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. For the transcript of the lecture on this debate, first delivered at the Edinburgh International Book Festival by the author of Into The Arena: The World Of The Spanish Bullfight, click here.
The author has written and spoken on the subject from The London Times – who listed his book as “essential reading” – to The New York Times, CNN to Al-Jazeera, US National Public Radio to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation National Radio:
As the British press said:
What makes the book work is that he never loses his disgust for it… compelling and lyrical. The Mail ****
It’s to Fiske-Harrison’s credit that he never gets over his moral qualms about bullfighting…. an engrossing introduction to bullfighting. The Financial Times
Uneasy ethical dilemmas abound, not least the recurring question of how much suffering the animals are put through… a compelling read. The Telegraph
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
Full reviews and more details are available on the book’s website here.
The book can be purchased from Amazon in the US by clicking here.
From Amazon UK by clicking here.
In Canada here.
In Australia here.
In India here.
In Singapore and South East Asia here.
Nominated and shortlisted for
(With thanks to Reinhard Keck from Bild am Sonntag, 6Toros6 and Dave Johnson for additional research)