This month’s Street Tails is a bit different from the rest. In this edition, I stray from the usual interview-style format in order to tell the story of Álvaro Múnera, a former bullfighter from Medellín, Colombia turned animal rights activist. After a bull tossed him into the air twice, the landing left Álvaro paralyzed for life.
His journey to recovery led to the recognition bullfighting is a barbaric sport. Today, rather than perform in front of crowds in a sport that takes lives, he now works as a councilor for the City of Medellín creating laws protecting animals and fundraising for educational and sterilization programs. He now also saves lives, like that of Esperanza, the dog he rescued from a landslide.
We met Álvaro when we stood in front of Medellin’s City Council members in partnership with Defenzoores and discussed the importance of adoption and animal well being. He sat in his wheelchair by our side in front of 125 people at an event and talked about his efforts to create laws on behalf of animals in his work as a City Councilor for Medellín. When our friend, Mauricio told us the story of how Álvaro came to spend his life in a wheelchair, I knew I had to share it on Street Tails.
To learn more about our work with Defenzoores and Sora’s rise to fame in Medellín, read our last post with all the details including our appearance on TV.
Álvaro Múnera began bullfighting at the age of 12, after participating in a mock bullfight with calves during a family vacation in Mexico. His father took the family to a restaurant called Cortijo de la Morera where guests dined around a bullfighting ring and could volunteer to enter the ring with calves for a taste of the adrenaline that comes with meeting a cow face to face.
Álvaro volunteered without hesitation and fared well with the young cow, feeling immediately hooked to the sport. As soon as the family returned to home to Medellín, Álvaro began to take classes in bullfighting.
Trauma in the Ring
By 14, he experienced his first trauma in the ring, as he witnessed the butcher remove a fetus from a heifer he had just killed (novice and young bullfighters often fight with cows, rather than bulls). He cried and vomited at the sight, declaring that he would never fight again.
But friends and his manager convinced him that it was part of the sport, that he was fine and should continue to fight. And so he did. But he knew that the experience was a sign directing him toward a different path. A sign that he chose to ignore at the time.
Three years later, he fought his way as the champion bullfighter in Medellín, which earned him the attention of Tomás Redondo, the manager of his best friend and fellow bullfighter, José “El Yiyo” Cuvero. Tomás wanted to take the boys to Spain to advance their careers as matadors. The word matador, if you are not aware, means killer.
Just before departing to Spain, Álvaro fought on last time in Colombia during a training show. There was no audience to applaud his performance—it was just him and the bull. When he stabbed the bull to finish the fight, the bull didn’t die. So he stuck his sword in him again. And again. And again. The bull wouldn’t die. After the fourth stab, Álvaro watched as the animal suffered in pain with his entrails falling out for 15 minutes before finally taking its last breath.
Again, Álvaro wanted to be done with the sport, that he couldn’t handle the cruelty. But a flight was waiting to take him to Spain and the contract was already signed.
Tomás took Álvaro and José to perform shows all over Spain. Álvaro fought 22 shows in Spain, until September 22, 1984, he finally performed for the final time. In the town of Múnera, which ironically bears the same name as his family, Álvaro lost his fight with a bull named Terciopelo. Terciopelo hooked him in the left leg, and threw him into the air. The landing resulted in a non-reversible spinal injury at the 5th cervical vertebra that would leave him a paraplegic and destined to life in a wheelchair.
He could not move any part of his body, nor see anything after hitting the ground. The only sense available to him after his landing was a bit of muffled sound. His best friend, José jumped into the ring and ran to his side. The doctor on site instructed Tomás to accompany him to the hospital, but not to expect to bring him back home, that he would almost certainly arrive dead from cardiac arrest or pulmonary embolism.
His athleticism, however, saved him. En route to the hospital, he began to breathe on his own using his diaphragm.
Álvaro was transferred to a hospital in Toledo, Spain that specialized in spinal injuries. After four months, however, Tomás, unhappy with the outdated medicine and Álvaro’s slow improvement, went in search of the best spinal care centers in the world.
Recovery in Miami
His search led him to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, Florida. Álvaro spent six months in Miami, had two surgeries, and eventually recovered some movement in his arms and hands, yet would never be able to walk again.
