"You Might Not Have Documents, But No Human Being Is Illegal"

Photo: Joana Toro/Redux.
As the year draws to a close, It’s a time to look back on things that happened over the past twelve months. Over the next few days, we’ll be revisiting some of our favorite stories from throughout the year, and seeing again what they mean for 2015 in review.

This story was originally published on September 22, 2015.

During the decade Joana Toro spent working as a photographer in Bogota, Colombia, she shot photojournalism, fashion spreads, ad campaigns, and more. But when Toro decided to move to New York to study English at Hunter college, she realized quickly that photography wasn't going to pay her bills while she was in school. For the next year and a half, she spent hours performing in Times Square, posing for photos, entertaining children — dressed as Hello Kitty and other iconic characters.

Toro was one of hundreds of street performers who dress up as beloved characters, from Mickey Mouse to Elmo to Batman. As Toro got to know the men and women under the oversized heads and furry suits, she decided she wanted to tell their stories. That desire became I Am Hello Kitty, her series documenting her own experiences and those of the mostly undocumented immigrants who spend their days trying to bring joy in exchange for pennies.

We talked to Toro about her project and the time she spent as that Sanrio cat, among others.

What was it like to work as these characters?
"Just working the street, the experience was not pleasant. Working is not a guarantee of anything: not security, not pay, not respect. So when you work for yourself, it’s very difficult.

"I had a wonderful time with people who were very kind with me. Kids were amazing; they are excited to see Hello Kitty, but it was also hard because street performers don’t have good reputations, so I had bad experiences with people who would talk with me and wouldn’t listen, people who didn’t respect your space. For me it was one of the most important experiences; I learned to be humble."
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The people behind those masks could be a mother or a grandmother.

What should people know about the performers in Times Square?
"I began to shoot because I was in a difficult situation at that time. I had all this experience as a photographer for many years, and suddenly I am in a costume, dancing for pennies. It was like a fall from my personal experiences.

"I tried to see things from the other side, to be proud of myself and to do the only thing I know, which is shoot. I began to shoot my story, but then the focus was other people. They have to work there for many years and are still working there. I began to see the other peoples’ story and see that they are so brave and proud and humble, and I saw they were just like me.
Photo: Joana Toro/Redux.
"For these people without education and opportunities, [performing is] the way that they have to survive. I think that people don’t know that the people behind those masks could be a mother or a grandmother, people with a story and identity, people who deserve to get respect.

"Maybe behind the mask there is a mother trying to make some money to help in her family. Many of these people are immigrants from Latin America, or Africa, or sometimes South America — the majority are immigrants who are undocumented."

Do you want you to keep shooting these performers?
"I think that this project began as something about myself, but now I think it has become something bigger. I think I can’t finish the project. I think I’m going to be working on it a little bit more."

Nobody is illegal. Maybe they don’t have documents, but no human being can be illegal.

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How do you think of your work in the context of the debate happening over immigration?
"This project shows examples of what happens when people are in cities: They have to survive whatever situation with no documents, no language, no experience. They have to survive. They can’t go back to their countries because of corruption, violence, problems in society. I hope that people understand that nobody is illegal. Maybe they don’t have documents, but no human being can be illegal.

"That situation changed my life. In Colombia, I was a professional photographer in the most important media, and then I was scrounging for pennies. I still stayed the same person, but the situation changed. I think sometimes in our life, maybe a situation changes, and we learn something about it. For me, it is not correct that people are criminalized for their place of birth or nationality...

"It’s ironic — I saw something ironic in this, because these undocumented immigrants represent Mickey Mouse or the Statue of Liberty, these important icons of America."
Photo: Joana Toro/Redux.
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