Manuel was up and about before dawn. He’d always start the morning with a cold shower, a ritual that relieved muscle soreness from the day prior and jolted his motor senses for the day ahead. To Manuel, a cold shower was also a daily test of pain tolerance, a reminder to his mind and body to continue building resilience amid unpredictable weather conditions.
As he dried himself up, Manuel started applying a layer of white paint—first on his face, then down on his neck, then finally, on all sides of his forearms and hands. The importance of the foundational white layer, especially for a brown boy, cannot be understated. It made the next layer of color really pop—a color that Manuel decided long-before was going to be copper. The bronze copper finish was edgier, in his opinion, compared to the silver and gold that many of his fellow performers preferred.
Flesh covered in copper, Manuel put on his daily uniform—a long-sleeved polo shirt layered with a corduroy vest, leather pants outshined by a bright belt buckle and a pair of high top boots he was lucky to find abandoned by a dumpster, and a cowboy hat to complete the look. He had spray-painted each clothing item the night before to regain their shine; now, they all matched perfectly with his copper-tinted skin. Manuel took one final look in the mirror, then headed out just as the sun rose.
In Washington Square, Manuel had selected his go-to spot—a bench by the entrance of the park that he could have all to himself the entire day, as long as he was early enough to get there. Upon arriving, he’d set up a shoebox in front of him with some coins and dollar bills from the previous day strategically placed inside. Passers-by tended to be more generous when the box was decently filled with monetary donations, he noticed, compared to when it was empty. Manuel would then make himself comfortable—sitting on the side of the bench, one leg crossed over the other, left arm resting on the handle, right hand holding the tip of the cowboy hat with his right elbow leaning on the bench’s backrest for support. No matter the conditions, he would hold that pose for as long as he can. When on-lookers would intentionally stop in front of him and stare, he’d move—a head or body turn, a change in hand placement, at times a full stand—to catch them off-guard, but not too large of a shift that would make the next pose difficult to maintain.
At 16 years old, Manuel found his way into street performance after roaming aimlessly in New York City, struggling to find jobs that accepted undocumented teenagers since being dropped off by a bus with dozens of other migrant children three months ago. He didn’t plan on becoming a street performer, but as it turned out, making a living out of being still and silent came naturally to Manuel.
When he made the long and arduous trip from his hometown in Guatemala, leaving his ailing mother and 4‑year old sister behind, he learned to persevere and push through pain under the most erratic, distressing circumstances. When he spent almost a year in overcrowded shelters at the US-Mexico border, with barely any understanding of English, he learned to keep to himself and to stay quiet for hours on end, without compromising his mental fortitude. When he could barely support himself in the new city he’d call home, he learned to be resourceful and vigilant to make ends meet. Manuel didn’t have a choice; he had to survive.
Under broad daylight, Manuel glistened of the rust and dust that had been emblematic of his journey to America. As his shadows grew longer with each passing hour, he reflected on how this past month, he’d finally achieved some sense of stability—but not normalcy. Normalcy was different; he didn’t believe his life was and would ever be normal. In many ways, Manuel embodied his copper-skinned Western persona. He was an outlaw—illegal, unwelcome, always on the run. And yet, every day, Manuel found solace and meaning in the stillness, as he held onto the American dream. Like a living statue, Manuel was defiant and unmoved—and most importantly, he knew in his heart that he was here to stay.
Nicola de Vera (she / her) is a queer writer born and raised in Manila, Philippines. She now lives in Los Angeles, trading one city of tropics & traffic jams for another. She holds a BA in Communication from Ateneo de Manila University and an MBA from Cornell University. When off from her full-time job in product management, she reads, writes, and cheers for Angel City FC.