Mexico City’s busiest park is host to all sorts of street performers, vendors, buskers, and hustlers. Our favorite group is this ragtag family of kids who dress up in bootleg costumes of famous characters.
[photo at left]: I am in charge of a couple of photo stands here in Chapultepec Park. We take pictures of children with their favorite characters from movies and TV. I’ve been working here for 15 years now. There’s no other way to get a spot to work—it is impossible to get a permit unless you have been doing it for a long time. My father has been taking pictures in Chapultepec for more than 30 years now, so it’s no problem for us.
Actually, he started the portrait business, and then he and my husband ran it for a long time. It was my idea to make the costumes. I sew them all myself. The first ones I made were Winnie the Pooh and Tigger. My family thought it wasn’t going to work, but I proved them wrong. Now we are doing very well. Some people are even envious of us. My husband’s family has burned my house to the ground three times. Literally, they went in, spilled gasoline everywhere, and set it on fire. The pricks.
Nowadays, I run the business. I am the one making money in my house. My husband, he helps with money for food and some basic stuff but he is always asking me for more. I know he spends it on things he shouldn’t, but I don’t really mind. He is a good man. He used to be quite a troublemaker when he was young, getting into all sorts of fights, carrying a knife, drugs, you know… I remember the first time I saw him I was walking down the street with my mother and I told her, “Look, mother, that is going to be your son-in-law.” He was so well built and handsome. Still is.
We have around 30 costumes. Spiderman is my favorite. Around 20 children work for us. We have boys and girls. The youngest one is 11 years old and the oldest one is around 20. We pay them a weekly salary, depending on the days they come, and they also get tips from customers. I try to help all the children that ask me for a job. Most of them really need it—they have dropped out of school or their parents neglect them. And I try to take special care of the ones with drug problems. I have a way of curing them. If I see that one of them is getting lost in drugs, then, out of the blue, I pack up the truck and I take them on tour to carnivals and fairs all over Mexico. I keep an eye on them all day and since we work until very late, like 3 or 4 AM, they don’t have the energy to try to run away or search for drugs.
Laura and some of her performers
Usually the poor kids that do drugs in Mexico City sniff glue, smoke weed, or do coke—around where I live you can get a little bag with a few grams of coke for 25 pesos [$2 US]. The city is not doing enough to put the drug dealers in jail, not even the ones preying on children. So if I find one of them taking drugs in front of the other kids, I don’t think about it twice. I fire them on the spot.
I think of all of them as my children. If you do the math, I have had hundreds and I loved all of them very much. I used to have two sons, you know? The youngest one, Eugenio, the one I loved the most, was murdered in an armed robbery. It’s not that I don’t like Victor, his brother, but it’s just that he was into drugs and bad relationships. He’s changed now. He helps me a lot with the business. He even has his own stand down the street. But it was his brother who taught me how to do things right. I would never break the law, for example, because Gugu—that’s what we called him—would’ve never approved. I miss him so much.
He had life insurance and I used that money to invest in a printer and a new camera. I also bought a real live lion with the money. You know the Xola subway station, not too far away from here? I bought it there. They sell all kinds of exotic animals in the subway, believe it or not. You just have to know who to ask. I called the lion Gugu de Malabú. He was my baby. I used to feed him milk from a baby bottle. I tried to get a permit to own him legally but I never could so I had to give him to the authorities. They took him to a zoo in Sonora. I was that lion’s mother. He never harmed me. He lived inside the house with us, like a puppy. He did destroy the living room once, but we still liked him. When I handed him over to the authorities, I told him, “If I lost the person I loved the most in my life, I have to be able to let you go too.”
I give thanks for having had a great son like mine. But also once a week I thank my other adopted children for their effort and for taking such good care of me. Let’s go and meet some of them...
OMAR AND JAVIER
Vice: Hi Omar, how old are you?
Which character do you usually dress up as?
Spiderman. Though sometimes I also work taking pictures and printing them out. It depends who’s here.
How long have you been working here?
Since September. Before this I worked in a kitchen selling chips and corn dogs, but it was too tiring. I like this more. And a few of my cousins work here too. It was the youngest one that started here first. He was Tigger, and he was only 11 years old when he started.
What’s your cousin’s name?
Javier. He’s 15 now. He’s deaf. We live like three houses away from each other in Chimalhuacán.
That’s pretty far. How long does it take you to get here every day?
An hour and a half.
Can you help us communicate with Javier?
Yes. We can sign to each other.
Where did you learn sign language?
I don’t know sign language and neither does he, but since we’ve been together for so long, we have our ways of understanding each other.
OK. How long have you worked here, Javier?
in improvised sign language to Omar
] Three and a half years.
We have a picture of you as Spiderman.
Yes, but I like the donkey costume better. It is more suited to me.
Because donkeys don’t talk. I don’t like others using the donkey costume. They don’t take good care of it and they leave foul smells. I am the only one who takes it home, where my mother will wash it.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
I used to practice basketball for handicapped people. I once even went to Washington to play. I was really good. But I stopped playing because I got bored and felt the training courts were too far away.
