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Cuentamelo: An Oral History of Queer Latin Immigrants in San Francisco 

Wednesday, Jun 26 2013

For years I've sat next to my adoptive mama eating fried bacalao, listening as she tells and retells stories of the glamorous, fierce, sad, immigrant queens, faggots, and weirdos that roamed San Francisco in the '80s and '90s. Most of these people are now dead, gone at the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Their stories survive solely in the memories of those they left behind — stories of leaving hostile homelands for unknown new ones, of falling down, of building new selves, of living in two worlds.

Here, four gay and transgender Latin American immigrants tell of coming to San Francisco in the 1980s and the ways in which they survived, built, changed (and were changed by) the city. ("Cuéntamelo" means "Tell me.") This small compilation of oral histories maps Latin queerness as seen and lived in Spanish: It highlights the changes that over time have impacted the community: immigration laws, access to health care, the hormone black market, AIDS funding, and, with it, the rise and fall of Latino organizations, bars, and community centers. The stories travel down 16th Street (which Adela Vazquez says at the time was the "mecca of faggotry"), over to the Tenderloin, to bars such as La India Bonita, Los Portales, Esta Noche, and Finnochio's. Most of these places are now closed, but in their heyday, in the late '80s, Latin female impersonators, transformistas, travestis, and, later, drag queens flourished. Also during this time, and through the work of some of these performers, transgender and gay Latino communities in San Francisco became visible through programs such as Proyecto ContraSIDA por Vida, Instituto Familiar de la Raza, and Aguilas.

All of these interviews were conducted in Spanish and translated. Because the storytellers come from different parts of Latin America, their use of words, especially slang, differs too. The following chart explains a few of the terms and concepts:

Fuerte: Literally, "strong." In English it's better known as "fierce." Someone flamboyant, bold, who does not care what others think.

Latin@: Used by LGBT Latinos/as to indicate all genders.

Loca: General term for all females and males who feel like women in some way or another. Loca can also be used when you don't remember her name. Or "loquita," someone you met on a night out.

Maricón: Literally, "faggot." Used in Spanish with intimates; you call someone a maricón when you know them. Alternatively, "maricón" can be someone who despises the community.

Mariconería: Literally, "faggotry." It's a way of carrying oneself. Also a reunion of "maricones" who act very feminine.

Niña!: Literally, "girl." Used to say, "What up!" "Bitch!" "Sister!"

Transformista: Original term used by urban locas. In Havana, Cuba, for instance, the term signifies boys who dress as women generally as art.

Travesti: Same as "transformista." Generally used in South America and Spain.

Vestida: Literally, "dressed." Dressed as a woman; drag queen.

Nelson D'Alerta
Isla de Pino, Cuba
Year of Arrival: 1983

Call me Catherine White.

I'm from a small island, Isla de Pino. I lived there until I was 10 years old, then I moved to La Habana. When we first arrived in La Habana my grandfather took me to the opera to see Aida. He held my hand tight, saying: This is going to be your home, you are going to come back here many times. I was shocked, oh my god. Because theater has truly been my life. Dressed in a gown, as a woman, never as a man. My grandfather was Italian, from Florence; he was a painter, a fencer. My family is a family of artists. I remember thereafter dancing ballet in front of my grandfather one day and him saying I was fantastic, that I needed to straighten my fingers a little more. He said: ballet is totally your thing.

I never had a closet because my mom always said to me, "You are a fag." My mom took me to see a psychiatrist during the '60s because I have a picture as a kid wearing high heels. I'd steal my mother's clothes and rehearse. I'd go out into the streets in women's garments, and in 1970 I was sent to jail and taken to court — dressed as a woman in court. And hell went down in La Habana!

