Nicola de Vera ~ Outlaw

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.