In Colombia he was somebody, and it almost got him killed. Now for his next trick . . .
By KELLEY BENHAM
Published April 4, 2004
[Times photos: Janel Schroeder-Norton]
Cesar Domico, 31, practices card tricks while waiting backstage for a recent magic competition at the Largo Cultural Center. It was his first time competing in the United States.
As other contestants in a magic competition get ready, Cesar Domico psyches himself up backstage at the Largo Cultural Center by practicing, meditating and praying.
Domico stocks shelves during his night shift at Wal-Mart in New Port Richey.
Domico performs a magic trick while using Scott Ester, left, and Jeanna Ojeda as props during his show at the Tarpon Springs campus of St. Petersburg College.
NEW PORT RICHEY - They barely notice him. He's not the guy who smiles and nods and says "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" but the guy before that, off to the side. The one who keeps the carts ready like saddled horses and nudges one forward when the automatic doors slide open.
He always smiles, tries to make eye contact.
"How are you today?" he will say, his English a little jerky. "Cart?"
Sometimes, they smile back.
He used to wear the blue Wal-Mart vest, but he hates the vest, so he just wears a name tag: Cesar. Once, in another place, it was a name people knew.
In the break room, he takes out a deck of cards. He shuffles them in his hands, or in one hand, over and over, because he is afraid his fingers might forget how the cards should feel.
If anyone is around he will say, "Watch this."
His co-workers lean in and study his hands, which seem to move fast and slow at the same time. In Cesar Domico's hands the cards do baffling things, again and again, no matter how closely the people watch or how rarely they blink.
Sometimes he takes off his name tag and makes it hover in the air between his hands.
Everyone has work to do, but before they go back to sporting goods or to customer service or to housewares they sometimes want to shake his hand.
"Do you work with tigers?" one of them asked him.
"Only in the cereal aisle," Cesar said.
* * *
He never worked with tigers, but he used to make a woman in a white dress sleep suspended in the air. He worked surrounded by dancers and lights, music and smoke. Big theaters, full of people, leaning in, afraid to miss a moment, all for him.
His face was on television almost every week, on a variety show called Sabado Felices. Happy Saturday. He did silly features at the end of the evening news and played pranks on people in his country's equivalent of Candid Camera.
He'd wear a curly wig and Coke bottle glasses and pretend to be the Spanish magician Juan Tamariz. His sidekick was a rubber chicken named Alejandro. On one show he wore a bad toupee and pretended to be the minister of education, answering questions from a reporter with a fake mustache. He surprised strangers on street corners, asking them directions to the cemetery and showing them his grandmother's ashes in a box. Then he would fumble the box and spill the ashes onto their clothes, and when they leapt back and brushed at their sleeves Cesar would yell, "Be careful with my grandma!"
He won the national championship for magicians in 1999, when he was 26. That same year, he wrote a book about card tricks. He traveled the country doing as many as four shows a day, most for the rich and politically powerful.
But this was Colombia, well into three decades of civil war, where being visible could be dangerous and when having something meant it could disappear. There were bombings and shootings and explosions. People vanished.
Before one show, armed guards inspected the rubber chicken.
He remembers thinking, as he was trying to make the people laugh that night, that they looked like they did not want to laugh. The theater was filled with uniforms and guns.
Standing on the stage, holding Alejandro by the neck, Cesar tried to tell himself that magic is magic and that everyone has a child inside them, even if they are holding a gun. But inside, he was shaking.
* * *
To explain how things went so wrong, how he ended up in a one-room apartment in Pasco County with a single bed and nothing much on the wall and a blue Wal-Mart vest that he hates, he has to explain Colombia. It is a place he never wanted to leave, but can't go home to.
He takes out his cards.
Here is the seven of diamonds, on the table. It represents land. Say, a farm in a small Colombian village, with a peasant family living on it.
The paramilitaries - he picks up another card - want the land so they can plant coca. Cesar puts that card on top of the first. The guerrillas want it for their own drug crops. He piles on another card. The drug cartels want it. Another card.
What happens to the people on the farm? They are buried under the pile.
Maybe the paramilitaries take the family's oldest son and threaten to kill the whole family if he resists. Then the guerrillas get word that the family supports the paramilitaries.
"Muerte," Cesar says.
* * *
At some point, Cesar realized he was a target too.
He descends from a group of indigenous people who live on the Sinu River in the last rain forest of Colombia's Caribbean coast. He used his magic to raise money for those people, who were losing their land and sons to civil war and the drug trade.
Anyone who works for human rights is a potential target, as are indigenous groups and their leaders. Cesar speaks of relatives who were killed or "disappeared." One, the leader of the indigenous people, was grabbed by paramilitaries on motorcycles in 2001 and never returned. The story was followed closely by human rights groups and the Colombian press.
Cesar's first threatening phone call came in 1999. He thought it was a prank.
Then came a package in the mail. In Colombia, when someone dies, the family gets a card with the person's name on it, to remember them. It's called a sufragio.
Cesar got a sufragio in the mail in 1999. The name on it was his own.
