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LAST SPRING, before the bullfighting season began, Antonio Barrera went home to see his father, and once again he was under the eyes of Jardinero. The stuffed head of the old bull had become a member of the family. Antonio's father, José Manuel, was a truck driver, and every time he moved his wife, Dolores, and their four children to find work, he made sure Jardinero went with them. The best times in Antonio's childhood were when the walls of their home were painted. His father would remove the mount and place it on the floor. Antonio would run for the muleta José Manuel had given him, and holding the scarlet cape in his fingers, he'd summon Jardinero to charge.
¡Venga! ¡Vamos ya!
Come. Let's go now.
Then Antonio would prance around like the matadors did, with dandy steps and sashays and half twirls. Next came the passes: derechazos on the right, the riskier naturales on the left. Then Antonio would sidle up to the muzzle, inching closer, closer still, between the massive horns.
And Jardinero would watch the boy with his glassy eyes.
The news from the hospital was grave. The cancer in José Manuel's lungs had spread. Antonio walked into his father's room and sat by the bed. "Papá," he said, "I've been offered a date with Miuras."
Bulls of Death, they were called. Miuras were different from other fighting bulls. They were huge, and they were so smart, matadors said, that they knew Latin. They hooked in, up, stopped, studied. The Black Legend—that Miuras killed all the best matadors—was confirmed by the names of their famous victims: Pepete. Espartero. Manolete.
José Manuel looked up from the bed. As a matador, Antonio was his creation. José Manuel's first three children were girls; he could not share his bullfighting obsession with them. When Antonio was born, his father wasted little time in baptizing him into the fraternal world of matadors, breeders and aficionados. After corridas, when Antonio was no taller than his father's waist, they would race back to the horse stables and to the chapel where the matadors prayed. Antonio heard the bells on the mules that dragged the dead bulls to the slaughtering trucks, and he saw the butchers hose the blood off the cobblestones. Then came the matadors with the glittering gold brocade in their suits of lights, hoisted on the shoulders of aficionados. Antonio knew then that he wanted to be one of them.
To make this dream come true, José Manuel borrowed money from friends to buy livestock for Antonio to practice on. By age seven the boy was performing in their town, Mairena del Alcor, outside Seville. Later José Manuel started his own trucking company and was able to buy Antonio's capes, swords and suit of lights, and to pay the wages and expenses of his support team, the cuadrilla.