A boy and his sword face bull

MEXICO CITY – Rafita Mirabal does what few would when faced with an angry, 400-pound animal charging at him: He holds his ground.

He is armed with nothing but a red cape and a short sword. He is also 9 years old.

Rafita already has had about two dozen fights in bullrings since last year, including his latest challenge on Sunday in Texcoco, just east of Mexico City.

His contests differ slightly from a regular bullfight. The animals are younger and somewhat smaller, and he does not give the matador’s final death blow with his sword. The ban on swordplay isn’t to protect Rafita, but rather the sport’s reputation.

Rafita isn’t strong enough yet to drive a full sword into a bull’s heart, and as a result, “he might just wound the animals, and then they would repeat the thing about (the sport) being a massacre,” said his manager, Jose San Martin, referring to bullfighting protests by animal rights activists.

San Martin expects Rafita to be killing bulls by the time he’s 11 or 12. Most bullfighters start when they’re 15 or older, he said.

In Texcoco on Sunday, Rafita challenged a 2-year-old “vaquilla” – a cow with horns – and nearly lost. The vaquilla tossed him into the air, swept him to the ground between its horns and then trampled him, but left him unharmed.

Two older bullfighters who accompany and observe Rafita in the ring – but avoid interfering in his fights – distracted the animal, giving Rafita time to dust himself off and immediately return to the fight.

“That was nothing,” he said, his eyes tearing “from emotion” and a bruise appearing to form on his cheek. “It was good, very good.”

His father, Rafael Mirabal Martinez, is a fight fan. He sends his son into the ring without any qualms because “this has always been his passion,” he said.

“I ask God to take care of him,” said Mirabal, who nonetheless has established some rules: “He has to keep his grades up at school to keep on with this.”

Asked about his son’s future, he replied, “That depends on him, God and the bull.”

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