Gored but defiant: the boy bullfighter who split Spain

Young torero makes Spanish debut and sparks a national debate
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Jairo Miguel Sanchez was 12 years old when he first left Spain for South America to wave a cape at a 1,000-pound bull. As a minor in Spain, he was not allowed to risk his life in the ring until he was 16. He survived his first year on the "mini-torero" circuits of Mexico, Colombia and Peru with no worse injury than a broken wrist.

But in 2007, aged 14, the still-awkward, cartoon-watching Jairo was nearly gored to death. A charging beast named Hidrocalido punctured his lung and came within an inch of his heart. His cry as he was rushed to hospital – "Papa, I'm dying"– unleashed an outpouring of sympathy and sparked fierce debate on the proper age to allow youngsters to engage in what many consider Spain's national sport.

Now, at 16, the baby-faced bullfighter is readying his gold-and-white suit of lights to debut in the Spanish ring as the country's youngest bullfighter. He has 30 corridas lined up for this bullfighting season, which begins in May, and his name will often share top billing with the country's greats.

"The young rival of the handsome toreros," trumpeted El Mundo newspaper, which published a photo of the teen naked, showing his 20cm scar. The interview gushes about his mother's advice – "watch out for the women" – and his maturity. "I can't risk my life in the ring and then think about going out with friends," he says.

The laments about his earlier injury and the excitement over his debut highlight the conflicting currents that swirl around bullfighting in Spanish society today.

On the one hand, long-time fans still discuss bullfighting with the reverence of religion. The best corridas are see-and-be-seen events for business leaders and politicians, while the lithe, handsome matadors are fixtures of high society and favourite fodder for gossip magazines. Jairo himself hit the talk-show circuit after recovering from his injury.

At the same time, Spaniards have become increasingly critical of the tradition. Anti-bullfighting protests are multiplying. A national television station has curbed broadcasts during children's viewing hours. Barcelona even voted to ban the bullfights.

The sight of teens like Jairo facing a pair of charging horns only pushes the matter further into the camp of political incorrectness. "I am horrified," the national children's advocate, Arturo Canalda, said at the time of Jairo's goring. "It seems to me barbarous to place a 14-year-old child before an animal that weighs 400kg or 500kg. That a father would find a way to skirt the law and take his son to fight bulls in Mexico and expose him to such a risk to me seems irresponsible. We have to change our customs."

The Spanish branch of the International Movement against Bullfighting has taken aim at the 43 "bullfighting schools" in the country, where the budding torero can learn how to stick bandoleers on to a racing bull as early as age nine. They have launched a campaign to cut the schools' government funding.

Child prodigies, however, are common in the world of bullfighting. Today's top matadors, such as El Juli, Dominguin and Espartaco, also launched their careers in South America at tender ages. Many bullfighting experts encourage children to develop their prowess early.

"Bullfighting, like tennis, is best learned as a child," Jorge de Haro, president of the Mexican Association of Fighting-Bull Raisers once told reporters. "Bullfighting must be unconscious and a child isn't conscious of the danger or risk. The younger, the better."

That was not easy advice to follow for Jairo's mother, however. She suffered when he asked her to attend a corrida in Mexico. "That's the worst I've felt in my life," she told El Mundo. "I was shaking inside."