Joaquin Oliver loved basketball, the music of Frank Ocean and his family. On February 14, 2018, only a few months before he was supposed to graduate high school, he was shot down with an AR-15 in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas massacre. He was 17 years old.
The massacre became a turning point for the gun control movement, sparking conversations on bump stocks, background checks, and eliminating NRA money from politics. It also ignited nationwide school walkouts and the March for Our Lives, which became the largest youth-led demonstration in U.S. history, drawing nearly 1.2 million people from across the country.
Before the shooting, Joaquin’s father, Manuel Oliver, was an artist who had immigrated from Venezuela to pursue a safer life for his family. Today, Manuel is dedicated to exposing NRA corruption, empowering young activists and honoring Joaquin, who he says was not only his son but his best friend.
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Since Joaquin’s death, Manuel has traveled across America with his organization, Change the Ref, to continue the conversation on gun violence through urban art. The organization, founded by him and his wife Patricia, takes its name from a conversation Manuel had with his son shortly before his death. After a referee made an unfair call during a basketball game, Joaquin told Manuel, who coached his team, that they would not be able to win unless they “changed the ref.”
To date, Manuel has created 30 murals — what he calls “graphic activism”— in cities devastated by gun violence, from Chicago to El Paso. He’s celebrated what should have been Joaquin’s 18th birthday by leading protesters in singing “Happy Birthday” outside the NRA headquarters. He’s also made headlines for putting a bulletproof vest on Wall Street’s famous “Fearless Girl” statue, and for 3D-printing sculptures of children cowering under desks, hiding from a school shooter. More recently, he’s produced a one-man show about his son’s life, called “Guac: My Son, My Hero.” The show will be debuting at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach on Sept. 20 before going on a national tour.
Loretta Graceffo: The organization you and your wife started, Change the Ref, is known for using unconventional methods to get your point across. How do you approach spreading your message, and why do you think it’s effective?
Manuel Oliver: I try to do things that haven’t been tried yet. Our methods are nontraditional, because I’ve seen traditional methods failing. We’ve had a blue Senate, we’ve had a blue house in Congress, and we didn’t see those results. Relying on politicians isn’t always the answer. Politicians will always tell you what you want to hear, but not necessarily what they’re going to do.
The only thing I know how to do is art, which also happens to be an nontraditional way of hitting this, because I haven’t seen it before. I’ve seen it before from artists, but not from fathers of victims. So we have a way to impact people in a legit way. What we do is often more social than political. I really believe in social movements as a way to change our problem from the roots.
We did it with the tobacco industry. That, more than a political decision, was a community decision. A civil decision. We found it disgusting, and now you don’t see the tobacco lobby showing their power over politicians. I think that the NRA and the gun lobby are going towards the same destiny that the tobacco industry had. But the only way to do that is with the right message — very disruptive, very nontraditional, and sometimes uncomfortable for some people.
Because of your murals, there are thousands of people across America who feel like they know Joaquin. Why is it important to portray Joaquin’s personality through your art?
My first role here is to be Joaquin’s dad. This is not about people knowing about me, I don’t give a shit about people knowing me. I try to make sure people know all the elements that made my son such a great person. Joaquin was a natural born activist before the shooting. We had amazing conversations about civil rights and social issues and injustice. He was very concerned about gun violence. Really concerned. The sad part was that he was murdered. He became a target. We cannot have that powerful voice with us anymore, unless we do what we’re doing. I’m here to share his message, in the most rapid way, to everybody. We work together in this, me and Joaquin. This is more his statement than my art.
By knowing about Joaquin, you will understand that a nice, beautiful person was shot down in the most unfair way that you could ever imagine. Inside his school, walking as a student, making sure that he had a good education, being happy on Valentine’s Day, giving flowers to his girlfriend. He had a coffee that morning with his dad. So I can make sure people know all that.
One of your most powerful murals was painted on the US-Mexico border. What was your experience creating that mural, and why did you decide to make a mural there?
Everyone was talking about building a wall, so we went to Tijuana, Mexico. And we wrote on the border wall, next to Joaquin’s image, “Del otro lado tambien matan a nuestros hijos,” [which means, “On the other side, they also murder our kids.”]
I was trying to put together two things that really affect me. One is gun violence, because I lost my son. And the other one is the way people treat immigrants like me and my son and my wife. Those two things motivated me to do whatever it takes to make a statement.
I remember the border patrol on the American side wondering what I was doing, because they cannot access the other side. Now, when I go out of the country and then back, they ask me a lot of questions. I had a nice conversation with an immigration officer who said, “You understand that I have to ask you questions, because you were actually painting on a property of the United States government, and this is my job.”
I told him, “Well, you have to understand that this is my job. I’m trying to save your kid. Because it’s too late for me to save my kid.” And that always ends in a handshake, or a “keep on doing what you’re doing.” I really find a lot of support. You’d be surprised where the support is coming from.
Your latest project is an interactive one-man show called “Guac: My Son, My Hero” that tells the story — equal parts joyful and devastating — of your family and your son’s life. How have you approached theater as a tool to advocate for social justice?
The murals, they involve public speaking. So I understand that you have to have an active presence with communities to let them know what’s going on. It’s a really powerful way of approaching the problem. Theater is just another tool to empower and make the message even more accessible to people. In a way, I’m entertaining people, and I’m fine with that, because while I’m entertaining you, I’m also letting you know what’s going on.
Making the show interactive wasn’t a decision, it was something I discovered through doing different events. It is a natural feeling, in all of us, to want to be a part of things. We want to be there in the first row, and we want to hang out with whoever is taking the lead. I love that interaction with people, the mutual feeling of supporting each other.
I also want people to see that there’s another side in all this, which is way more important than being mad and not being part of the solution — that is remembering how great the victims were, how wonderful their lives were and how much we miss them. Joaquin danced and laughed all day long, and he deserves to be remembered and honored and supported in a happy way. A lot of people will identify with that. A lot of viewers of the play will see themselves. You’ll probably be thinking that it could happen to you at some point, so you better be part of the solution.