Wish Book

Wish Book: Extraordinary challenges can’t keep this artist from painting

Manuel Rivera, 49, is a quadriplegic and artist who paints in his small Opa-locka apartment. He needs his old 2000 Dodge van upgraded with machinery to help him board easier.
Manuel Rivera, 49, is a quadriplegic and artist who paints in his small Opa-locka apartment. He needs his old 2000 Dodge van upgraded with machinery to help him board easier. Miami Herald Staff

Born without the use of his limbs, Manuel Rivera has never shied away from challenges.

As a teen, Rivera earned a scholarship to a prestigious art school in his native Nicaragua. He moved to Miami with his brother, who supported him through landscaping and roofing jobs.

And he paints prolifically, paintbrush clasped between lips. Rich oil landscapes of alpine forests, snow-capped peaks cutting through a purple-tinged sky. Rustic Nicaraguan villages, their colonial walls patched and faded. A village boy, his locks as brown and wavy as the palm thatch of his hut.

“I paint for me,” Rivera said. “I feel focused. I feel no stress.”

Indeed, despite his accomplishments, life is not easy for the 49-year-old Rivera. He survives on government assistance and food stamps in a tiny apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood of Opa-locka, spreading thin his money for food and painting supplies.

And what he needs most this holiday season: transportation.

Rivera owns a beat-up 2000 Dodge Caravan, donated by his church, which he needs to get him to frequent medical appointments. But his caretaker cannot load him and his mechanical wheelchair into the van, and the government program can’t cover the cost to install ramps or lifts to make the vehicle handicap-friendly.

“The modifications cost more than the van,” said Cristiana Robaina, who supervises Rivera’s case for Florida’s Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

So he and his caretaker must brave the public bus to doctor visits.

Rivera, the oldest of five siblings, was raised in Managua by a headstrong single mother who insisted he was no different than any other children. He was born with congenital quadriplegia — and has atrophied hands and feet. At 16, he entered the country’s national arts school, graduating in three years and earning a spot as a teacher’s assistant, Rivera said.

But political turmoil and violence spurred Rivera, at age 19, and one of his brothers to flee to Miami. They overstayed their visa; he was mostly depending on his brother for subsistence.

Even so, Rivera occasionally taught disabled children art — even appearing in a 1993 Miami Herald Neighbors feature story about a mentoring program.

“I’ll be happy because he teaches me,” an 11-year-old named Pedro told the newspaper. “I think the program is real nice. He taught me you have to look at the thing you're going to draw carefully before you draw it.”

In 1997, Rivera was one of eight South Floridians who staged a 22-day hunger strike at a Little Havana park in an effort to pressure lawmakers to give thousands of Nicaraguans legal U.S. residency. He eventually got his residency papers.

Since then, Rivera has existed on government assistance while continuing to paint. A few years back, he showed off his skills on Sabado Gigante, the recently canceled iconic Spanish-language variety show.

He is hoping to finish his biography, to be published through a Christian publishing company. For his 50th birthday next June, Rivera hopes to host an exhibition of his artwork. It would be his first, though he’s not sure where it would be hosted.

“He’s so admirable, the way he paints, it’s so beautiful.” Robaina said.

For now, the jovial Rivera lives day to day, cared for by Maria T. Diaz, who is paid through Medicaid. She sometimes spends up to 14 hours a day with him.

On a recent weekday, Diaz proudly showed off a series of recent paintings, some small, some big, most landscapes of the Nicaraguan countryside.

“I need yellow,” he says as he blends colors into the sky of a painting.

Diaz squirts a dot of paint onto a dish. She knows his work habits well — and marvels at his ability to use a smart phone and tablet, all with a stylus between his teeth.

“I’ve never seen anyone like him,” Diaz said. “He so humane. So respectful. We’re like family now.”

How to help: Wish Book is trying to help hundreds of families in need this year. To donate, pay securely at MiamiHerald.com/wishbook. To give via mobile phone, text WISH TO 41444. For information, call 305-376-2906 or email wishbook@MiamiHerald.com. (Most requested items: laptops and tablets for school, furniture, accessible vans.) Read more atMiamiHerald.com/wishbook.

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