In 2001, he got a second phone call, and another sufragio in the mail. This is a common form of intimidation in Colombia. It could have been paramilitaries, maybe guerrillas. He didn't know.
Cesar moved four times in four years.
The war between the government, leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries kills about 3,500 people a year, mostly civilians. Kidnappings are routine, children are ransomed or forced to fight, prisoners are tortured, women are taken for sex slaves.
But Colombia is a beautiful place, Cesar says. In the countryside, the flowers are so thick and stretch so far they look like a carpet.
He was asked once what he misses about his country.
He spread out his cards on a table in a neat, sweeping row.
"Toda," he said.
* * *
They caught up to him, he says, on a winding mountain road to a place called Ocana. He had hired a car to take him to the northern part of the country. He was going to do a show for the peasants there. They came around a curve. Traffic slowed, then stopped.
Out the window Cesar saw the guerrillas swarming, more than 100 of them, faces covered with handkerchiefs, carrying guns, yelling. Some wore camouflage uniforms with the insignia for the rebel group FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
"You are being kidnapped," they said. "You have nothing to worry about."
The roadblock was random; the FARC had stopped about 20 cars. But they knew Cesar when they saw him.
They lined up the captives single file and marched them into the jungle for eight hours. It was hot in the morning, but the jungle got cooler as they walked higher and deeper. Cesar could hear cries and screams from the others. He started to cry, too.
They spent that night in the jungle, blindfolded, sitting back-to-back on the ground in small groups. One woman wept and prayed all night. The guerrillas were swearing, yelling, firing shots into the air.
It was impossible to sleep. Cesar asked God to get him out of this, if that was his will.
They took everything he had. The next afternoon, guerrillas led him back through the jungle for another hour and a half, and then stopped.
They were near a road, but Cesar didn't know where he was or where the road led. The guerrillas told him not to talk to anyone, to stop raising money for the peasants. They said if he stayed in the country and didn't work for them, they would kill him.
Then they left him.
* * *
Two weeks later, Cesar gave one of his largest performances. It was Jan. 31, 2002, International Magic Day, always an important day for him. But he had been crying constantly. He hardly slept.
He appeared on the stage out of nowhere, surrounded by dancers in skimpy outfits. He levitated the woman in the white dress.
He felt uneasy the whole time. It wasn't his best performance. He knew it was his last show in his country, maybe for a long time.
He packed some clothes, his cards and his chicken, and made plans to visit a friend in California. He bought a round-trip ticket, wanting to believe he would return.
His mother came to the Bogota airport to say goodbye. He traveled all the time, but she had never done that before. Maybe she knew.
* * *
Once Cesar got to America, his mother asked him not to come home. It was too dangerous.
From California, he flew to Miami and stayed with his sister while he figured out what to do. He fought the nagging feeling that this strange city was his new home.
He practiced magic to ease his mind. On the bus, he flipped coins between his fingers. At the beach, he shuffled cards in his hands. It always made him feel stronger, in control. Even if it was only an illusion.
He needed to earn some money, so he went to the only place that made sense: the magic store. He knew no English, but he knew how to do all the tricks in the store. So he learned to say, "Watch this."
He dazzled the customers, but when they said, "How did you do that?" he didn't know the words to answer.
He learned to say, "It's magic."
* * *
He picked up an application for asylum so he could stay in the country legally, but did not fill it out for a long time.
He thought about going home and quitting magic. If he minded his own business and stayed poor, maybe he'd be safe. But if he couldn't do magic in Colombia, then he did not want to go. All he wanted was to be a magician.
After a few months a man asked Cesar to help him open a magic shop in Orlando. For the first time, Cesar could imagine a life in the United States, with magic in it. He moved to Orlando and mailed his application for asylum.
But the magic store didn't work out. Cesar ended up in Clearwater, where his sister's construction company was doing work. He installed locks, doors and windows. He learned to use a screwdriver and a nail gun. It was hard work, unlike anything he had done.
He and his sister, Gloria, lived in a tool trailer for weeks. Some nights they sneaked into the houses they were working on to sleep.
Gloria, who had been an interior decorator in Colombia, told Cesar to forget magic. Life is harder here, she told him.
Cesar's hands ached every night. He wore gloves to protect them for the magic in case she was wrong.
* * *
It is hard for him to say why the magic matters to him so much, but it always has.
As a boy, he fumbled with pesos, trying to make them appear and disappear. He read every magic book he could find, which was not many because most of them were in English. Eventually he saved his lunch money for two weeks and bought a rope trick.
He was 12 when he did his first show, for families of his grandmother's kindergarten class. He was so scared his voice cracked. But the looks on their faces changed him.
"Like a special power," he said.
He tried other things: He studied religion, philosophy and communication. He entered the seminary, gave his mother something to brag about for a few years, then quit and disappointed her. He got a communications degree, but all he wanted was to be a magician.
"It's my life," he will say.
In his little apartment, he lets a card disappear into the stack, lets it get lost and buried and shuffled, lets his fingers leave the stack and turns his eyes away from the pile. Then he finds it again.
He might find the wrong card at first, but he will flick it with a finger and make it the right one. He might find the card under the table, or in a shirt pocket, but he always finds it. He has to.
