Patricia Lee McCormick, bullfighter and artist, was born on November 18, 1929, in St. Louis, Missouri. She was the daughter of E. B. McCormick and Frances Lee “Bob” (Owen) McCormick. At the age of seven, McCormick and her family vacationed in Mexico City. The family decided to attend a bullfight, which introduced young Patricia to the sport. When she was thirteen years old, the family moved to Big Spring, Texas, where her father became chief engineer at Cosden Petroleum Corporation. While attending Big Spring High School, she enjoyed landscape painting as a hobby. After graduating high school in 1948, McCormick attended the University of Texas at Austin, where she studied opera. She discovered that she lacked musical talent and transferred to Texas Western College (now University of Texas at El Paso) in El Paso to study art. McCormick crossed the Texas-Mexico border to visit Juárez and rediscovered bullfighting at the Plaza de Toros there. She began studying the method by practicing in her dorm with her father’s World War I blanket as a cape and reading as much as she could about matadors. Not long afterwards, McCormick left college and pursued a career in bullfighting.
Before her career even began, McCormick faced criticism. A lack of Latin blood—meaning a lack of proper temperament—financial support, and contacts all hindered her way. However, gender quickly emerged as McCormick’s greatest obstacle. She convinced former matador Alejandro del Hierro to mentor her in the sport despite his skepticism of her abilities.
On September 9, 1951, Patricia McCormick premiered as a guest bullfighter in Juárez. Although the bull trampled her a couple of times during this first appearance, the crowd enjoyed her overall performance, and the judges deemed it superior. Three months after her debut, McCormick received an invitation to Mexico’s Matadors’ Union; she was the first American woman so invited. After joining Mexico’s Matadors’ Union, she performed in her first professional bullfight in Juárez on January 20, 1952.
McCormick performed under the same rules as men per the Matadors’ Union and her own insistence. She believed that she needed to “fight by the same standards” of a male matador for others to take her seriously. Other female bullfighters, called toreras, rode horses in the ring during their performances and only dismounted to deal the killing blow. McCormick spent the entire fight on her feet, standing her ground and pivoting when necessary. Despite the equality of the rules, the Matadors’ Union authorities insisted McCormick wear a traje corto, which included an Andalusian waistcoat, as described by news features, and had a higher waist than the uniform of the male matadors. Male matadors traditionally wore the traje de luces uniform. The Union considered the traje corto to have more dignity than the traje de luces, although the clothing differentiated McCormick from the male matadors.
The different uniform emphasized the discrimination McCormick faced throughout her career, specifically the glass ceiling that blocked her from a promotion. To become a full-fledged matador, a ceremony, or alternativa, had to occur before apprentices advanced to the senior rank; the ceremony also required a sponsor. McCormick remained an apprentice, or novillera, fighter. She never advanced to the rank of matador because no male matador offered to sponsor her. Renowned matadors praised her skill and courage, and she often received top billing. Despite the praise she received, including for her decision to bullfight with larger animals in contrast with other women bullfighters, male matadors lamented McCormick’s gender. News features often quoted one matador’s comment, “Had she not been born a woman, she might have been better than any of us.”
The macho atmosphere of the predominantly male sport of bullfighting left McCormick with a need for an escort. She did not date during her time as a bullfighter. She also observed the local standards of living as they applied to Latin women while staying in the Mexican haciendas. She later compared the standards to those of a convent. However, McCormick’s strength, courage, and ability to conform to Latin standards allowed her to fight bulls during a time when Spain banned women from the sport.
Throughout her ten-year career, McCormick slew hundreds of bulls. (Estimates range from 300 as reported in Sports Illustrated in 1963 to 1,000 as reported by the Los Angeles Times in 1986.) McCormick used her artistic talent by making sketches of bulls to aid in her study of their individual characteristics. Heralded for her skill and unique profession, she was featured in Time, Look magazine, and Sports Illustrated, for which she wrote a feature on the geometry of the sport in 1963. She published her memoir Lady Bullfighter in 1954. She also appeared on such television programs as This Is Your Life and To Tell the Truth. McCormick fought in the ring throughout Mexico and South America. She also staged a number of bloodless fights in the United States, including one in San Francisco and a number in San Antonio, as part of a March of Dimes benefit there.
During her career, bulls managed to gore her at least six times. McCormick’s worst injury occurred in Villa Acuña in 1954. On the afternoon of September 5, 1954, she killed her first bull of the day and received the ears and tail as a reward. Her manager considered this fight as the best of her short career to that point. While fighting her second bull, McCormick faced away from the bull to bow to the applauding crowd. A traditional part of the performance, the bow occurs during a “fix.” A “fix” happens when a bull, after fighting for a while, will pass the matador, turn around, and wait for a time before making another pass. During the “fix” section of her second performance, unbeknownst to McCormick, the bull charged, and, as she started to turn, the bull gored McCormick from behind, impaled her on his horns, lifted her into the air, and then traversed the arena. Her mentor, Alejandro del Hierro “jumped into the ring without the aid of a cape and pulled her off the horns.” The gruesome stomach and pelvic wound caused a priest to give McCormick her last rites in the arena. A doctor wanted her transported to the U.S. so that she could “die in her own country.” The first few days after her injury, McCormick floated in and out of conciseness but continued to say that she would fight again. Her six months of recovery did not deter her plans to return to bullfighting. During this time she convalesced at her parents’ home in Big Spring and also promoted her new book.
McCormick’s last fight occurred during 1962 in San Antonio, Texas. Financial troubles caused by her manager and Mexican taxation officers influenced her decision to make a career change. She moved to California, where she assisted an archeologist before becoming a secretary in Pasadena, California, at the Art Center College of Design. McCormick also worked as a commercial artist and spent her free time sketching and using watercolors to paint horses.
During the early 2000s Patricia McCormick moved to Midland, Texas, in a return to the state she thought of as home. After more financial difficulties, she made her final move around 2006 to Del Rio, Texas. In 2006 she was honored in Villa Acuña at its annual Running Las Vacas event. Members of the Heritage Museum in Big Spring, Texas, created a permanent McCormick exhibit in 2007. That same year, she was the subject of a documentary film, The Texas Torera. Patricia McCormick died at the age of eighty-three on March 26, 2013. Her cousin, her last living relative, spread McCormick’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico.