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.
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."
This all assumes, of course, that nothing bad happens between now and the day Michelito sloughs off his amateur status. This year the best bullfighter in the world, José Tomás, required 17 pints of blood after getting gored through his left thigh; another matador, Julio Apericio, became a twisted YouTube sensation when a bull thrust its horn up his throat (and right out of his mouth).
Michelito gets tossed and trampled plenty—like last January in Cali, Colombia, when his father rushed into the ring and shoved the bull away from Michelito's dust-covered body and the boy was carried out on a stretcher, crying. But despite what several news outlets reported, the Lagraveres deny that the bull's horn ever pierced Michelito's flesh. In fact, they insist their son has never been gored. "They say it feels hot but doesn't hurt," Michelito says. "I know it will happen one day, but I'm not scared."
Neither is his father, for that matter, despite having spent three weeks in a hospital with a perforated lung. "There are always isolated cases, but in life there are many other things that hurt children more gravely than bulls," Michel says. "How many kids in Mexico have died from bicycle accidents? A lot more than bullfighting, I can assure you... I myself am a torero, and I know very well what the bulls can and cannot do."
Callous as that may sound, Michel does have a point. Tomás is still fighting. Apericio survived. Bullfights are closely monitored by medical professionals, and no matador has died in the ring since Jose "El Yiyo" Cubero was gored through the heart in 1985.
Michel bears all the hallmarks of a dedicated, generously affectionate father. He's quick with hugs and kisses both before and after his sons' fights, regardless of their outcome, and as he gives them pointers on foot positioning and cape technique, it doesn't look all that different from a Little League dad instructing his son on how to turn a double play. But this is not Little League, or rock climbing, or sailing. These boys are being taught, no matter how artfully, to kill.
Last March, in a speech before the Catalonian parliament—which had voted three months earlier to ban bullfighting in the Spanish region—Antonio Moreno, a former baby matador who now heads an animal-rights organization, recalled his own initiation. "When you're 9 years old," Moreno said, "what do you think? That you've come to see tradition? Culture? Art? No. You've come to see good men kill an evil beast. This is what was inculcated into the boy, because this, ladies and gentlemen, is what the boy saw."
The Queen of the Fair, wearing a foot-high tiara, waves and throws roses at the crowd from an open-top Acura that slowly makes its way around the ring; you can almost hear the audience shifting in its seats. This is not the beauty the people came to see.
They erupt a few moments later when the brass band strikes up a martial tune and Michelito—flanked by a pair of professional matadors twice his height—enters the ring. As is customary, Michelito salutes the presiding judge, whom he will later ask for permission to kill his bulls. He circles the dust with his left foot, looking like he just stepped into the batter's box.
Michelito might be a natural showman in the ring, but as he waits in the alley to fight (he will perform last), he can't hide his nervousness. While the second matador gets appreciatively showered with sweaters, hats, and coats, each of which he throws back into the crowd, Michelito's face is pressed up against the barrier; he's practically gnawing on it.
Michelito's bull, a black 800-pounder named Morito, enters the ring looking lost. In the first act, Michelito tests the beast's ferocity with a series of veronicas—cape passes named for the saint who gave her veil to Christ to wipe his forehead with—that reveal that Morito isn't very ferocious after all.
In the second act, Michelito's picador, a gigantic man on horseback named El Flaquito ("the Skinny One"), repeatedly jabs his lance into Morito's neck, causing blood to gush forth. His job is to get the bull's head to drop lower, making it easier for the matador (especially one as short as Michelito) to come in overhead for the kill. But El Flaquito overdoes it, and soon Michelito is waving him off, yelling, "Stop, stop!" It's too punishing: The bull won't die, but it might begin to lag and thus ruin the performance.
During the short intermission that follows, Michelito dedicates his first bull to San Miguel el Alto's baby-faced mayor; the gesture is well received, but nothing seems to go right after that. In the third act it takes Michelito four attempts before he successfully thrusts his sword between the bull's shoulder blades. His support team, the cuadrilla, circles the bull, flashing it with their capes as it plods dumbly in circles: A death stagger is common, but it shouldn't go on this long. Out of admiration or impatience, the crowd strikes up a chant of "To-re-ro, to-re-ro." Then Morito's forelegs buckle and he falls to the ground. A man runs up to Morito with a little sword—called a puntilla—and jams it into the animal's back, making sure to sever the spinal cord. Morito's dead.
"I don't feel bad about killing," Michelito says, "because the bull fights for his survival." Besides, he says, there's always the possibility of an indulto—whereby the bull's life is spared when the crowd and the judge deem the animal valiant enough. "If the bull does well in the ring," Michelito says, "he wins his liberty." But that happens to just a few of the thousands that enter the ring annually.
For the millions who flock to the arena each year, watching a master matador like José Tomás is truly a wonder, blood sport become art. But, at 12, Michelito isn't able to conjure the grand spectacle every time out—and today, not at all. His second bull, El Catorce, keeps losing its footing in the dirt and flopping onto its stomach. Michelito takes a knee just a couple feet away and bares his teeth, trying, it would seem, to taunt his partner into a better performance, but to no avail. Only when Michelito, pulling from his bag of tricks, starts to do a twirling, tippy-toed dance in front of the bull does the crowd get back into it, cheering and whistling and roaring with laughter. "Anda, Michelito. Anda!"
The first time Michelito tries to thrust his sword into the bull, the animal falls to the ground and appears to be dead. But it isn't—El Catorce simply doesn't want to get up. Eventually it does, but it keeps to the walls. One of Michelito's cuadrilla gets right up behind the wounded creature, the sword still stuck in its hide, and tries to nudge it toward the center of the ring, but it responds with a couple of errant back kicks. Diana's voice rises up from the stands. She's rooting for the performance to be over, yelling, "Take the sword out! Let some air enter!"
While the grounds crew rakes the blood-stained dirt, Michelito walks out into the street, where he's surrounded by a large crowd of fans, weathered old men, kids of all ages, and girls—lots of girls. Michel can't hand out Michelito postcards fast enough; they all want a picture and an autograph. Michelito gives an armless man a hug. He poses with a pretty teenager as her friend takes multiple photos, then the two girls switch places and he does it all over again. An eager father, standing on the outskirts of the crowd, says to his 12-year-old son, "Why didn't you get an autograph? It could be worth a ton of money one day!" As the son gets Michelito's signature, the father can scarcely contain himself, saying, "He was amazing. It's like seeing Baby Ruth when he was young."
The crowd thins out as the Lagaveres slowly walk back to the hotel. Michelito's eyes, telegenically bright only moments before, are watering. No matter how hard he tries, he can't staunch his disappointment—in the toros, sure, but more in his failure to transcend them. Michel pulls him aside and with his arm around Michelito, whispers into his ear, attempting to console him.
"It happens, Michelito," he says. The boy is looking straight ahead. It's unclear if he's listening to his father's words. "You're only as good as the bulls you get."