The quickest way to get Johnny Muñoz to take on a challenge or try a new adventure is to tell him he can’t do it.
From climbing the rock wall at the BRIC to spinning records as a deejay at a backyard party to learning how to play the guitar in three months, the psychology student who lost his sight as an infant lives and thrives at the intersection of can’t do and impossible.
“I love to prove everybody wrong,” said the 26-year-old Azusa resident. “I’m like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Muñoz has been sidestepping naysayers and defying the odds since he entered the world.
He and his twin sister, Jeanney (’22, biology and chemistry), were born five months premature. Johnny weighed only a pound. By the time he was 6 months, he had lost his sight, a result of a condition he was born with known as retinopathy of prematurity (ROP). ROP is an eye disease that occurs when abnormal blood vessels grow in the retina, according to the National Eye Institute. Babies born premature or those who weigh less than 3 pounds at birth often contract the disease. His sister also lost her vision as an infant but was able to recover it through laser surgery five years ago.
Once the twins stabilized at 6 months, Muñoz said his mother took them home and followed the sage advice she received from the nurses and aides at the hospital.
“They told my mom not to treat me like I’m blind,” he said. “They told her, ‘Throw him on your back when you are sweeping or mopping and let him feel your motions. Let him feel what your hands are doing.”
Muñoz, a junior, has dedicated his life to bridging the gap between the visually impaired and the sighted, and he relishes the reactions from those amazed by his various interests and activities.
When he was a student at Gladstone High School in Covina, Muñoz discovered a love of deejaying through a cousin who spun records at parties. So, when a tutor at the afterschool program asked what kind of activity he would like to learn, he said deejaying. The tutor found someone to teach Muñoz, who memorized his playlist. He got skilled enough to deejay backyard parties, weddings and other events, charging $40 to start.
“I used to promote myself,” he said. “I would say, ‘Don’t tell people I am blind.’ They would find out later when I got there, and they would lose it.”
His ultimate dream is to deejay at the university’s annual Bronco Fusion.
Muñoz, who transferred to Cal Poly Pomona from Citrus College in 2021, strives for as much independence as he can muster, and he encourages other visually impaired people to do the same.
“I have taken blind people bowling for the first time,” he said. “We will get stared at. People will say, ‘You’re going to fall.’ They want to pity party us. I don’t like that. I am an independent person because of my mindset.”
Last year, he started following a social group called Yes Theory on Facebook and saw that the members of the Los Angeles chapter were planning a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain and asked to join. He let them know he was blind and brought along his mother and twin sister, Jeanney, to meet the group before he went into the park.
“It was the best opportunity I have had in my life,” he said. “I was being guided by people I had never met before. It is all about getting out of your comfort zone and meeting someone who has never done something like this before.”
Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona
Bonding with a stranger is how Muñoz got involved with Cal Poly Pomona’s Mariachi Los Broncos de Pomona. Ethnomusicology Professor Jessie Vallejo, director of the mariachi program, recalled meeting Muñoz in 2021 at CPP Fest. Vallejo was walking to the library when she noticed Muñoz looking lost.
“As I walked by, I asked him if he needed help finding where he was going. I was surprised when he asked me if there were any music clubs at the fair,” she said. “When I told him there were, he followed up with asking if there was a mariachi club. I said, ‘No, we have a mariachi class, and I happen to be the teacher.’”
Muñoz, who is Mexican American, said he wanted to join the mariachi band and wanted to learn the guitar, thinking she would deny him. Instead, Vallejo said she would teach him and enlisted guitarists in the class to help him as well. He learned to play in three months.
“I have a lot of love and respect for her,” he said.
Anthony Reynolds, a sophomore music student, was one of the mariachi band members who helped Muñoz with the guitar.
Vallejo asked him and another guitarist if they would allow Muñoz to feel their hands as they played guitar. Reynolds also would position Muñoz’s hands on Muñoz’s guitar for the different chords.
“The first thing I noticed was he is very upbeat,” said Reynolds, a heavy metal and rock guitarist who has been playing since 2005. “Everyone was awkward at first because we didn’t know each other, but Johnny was talkative.”
Every now and then, Muñoz would ask Reynolds to play certain chords and they clicked.
“I would get to campus two hours before class, and I would find Johnny wandering through campus. I asked him to hang out. That eventually turned into me teaching him how to play guitar,” Reynolds said. “He is probably one of my closest friends here at school.”
Guitar playing relies a lot on muscle memory and feel, something that works to Muñoz’s advantage.
“People with sight have the luxury of seeing what they are playing, but to me, that is a whole extra step,” he said. “Johnny just has to feel it and play it.”
Mariachi also requires singing, a gift Muñoz was born with.
“I’ve been singing since I came out of the womb,” he said.
Vallejo said Muñoz sings wonderfully.
“Johnny’s ear is fantastic,” Vallejo said. “He has perfect pitch and can pick up on learning new songs quickly. He is a strong singer and remembers lyrics well.”
Meaning in his Message
When Muñoz is not performing, deejaying or partaking in grand adventures, he enjoys giving back and mentoring others. He shares videos of his activities on his Instagram and YouTube pages. He also shared his story on “The Eric Chow Empowers Podcast,” in an episode titled, “A Life Without Sight with Johnny Muñoz.”
He has been giving public speeches at high schools and other events since 2019. He serves as president of Resilience and Confidence First, a nonprofit founded by his friend Brittany Embry, who lost her sight as a teenager after she was shot in the eye.
“My first impression is that he is really enthusiastic,” said Embry, a 2018 CSU Dominguez Hills graduate. “He has a lot of energy, and he is really positive. I could tell when I first met him that he was family oriented. He started treating me like family right away.”
Embry, who founded her nonprofit in 2020, had been hosting various events to feed the homeless and promote awareness of the visually impaired. She needed a board president and thought Muñoz would be a good fit.
“Johnny is very productive,” she said. “He is always doing something. He has been blind all of his life, and it is important to me to have disabled people on my board. It’s one thing to talk about it, but another thing to walk it. Johnny brings some great ideas to the table.”
The ideas don’t stop. He has ideas for the inspirational speeches he wants to give on campus and off. He also wants to serve as a mentor, not only for the blind but for the sighted.
He has already started, hosting an event at the BRIC in fall 2021 where he instructed staff on the best way to guide blind people.
“When you see a blind person, approach them, tap them and ask if they need help. If they say ‘Yes,’ ask them if they want to grab you above the elbow or shoulder. And just walk,“ he said. “I always say, ‘Show me how to do this. Don’t just do it for me.’ What am I going to learn out of that?”
Muñoz wants to demonstrate that any goal is achievable. When he wants to try something new, he goes for it — from ziplining to skydiving to scratching over records on the turntables.
“I want to show that it is okay to be a blind person,” he said. “Never let anything get to you. No matter what it is you want to do, follow your dreams.”
Watch a video of Johnny Muñoz: https://youtube.com/shorts/kptrd18HKlw?feature=share