July 24, 1978 12:00 PM

A dare when she was 15 led Maribel into a life of risk and riches

La mujer y la sartén mejor en la cocina estén. (Women and frying pans are best left in the kitchen.)

That Spanish proverb is finally as dead as yesterday’s bull, even in that most hallowed of macho refuges, the plaza de toros. A pretty 18-year-old señorita, Maribel Atienzar, is fighting more often and earning more money and critical acclaim these days than male toreros twice her age.

After three years in the ring, Maribel (short for Marfa Isabel) has been signed to fight 50 times this summer. “This,” she says intently, “will be my most important season. It will help determine my development as an artist and just how far I can get in this profession.” So far she has made enough to buy a new apartment for her parents, with whom Maribel still lives.

She has become a celebrity not only in Spain but also in Colombia and Venezuela, where she fought last winter. “She’s fun to watch,” says Carlos de Rojas, a leading Madrid bullfight critic. “She’s simpática. She really knows what she is doing.”

At home in sleepy Albacete, 155 miles southeast of Madrid, Maribel became intrigued at a 1975 fair watching neighbor boys taunt a calf with a cape. When someone suggested no girl would dare try it, “I got angry,” she recalls. “I’d seen some bullfights and I did it pretty well. Everyone was amazed.”

“Stunned” is a better description of her parents when Maribel that evening announced her desire to be a bullfighter. “At first,” her mother says, “we couldn’t believe it. She was an A student in a convent school. She had won four scholarships and was very popular. She probably would have gone on to university like her brothers. She once even thought of being a nun.”

Señor Atienzar, a liquor distributor, and his wife finally agreed to let Maribel fight a small calf in public a month later. They were certain she would make a fool of herself. Instead, she trained furiously (she still works out three hours a day) and was awarded both ears and the tail by an ecstatic crowd. Convinced, the Atienzars placed their daughter under the tutelage of a professional bullfighter, Antonio González.

Since then Maribel has fought and killed some 200 bulls. They’ve tossed her violently enough to break her right collarbone twice, but so far she has avoided being gored, the accident that every bullfighter dreads. “Yes, I’m afraid throughout the fight,” she admits, “but it’s more a fear of failing.” Early this month in her $650 “suit of lights” she became the first woman to fight in Madrid’s main ring since before the Spanish Civil War. She won an ear and refueled controversy over her role in Spain’s national pastime.

“She’s good with the little bulls,” sneers Vicente Zabala of Madrid’s daily newspaper ABC, “but she’ll never do anything significant with larger animals. Women bullfighters aren’t good for bullfighting, or for women’s rights either.”

Atienzar admits she is not ready for the 5-year-old, 1,300-lb. behemoths the male stars risk their lives with. (So far her average bull is an 800-lb. 3-year-old.) “I don’t want to turn bullfighting upside down,” she says. “I’m no crusader.” Nor will she give unqualified endorsement to Spain’s embryonic feminist movement. “Women,” Maribel says, “should have equal rights and equal chances, but their place is probably in the home. When I marry, that’s where I’ll be.”

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