By Lyn Sherwood
Sunday, July 23, 1972, in Plaza El Toreo de Tijuana, was an afternoon that most aficionados wished would just give up and go away. But, like a horrible nightmare, it tenaciously hung on, minute after terrifying minute.
It was a modest cartel, featuring two Mexicans and one Spaniard, none of whom was anywhere close to being a first category matador, facing a herd of huge senior citizen bulls from Rancho Seco. They were tough, serious toros that required experienced toreros. They didn’t have them.
The matadores were Mario Sevilla, whose early potential had long since faded. The Spaniard, Marcelino Librero, was unknown to anybody outside of his immediate family. And, the junior sword, 17-year-old Rafael “Rafaelillo” Gil, was a question mark. His handsome gypsy face, slim build, and renowned courage that at times was rather suicidal, at least represented a spark of hope. He was constantly in grave danger, yet he didn’t seem to be aware of it. The taurine gods take pity on drunks and foolish toreros.
Tragedy wasted no time in taking its toll. The first bull gored Mario Sevilla in the right side of his groin. He was able to dispatch the toro, before retiring to the waiting surgeons in the infirmary.
The second bull of the day gored Marcelino Librero, twice, in the chest and the right leg. He, too, was carried to the infirmary, while the only remaining matador, Rafaelillo, dispatched the toro.
Four bulls remained. All were large, anxious, and deadly. And, just one greenhorn kid to face them. But, face them, he did. For the next hour and 15 minutes, hardly a soul in the stands breathed. It seemed inevitable that Rafaelillo would join his alternates in the ether-filled surgical facility.
But, he survived. He cut only one ear, but that wasn’t important. Rafaelillo gave everything that he had. And, critics be damned, no torero could have worked harder.
That attitude would mark the entire career of Rafaelillo Gil. Although frequently and terribly gored, he always gives his all with every bull. Few aficionados realize that a large piece of the femoral artery in his left leg has been replaced by a plastic tube.
More than 24 years have passed since that afternoon of terror in Tijuana. Rafaelillo’s enthusiasm eventually translated to ability. He’s a genuine, albeit still somewhat suicidal, torero who can thrill the tourists with hair-raising bravery, or impress knowledgeable aficionados with honest, intelligent toreo. Frequently, he demonstrates both schools of bullfighting in the same afternoon, sometimes even with the same bull.
Today, Rafaelillo is one of Mexico’s most popular matadores. He’s a favorite in La Plaza Mexico, the world’s largest bullring. He’s especially adept at placing banderillas, although many of his most serious injuries have been suffered while doing so.
It is doubtful that taurine history will ever recognize Rafaelillo as a great artist, but it cannot deny his indomitable spirit and courage.
And, it all began on that nail-biting afternoon of July 23, 1972, when a boy became a man. And, all of the dignity and pride of all the toreros who have ever lived was vividly proclaimed.