According to Lagravere family legend, on December 1, 1997—at the precise moment when his father's brow was getting slashed open by a toro's horn—Michel Luis Carlos Lagravere Peniche came forth, a month premature, from his mother's womb.
"They screamed at the same time," says Michelito's mom, Diana. "That night, after getting sewn up, Michel arrived at the hospital with flowers."
A once-promising matador prodigy ("like Michelito," Diana says) from the South of France, the elder Michel had arrived in Mexico two years earlier to fight and, after meeting his wife, decided to stay. He would perform admirably, albeit in semi-obscurity, in over 500 corridas throughout Latin America, occasionally returning to France and Spain, before retiring for good a year ago, at age 48.
Michelito—who saw his father fight for the first time when he was 15 days old—insists that he was "never pressured or obligated to bullfight by anyone." Yet those early trips to the ring must have made an impression, because by the time Michelito could walk he was waving a dish towel at the family's pet Labrador.
When the boy was 4, a neighboring rancher invited him to enter the pen with a 1-month-old calf, which quickly knocked him down. "I ran in," Diana recalls, "and Michelito got up crying. I said, 'You are not going to be a bullfighter.' And he said, 'Si-i-i-i—I want to continue. I'm crying because you scared me.'" Soon enough Michel began employing his network of matador and rancher friends to help provide his eager sons with a proper education in tauromaquia. In 2007, he opened his own bullfighting academy in Merida, where Michelito and Andresito are his best pupils. "He knew they'd been born with a gift," Diana told me. "He said, 'I want to make sure that they are well taken care of.'"
By most indications, they are. Whatever you think in general about parents who would let their children step into a ring with a fearsome animal, Michel and Diana, at least, are raising two exceptionally well-mannered, seemingly happy boys. Michelito just started seventh grade at a special school for athletes, where he is required (as Mr. and Mrs. Lagravere tirelessly chirp) to keep his grades up. There doesn't appear to be competition, much less resentment, between Michelito and his brother—"It's not like bullfighters are at war with each other," Michelito says. "You should always be there to help your compañero." But he's much less secure in his relationship with the opposite sex, a topic that makes him flush and giggle nervously. "I get a ton of messages on Facebook," he says, from girls his age, and a healthy number of older admirers. "Well, you can imagine... "—he searches for the right word—"they want to be my girlfriend."
This, presumably, is the child critics of various persuasions want to protect from his parents—and, in their stead, to scold. Like Jordan Romero, the 13-year-old who climbed Mount Everest, or Jessica Watson, the 16-year-old who sailed unassisted around the world, Michelito often gets censured as an emblem of a generation of coddled, would-be child stars whose self-promoting tendencies would be in bad taste if they weren't so effective.
With a knowing smile, Michelito says, "The more they talk about me, the more publicity." Such an arch pose, however, is not in keeping with his regular print and TV interviews, where his answers often display a searching, introspective candor that most professional athletes work hard to stifle. Michelito has a website; then again, you probably do too. Diana says people often offer her son money to perform, "but we prefer that they buy him a good bull from a good ranch. That way he'll be better trained when he becomes a matador." Each bull runs about $2,000, and at two bulls per fight—plus airfare, hotel, and meals for the whole family—the costs add up. But since Michelito's a big draw, the promoter normally pays for everything. "We don't want to compromise his childhood," Diana says, explaining why they haven't allowed him to formally accept any endorsement offers, "because tomorrow he could wake up and decide he wants to be a rock-and-roller. If he gets locked into a five-year contract, how will he be able to do that?"
The chances of that happening, however, are close to nil, and if, as planned, Michelito does turn pro at 14, there will likely be a historic payday waiting for him. Mexico's top matadors can earn more than 12 million pesos ($1 million) a year, and international stars make even more. Few people are more familiar with the numbers than Diana, who co-owns a bullfighting-promotion business. She just paid Sebastián Castella—one of the top three matadors in the world—1.2 million pesos (or just under $100,000) to perform in Merida's ring. "If he's doing 30 or 40 bullfights a year, how much is that?" she asks. "And," Diana adds, "Castella started late."