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Parkland Father Manuel Oliver Will Not Back Down

Manuel Oliver lost his son during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas. He hasn't stopped fighting for everyone else's children since.

changetheref/Instagram

One year ago today, Manuel Oliver saw his 17-year-old son, Joaquin, or “Guac” as his friends called him, for the last time. Guac was armed with a bouquet of sunflowers to give his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day. Hours later, Manuel, an artist and advertising executive, would count his son as one of the ‘missing’ in the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida. Hours later, Manuel and his wife Patricia found out the unimaginable: Guac was dead.

But he was never, ever forgotten. Manuel and Patricia made sure of that. In the year following, Manuel, who immigrated with Patricia to Parkland from Venezuela, has dedicated himself to a particular brand of not-so-subtle activism. He started a non-profit advocacy group called “Change the Ref,” which seeks to vote out politicians who take NRA money and vote in politicians with gun-safety agendas, and used his artist training and guerilla advertising instincts to keep focus on Guac and the 16 other lives lost. Recently, he went viral for confronting congressman Matt Gaetz and went viral for eviscerating Louis C.K’s recent “jokes” about Parkland. But Manuel’s biggest project has been a year-long art installment. He and his team created 16 separate murals, sculptures, 3D printed likenesses, and paintings of Guac all over the country. Each featured 17 holes punched through the portraits to represent each life lost in the shooting.

Today, at 28th street and 6th avenue in Manhattan, New York City, Manuel will complete the final painting in the “Guac” series — but not his final painting for the movement. Not by a long shot. He’s got much more to say — and do.  Fatherly talked to Manuel about his unimaginable year, his activism, and about the world he wants to see for all of the other Joaquin’s who have survived.

It’s the anniversary of Parkland. How do you feel?

It’s been a tough year. Like a rollercoaster. Mixed feelings, ups and downs. It’s like a learning experience. How do you deal? How do you continue your life without the person that you love, more than anyone else in the whole world? That’s not an easy thing to keep on doing. But at the end of the day, you understand that you have to. Because there is an issue. That issue needs to be solved. So along with my wife, who decided that we were going to be part of a solution, and not part of a problem. That process has been really painful. But in some way, it’s also been empowering us to do what do today. So, here we are, a year after. Without Joaquin. But, frankly, all the other Joaquin’s out there are able to go ahead with their lives and survive this epidemic of gun violence.

Once you lose your son, you try to still be a father. I try to do that every single day. For Joaquin.

Change the Ref is an organization that you stated with your wife, Patricia, that aims to get NRA-backed politicians out of office. What does the name mean? 

It’s a name that Joaquin created himself. Joaquin was a basketball player. he loved playing basketball. I had the chance to be the coach of his team on his last season. He had an argument with a referee during one game. The ref decided to throw him out of the game. Joaquin approached me and asked me, “Dad, Coach, can you fix this? Can you do something about this?” That guy made a bad call. So I decided to talk to the referee, and the referee ended up throwing me out of the game. So now me and my son were not able to play or finish that game. He told me on our way home, “Dad, we need to change the ref. That ref is going to give us unfair games. There’s no way we can win a game. It’s like he’s receiving money from the other team. If that continues, there’s no way we can move forward as a team.”

I said okay. I said we’d try to do something about it, and that I kind of agreed with him.

Two weeks after that conversation, Joaquin was shot down. His shooter shot him four times. He died. I don’t know if he suffered or not. That is something that bothers me a lot.

So when I started looking at the games, watching the news and the interviews, I understood that there’s a team out there and they’re putting money behind our referees. There’s a team that represents the gun lobby and the NRA and they are giving money to our politicians. We can’t believe our referees will make the right calls and they can’t make the right calls. Their pockets are dirty. Their hands are dirty. They don’t really care about our loved ones. That day, I understood what ‘Change the Ref’ really meant for Joaquin. That’s what we do every single day.

We try to make sure that no leader that is or should be, in any way, related to the gun lobby capable of making a decision that will benefit the whole society. He can not do that. It’s just not in his nature. So we will call them out, like we did a couple of weeks ago. [Editor’s Note: Manuel is referring to getting kicked out of a hearing on gun violence when Matt Gaetz, a Congressman from Florida, argued that building a wall along the southern border would save more lives than gun control. Manuel has since raised $40,000 for Gaetz’s opponent in 2020.] And we are going to let them know who we are. If your campaign was sponsored by the NRA, then you shouldn’t be able to discuss any gun law. You’re just not qualified for that.

Nothing I can tell you will bring Joaquin back. I’d rather stay cool with the idea that we will have a better future for those kids.

Over the past year you’re become a bit of a father-figure to the Parkland kids. Was joining them and starting Change the Ref something that happened naturally or was it unintentionally?

Once you lose your son, you try to still be a father. I try to do that every single day. For Joaquin. Being able to connect with the kids who are the same age that Joaquin was — he was 17 — I gotta tell you, it makes us feel hope. I love these kids. I think they are the solution to the problem. As much as I can do to empower them and learn from them, if there’s something I can not do anymore for my son [but I can do for them], I would be more than happy to do it.

We’ve done things together for Change the Ref and for March for Our Lives. We have been able to align our ideas. I have expectations about those kids. They are going to keep on learning, they are going to keep on progressing, in terms of their plan and what they want as a nation. They will reach a point where they will become leaders. The leaders that will make the final decisions. There is only hope ahead. That hope applies more-so to anybody that still has their family, than the Olivers. Because we do have hope, but there is also a lot of sadness in between that feeling of hope.

