Child bullfighting sensation: Amazing or appalling?

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 4, 2010 

SAN MIGUEL EL ALTO, Mexico — At the tender age of 12, Michel Lagravere is a sensation in bullfighting circles, the youngest toreador in the world.

He displays little fear before snorting, charging bulls, some of which weigh around 900 pounds. By his own reckoning, he's already slain hundreds of them.

So far this year, he's unsheathed his sword and waved his cape in 46 bullrings around Mexico, among them the famed Plaza Mexico in the capital. He's challenged bulls in Colombia, Peru and France and has his hopes set on Spain.

Known simply as "Michelito," the seventh-grader is the latest of a breed of ever-younger extreme athletes. So far this year, records have been broken for the youngest person to scale Mount Everest — 13-year-old Jordan Romero, an American — and the youngest person to sail around the world unassisted and alone, 16-year-old Jessica Watson, an Australian.

As adolescents gain global attention for athletic achievements at younger ages, the focus now falls on a precocious bullfighter who stands all of 4 feet 10.

"Since he was little, instead of playing with toy cars he would pretend the dog was a bull and wave a cape in front of it," said Michelito's mother, Diana Peniche. "Instead of watching cartoons, he'd watch videos of bullfights. He wanted to know the names of all the famous bullfighters."

Peniche, who owns and manages a bullring in Merida, the largest city in the Yucatan Peninsula, married a veteran French matador, and the family home became a hothouse for all things related to the ring.

Well-known toreadors and matadors routinely visited the house, Michel Lagravere, 48, said from a region near Toulouse, France. One day a friendly rancher suggested that Lagravere's elder son, then 4 and a half, enter the ring with a young bull.

"To everyone's surprise, he grabbed his little toy cape and challenged the bull just as he does today. Everyone was astonished," the father said.

On a recent day, the family came to Jalisco state, where Michelito would be one of three toreadors at a late-afternoon bullfight in the cattle town of San Miguel el Alto. In the family hotel suite, Michelito tugged on his pink stockings and his powder blue suit. As his younger brother, Andre, watched cartoons, Michelito tucked in his pleated white shirt and slipped into an ornate embroidered jacket with epaulets.

Candles flickered on an impromptu altar that displayed images of saints. Michelito prayed, then tucked an image of the Virgin Mary into his jacket.

At the bullring, Michelito could barely peer over the boards to watch the two grown matadors slay bulls. His father, behind him, whispered advice.

When his turn came, Michelito faced a 760-pound bull, hundreds of pounds lighter than those the veteran matadors were offered. His passes were graceful but not daring, unlike the adult matadors, who fell to their knees in bravery before the pawing beasts, then rose to thrust their swords for the kill.

On his first attempt, Michelito squared off with his bull, inched forward but failed to sink his sword to the hilt. He succeeded on another try, and an "Ole!" surged from the crowd. The brass band struck up a tune.

"His valor is indescribable. He is very good at bullfighting," said Ernesto Riveroll Gonzalez, a retired Mexico City banker who began a fan club for Michelito.

In June, in Michelito's debut at Plaza Mexico, doctors examined him after a young bull brushed over him. A few months earlier, in Colombia, his father jumped into the ring to divert a bull when Michelito fell, nearly getting gored himself.

Before Michelito, the youngest bullfighter in the world was a Spaniard, Julian Lopez, known by the name of "El Juli," who received a standing ovation at his debut in 1997.

"He was 14. Michelito did what he did when he was 11 years and 11 months," Lagravere said. "Michelito is already fighting bulls alongside the adults."

Mexico allows people such as Michelito to turn professional at age 14, graduating from toreadors to full-fledged matadors, who fight mature bulls. Until then, Michelito fights young bulls and earns money only for family expenses. Afterward, a pot of gold may await him.

Outside the bullring, he's a normal adolescent. He attends a special school for athletes in Merida.

The other students, he said, "want to know if I get scared going into the bullring. But when you begin the bullfight, you forget everything."

He's brave before a charging bull, but Michelito has his fears. He sleeps with a light on, cringes at lightning and thunder, and doesn't like to get on airplanes.

Questions about young extreme athletes — and pressure from their parents — surged in June, when search vessels tracked down the dismasted sailboat of 16-year-old Abby Sunderland drifting in the Indian Ocean. The California teen was seeking fame as the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe. Her costly rescue involved search planes and surface ships.

Dr. Zaakir Yoonas, a psychiatrist at Stanford University who writes a sports blog, said society put "pressure on our youth to show how they are 'different' and 'stand out' from the rest of the crowd."

A media environment celebrates adolescents who achieve "American Idol" moments of fame and become worldwide sensations, he said in an e-mail.

Moreover, parents of talented children sometimes push them into the spotlight, "achieving recognition vicariously through, and at the expense of, their children," he said.

Blaming the parents is easy, though, a Mexican child psychiatrist said. The public also bears responsibility by flocking to see performers such as Michelito.

"Going to see him means you are adding to the risk that other cases will occur," said Dr. Yolanda del Rio Carlos. "He's an example, and other kids will want to do what he's doing, but at a younger age."

Mexico's enforcement of child protection laws is far more lax than in the United States. Del Rio Carlos said she thought that age limits should be imposed for activities such as bullfighting.

"Adolescents think they are invulnerable, that nothing will happen to them," she said. They're also susceptible to images such as those of Michelito, who was lifted and passed around on the shoulders of bullfight aficionados after a fight in Merida.

An anti-bullfighting group has won nonbinding rulings from human rights commissions in the states of Yucatan and Chiapas to block Michelito from performances on the grounds of corruption of a minor.

"What is really serious is the emotional damage from inciting these youths to stab and kill living creatures," said Gustavo Larios Velasco, a spokesman for Mexico Antitaurino.

Tradition runs deep, however, and the Lagravere family pays little heed.

Michelito may not remain the youngest matador for long. Andre, his 11-year-old brother, is an up-and-coming entrant to the bullring.

"Michelito is a boy who uses his head when he fights bulls," his mother said.

"He's cerebral," his father added. "Andre operates more from inspiration. When Andre begins a bullfight, he doesn't know what he'll do. Michelito likes to control things from A to Z."

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