and never let fear stop them. Fear was deadly. Bulls could smell fear. “If you fear something, walk into it,” Ford once said.

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Back in Móstoles, Carmela could not bring the best out of her bull. Nor could Granada, the second novillera to perform that afternoon. The energy in the ring was dying, leaving Maria, the third in line, to revitalize the crowd.

She was brilliant. Maria had matured and was in total control for every act of the performance: her veronicas with the capote were smooth and long; her faena, the final act of the performance, with the muleta was clicking; she killed so well that the presidente of the ring awarded her two ears and a tail, the highest honors possible. As Maria made her victory lap around the little plaza, Haskin watched the roses fall onto her rival. She knew that in only a few moments, once the flowers were cleaned up, she would need to achieve the performance of her career to top Maria.

The sun was out and blinding the fans on the sunny side of the plaza. She looked into the crowd and scanned the faces. Every seat in the portable ring was filled by now. So many faces! The lady in the polka-dot dress, the old man in his beret, the stout man with the mustache, her mom, those three little kids from her flat. She saw the cameras of the photographers in the callejón, and it was incredible to think that only a few years ago, she had been one of them.

The toril gate was open, and she watched her bull rush out of the chute and storm toward the barrera, kicking up dust, looking this way, pausing, looking that way, ears alert, now head down and charging.

She grabbed her capote and ran toward the bull. She wanted to be the first to receive it and make the first passes herself, guiding its movements, feeling its power. As she drew close, she could hear its breath and the thud of its hooves. She could see the thick black hair and the rack of horns moving toward her.

Be still, she told herself. Stay in position. She tossed out the cape as her father had taught her and as she had later done hundreds if not thousands of times in the green grass of Mexico’s parks, trying to get the timing down like in the photos she kept of the classicist Antonio Ordóñez and artsy Rafael de Paula. She kept her feet planted firmly in the dirt, curling the canvas tight in her fingers, directing the bull into the sway of the cloth, then wrapping it across her waist like a bath towel. Then she did it again. Her timing was perfect. She was radiating a shock of electricity as the shouts came thundering down. Olé!

Her bull was in good condition: charging in a straight line, not hooking in, and not lifting its head. Haskin had to be careful. Any misstep could ruin the lidia. The tempo Haskin was creating could fade.

She returned to the callejón. Her sword handler passed her a goblet filled with water. She sipped and spit it out (bullfighters don’t like to keep water in their stomachs, in case surgeons need to operate). She watched as her banderilleros placed the barbed sticks well, and she steeled herself for the all-important faena. She grabbed her sword. The bull was in the center of the ring, waiting for her. The crowd hushed. She entered the ring again and could hear the sand crunching under her slippers.

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Nearly 50 years later, Haskin remembers her faena that afternoon. She started with pases por alto, followed by a series of derechazos, close passes with the right hand. The pace and tempo were smooth, the bull turning and changing as if on rails. The red flannel of her muleta never touched its horns, never touched its muzzle. Again, her tempo stayed perfect.

Next came the naturales, the harder and more daring cape passes made with the left hand. She was not thinking, just linking passes. Pases de pecho. Remates. The full repertoire. The crowd was with her, and she could feel its excitement with her in every pass.

She walked with determination to the barrera for the killing sword. She then returned for a series of trincherazos and pases de la firma and prepared for the kill.

Keep the hooves aligned, the shoulders squared, the shoulder blades opened up. Do not wait, she told herself.

She flopped the cloth over, placing it low as a lure. Then came the motion. A low dart of the cloth, a high jump over the right horn. She made her move decisively. There was no pain, no crash of the pommel against her palm, no sword nicking bone and jolting against her. The estoque entered the withers cleanly. The bull dropped immediately.

She looked up. The crowd was a blur of white handkerchiefs, all pumping and rooting for her. Two ears were awarded. Then a tail. She passed her mom, a handful of friends, and the Portuguese American kids from her apartment back in Madrid. She handed the tail of her bull to one of them, the little boy, and the applause only continued, the white handkerchiefs waving. Then the chanting started.

“Pata! Pata! Pata!”

The aficionados were demanding that the presidente give her another trophy: the hoof of the bull, a now-dated tradition, but one that would give her a boost over Maria.

The presidente acquiesced. The hoof was granted.

Now the fans were trampling their way down from the stands and running toward her in the ring. They were on her. She felt fingers around her thighs and hands on her back. She was picked up, hoisted on shoulders, and paraded around the ring like a saint. From her perch in the air, she looked back at the dead bull. It had been so long since bullfighters had been awarded hooves that the ring workers were not prepared. The puntillero needed a bigger knife.

The afternoon in Móstoles is among Haskin’s finest memories, a breaking point in her career, and yet Haskin does not look back on it often. She wanted to use her momentum from that performance to go further and be the first woman in modern times to take the alternativa in Spain. She had plans to stay there, find a place to live in Madrid, and keep performing. But as hard as she trained, she struggled to gain traction.

It was her own fault, she admits. After her triumph in Móstoles, she was approached by a well-connected manager who offered to secure her bookings in bigger plazas and bulls from the most notable ranches. She turned him down. She couldn’t trust him, she felt, and about two years later, she went back to Mexico to hustle up performances herself.

Impossible, she found, to train every day and hustle business without any capital or connections. She was only 26, with plenty of drive and little experience. The poorer offers came her way, and she soon found herself in Guatemala performing with a lot of Brahma bulls, one of which gored and nearly killed one of her friends. And from there, her streak of bad luck continued. In 1991, her manager—who truly believed in her—suddenly passed away after helping her for two years.

She was angry. She plunged into a state of sadness. She stopped training and fell out of shape. She wondered whether all those hitchhikes to Apizaco and Aguascalientes and other ranches throughout Mexico, and that broken wrist, or the knee that popped out, and the slashing of her traje de luces, and even triumphs like the afternoon in Móstoles had been a fool’s errand. In one story written about her, published in the Los Angeles Times, Lyn Sherwood, an American bullfight critic, was quoted as saying, “Honey Haskin has been around for a bunch of years and has gone absolutely nowhere.… She has been involved for 15 years and has gained no attention from anybody.”

Haskin lives in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Sherman Oaks now and seems trapped there by the promise of her past. She is 69 and for a while worked on a documentary about female bullfighters like Cristina Sánchez, the first matadora to take the alternativa in modern Europe, in 1996, nearly 20 years after Haskin appeared in Móstoles. She taught herself to edit film but couldn’t find the funding to finish it. There was also a second unfinished documentary. She has volunteered for various causes, including at animal shelters. She is not in the physical condition to practice with cows, as many veterans of the ring do as a hobby. She remains guarded. When we talk, the conversations go long and deep on the science of bullfighting, the updates her old taurine friends are posting on Facebook, and those bad decisions she thinks she made when she was younger. It is not enough that her bravery and skill and determination led her to receive a hoof in Móstoles, that she dressed in the suit of lights and entered the bullring more than 50 times, and that she achieved a level of excellence in this niche that so few women could occupy during the past century. She needed more. She was so close.

“I could have gone farther,” she says. •