The above photo has been doing the rounds on the internet with claims it is Álvaro Múnera Builes, a Colombian animal rights activist who worked briefly as a bullfighter in his youth under the name ‘El Pilarico’ in Colombia and then Spain. With the image comes these words, also claiming to be from Múnera.
And suddenly, I looked at the bull. He had this innocence that all animals have in their eyes, and he looked at me with this pleading. It was like a cry for justice, deep down inside of me. I describe it as being like a prayer – because if one confesses, it is hoped, that one is forgiven. I felt like the worst shit on earth.
In fact, not only is this not true, it could not be true, not least because the matador in the photo is actually Francisco Javier Sánchez Vara, pictured right. While the words come from an article by the author and melodramatist Antonio Gala Velasco in the Spanish newspaper El País in 1995.
Below is how Múnera actually looked in the ‘suit of lights’ of a novillero. A novillero is a novice bullfighter. Múnera never even became a matador, let alone a famous one.
However, the most compelling reason that photo can have had nothing to do with Múnera is that he did not leave bullfighting because of some conversion in the bullring; quite the reverse. It was the bull that made him leave.
In 1984 a bull called ‘Terciopelo’, from the breed of Marqués de Villagodio, caught him in the foot and tossed him across the ring, fracturing the fifth cervical vertebrae in his neck – along with other injuries – which rendered him permanently paraplegic.
It was only later after he had been transferred from hospital in Spain to a recuperative facility in Miami to be closer to his relatives in Colombia that he developed a ‘moral’ problem with bullfighting. According to his own account, it was the doctors, nurses, other patients and their families treating him with contempt because of his bullfighting past which caused the change. In his own words, he converted to their point of view because “there are more of them, they must be right.”
Whatever you think of this as a reason for revising the moral code by which you have lived your life, it is clear that it was not the behaviour of a bull while dying that caused this man to end his run of 150 bulls killed.
So, what is the actual matador, Sánchez Vara, doing in the photo? Well, he might be crossing himself or he might be wiping away a bead of sweat, but whatever he is doing, the reason he is sitting down in the path a dying bull as it walks along the barrier has nothing to do with despair. Which is why you can see the situation exactly replicated below by the matador Sebastian Castella.
Sitting on the ‘strip’ around the ring after the sword has been placed in the bull is a known desplante, or act of defiance, within the part-scripted, part-improvised spectacle that is the corrida de toros. Whatever the corrida is, it is certainly not a fight (the English word bull-fight derives from our foul old pasttime of baiting bulls with dogs), and the concept of fairness or sport no more enters into the corrida than it does the slaughterhouse.
Which is why the man in this photo is still working as a matador across Spain, indeed, if you can read Spanish, you can read about an afternoon as recently as April 2012 when he killed six bulls on his own here.
Whatever you feel about bullfighting, there is no excuse for dishonesty – from either side of the debate. And before decisions on a subject are made, it is worth understanding it first. The information above came from the award-winning book Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight by Alexander Fiske-Harrison – available on Kindle (in the US here, the UK here, Australia, Canada India, Spain, Mexico, France, Italy, Germany, Japan and Brazil) and iTunes. As the newspapers said:
What makes the book work is that the author never loses his disgust for bullfighting… compelling and lyrical. Daily Mail *****
It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never gets over his moral qualms…. an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. Financial Times
It is this world of glamour, fame and death that Fiske-Harrison penetrates in search of a solution to the “terrible quandary” of bullfighting. The outcome is a debut that provides an engrossing introduction to Spain’s “great feast of art and danger”. The Times (of London)
The book on bullfighting. The New York Times
Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through… a compelling read. Daily Telegraph
The definitive guide on the state of modern-day bullfighting. The Independent
The question of whether a modern society should endorse animal suffering as entertainment is bound to cross the mind of any casual visitor to a bullfight. Alexander Fiske-Harrison first tussled with the issue in his early twenties and, as a student of both philosophy and biology, has perhaps tussled with it more lengthily and cogently than most of us… particularly good… eloquence and precision. The Literary Review
He brings to the polarised discussion of bullfighting a level of nuance where his opponents bring only more dissimulation. The quality that makes the final chapter of Hemingway’s Death In The Afternoon the most intoxicating pervades Fiske-Harrison’s in its entirety. The Australian
From the very beginning, Fiske-Harrison makes it clear this will not be simply another book about the act of bullfighting, but rather a philosophical inquiry into the subject, trying to decipher its ethics or lack thereof… Into the Arena is truly remarkable. The grit and sweat of these characters is conveyed in tightly wrought prose. The Prague Post
To his credit, Fiske-Harrison acknowledges the morally questionable nature of the bullfight. And the book contains interesting explorations of concepts such as fear, bravery and drive.”
League Against Cruel Sports
A larger than life character. A hugely enjoyable and easy read. Moving and instructive.
Club Taurino of London
Arguably the most engaging study of bullfighting by an English speaker since Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. His willingness to get his hands dirty, and his eye for detail, make this a compelling read for anyone interested in Spain’s ‘national fiesta’. Controversial, thought-provoking and highly recommended.
Jason Webster, author of Duende: A Journey In Search Of Flamenco
Nominated and shortlisted for
(With thanks to Reinhard Keck from Bild am Sonntag, 6Toros6 and Dave Johnson for additional research)