In Times Square, Cartoons and Superheroes Seek the American Dream

By KIRK SEMPLE / New York Times News Service

NEW YORK - Ricardo Rodríguez did not arrive lightly at his decision to become a cartoon character.

Before stepping into the Times Square hurly-burly of Elmos, Minnie Mouses and Batmen who pose for photographs and then coax customers for tips, Rodríguez spent a week studying the competition. He analyzed tourist behavior. He calculated potential earnings. And in the absence of anyone masquerading as a certain Nickelodeon star, he spotted an opportunity.

Thus was born SpongeBob SquarePants Rodríguez.

On his first day he made $80 in five hours, a better rate - and more interesting work - than the series of temporary jobs he had held since immigrating to the United States from Ecuador in March.

“I never imagined I’d be doing this,” said Rodríguez, 35, during a break on a recent evening, his angular foam costume perched on the sidewalk outside the Nasdaq building. “But if you think about life as a rich experience, the money will come.”

Market advantages among the street performers of Times Square have been hard to come by lately. In recent years, these costumed characters have become ubiquitous, replacing the more sordid denizens of decades past. To some critics, they are little more than colorfully attired panhandlers and a chronic nuisance at the Crossroads of the World.

But interviews with the men and women behind the masks reveal a fluid and loosely knit population of independent freelancers that has turned one New Jersey city into an enclave of Mickey Mouses and Sheriff Woodys and supported a brisk trade in Peruvian-made costumes. But it has also been unsettled by low-level tension, pitting fluffy cartoon characters against sleek superheroes.

Most of the performers are immigrants and many of them are undocumented, living hand-to-mouth while trying to negotiate a fraught relationship with the police and support families in the United States and in their home countries.

The performers have come under even greater pressure since a recent violent confrontation between a man dressed as Spider-Man and a police officer. The man was arrested after fighting with the officer, who had responded to the man’s aggressive solicitation, the authorities said.

The episode was the latest in a recent series of unpleasant encounters that have cast a cloud over the street performers. Two other Spider-Men were arrested in separate episodes in June, one charged with groping a woman and the other charged with assaulting a woman (he was found not guilty but was fined for harassment).

The rash of cases has renewed calls for more regulation; at least two City Council members have drafted bills requiring licensing and background checks of performers, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised “real steps to regulate this new reality.”

In their defense, the performers say that they make a lot of people happy, particularly children, and that they should not be judged based on the actions of an errant few.

“We aren’t all the same,” said Manuel Fernández, 24, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

On a recent evening he was impersonating the Statue of Liberty, holding a plastic torch and standing about 8 feet tall in blue-green robes that concealed stilts.

“We are simply trying to better ourselves in the United States,” he said through his rubber mask.

Earnings can vary wildly, from lows of $30 for eight hours of work to highs of more than $200. But the rates depend on numerous factors, including the day of the week (weekends generally top weekdays, though they also draw more performers) and the time of the year (as tourism peaks, so does business).

Veteran performers say the first cartoon characters began to appear in midtown Manhattan by the early 2000s. One seasoned performer, Berta Guerra, 50, a Mexican immigrant, made her debut as Elmo a decade ago in addition to working two factory jobs. There were only a couple of other characters working the area, she recalled, including a Pluto.

The population grew slowly for several years but exploded in 2011 after the creation of the pedestrian malls - to the chagrin of the veterans.

“I feel like my industry has been destroyed,” groused Juan Carlos Arias, 50, a Colombian Statue of Liberty who started performing in Times Square two decades ago, dancing salsa with a doll.

“Every day there is a new Spider-Man,” sighed a Moroccan Spider-Man who gave only his first name - El Houssine - because he did not want his family to know how he was making his living in the United States. “There are, like, 16 Spider-Men.”

Many of the performers live in working-class neighborhoods in New Jersey, a significant cluster of them in the city of Passaic.

“Next door there are five Elmos,” said Miguel Lezama, a 27-year-old Mexican, as he stood in the kitchen of a small apartment in Passaic that he shares with two other immigrants. He pointed in another direction: “On that side, a Cookie Monster and a Minnie. In front, a Winnie-the-Pooh and a Minnie. Up on Main Avenue, there are lots more.” He paused. “I live with a Cookie Monster.”

At certain times of the day, he said, there might be a dozen street performers standing on a corner of Main Avenue with their bulky costume sacks waiting for a bus to take them to midtown Manhattan.

After arriving in the United States in 2007, Lezama found work in landscaping and construction. But like many other performers, he followed a friend into the street performer business. He invested in his own Elmo costume, buying a used one for $150 from a Peruvian acquaintance who had imported it from Peru, where some of the best knockoff costumes are from. (New Peruvian-made outfits can cost as much as $400 in the United States.)

“I get to meet people, I move around,” Lezama said, ticking off the virtues of his job. “I’m not stuck in a factory, you don’t have a boss.”

New York City laws govern where the performers can work and what they are allowed to do - there is a fuzzy line between collecting donations legally and aggressively panhandling, which is illegal. Few performers seem to fully know the rules, in part because of language barriers: Many do not speak English.

But some willfully push or overstep the limits. Working in small groups, they crowd together for a photo, often uninvited by the tourist, then each puts out his hand for a tip.

“Lady, it’s for each,” said Tania Aurora, 43, a Peruvian dressed as Jessie from “Toy Story,” when a Japanese tourist produced a single dollar bill for a photo with her, a Grover and an Elmo.

“It’s OK,” the tourist responded kindly, drawing two more dollar bills from her purse. “I love Elmo.”

A vaguely defined ecosystem seems to exist within the community, with subspecies divided by costume type: The Disney, Pixar and “Sesame Street” characters gravitate toward one another, and the superheroes hang out with other superheroes.

Most performers said they would welcome more regulation, arguing that it would protect their jobs by helping to limit their numbers and weed out the problem performers. In addition, they said, it might help educate the public that they work for tips and are not props hired by the city, a common misconception.

But the community is amorphous, with no coherent lobby or apparent leadership. Performers are on their own, and they come and go as they please.

At the same time, a quiet, low-level animosity simmers among the groups. The cartoon characters blame the superheroes for ruining the community’s image. The undocumented immigrants say the U.S. citizens, not worried about deportation, arrogantly flout the law. And the veterans blame the newcomers, calling them money-grubbing arrivistes with no respect for the trade.

“We are street artists,” declared Fernández, the Dominican Statue of Liberty, gesturing with his plastic torch. “But the majority doesn’t have a sense of art. They simply put on their costume and make money.”

He suggested that the work, if done with care, can approach the sublime.

“Treat the tourists well and they’ll feel like they’ve been treated well by the actual Statue of Liberty,” he said. “It’s a precious, beautiful memory of the United States.”