In high school I used to dye my hair. I'd wear truly scandalous outfits, big sunglasses, I'd sew in the bus, my face all painted weirdly like a woman. I'd wear bras and panties. Tell the boys on the bus: I'm wearing a bra, wanna see it? They'd go crazy. They didn't know what to do! I mean this was the '70s in Cuba. My first gay friend was Marquesa. We used to perform in the middle of the bushes, in the midst of passing goats and animals, the space filled with faggotry. Ah, so wonderful. With a boom box. I'm crazy to do something like that again.

To be a faggot in Cuba during the '70s was the worst thing you could be. The government even went all over the world looking for ways to end homosexuality in Cuba. They opened a concentration camp called UMA in Camaguey. When you signed up for the military draft they picked out everyone who was an outcast, not only homosexuals but anyone who could be related to this group and sent them to the UMA. You couldn't wear shorts, or a certain kind of sandal, you couldn't have long hair. If that wasn't a concentration camp, I don't know what is!

We came to this country from such a repression, honey!

In 1980 I arrived in Miami from Cuba on a Monday. I was part of the 10,8000 people who congregated in the embassy in Habana. Castro decided to change history: Prisons and mental hospitals were opened. There was an advertisement in Cuba at the time that completely shocked me. This bold dictator saying: "The safest route to Miami is via Mariel." I could not believe it, at the end of the news program! So millions of Cubans arrive in Miami.

There were two bars on Miami Beach at the time along with Scarface selling cocaine and all the locas dressed up with disco stuff and their beards. They shaved but when we dawned at the hotels near downtown we said to each other in the morning: niña, hide that beard! I had grown out my beard in Cuba so I wouldn't go to prison again. So I'd look heterosexual.

I started working on a Monday. I still have the envelope of my first payment in 1980 of $75. I was in the most fabulous show in Miami, imagine! I had just arrived. Still I was salty. When up stage doing my number, a song by Italian singer Mina, the bar went nuts, it looked like a political upraising. Cuba! Cuba! Cuba! And the locas afterwards asking me, "But who are you, niña?" Because I was very famous in La Habana. I had a ballet company and all the faggots there knew who I was. I was a drag queen in Cuba when faggots were outlawed.

From Miami I moved to Dallas. I was 25 years old. In Dallas everything is very big. I still can't believe I lived there for three years. The bartender connected us so we could perform at that bar. This was a straight bar. And, they told us: "We are going to try you on a Saturday and if the owner likes it you'd be hired." None of us had clothes for this. We bought leotards of all colors, heels, fishnets, and wigs. We made up a story: that we came from Las Vegas and that we were called "Las Locas por el Mambo."

This group of friends saved my life.

In 1983 I arrived in San Francisco because Sofia Lamar — now The Queen of Manhattan — told me: "I have The City! We're moving to San Francisco." She told me: "Yours is Polk Street." At the time Polk was gay. I didn't much care for the Castro because I thought everyone looked the same.

San Francisco has always been a dream. When I was a kid I had a projector in my house in which we watched the streets of San Francisco. I was completely fascinated and told myself one day I was going to live there.

When I arrived in San Francisco, Esta Noche did not have a gay show and I was one of the first people to perform there. It was really just a bar for gay and lesbian Latinos but without a show. There was no stage. The same hole-in-the-wall with that awesome flavor. It's the only thing we have. The only place that remains. Too bad that in a city like this one, with so many Latino intellectuals, artists, performers, writers, we don't have a place we can call our own.

Anyway, after some time someone approached me, asking if I could orchestrate a show. She said she had a cabaret on 181 Eddy and that she didn't have a show; it's only herself performing as Diana Ross.

And I told her: "Niñaaaa, ready! Of course I'll do it."

This is the most fabulous show I've done in my life. I even had a spiritual experience in the show. Because I had everything I wanted for that show: I had lights, I had a 1940s cabaret, and an amazing cast! I had scenography and an audience that was an all-Cuban audience just arrived in the U.S — look, I'm getting goosebumps and all, they screamed and cheered. It was phenomenal, really.