Down the street I saw some girls hitting on a guy dressed as Elmo. Do you get that often?
Omar: Yes, a lot of girls that skip school come here and they start flirting with the donkey. We introduce Javier to them, but it ends after they leave.
Can you ask Javier if it gets very hot inside the costume?
He says that he has gotten used to it. Other kids feel the heat and never want to wear the costume again. But he doesn’t mind because he likes being the donkey.
Are you in school, Omar? Do you want to keep working here?
No. I would like to be a photographer. But not a photographer here. I want to be an event photographer.
Do you wonder what becomes of the pictures in which you appear?
Not really. We’ve been in so many pictures.
Vice: Tell us about yourself.
My name is Miguel Angel, I am 19 years old.
When we were here taking photos for the magazine, someone else was wearing the Elmo costume.
Yeah, sometimes we switch. For example, I was Elmo earlier today but they made me change into Winnie the Pooh. I don’t like Pooh because the belly is too big and it’s uncomfortable. Besides, it’s hotter than Elmo. I get jealous when someone else gets to be Elmo instead of me.
How long have you been working here?
A couple of months. I used to work here before but I had to go to my mother’s hometown. When I returned I asked for the job back. I like it because you can play with children and make them laugh, and I get a salary plus what I make from tips.
How do you make people laugh?
I like to act like I’m very happy. Sometimes I pretend to fall off the chair. That always works. That’s why I like Elmo better. He can be funnier. It’s difficult to move with the Pooh costume.
Are you in school?
No. I was but I had to drop out to help my mom take care of my little brothers and help out around the house while she worked. She sells shampoo. She buys the bottles, fills them with shampoo, and sells them door to door.
Where is your father?
He went to Los Angeles. He works machinery over there. He crossed the border illegally about a year ago.
How long did it take him to get to Los Angeles?
Around two or three weeks. He told me they caught him twice and deported him, but he tried a third time and finally made it. I remember feeling desperate while I was waiting for his call. I even cried a couple of times. I love my parents very much and I was really worried about him.
What was in his bag when he left?
He had a backpack with some pants, shirts, and a pair of shoes.
Didn’t he take any pictures of your family?
No, he didn’t take anything else. He left because he wanted to buy a car. We both like Mustangs a lot. Recently he told me that he has one already and that he wants to make arrangements to bring me and one of my brothers to him. We talk on the phone once a week.
What do you do in your free time?
Study. I taught myself to read. I didn’t learn much at school because I wasn’t very bright. I tried to read the books the teachers gave me but I didn’t know how. So later I decided to pay more attention while I was in the street looking at signs and announcements and I finally managed to make sense of letters and group them into words. I also really like the masked wrestling matches on TV. And a telenovela called
La Central de Abastos.
I also like watching cartoons. If we get to watch a cartoon with one of the characters I dress up as, I always tell my little brothers that it is me on TV. I like that.
Do you have a girlfriend?
I used to have one but we broke up. Sometimes, when I’m in the Elmo costume, girls flirt with me. But I think that if I took the mask off they would get scared. With the costume I hug them and send them kisses. If they send kisses back I laugh and pretend to cover my face, as if I were shy.
Would you act that way without wearing a mask?
I think so, but I don’t think they would pay me any attention. I don’t like my face. I think it looks ugly. I am undergoing acne treatment. They charge me $55 for each session. I’m supposed to go every day, but I can only go on Mondays. My mom promised she would take care of it. She has bought a lot of products, but none have worked.
Vice: Have you seen Shrek around? A little guy, like ten years old, chubby, with orange hair?
Oh, I know who you mean. No, he doesn’t work here anymore.
Really? Why did he stop coming?
I think his name is Cristian, but we used to call him “Carnitas” [“little meat”]. I think his stepfather forbade him to come. He is still in school, so maybe it took too much time from his homework. He was very funny though, we liked him very much.
How long have you been working here?
Are you in school right now?
No. I applied to study medicine but I failed the exam. I am going to do it again, but this time for accounting. It’s easier to get in the university that way.
But don’t you want to study medicine?
Yes, but it’s easier to change your major after you pass the exam. Once a teacher showed me a medicine book and I really liked the pictures. That’s when I decided I wanted to become a doctor.
What were the pictures of?
Diseases. The ones I liked best were gangrene and syphilis.
Which characters have you been?
I have been Barney and the Coca-Cola Bear. But those costumes were too small and hot for me. Now I am Spiderman. I like it better. I can identify with him, Things don’t always go right for him, and sometimes he messes stuff up, but then he struggles to make everything better—just like me. Sometimes I can be hurtful to people I love but then I try to win them back.
Is there another character that you would like to be?
Yes, Captain America. I am a big comics fan and Captain America has always been my favorite. I asked Doña Laura to make a costume. It’s almost finished, but they haven’t been able to get the mask right yet.