Seventeen years ago, Manuel and Patricia Oliver emigrated from Venezuela to the United States with their children Andréa and Joaquín. They settled in Parkland, Florida, and began adapting to life as Americans. Having left his family and friends behind, Manuel’s world shrank as it expanded—fewer personal connections, greater opportunities. His little family unit of four became the center of his universe, and Joaquín became his best friend. The feeling was mutual.
On February 14, 2018, Manuel’s story took a left turn. Joaquín’s high school had been the site of a mass shooting; Joaquín was one of the 17 killed at Parkland.
Oliver’s life split the day he lost his son. A creative director and artist, a painter, he had worked to make a good life for his family; now, a drive to protect other families has taken over. “I had the perfect life,” Oliver says. Simple.
As Oliver sits and speaks, the photo of his son stamped on the chest of his T-shirt seems to grow. “GUAC” it says, Joaquín’s nickname. I wondered to myself if Oliver could bear to wear anything else, or if he now just lives in a series of GUAC shirts, carrying his son from place to place so Joaquín can still see the world, even though he is gone.
In the recent aftermath of the shooting, a Miami gallery offered to host photos of those lost in an exhibition called Parkland 17, organized by the Miami Heat’s Dwayne Wade. Instead of hanging a photograph, Oliver, a creative director by trade and an artist, asked to paint a portrait—how he saw his son. Oliver then began to paint murals around the country, memorials to Guac and reminders to the communities; to date, he has painted 37 nationwide. Oliver spoke in interviews, attended anti-gun violence rallies, shared his story. But it wasn’t enough. With the help of writer-director James Clements, and artistic advisory from Hamilton’s Leslie Odom, Jr., Dear Evan Hansen’s Benj Pasek, producer Yael Silver, and activists Michael Skolnik and Emily Tisch Sussman, Oliver shaped his story—his son’s story—into a solo performance that next plays New York City’s 92nd Street Y November 22.
“I want to be able to look at people in their eyes,” says Oliver. Oliver was drawn to theatricalizing his story because of the presence, the attention demanded of people in the room, and the innate mini community formed because of it. “I want to connect.” Painting is solitary; rallies are loud—and populated by people who agree with you. Theatre, Oliver has faith, is where change can happen.
His show mixes conventional solo theatre with live painting, video footage, and mixed media in an affecting, tragic, beautiful, funny evening. Through his story we meet Joaquín, a teenager into movies and basketball; a boy who stood up for others, marching with Black Lives Matter; a young man excited by the world. But we also understand what it felt like that day in Florida, a father learning his son’s school was the site of a mass shooting; a man gripped by panic; an immigrant plagued with regret; a survivor emboldened with a responsibility.
A fire ignites in Oliver as he recites statistics. Each day, 100 people are shot and killed in the United States. Each day, 21 children and teens (ages 1-17) are shot in the United States. Each year, 36,383 people die from gun violence in the United States. He does not want your child to be like his. He does not want you to be like him.
That reality fuels him to take the stage night after night in towns across America. (New York is one stop on his Live Nation tour, which emphasizes stops in swing states.) Because no, it isn’t cathartic to perform this; it doesn’t feel healing to paint Guac’s face over and over. In fact, reliving February 14 pains Oliver. He says with a sigh, “The school scene is the hardest scene to play.” Because he isn’t playing.
While GUAC: My Son, My Hero may not personally help Oliver, he is comforted by the fact that it is helpful writ large. The cutting reality of his story activates parents and teens in his audiences. It moves the middle towards sensible solutions against gun violence as a type of grassroots artivism. Tangibly, proceeds from GUAC benefit Change the Ref, a non-profit formed by the Olivers to empower future leaders—as, Oliver says, too many in Washington have remained immobile in protecting lives. The funds help bring GUAC to schools around the country, and provide tools to help youth learn leadership skills, organizing tactics, and more.
“I cannot bring him back,” says Oliver of his son. “But I can keep his spirit, his activism alive. I can prevent this from happening again.”