The group was called Dream Girls because it was all like a dream. Every single weekend it was a new show. We were all stars. Everyone had to have talent to be there, you couldn't just kick it and stick around. Couldn't be a chicle. We'd sing old songs in Spanish, boleros, songs by Cuban artists. Most of the songs were in Spanish because my community is really important for me. And I've been a voice for my community where there was none.

It was a drag show in Spanish. It became so popular that at that time the only cabaret was Finocchio's and Finocchio's sent people to watch us, see what exactly we were doing. My boyfriend at the time, a Venezuelan film director, had a fantastic idea. He said we should sell it as a tour for tourists; we'll get a bus and bring them here. We did. It became very famous.

It was right there that the epidemic started. Nobody called it an epidemic. The government had it hidden, were really silent about it. I found out through a friend whose lover died and we were all freaking out about it. Then the "gay cancer" broke on the news. We didn't know what it was. It was 1983 and I was there.

The show at 181 Eddy lasted two years. But it didn't last enough. Like I've said, my life has been an in and out of the stage. Transformismo is the beginning of theater in Greece, where men would dress up. When I don't get what I want from it I let it go until it comes back to me. Because I have great respect for this art. And this art is lost now. Surgeons are manipulating the art now. I want talent. I'm an entertainer. If you have talent, come work with me. If you don't have talent, don't waste my fucking time.

After 13 years, Adela helped me, like she's always done. My great friend, she said, I have all you've ever wanted to do: theater. So we did La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) at Mission Cultural Center. We did it with the community. My relationship with my community has always been through performance, show. Art. Because art heals. Art is the only form of telling history. You know? I haven't done all of this intentionally, it just comes natural to me. It is a necessity to perform, it is not a business. It is an incredible pleasure.

During the '90s I wore a big Mohawk, high heels, and leather pants. I had a Latino drag show on television for 15 years called The Catherine Show Percent. On channel 53, "El Canal de Las Estrellas." I was lucky enough to present millions of documentaries brought for the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. I invited and filmed people. I recorded Esta Noche. All in Spanish. I was Catherine on a weekly show. At the end it was only me editing. Inventing, pulling things out of my butt.

I have made art because you have to do it and I've made it in Spanish. Because luckily or unluckily, however you wanna see it, I am not American. I am Caribbean, I'm from Cuba. And if I die and have to be born again I want to be born in Cuba!

"Catherine" is my woman name. And when Catherine arrives I say, "Por tu vida, She is here!" Sometimes people ask about her. She is on vacation, I say. She's too much. I love her, but sometimes she is too much. She does things I'd never do. She stops traffic, she talks to policemen: "Qué tal? How are you doing today? What's going on?" Makeup all over her face and a little drunk. With a huge bag, going around different bars. If I am not comfortable in the character, I'm not doing it. But if, let's say, I put on a big feathery hat and go out into the street I'd feel gorgeous. My friend tells me the other day: You don't do drag, you just dress as a rich woman. Adela sometimes tells me when I dress up too often, she tells me that I get transgender euphoria.

It's something really interesting: When a man gay or straight wears a wig and high heels there is a this spell around it and everyone wants to see it. It is all wonderful, amazing. It's like wow. Like a clown in the good sense of the word. It is an art. All my friends, we've always had women's names. I wanted to have a sex change until my early 20s, but then I discovered that wasn't my path, that I was an artist, a transformista, an illusionist. I'm a transsexual or... I don't even know what to call it. I don't have a name. I'm beyond names. I said several times that I wanted to get a sex change and just transition completely. And imagine that, in Cuba, it was crazy talk.

I think transformismo is a marvelous gift. Latin American transformismo is special because it has a certain passion, a tumbao. A different flavor. I'm not sure what it is. I've been so lucky in my life. I could die talking to you right now. I've had my glories and my tears and my obstacles. I believe in Buddhism and I think this is my last reincarnation. I don't think Catherine is going to reincarnate anymore. Life is wonderful, I've experienced so much in my life it is amazing. And it has cost me my entire life to be who I am, because I have high heels and boots. When do I wear the heels and when do I wear the boots? It has always been very ambiguous, but that's who I am. And if it has taken so much for me to understand it, I can only imagine for other people what an effort it must be.