But, you know what? It is how it is right now. Nothing I can tell you will bring Joaquin back. I’d rather stay cool with the idea that we will have a better future for those kids.

When did you start feeling that hope?

I think when we started exchanging ideas with the kids, getting together, learning from them again. Learning is the key word here. I know that I’m an adult. I’m 51 years old. But I learned that sometimes, I need to just stay quiet and listen when it comes to the kids and what they want. At some point in the relationship, we found out that most of these ideas were things I totally agree with, and I think that I got to get to a next level of finding out how will I be helpful, using my abilities or my quote-unquote talents of using art as a tool to communicate. How do we put all those things together? How do we connect those dots, to find a solution? It was pretty easy at that point to understand what both sides could do. And today it’s very fluid. We respect each other. It’s just a very organic way of working together.

Why were murals your choice? To me, it feels very confrontational. Not violent, but confrontational.

I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve been an artist for a while and I’ve been a creative director on the advertising scene. I just didn’t have such an important mission before like the one that I have now. At some point, when I was planning to do something, I was wondering: “Where do I fit here? What can I do that comes from my heart? That will really mean something for Joaquin?”

I spent a lot of afternoons with Joaquin in my studio, just talking. He wasn’t an artist himself, in terms of painting. He was a great writer and thinker. We spent a lot of time together just hanging out while I was painting. He would talk to me. We would listen to music. To me, this is a nice way for me to connect with my son. To represent him. It also happens to be a very uncomfortable comfort zone for me.

What do you mean by that?

I can handle this. I feel that I have control over what I’m doing. Having control over what you do is mandatory when your emotions are running from one place to the other. Control is something that is not easy to find when you go through this tragic moment in life. Anything that makes you feel that you have control helps a lot. Art has that impact on me. And it connects, in a very smooth way, with the youth.

It’s a perfect storm. It’s not what I want, but all the elements are together to make it work.

The mural on the anniversary of the shooting marks the final, 17th mural. How do you feel? Will you keep painting after that?

Tomorrow we have a great opportunity to make a statement. And we will. We don’t lose opportunities. The mission is way bigger than the moment. We will be building a platform for the Oliver’s, to make our point and our statement. That said, it won’t be the last mural.

This is mural number 17, representing the victims of Parkland. But if you look at these as a mural for victims, and that we do have a gun violence problem in the whole nation, I’ll keep on using that mural. But I don’t have time enough to do 100 murals a day. I don’t have time enough for the rest of my life to build 40,000 murals per year. I think that all victims deserve to be heard. Moving forward, we will find ways to do murals in a faster and more effective way.

We have this discussion in our house, on a daily basis, that we need to find ways to give a voice to every single victim. Regardless of where he or she was shot down. Regardless of where he or she ended up with their own lives. Regardless of it was in a school, or in a music venue, or a theatre, or a yoga salon, or a synagogue. They’re all victims. We understand that by putting these messages together, we are actually approaching this in a different way. I don’t need people to feel sad about me. I don’t need to keep showing Joaquin’s photo and ask for your thoughts and prayers. I don’t need that.

Joaquin isn’t resting in peace. He’s resting in power. And he will bring more and more victims so they can raise their voices through our methods of connecting to people, and a way more effective message that will finally reach the urgency that we have as a nation.

After you complete and unveil the mural, how will you spend tomorrow?

It’s another day of us — Patricia and myself — getting up there, praying for our son, and being part of the solution.

The magic three words here are “what really matters.” We need to repeat that to ourselves as much a we can. “What really matters.” What really matters here is to save more lives. If what we do today can save one life, then I’m fine. I can go to bed at night and say: ‘You know what, we saved lives. We’re good.’ And if we can do the same thing tomorrow and at the end of the year we can save 365 lives, then we’re good. But I’m expecting more than that. I’m just letting you know that what really matters here — and we should all understand that — is that we have an urgency. Time is running. We have been talking for maybe eight minutes, and [in that time] two or three people were just shot down in some place inside the United States. They won’t have an interview. Nobody will know their names. Some mother or father or sister or boyfriend or girlfriend now is receiving the news that they lost their loved one.

That is what really matters.

The magic three words here are “what really matters.” We need to repeat that to ourselves as much a we can. “What really matters.” What really matters here is to save more lives.

Of all the murals you’ve done, which do you think about most often?

As you know, Joaquin wasn’t able to graduate. He died three months before graduation day. Graduation day was a very important thing for him. A girl from Chicago [that we were working with] lost her brother to gun violence a few years before. I decided to paint Joaquin on graduation day, wearing everything, receiving his diploma from our president. At the podium, the president was the one giving the diploma away. Joaquin was happy. Wearing his sneakers. Exactly how I thought he’d be acting during graduation.

On the other corner, I painted the girl’s brother, and a poem that she wrote for her brother. In the center of the wall was Joaquin, wearing his graduation gown, and receiving the diploma, and with an open diploma in front of him, with that face that you have when you are proud of yourself. But the diploma was actually a death certificate. It was the actual certificate that we got for Joaquin when he was murdered. The podium had the number “$14,000,000+,” which is the amount of money that President Trump’s campaign brought in from the NRA. And this is Chicago. It’s a very dangerous city. They’ve been fighting gun violence for years, inside and outside of the schools. That wall told a story. With all these characters playing their own role in society. That’s what I do. And that’s what we’ll keep on doing.