Union City native Jose Mercedes has had incredible life experiences for a 25-year-old, from risking his life serving in the Iraq war to losing his left arm in a freak accident in the Dominican Republic to dressing as a zombie for an upcoming Halloween-themed fair.
“I make the best of my life, each and every moment,” said Mercedes.
Adapting to Iraq
After having U.S. Marine values instilled in him throughout high school, where he was enrolled in Army Junior ROTC, he decided to take a year off from school to serve his country. He was deployed to Iraq from 2008 to 2009 as part of the Army National Guard, serving as a team leader for a detainee operations unit stationed near Basra.
“I make the best of my life, each and every moment.” – Jose Mercedes
“You have to adapt and overcome and deal with it. There is no turning back,” he said.
While Mercedes was in the middle of a war, there was quite a bit of turbulence back home: His grandmother went into the hospital and his fiancé left him.
In 2009, after a year in Iraq, he came home seeking solace. Instead, he ended up suffering further pain.
When Mercedes left Iraq, he went to the Dominican Republic where his family is from. In his first week away from war, he suffered a freak accident. While standing on a hotel balcony talking on his phone, he accidentally grabbed onto a live electric cable that had fallen loose.
Eight thousand volts of electricity went through his arm and his body was thrown back and set on fire.
His grandmother, who was recovering from four aneurysms, comforted him.
“When I was feeling down, [my grandmother] would tell me to relax,” said Mercedes. “She is the main reason why I am still sane. Her prayers and her motivation towards me are what make me tick.”
“I believe we have a purpose,” said Mercedes. “I know that there are people worse off than me. If I can help, then why not?”
He has helped feed the homeless in Hoboken and Union City. He said his family cooks a banquet and brings clothes for the homeless during Thanksgiving.
Mercedes doesn’t like discussing his volunteerism because he doesn’t want recognition for his efforts. But he is willing to talk about his amputation.
“If I see [people] staring, I say, ‘Oh, ask about it, I don’t mind.’ ”
Performance as an outlet
His comfort with educating others about his disability led him to accept a role as an actor in the State Scare haunted attraction in Belleville after being approached by Hollywood special effects artist Anthony Giordano last year.
“I’m the scary zombie without an arm that will chase you around the parking lot,” said Mercedes. “It is a nice outlet. It is entertaining and it is fun.”
The attraction takes visitors through rooms of terror occupied by actors who play demonic meat factory workers. It’s run by ScarePro Productions, a company that has been building haunted attractions since 1994.
Mercedes’ zombie had his arm chopped up in the meat grinder because he thought he was above safety.
He said he spends 20-25 minutes getting into costume and make up for the attraction. Sometimes people think his missing arm is fake, but he quickly corrects that perception by showing it to them up close.
“I’m good at improv,” said Mercedes. He said he always scares people who are waiting in line for the attraction.
“My silliness desensitizes kids, especially, to show that people like me are not scary monsters after all,” said Mercedes.
Mercedes is working with a casting agency and said if another opportunity presents itself, he’d do it again for fun.
He has other activities to keep him busy. He is a fourth year student at Montclair University, studying pre-law. His future goal is to have a say in addressing injustices, which he said he saw a lot of growing up.
“Ultimately,” he said, “I want to become a judge.”
You can see Jose Mercedes in his zombie role at State Scare, which runs Sept. 30, Oct. 1-2, 7-9, 13-16, 20-23, and 26-31, from 7 p.m. to midnight. For ticket prices and information, visit www.statescare.com.
Adriana Rambay Fernández may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.