I've had the privilege in this life of living and continuing to live both worlds. But when you dress as a woman, when you remove your pants you realize the power men have given to pants, which is incredible. Not even faggots want to drop their pants, because when you remove your pants you lose power. I wear skirts, panties and I have balls and a dick bigger than everyone. You need balls to put on a pair of high heels and a dress and go out into the streets!

Alexandra Cruz
Bayarmón, Puerto Rico
Year of Arrival: 1989

I arrived in San Francisco two days before the earthquake of 1989. I came looking for my father. My grandmother sent me to San Francisco on my own at 13 with $200. When I got here I remember telling the taxi driver in English, "Take me to downtown San Francisco!" He took me to Ninth and Mission.

After a few days I was running out of money. A woman living in my hotel dressed me up and said: "Honey, you wanna make money?"

I was introduced to prostitution. Frankly, I spent more time with Americans than with Latinos when I first got here. I worked the streets and really wasn't interested in community, but was only focused on making money to pay my rent and eat. I didn't think of much else and I didn't speak any English. At that time my rent was $40 per day.

I remember my first client paid me $50 and I was super excited about it. Fifty dollars! That's how I was able to make a living for myself. At 16 the police caught me sucking someone's dick in a car. They locked me up. And when I explained my situation to the police they found my father. He was a gay man. He wore women's clothes but didn't have any breasts or anything. He wasn't taking hormones. He enrolled me in high school and I quit prostitution. I only spend three years with him because, may he rest in peace, he died of HIV.

My father's death was very traumatic for me because he died in my arms. I remember that I kinda lost my head. I lost consciousness and was homeless for three years. Sleeping in the streets. I remember waking up one day, telling myself, "What am I doing here? This is not for me!" And I went to one of those bathrooms where you put a quarter in, took a shower, and out I went to whore it down. The first client gave me $5,000. I rented a hotel room. The Henry Hotel down in Sixth and Mission. I lived there for two years.

It was then that I found out Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida had an opening for a transgender outreach worker. I went down there, applied, and got the job. Thank Dios! I lit Santa Barbara a candle and it worked out, my work consisted in distributing condoms in hotels to my girlfriends, to all transgender girls. Many of the new girls who arrived from Mexico were having sex without protection. This was the beginning of the '90s. That's when I met Adela, at Proyecto. Adela and I got talking and organized a group to work at Esta Noche, perform at midnight. We called it Las Atredivas.

I never truly experienced a gay life. I was never a gay boy. I was transgender from a very early age. Adela was my mother. Adela Vazquez, whose artist name is Adela Holiday. Mine is Alejandra Delight and my real name is Alexandra Cruz.

I stopped communication with Puerto Rico for 12 years. I was mad to see that my mother preferred my stepfather over me. I was born in New York, in the Bronx. My brother was born in Texas. My dad was in the Air Force at the time, he was a military man. So we'd travel from military base to military base. At 5 I moved to Puerto Rico and it was only when I was 10 that I met my mother. I remember being forced to watch pornographic movies to see if I'd turn straight! I had my doubts deep inside because I felt so different — Dios mio, why do I have all these reactions with boys? And my cousin, I was in love with him. This in Puerto Rico is a huge taboo. To top it all my grandfather was the pastor of the Pentecostal Church. I sang in the church chorus. One day my mother caught me playing with Barbies and she threw a fit. She hit me! And that was it for me. I slapped her so hard I think she lost a tooth. I gathered all my things and that day I left. Until today I have not been back. I left escaping but also looking for my father. My mother had said my dad was dead, but now I understand why she hated me so much when I was little. She caught my dad with another man in bed and that image stayed with her because when I remove all the makeup from my face I look just like my dad. I reminded her of him.

