Take the bull by the horns. We’ve all heard that before — meaning to deal with something in a direct manner or to confront a difficulty rather than avoid it.
While it may sound like a modern, American-esque idiom, it traces its roots as far back at the 18th and 19th centuries. Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott used it in The Journal of Sir Walter Scott in 1828: “Wordsworth has a system which disposes him to take the bull by the horns and offend public taste.”
Perhaps no one represents the meaning of this famous idiom — both literally and metaphorically — better than bullfighter Conchita Cintrón.
Just two years after the Nineteenth Amendment gave women the right to vote in the United States, Conchita Cintrón was born in Chile. Raised in Peru by her Puerto Rican father and Connecticut-born mother, she would grow up to become a world-famous torera, or female bullfighter.
She rode her first horse at the age of three, and took formal riding lessons when she was only 11. She trained as a rejoneadora, a bullfighter who rides horseback, and made her professional debut as such when she was only a teenager.
Cintrón famously fought as both a rejoneadora and a traditional matadora (on foot) in Peru, Portugal, Mexico, Spain, France, Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, and the United States. But as a female, she often met with resistance and laws designed to keep women from bullfighting.
“Her skills were not always welcome. This was, and is, a man’s world. She had been trained as a rejoneadora, in the Portuguese version of bullfighting, and was supposed to stay on her horse. Men went on foot to do their dueling with the bull, and to kill it; this was not women’s work. But Ms. Cintrón found her horse got in the way. “Twos always work better than threes,” she liked to say. In her rejoneadora gear—no flashy suit of lights, but a silk jacket, leather chapped trousers and a wide-brimmed hat—she would slide from her steed and right into the close, bloody dance.”
“One late fight, in Jaen in 1950, was especially famous. Women were forbidden to fight on foot in Franco’s Spain, in case they were gored in unseemly ways. (Ms. Cintrón was often injured and twice gored, once in each thigh, but managed to finish off the bull after fainting briefly.) On this occasion, having slipped illegally from her horse, she snatched a muleta and sword from the waiting novillero, raised the sword as the bull charged, and then dropped it, instead caressing the huge black neck as it hurtled past. For this “burst of glorious criminality,” as Orson Welles described it, she was instantly arrested and as instantly pardoned, as the crowd rained down hats and carnations. That final caress, with her delicate fingers, was a gesture only a woman might have thought of making.”
— Conchita Cintrón obituary, The Economist, March 5, 2009
Don’t get me wrong. I’m in no way wanting to glamorize bullfighting. But, there is no denying the strength and resilience of this woman claiming her life on her own terms, with such intention and passion.
In Conchita Cintrón they called it tener duende, loosely translated from the poetic Spanish meaning to have soul, a heightened state of emotion, expressions and authenticity.
Who wouldn’t want to strive for that as we make our way in this world? Life brings us challenges every day — small decisions, big decisions, moments of change and transition, charging bulls. We can cower and ride safely above it. Or, we can get down off our horse and take the bull by the horns!
“I have never had any qualms about it….A qualm or a cringe before 1,200 pounds of enraged bull would be sure death.”
— Conchita Cintrón, The New York Sun, September 1940
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