Manny Feliciano stands with authority behind the counter at the Newsfeed Cafe inside the Boston Public Library, where he's the manager on duty several days a week. Originally from Puerto Rico, Feliciano speaks Spanish with some of the baristas before opening the cafe to customers each morning. Sometimes, the conversation turns to his ever-changing hairstyle.
"I grew it very, very long for eight or nine years. Then I saw the grey, so I cut it," he said.
Feliciano is mild-mannered and likes to joke, but his demeanor charges when he's forced to escort a troublemaker out of the cafe. Then, he's all business.
It's hard to imagine that this is the same man who thought about taking his own life back in Puerto Rico.
"I smoked a lot of weed and drank every day," he said. His mother didn't approve, which caused a rift between them. He was lost until someone threw him a lifeline: his friend, a serious drug addict, left the island for the United States, where he was being treated through a church program near Boston. He sensed Feliciano was in trouble and urged his friend to join him.
Feliciano arrived in Boston April 11, 2001. "I remember looking up and seeing how big the buildings were," he said. "And, i remember the cold!" By the time he got to the church, his friend had left, but Feliciano stayed until his life stabilized. He felt supported, and in exchange for room and board, he was dispatched to spread the word about the church to others.
After two years, he moved into his own apartment. For a year, he worked at the Boston Tea Party Museum, dressing up in traditional colonial attire. Visitors liked his long braid and tourists often pulled on it to see if it was real. He liked meeting people from all over the world and hearing different accents. He says he learned a little history every day.
Feliciano worked his way up in the hospitality industry and now works for The Catered Affair, one of the most successful catering companies in the state. With a good job that provides steady income, he can afford to travel to Puerto Rico every year.
"It will always be my homeland," he said wistfully.
Feliciano was devastated when Hurricane Maria hit his beloved island. He worried about his mother, with whom he has reestablished a good relationship, and his father, who is 84 years old. He just returned from checking on his family and friends, who he says were devastated and desperate when they were not able to communicate with loved ones.
"We always said hurricanes don't come to Puerto Rico. We cannot say that anymore," Feliciano said.
Feliciano is in a good place now. He feels very connected to his family in Puerto Rico, and says it's always hard to say goodbye to them when he leaves. Still, he likes his life here in Boston. When asked if he has a wife and children here, Feliciano said with a twinkle in his eye, "Not that I know of."