Forty-five minutes before his next death-defying performance is due to begin, Michelito Lagravere is standing on a hotel bed in front of a mirror and silently, very slowly—as though it were a form of Tai Chi—practicing passes with an invisible cape. Even more than your average 12-year-old, he's entranced by his own reflection. He's wearing pink stockings, a white ruffled shirt, and elaborately braided turquoise pants, which his father grabs by the waist with both hands (one, two, three...) and hoists.
Michel, who used to wear pants just like these, gives his son the once-over. "Is that comfortable, Matador?" he asks.
The boy nods absently; he's already back to his capework. Soon he'll be chauffeured through the streets of San Miguel el Alto—a small town perched on the high plains of central Mexico—to an 1840s arena where, armed with a real cape and a real sword, he'll confront two 800-pound bulls.
The previous afternoon, he watched his freckle-faced 11-year-old brother, Andresito, get shoved to the ground then dragged, horn-poked, and almost stepped on by a young bull. Michelito shrugged it off: "Airplanes are the things I'm most scared of. Muchisimo." He remembers one particularly harrowing flight from Mexico City to Madrid for a fight. "It thundered and lightning-ed nonstop for five hours," he says, adding booming and crackling sounds for effect, "and I was so scared that I just buried my head in my PSP and prayed for it to end."
The air is different now. Andresito lies prone on the other hotel bed, playing with his own PSP. Michelito floats high above: Even when he starts to lose his footing on the squishy bed, he keeps a steady eye on his reflection. Addressing it directly, he says, "I don't like my shirt to be tucked in so much." At this, a silver-haired assistant, who goes by El Tijuano, fills up the mirror frame, takes the shirt between his thumb and index finger, and blouses it a bit.
"Like that, Matador?" El Tijuano asks.
Though he stands just four feet ten—short, even for a kid who is about to turn 13—Michelito has become internationally renowned for his exploits in the ring. By his own estimate, he has already put the sword to 300 bulls. Ask him if he remembers his first kill and he says, "It was October 27, 2005, in my mother's home state of Tabasco. I was 6 years old." Four years later he tried to set a Guinness World Record for novice bullfighters (novilleros) by slaying six bulls in a single appearance—and succeeded, but Guinness refused to recognize it. ("We do not accept records based on the killing or harming of animals," its website explained.) This past June, Michelito became the youngest matador ever to perform in the world's largest bullfighting arena; he was such a hit that he was invited back in August. That time, Michelito got knocked to the ground by a big black bull by the name of Manguero—coming dangerously close to catching its horn; but he managed to pick himself up, then to thrust his sword between the bull's shoulder blades. Manguero knelt in the sand and took his last breath, and as Michelito stood over his kill, his face smeared with blood, the crowd at Plaza Mexico went berserk.
Michelito steps down unsteadily from the bed and approaches an ad hoc altar laid out on a table below the mirror frame: rosaries, crosses, multiple icons of Mary and Jesus, postcards from his travels, old family photos (including one of his father as a strapping young matador), and several crayon portraits of Michelito doing battle with bulls. He tries to light a candle, but there's a problem with the wick. El Tijuano takes care of it.
"The bull is my best friend," Michelito said the night before. "He's the one I'm always thinking about, always focusing on." But it's hard to square that with what he said next. "There is no real relationship between a bullfighter and a bull, because one is a rational animal while the other is irrational." He's just a boy, after all: Not a blank slate, but some of his ideas still bear the unmistakable trace of words he once read or overheard; a parent's explanation.
Then again, it isn't metaphysics that has carried Michelito so far at such a young age. If there is one quality that gives him the courage to stand in the path of a charging bull; to triumph in the world's largest ring when a fighter twice his age might have folded; to set himself the goal (don't believe for a moment he won't meet it) of becoming, at 14, the youngest person ever to achieve the status of professional matador—and to do so undeterred by all the animal-rights activists and child-welfare advocates who see him as a paramount example of primitive brutality and parental neglect—it is this: a preternatural confidence in his own future greatness.
The day before he killed those six bulls in front of an adoring crowd of 4,000 in his hometown of Merida—at a time when the fight was under ban by the mayor, who'd deemed it illegal for children under 18 to put their life at risk before the public—Michelito was defiant. "No one can stop me from fighting," he said. "I was born a bullfighter, and I will die one."
He had just turned 11.
ALTAR BOY: Michelito prays before each fight. "I do think about God," he says. "But the thing I think about most is being the day's victor."