During his stay in Miami, he came to know many people. When he answered their questions regarding his reason for being in a wheelchair, they replied with remarks comparing him to a serial killer, that he deserved to be in that wheelchair.
Having grown up in a culture where bullfighting is considered a national cultural sport and then making a career in that same world, surrounding himself with people who believe he was a hero for his performances, he never took the time to consider the cruelty of the sport. Given the rejection he faced in Miami, he began to reflect on his chosen profession.
From Matador to Animal Defender
After having recovered a bit, he began taking courses at Miami Dade Community College. There he met a girl and they began to date. The topic of his injury or his past never came up. It just wasn’t something they ever talked about.
One month after they began their relationship, however, a student informed the girl of what had happened to Álvaro. An animal lover, she broke up with him immediately, disgusted, and said that she never wanted to see or speak to him again.
It was then that he finally came to realize that he had no right to take the lives of others. After ignoring the first two signs that nearly led him to quit, he finally acknowledged the third—the sign that forced him to stop fighting in the same city that bore his name. Had he never had that fight with Terciopelo, he never would have been transferred to the US, where bullfighting is considered a cruel and murderous activity. He would have continued to support the sport and his friends from the sidelines because that was all he knew.
As a means of repenting for the lives he had taken in his youth, Álvaro decided that he would become a defender of animals. He has served on the Medellín City Council since 1997 and is now the city’s most influential political leader in the anti-bullfighting arena. His work leads to the creation of laws protecting animals—the city has enacted 15 laws to date, including an animal-cruelty police unit that investigates animal-abuse claims around the city, raising money for mobile sterilization units that spay and neuter up to 100 animals free of charge every day, and to secure funding to support La Perla the first no-kill shelter in Latin America, located in the surrounding mountains where over 1000 dogs and cats call home. (For a tear-jerking video watch the shelter in action here)(You can change the settings for English subtitles).
Further, while bullfighting is protected as a cultural expression, the sport is essentially dead in Medellín after anti-bullfighting rallies convinced a large percentage of Colombians that the sport should no longer continue. Although the number of annual fights remains essentially the same, attendance numbers have dropped in the 12,000-seat Plaza de Macarena in Medellín, averaging between 5,500 to 6,000 attendees since 2008. Further, mayors from cities all over the country have voiced their anti-bullfighting sentiments.
In 2015, a 3am landslide hit the town of Salgar, causing landslides, killing some 78 people, the deadliest single-event disaster to hit Colombia since a 1999 earthquake. (the town of Mocoa, where we stayed a few days during our tour in Colombia recently suffered a similar landslide, killing at least 316 people, now the deadliest disaster to hit the country).
A veterinary friend of Álvaro’s visited the town to assist with the animal victims. There, he met Esperanza, a mutt whom he found trapped in a swamp. She was unable to walk, was unresponsive and had fractured her jaw during the landslide. Further, they learned that she once belonged to a car repair shop and had been hit by a car. They decided to euthanize her, but the injection was administered poorly and she managed to survive on the streets until the landslide.
Álvaro and his family had recently lost another pet when Esperanza came into their lives. Once she recovered from her injuries and a thyroid problem and skin condition, she went to her new loving home.
Like Álvaro, she was a survivor and he immediately felt a connection to her.
Esperanza, which means “hope” in Spanish, spent the first two months with Álvaro and his family scared and cowering. Eventually, she learned to trust humans and now will cuddle next to you the first chance she gets. Álvaro considers Esperanza his soul dog.
In addition to Esperanza, Álvaro has also adopted several other street dogs that live with his brother on his farm near Medellín. Further, Álvaro has also rescued two donkeys, including one named Dulcinea, who were once used in racing. Donkey cart racing, once a popular sport in Colombia, is now banned thanks to the work of Álvaro and his colleagues.
While he cannot erase his past nor make up for the many lives he took, his profession as a bullfighter eventually led to his current work as an animal defender. Had he chosen a different path, the animals of Medellín would likely have far fewer rights than they do today. Thanks to Múnera, his fellow city council members, and groups like Defenzoores, Medellín has some of the most pro-animal laws in Latin America.