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'IT'S A LOVE OF THE BULLS' PHOTO SPURS GIRL TO A CAREER IN THE ARENA.

Byline: IVAN OROZCO

Staff Writer

SYLMAR - Flipping through a magazine one day, 7-year-old Paula Murphy came across a photo of famed matador Rafael Rodriguez standing proudly in a bullfighting ring.

The image changed her life, fueling a hunger to learn about bullfighting and Mexican culture. She devoured books about the centuries-old custom at the library in tiny Greenfield, Calif., and dreamed of someday becoming a matador herself.

"My mother tells me -- but I don't remember -- that I said to her that I wish she had married a Mexican so I could be in Mexico and I could fight," she said. "I used to stand on top of the bed and would make passes and pretend I was fighting."

The young girl's passion and fascination continued as she grew up and moved to Los Angeles, where she joined a class of novilleras -- apprentice bullfighters -- at Griffith Park.

She recalls practicing her skills while on her lunch break from her job at a bank, using her sweater as a cape as cars rushed by on Wilshire Boulevard.

"Just the thrill of that whoosh going by me ... was nice," she said, sweeping her arms as she did on those long-ago days. "That was probably my first pass. I don't know if anyone ever saw me. No one said anything."

During sessions at Griffith Park, she caught the eye -- and the heart -- of David Aguilar, a former novillero, who earned renown as a bandillero, or flagman, in the bullfighting ring.

"From a group of 10 or 12 girls, she was the only one I noticed that really wanted to learn," said Aguilar, now 76.

"So I agreed to train with her. And look, she turned out to be the love of my life."

The two later married, but not before Paula Murphy launched her career as a bullfighter, first as a novillera and later as a full-fledged matador.

After her first fight in Tabasco, Mexico, in 1966, she toured other small towns, fighting smaller bulls -- usually 3-year-olds weighing 650 to 800 pounds.

The novice bullfighter didn't speak Spanish, so language was a barrier as she worked the bullfighting circuit. She communicated using hand gestures and head nods, but couldn't tell if the male novilleros and matadors were praising or criticizing her when she heard them mention her name.

She performed amid the up-and-comers, often stealing the show and the crowds despite being female -- and white. She earned $120 to $2,000 for a fight, but it wasn't the money that mattered.

"It's a love of the bulls," said Paula Aguilar, now 67.

"It's just something the bulls have. I can't explain it. I say it's like when you find someone you're in love with. The feeling you have and why people get married, why they love someone, that's the feeling I have for the bulls," she said.

She was a success, with 11 kills to her credit, when she contracted hepatitis from contaminated food in Matehuala, Mexico.

"I thought I was going to die," she said. "I told God I was ready to die. I was extremely skinny, just skin and bones. I had double vision for the longest time after that."

Although she eventually recovered, her bullfighting career was over.

She and her husband, David, eventually retired and moved to Sylmar, where a copy of the life-changing photograph of Rafael Rodriguez is featured prominently.

They belong to Los Aficionados de Los Angeles, a club that travels to bullfights in Tijuana and other towns in Mexico that are trying to keep alive the traditional Spanish-style fights, which are illegal in the U.S.

"I've never regretted it ... anything that I've done," she said. "I do not still dream that I could go in. It was such an honor just to do what I did. I never had another desire to go fight the cars or a bull. I sit and enjoy by watching the bullfights."

While Paula Aguilar is quick to thank her husband for her success and her brief career, she also credits Frances Johansen, the librarian in her hometown of Greenfield.

It was Johansen who introduced her to "La Fiesta Brava," a book that fueled the young girl's desire to fight bulls and experience a new culture.

Aguilar read the book and quickly found an idol: Manolete, a bullfighting superstar in the 1940s in Spain.

"Whatever I read in the book, I have accomplished more than I could think of," Aguilar said. "My picture is in the same book with Manolete. To me, it shouldn't be, but it is. That's a dream of a little girl."

ivan.orozco(at)dailynews.com

(818) 713-3607

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) One photo changed the life of 7-year-old Paula Murphy, now Paula Aguilar, shown here with her husband, David Aguilar, right, and daughter Gabriella Aguilar and grandson Joshua Cortez.

Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer

(2) A passion and fascination with bullfighting led a young California girl to a career as a bullfighter. Here Paula Murphy passes a cape over a bull during a fight in Mexico in 1966.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 12, 2007
Words:843
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