Guttman students in Professor Ria Banerjee’s Fall 2021 Introduction to Media Studies course began a virtual visit from award-winning Colombian photographer Joana Toro reflecting on whether they have seen the costumed performers dressed as superheroes or cartoon characters in Times Square. Have they ever wondered what stories are hidden behind the masks of these performers? Ms. Toro, who dressed as Hello Kitty while attending Hunter College as a newly arrived immigrant to the US in 2012, provided students with insight into these human experiences. Students learned about the economic battles faced by these artists, most of them undocumented immigrants, who carry out this work to earn a living. The lives of these costumed performers came to light in 2020 through the Pulitzer-funded project Where is Mickey Mouse? developed by Toro, together with writer Emily Stewart. “I think immigrants and immigration have been more natural in the way we talk about it, [but] it is something that has to be less stigmatized,” Toro told Prof. Banerjee’s students.
The event was organized by Guttman and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting as part of a collaboration that seeks to engage students in understanding and challenging systemic issues around the world that are under-reported in mainstream media. “Humans are immigrants by nature. Why we have to talk about it as this is something illegal – that´s not coherent,” Toro said. Before the pandemic, the costumed performers totaled to around 300 people. Almost all of them are Latin American and African migrants, often without proper immigration documents. They eke out a meager living based on the tips that tourists, who pose for photographs with the performers, choose to give them.
During the session at Guttman, students asked Toro questions ranging from why the performers have not been able to look for a full-time job, to their income, to the effects of the pandemic on their work. Toro shared that on a good day, before the pandemic, performers could reach between $100 and $250 for 8-9 hours of work a day. Since the pandemic, many have not been able to return to work in Times Square, and for those who have, making $100 is the most that they could hope to make in a day. “In the time of COVID I decided to continue looking at this community, what happened to them, [what’s left] in the empty streets?” She discovered that many artists returned to their countries while others were deported. The students expressed surprise on learning of the daily battles these “superheroes” and cartoon characters face when they remove their costumes. They reflected afterwards on how the event helped them to realize the impact that media can have on raising awareness of the things we take for granted.
Students enrolled in Profs. Grace Pai and Nicholas Fortier’s hybrid Introduction to Social Justice course also engaged with Ms. Toro’s work as part of an asynchronous Desmos activity on conducting community research. After completing pre-reflection questions and watching a clip of the recording of the live session, students applied Toro’s journalistic experience and storytelling tips to their own research project of a social justice issue in a NYC neighborhood, which culminated in creating a social media story they posted in an Instagram class gallery.
The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is a non-profit leader in sponsoring coverage of under-reported global issues. Guttman Community College has been part of the Pulitzer Center’s Campus Consortium since 2017. The Campus Consortium is comprised of a network of partnerships between the Pulitzer Center and colleges across the US aimed at engaging students and faculty in investigating critical global issues through journalist visits and Student Reporting Fellowships. In addition to journalist visits, one Guttman student will be sponsored to become a Student Reporting Fellow in 2021-22. Applications for the fellowship close February 22, 2022.