Rafael “Rafa” Gonzalez, 8, a Monroe Elementary School third grader, loves soccer so much that his family recently vacationed in Paris, where he got to see his favorite player, Lionel Messi play for Saint Germain, his club team.
Rafa plays on four youth soccer teams himself, but on April 29 he pushed his passion aside, opting to participate in a tryout to star as Tom Thumb in this year’s Barnum Festival, rather than playing in a soccer game.
A panel of judges chose him from among 10 finalists at the SHU Discovery Science Center in Bridgeport, allowing him to join the festival’s Royal Family.
Rafa wears a top hat, a bowtie and a sash, and his mother, Jessica Gonzalez, said her son was a hit at the reception.
“Everyone wants to get Tom Thumb on the dance floor and pose for pictures with him,” she said. “Rafa said he feels like a celebrity, but not as big as Messi.”
Gonzalez, her husband Dino and daughter Rosie, 10, who also goes to Monroe Elementary School, are proud of Rafa’s role as Tom Thumb.
General Tom Thumb was the stage name of the late Charles Sherwood Stratton, who was born in Bridgeport in 1838. After growing to 25 inches tall, he suddenly stopped for a long time.
He was “discovered” by master showman P.T. Barnum, who taught him to sing, dance, do impressions of famous people and participate in comical banter. As General Tom Thumb, he became one of the most popular attractions at the Barnum & Bailey Circus, attracting huge crowds.
He went on to marry Lavinia Warren, another circus performer known as the “Little Queen of Beauty”.
Catherine Emely Sather of Trumbull, a student at Discovery Magnet School, was chosen from among 10 finalists to star as Lavinia Warren, the wife to Rafael Gonzalez’s Tom Thumb, at the Barnum Festival.
Rise to the top
Rafa, who is in teacher Kim Iannantuoni’s class, brought home an application his school gave to students interested in entering a contest to become a member of the 2023 Barnum Festival’s Royal Family.
Jessica Gonzalez said her son brought it home, filled it out and submitted it all on his own. The application included questions.
“They didn’t ask, but we submitted his picture,” she said.
One question was “Tom Thumb was 25 inches tall. How tall are you?”
Rafa said, “well, I’m 12 inches taller than Tom Thumb, but when you include my hair, it’s 17 inches.”
During an interview at the Gonzalez family’s Monroe home, Jessica asked Rafa to take off his top hat. When he did, his thick crop of curly hair popped out.
Gonzalez said Rafa is proud of the fact that Tom Thumb was born in Bridgeport and he was born in Bridgeport.
Rafa made the cut to the finals at the Discovery Center on April 29, where a panel of three judges asked more questions.
Asked where he wants to go when he grows up, Rafa said Portugal and Brazil.
“They asked, ‘if you could be anybody who would you be?’ I said, Messi,” Rafa said.
This year’s ringmaster, George Estrada, announced the winners in a ceremony during the event and Rafa was chosen as this year’s Tom Thumb. He was given a hat, a medal, a sash and a boutonniere.
“I was like calm, not that excited,” Rafa said upon hearing he won, “but after I was excited.”
A road show
The Barnum Festival’s Executive Director Charles Carroll, who was ringmaster in 1999, said the festival’s king, queen, princes, princesses, Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren are chosen from among students in schools in Bridgeport and the Greater Bridgeport area, including Monroe, Derby, Shelton, Trumbull, Fairfield, Stratford, Oxford and Beacon Falls.
Carroll said kids from Monroe have served as kings, queens and in other roles over the years. He met Rafa when he was chosen as Tom Thumb.
“He’s following a longstanding tradition,” Carroll said. “This is our 75th anniversary. He’s a very polite young man. He’s well spoken and the independent panel of judges saw those qualities in him and that he would be a great representative of the festival.”
Rafa is not this year’s only representative from Monroe. Sameeha Yara Mala Shaik, a Masuk High School junior, was coronated as queen of this year’s festival.
“I will meet Yara tonight for the first time,” Carroll said Thursday. “The judges saw in her that she’s an outstanding young woman. They saw she would be an asset to the royal family as we tour around the area.”
Royal Family members need to be outgoing, because they participate in a road show, visiting 20 different assisted living and nursing facilities, as well as making appearances at the festival’s many events, according to Carroll.
The rest of the Royal Family includes King Owen Bull of Trumbull High School, Prince Dillon Durante of Shelton High School, Prince Baeram Alfreh of Bunnell High School, Princess Kendra Mitacek of Notre Dame Fairfield and Princess Anastasia Stanis of Derby High School.
Carroll said high school students in the Royal Family receive scholarship money toward college and the younger children will receive a gift Friday.
After Rafael Gonzalez was chosen as this year’s Tom Thumb, the only thing he wanted was dinner at his favorite restaurant, Marylou’s Ristorante, 401 Monroe Turnpike in Monroe. His mother said he usually orders cheese raviolis or cheese pizza.
The Gonzalez family met relatives at the restaurant to celebrate their son’s achievement and the owner snapped a photo of Rafa in his Tom Thumb costume.
“She put him on her Facebook page Saturday night,” Jessica Gonzalez recalled.
The post says: “Tom Thumb even comes to MaryLou’s!! It’s his favorite! Congrats Raffa!!”
“We’re excited,” Jessica Gonzalez said. “We’re proud of him. This is 100 percent all him. He brought home the application. He completed it and turned it in. We missed a soccer game, so he could be in the finals. I think it’s a great thing for him to get to meet people and represent the town of Monroe, Monroe Elementary School and the Barnum Festival.”