As children, our parents and teachers drilled it into our heads that we should never talk to strangers. I’m sure they meant well.
Luckily, that sage advice of my elders faded away as I got older. Today, camera in hand, I’ll talk to just about anyone. Because everyone’s got a story to tell. Everyone has something in their life that makes them different. That one thing nobody has the nerve to ask them about that makes them interesting.
So it went a couple of years ago when Jenn and I were in New York City with our good friends for a weekend of fun. While exploring The Whitney Museum of American Art, I noticed a man sitting on a bench against the wall while everyone walked by the large scale stained glass installation in front of him. I took a seat next to him.
“It’s an interesting piece of work,” I said. “Are you the artist?”
“Flattered, but no. You don’t recognize me?”
I took a longer look at him, wracking my brain to see if he was a movie star I should have known at first sight. “I’m sorry, but I don’t.”
“I’m the Mayor of the Meatpacking District.”
Which, sadly, still meant nothing to my IMDB-searched memory. But damn if I wasn’t going to spend some time talking to someone with a title like that. Jenn and my friends continued on. I stayed seated next to him as he regaled me with pieces of the story of his life.
His given name is Roberto Monticello. He’s lived in the Meatpacking District for a quarter of a century and New York City for 40 years. A Cuban immigrant, Monticello has lived a life that could be measured well beyond the years he has lived. He has directed more than 50 plays and 28 films, including a documentary exposing the human trafficking of hundreds of children annually from Malaysia, Philippines and Cambodia to the greater New York City area. He spoke about the larger meaning of his work and how he used it to help others.
I was fascinated by Roberto. When I returned from the weekend, I did some digging and discovered I had only scratched the surface of the life this remarkable man has lived:
Swimming for his freedom in Guantanamo Bay at 17Meet The Mayor Of Meatpacking, by Rachelle Hruska · September 25, 2009
Journeying to Ethiopia three times during the famine, once as a refugee camp director
Surviving beatings in South America while traveling in pursuit of Nazi war criminals
Living with Peruvian Indians in the Andes
Recording human rights abuses in Afghanistan during the Russian presence
Accompanying the U.N. at Hotel Rwanda
Suffering 3 gun shot wounds, one in Guatemala, where he was investigating the killings of Native Indians; another, taking medicine to his home country of Cuba, and the third in Darfur (on his 4th trip there), where he was on a mission for the Red Cross
Bringing boatloads of medication twice a year back to his home country, Cuba, and working to end the U.S. Embargo and Travel Ban there
Winning the Film Humanitarian Award from the Queens Film Festival for his work in Darfur, Cuba, Serbia, Rwanda and Sri Lanka
Recipient of the UNICEF Relief Dag Hammarshjold Medal
I stole a few more minutes from my friends and thanked Roberto for telling me his story. I asked him if I could make a portrait of him and he thankfully obliged. I knelt down, framed his red hat against the wall, and pressed the camera shutter twice, honored to have the opportunity to further the mayor’s story.