In 2012, after working as a photographer in Latin America for the better part of a decade, Joana Toro moved to New York to study English.
Toro soon found herself in need of extra money, which led her roommate Marcela to introduce her to the semi-legal world of Times Square street performers. She was captivated by the mostly immigrant performers, who make a living by dressing as iconic characters, posing for pictures with tourists, and asking for tips.
“It was shocking at first to see Mickey Mouse did not speak English and was an immigrant from Mexico,” Toro told the New York Times. ” … It was surreal. A paradox.”
Soon after her introduction, Toro took up her own costume. For a year and a half, she donned the cumbersome costume of Hello Kitty and saw firsthand a world that most people can’t imagine.
Toro shared some photos from her experience, and you can see the rest at her website.
Toro was first introduced to the world of costumed performers by her roommate Marcela, who dances salsa with a Barack Obama mannequin.
When Toro decided to become a costumed character, she first tried wearing a Minnie Mouse costume. She ended up also trying Mickey Mouse and Dora the Explorer, before settling on Hello Kitty.
She rented the costume from Berta, a Mexican immigrant. She warned Toro that the gig was hard work and not very lucrative.
Despite the warnings, Toro decided to give it a try. She told Business Insider that it felt like being 'in an astronaut uniform on a strange planet.'
Over time, Toro became friendly with Berta, who put two of her sons through college from the 15 years she spent as a performer. Here, Berta wears a Mama Noel costume.
While in the suit, Toro's vision was reduced to a small dark hole that she could only use one eye to see out of.
Toro chose Hello Kitty, because she says it made her feel more comfortable, which she says is crucial to attracting more people. There was also another reason: 'When you're Mickey Mouse, the little boys high-five you. Hard. They slap you on the back. Hello Kitty is cute and less of a problem,' Toro told the New York Times.
Toro soon met many of her 'co-workers,' who had diverse ages and backgrounds, including many who have professional backgrounds and college degrees. She said a large number of the performers are Mexican and Peruvian immigrants, who can't find jobs elsewhere.
Many performers commute to Manhattan from Passaic, New Jersey. They change into their costumes wherever they can.
Toro says that it's shocking when you realise that people wearing the masks of American icons don't speak English.
Toro would work on the weekends for 7 hours at a time. Depending on her luck, she could make anywhere from $US50 to $US250 per day.
While she says that her interactions with children often made the job heartwarming, it was also scary to have to deal with rude adults and teens, who yell at and push the performers.
The performers have been allowed to work because many assert that it is their first amendment right. The free-for-all could end this year. Lobbying groups are trying to force the city to regulate the performers, including who can work and what they can wear.
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