At 13 I began taking hormones. Frankly, at that time I was very involved with drugs and in love with a boy. Being transgender for me has been a bit hard. How can I explain this? Finding love is hard. People close doors on you. They don't give you an opportunity. At least that's what has happened to me. I'd been discriminated for having been born a boy and because, say, my voice is hoarse. And my family obviously discriminated because they are Pentecostal Christians.

I'd work at Proyecto during the day, then in the afternoon I'd run to the hair salon and cut hair and at night I'd work the streets. There was a lot of money for programs at that time. I then worked in Finnochio's for eight years. Finnochios was a cabaret on Broadway. I worked there as a female impersonator. At the time I weighted 365 pounds. Then the place closed: The lady owner died and the grandson sold it. After Finnochio's closed I left for Los Angeles looking for my partner. It took me three months but I found him.

I came back to San Francisco to a hotel in Polk and Eddy. I can't remember the name; it's no longer there. I lived there for a year, a year and a half before I was kidnapped, raped, and thrown into the freeway. That's the downside of sex work: You never really know. I underwent the greatest trauma of my life. After I was released from the hospital I went to live on Ninth and Mission and in 2003 decided to go back to school, so I enrolled at City College. I learned how to write because I didn't know how to write and my reading wasn't good either. I finished my degree at City College in fashion design. I have my diploma somewhere.

I'm staying in San Francisco because it is helping transgenders a lot with surgery. But frankly I'm scared of going into the streets. Because the man who kidnapped and raped me is out in the streets. He's not locked up. If it wasn't for my dog I wouldn't go out. Now I am doing a show for a theater called Garage. I'm also sewing, cutting hair — but if I get a call to work in construction, I do it! Or plumbing.

Marlen Hernandez
Nuevitas, Cuba
Year of arrival: 1985

I was born in Nuevitas, Camaguey. Nuevitas is a seaport, very pretty. Let's say like Veracruz or Acapulco. When I was 6 I was taken to La Habana and grew up there. Before coming here, I was locked up in jail. For homosexuality. Because I was cruising the streets in full makeup. At that time, in the '70s in Cuba it wasn't permitted; now it is. When Castro opened the Mariel Bridge, I didn't want to come because I didn't want to leave my family, but my mother went to see me in jail and told me to come to the U.S because I had no future in Cuba. At least here I could have something.

I came to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Six months I was in New York. Terrible weather, I didn't like it. I left for Chicago and lived three years there. From Chicago I arrived in Los Angeles and stayed for six months. Then I came to this fabulous city! I am not sure exactly what year I arrived in San Francisco but I believe it was 1985 or 1986 and I was already a woman. I left Cuba very feminine and in the United States I quickly transitioned to a woman.

My life has been a deal of successes and failures. When I got here I didn't have any type of help. So I started selling drugs, I was prostituting, I began performing. I'd steal from the stores and would sell the girls clothes for their performance. Always to try and survive would I do these things. When I got here, I really didn't know anyone, but there were several Cubans around and I began entering the scene, performing at an American club. A club in the Tenderloin. I don't remember its name. It is gone now. There I met a person from the Latino community who is dead, a person who was very famous: La Roni Salazar. La Roni saw my talent and said, "You should not be here, niña! I'm going to take you to Esta Noche." I didn't know the place back then. It is a Latino place. She took me there while there was a talent contest going on. I entered it and won.

From that point on, I began working at La India Bonita. There I met Adela and all the other girls from that time. Many who are already dead. After working at La India Bonita I began performing at Limón Verde. All the time performing, performing — and I'm still doing it! I've always had a certain drive for the show! It has always been in me. In Cuba I'd see all the women around my house and would stand in front of the mirror and mimic the songs from the radio with their mannerisms. It was always on my mind. I always liked it but here I was able to develop it.

When I worked at Limón Verde I had my own group of Cuban girls and non-Cuban girls. Then I went to work at Esta Noche and in Esta Noche I had three days that were mine, performing with Mexican girls.