He thinks hard about what he wants to say next.
"If I don't find this card, it's my life," he says, in English. "It's a little crazy, this concept. This card is my life.
"I don't do that with my hands, I do that with my heart. I don't give you the one card, I give you my life."
Magic, he says, is so deep inside him that no one can take it away.
* * *
Mike Salas has met a lot of refugees, heard a lot of stories. Cesar's is by no means the worst.
He works for an agency called World Relief that helps refugees start new lives. He remembers how depressed Cesar was when they met. He had been granted asylum after a long process of documenting his political activities, the threats and his kidnapping.
It is impossible to verify every detail of Cesar's story. Nobody recorded what happened in the jungle, and Cesar has only memory to go by. But it is certain that things like this happen to people like him.
"Kidnapping in Colombia is like somebody drinking Coca-Cola in the United States," Salas said. Cesar wasn't wealthy, but in a country where 67 percent of the population lives in poverty, his apartment and car were enough to make him worth taking.
"He wasn't super rich, but he was super popular," Salas said. "They recognized him. They knew he was working for a human rights organization. They know when they stumble across something valuable."
If he went back and restarted his career, Salas said, Cesar might last a few days or a few weeks before the FARC found him. "It would be like signing a death warrant," he said.
The only part of Cesar's story that surprised Salas was how much he wanted to be a famous magician again.
World Relief helped Cesar get the job at Wal-Mart. At the interview, the manager, Eric Hirons, asked what other jobs he had held.
Cesar took out his cards.
"I watched," Hirons said. "I mean, I really watched. I checked out the card . . . That's what made me hire him."
* * *
They handed him a blue vest with a yellow smiley face on the front and "How Can I Help You?" on the back. They gave him a mop and some instructions he did not understand.
He went immediately to the tool department and bought a pair of gloves.
He cleaned floors for a while, then got a new job stocking shelves in the grocery aisles. He worked the midnight shift, when the store is quiet. He hauled boxes of juice, water and coffee on huge pallets. The heavy lifting strained his back, his shoulders, his arms.
He strained to overhear customers speaking English, a garbled and frustrating soundtrack. A phrase at a time, he understood more.
He developed a rhythm to slicing open the boxes, unpacking them, flicking the cans and bottles from hand to hand. His fingers and arms became all smooth motion, just as when he is on stage.
Soon he could unpack 110 boxes in an hour. He won two awards for his performance and got a 25-cent raise.
He took English classes during the day. Some days he didn't sleep for 24 hours. He had less and less time for magic tricks. He resigned himself to a career at Wal-Mart.
But he kept wearing the gloves.
* * *
Bit by bit, it started to happen.
In October, Cesar got a gig at a Tampa library, his first in two years.
"It was as if I was in a coma, and then I realized how to live again," he said.
In December, he did his first show in English.
He wasn't sure he could do it, but a surprising thing happened. People laughed.
Some of them, he thinks, laughed because of his accent. He jokes that he doesn't have to work so hard to be funny in English because his English is funny by itself.
No matter why they laughed, he got that feeling again when he heard it.
That month he did seven more shows. He performed in Miami for 150 people, including his sister, Gloria, who had told him to forget the magic.
In January, right around International Magic Day, he was in the living room of a Colombian family, doing a bit about Alejandro the chicken at a birthday party for a 3-year-old.
Maybe it was small-time, but the grown-ups laughed so hard they shrieked and couldn't speak, and the kids rolled on the floor, and nobody had any visible weapons, and the only scary sound was the balloon animals popping.
* * *
Leaning on his shopping cart, watching the doors slide open and shut, he pastes on a smile.
"I am very happy today!" he says. It is an act. It's funny, when he does it.
"For my next trick," he says, "I will disappear."
It might take a few more months, and it worries him, but he's determined to leave Wal-Mart behind.
He's getting an ad in the yellow pages. He's making a brochure and a Web site. He keeps a notebook in his car so when he gets a good idea at work he can write it down at the end of his shift.
He has a new American girlfriend, a St. Petersburg Times reporter. He met her when she came to write his story. But he worked his magic faster than she could write, so she passed the story to someone else.
Last week, he called her at work, all excited about a magic competition in Largo. It was just two days away, and it would be all in English, but he entered anyway.
He and Alejandro performed for 300 people. He apologized for his English at the beginning, and again at the end.
In between, people laughed.
He came in third, which will never be good enough for him, but afterward people he had never met told him how funny he was, and an old man mumbled, "I really liked the Colombian fellow."
He has moved out of his little apartment to a spacious bungalow with his girlfriend. He doesn't like the house. It is old and cavernous and creaky. When the cat meows for attention in the kitchen, the sound echoes and builds. It reminds him of the woman who was with him in the jungle, who wailed all through the night.
It is big enough that sometimes he looks for his girlfriend and he can't find her. And Cesar likes to keep the things that matter in his sight.
Times photographer Janel Schroeder-Norton contributed to this report. Some interviews with Cesar Domico were conducted in Spanish with Times photographer Dan McDuffie translating. Kelley Benham can be reached at 727 893-8848 or firstname.lastname@example.org