Alejandro Doron, one of Manila’s many dwarves, hopes to escape daily harassment and ridicule by starting a dwarf-only community on a plot of land in Manila
Alejandro Doron Jr, left, hopes that the Philippines government will help with his plans to create a colony that would also become a tourist attraction. Photograph: Kate Hodal
With his jet-black hair, golden skin and hazel eyes, Alejandro Doron Jr is the sort of man who regularly stops people in their tracks. He may be good-looking, but he knows why people stare. He’s small – 117cm (3ft 10in) small, in fact.
As one of Manila’s many unanos or dwarves, Doron hopes to end the harassment he faces daily by starting the Philippines‘ very first little people colony.
The 35-year-old bartender works at Manila’s only "dwarf bar", the Hobbit House, where he and his colleagues, ranging in height from 76cm to 135cm, serve tourists Hefeweizen beer and New York ribeye steaks, as dwarf comedians and Elvis impersonators perform on stage.
Just a 10-minute drive away, in the red light district of Makati, other dwarves don gold-and-black Speedos to perform in oil wrestling matches. Still others undress for fascinated sex tourists.
While there are no official figures for the Philippines, dwarfism – of which there are more than 200 distinct varieties – is generally defined as being 147cm or shorter.
The most common condition, achondroplasia, is thought to affect around one in 25,000 people.
Manila’s community of little people are highly visible because many of them have come to the capital to find both work and each other, says Doron.
"Otherwise, they are like me: the only dwarf in their village," vulnerable to both physical and verbal abuse.
Critics have questioned whether dwarf-specific jobs such as Doron’s are exploitative, but for many little people in the Philippines, such work can be a godsend.
While Filipinos are, on average, of short stature (163cm for men and 152cm for women), a minimum height requirement of 157cm exists for many jobs.
"I’m a computer programmer by profession, but even if you have a good resumé and meet the job qualifications, [potential employers] say there’s a height restriction, so they can’t hire you," says Jonathan Cancela, 30, who, at 142cm, has worked for the past few years as an oil wrestler at the Ringside bar.
The Philippines has had a longstanding fascination with little people, popularised in the 1970s by TV shows and films on dwarf boxing, wrestling, comedy and kung fu.
Even today, if a little person is the only dwarf in the immediate family, which occurs in about 80% of cases worldwide, popular Filipino legend dictates that the mother must have been watching "dwarf TV" while she was pregnant.
Such an interest in little people means that many of them, at least in Manila, have plenty of work. Doron often dons fancy dress to play leprechauns and monsters for TV shows, children’s parties and even so-called Snow White weddings. He also recently starred as a cross-dressing, papal-robed shaman in the film Son of God.
At the three-storey squat he shares with 11 others – including his own family and that of his sister’s – Doron slowly sips a glass of cola while his partner Olivia Fernandez, 38, who is 157cm, rocks their one-year-old baby in her arms. Of their five children, two are dwarves. Fifteen-year-old Rina has taken the day off from school for fear of bullying.
"Some boys wanted to cause a rumble, so I am home," she says quietly, standing at 86cm.
"It is hard for me – people say I’m small, they shout at me. But I just go to school to learn more about life."
Fernandez says she has faced opposition from both friends and family over her relationship with Doron; and seven-year-old daughter Glysdi, also a dwarf, gets so much verbal abuse that "she is always crying".
"I told them, if people talk about you, don’t listen to what they say," says Doron, who left secondary school early due to harassment.
"But it’s hard. It’s the natural attitude of the people … I prayed that all my kids would be normal, but I have no choice – this is what God gave me."
Being free from this constant abuse, says Doron, is the reason why he and about 30 other dwarves are planning to establish a colony.
An investor has donated 16,000 sq m of land near Manila, though the fields still have to be cleared, the houses built, and the businesses started.
But money is tight, and Doron hopes that local politicians will help with funding and that the colony will one day become a tourist hotspot.
So-called dwarf towns have existed in the past – in Coney Island at the turn of the century and more recently in Kunming, China – but not everyone agrees that they help in the long run.
"The answer is not segregation," says Gary Arnold of the charity Little People of America.
"The answer is raising awareness about differences and doing all we can to promote communities that embrace and are inclusive of all differences."
Dressed in children’s jeans and a T-shirt, Doron slowly winds his way back to work through alleys crowded with caged roosters and stray dogs.
A neighbour, wiping away the afternoon’s heat with a handkerchief, cackles loudly as he passes. "Ooooh!" she laughs. "There goes the dwarf!"
Doron turns and smiles at her, then continues deliberately on his way.