Bad omens had dogged the matadora for days.
First, the earth beneath Mexico City had heaved, leaving her manager incommunicado the week before the fight. Then the bulls she was to fight were reportedly killed in an accident when their truck tipped over in central Mexico.
Now her first bull, a stand-in, had entered the ring in Tecate. Again, the signs weren't good. There was no long, hard charge--the mark of a well-bred bull. Instead, the animal just stopped and waited in mid-ring.
"I was walking to it and looking at the bull," matadora Raquel Martinez said, recalling the moment last month before the grandstands at Tecate flattened like dominoes. "When I heard the sound, I looked up. Everyone was gone."
Earthquakes, car accidents, and collapsing bullrings: Matadora Raquel Martinez's life seems to mix the mythical and the mundane. A high-school clarinetist, she figured that she would teach music. She ended up reputedly the world's only full-fledged matadora.
She fights throughout Mexico and in North, Central and South America, and can't even remember how many ears and tails she has won. She is married to the spokesman for the San Diego Police Department, and they have a 10-year-old son.
Of her career choice, Martinez explains simply, "I want to be recognized for something. I didn't go to college, I wanted to do something I could be proud of. I've accomplished something no other woman has. It's like having a Ph.D in bull behavior."
On a recent Sunday, Martinez passed the hours before the fight in a limbo that seemed to exemplify the peculiar contrasts in her life. In a dingy room in the El Dorado Motel in Tecate, she went about small chores preparing for a performance that could kill her.
Barefoot on the brown carpet, she unfurled capes of various colors and twirled them before her one by one. She examined her swords while a telethon for the quake victims played on the black-and-white TV. She sent out for bobby pins.
Later, her first teacher, the Mexican matador El Charro Gomez, hooked her into her glittering, gold-embroidered "suit of lights." Then she walked out past the motel pool in the late-afternoon sun and down the dusty street to the ring.
Born in Tijuana and raised in Imperial Beach, Martinez grew up with five uncles. They would take her camping, fishing and hunting rabbits in Baja, she remembers: "They wanted to make my sister and me strong."
She went to Mar Vista High School and briefly to Southwestern College, where she studied music for a while and then dropped out. She had jobs in electronics and at a snack bar. She burned the caramel popcorn, got fired, and "knew I wasn't cut out for anything."
Until 1969, Martinez says she knew nothing about bullfighting (though she later discovered that a distant cousin was a matador). That year, the great Spanish matador, El Cordobes, fought in Tijuana. Martinez went with a friend to watch.
"El Cordobes had so much publicity, you couldn't get to the seats," she remembers. "I saw his charisma, his bravery turn on the crowd. And I saw the music, the fear, the laughter. From then on, I went to bullfights."
She began training with a bullfighting club in San Diego and in 1971 faced her first calf. When she got in the ring, she changed her mind but her exit was blocked and the calf charged. Forced into it, she found she did everything she was trained to do.
A whole new world had opened up, she says: "I was in charge of that energy. I was in charge of . . . it !"
About nine years ago, married to San Diego Police Officer Bill Robinson and having a young son, Martinez says she went to Mexico to try to make it in bullfighting. She found a manager, former matador Jesus Munoz. She began fighting dozens of novice fights a year.
In 1981, she became a full-fledged matadora--capable of fighting full-grown bulls. She is said to be the only bullfighting female in the world. She divides her time between an apartment in Mexico City and a house and family in San Diego.
Mornings at 8, she s trains with other bullfighters in Mexico City's Chapultepec Park--running, playing a kind of handball, and practicing against people charging with horns. She returns home at 2:30 p.m. and showers, and then returns to a bullfighters' cafe hangout to talk bulls. In a good year, she says she might fight 30 fights.
"She has the ability to communicate with the public when she fights," said Adrian Romero, a Mexican matador living in San Diego. "She feels what she does. She really possesses herself and it communicates to the public. I think that's one of the things that has really helped her get where she is. She does have that sensitivity."
"She does a formal fight, understanding the bull and her possibilities with it," said Paul Dobson, a San Diego restaurateur who fights as an amateur. "She is brave. She has fought a lot. That is the secret. She has what we call technique, or 'school.' "