I worked with las Cubanas at La India Bonita for a long time. From there I got my own show where I'd perform as Pantoja, Rocío Durcal, Rocío Jurado. I don't have pictures from back then. I don't have anything from that time, not even the memory.

And that time was better. It was much better. There was more of everything. Especially for Latinos. For gay Latinos, 16th Street was filled with clubs. There were like three clubs to do shows. Now there is only one, which is Esta Noche. They pay you better but the shows used to be better back then. There was more talent. More wardrobes. More glamour. There was a group called Las Yolandas that was all Cuban and I worked in that group. We did a show similar to the Tropicana in Cuba, like cabaret. Let's say like Vegas with feathers and the whole thing. We had an opening and a closing performance. Now, that doesn't exist much. The group lasted like three years. Then the girls started dying and the group disintegrated.

I retired for a while from that world: fell into drugs, fell into prostitution. Afterwards I met a guy, the one who cut my face. His parents own businesses here, clothing factories. He took me out of that world and got me an apartment, then a house, and I lived with him for seven years. But I didn't feel that was my life. I wasn't feeling at ease because my passion was the stage! The show! But because he paid everything, I was obliged to do all he wanted. One day we had a huge argument about this and I ran up to him and punched his face and that's when he cut my face.

Mi vida, I left him and entered the show scene again. The world of shows means prostitution and drugs. Even if people deny it, I see it that way, you understand? Because whenever you are performing there'd be drugs and the clients would be in the bar and are going to offer money. Anyway I got into drugs and prostitution again. I am very open. I tell my life as it is. That's when my life with drugs and drugs and drugs started. I lost my home, I lost everything.

I was living in the streets for a while. Then I was locked up. Immigration got me because my documents had expired. Eight months I spent in an immigration prison. From there immigration sent me to Chico, into a huge house. It was like a rancho. I lived five years in a house where they fixed all my papers, my disability. From there I came back to San Francisco and again fell and fell hard. Again I started doing drugs. That was seven years ago. I got locked up again. I was enrolled in a program. I'd flee those programs. Until one day I decided to leave with a girlfriend of mine to Daly City and we rented a house in front of the cemetery. I fixed all my disability papers. I came back to live in a shelter for eight months. The shelter got me this apartment and I've been here for four years.

I've always loved the artistic lifestyle. All that world of makeup, wigs, dresses just fascinates me. And I've stayed in San Francisco because here there is more help for us girls. I think also less discrimination. More programs for transgender girls, more groups, more help, more of everything. Although I think it was easier to transition back then, in the sense that Medicare would cover your hormones. Now it's harder. I get my hormones covered but not all girls do. In the '80s Medicare would cover all of it, minus the operation down there.

Adela Vazquez
Camagüey, Cuba
Year of Arrival: 1983

On my 13th birthday I told my grandmother to give me money to go to the movies. Of course, I didn't go to the movies. I went walking downtown, finding out where all the locas hung out in Camagüey. Around the Casino Campestre, a park with plenty of fountains, I had seen a few locas, a few faggots. There I met people that I know to this day: La Yoya, la Mayami, and some other weird locas. Those were my first contacts with Cuban faggotry.

The Casino Campestre had a fountain in the shape of a swan that spat water out of the beak and there all the locas would get baptized. An older loca would baptize you. She'd wet your hair and forehead with water, pulling your head back and praying, "With this water we are turning you into a faggot!" and I was baptized as La Chica Terremoto. I had my godfather, a bugarrón named Candelita and my godmother, another loca. We were so young! Fourteen, 15 years old, we'd sit at that park and model all the clothing we had. "And now comes Fulana with that stunning dress!" In our heads it was wonderful.

March 1980, the problem with the Peruvian embassy was happening in La Habana, right? There were rumors that people were already leaving to the U.S., to Miami. Wasting no time, some locas and I went to La Habana, directly to a government office, where we were told to return to Camagüey because each city was going to open its own immigration office. Camagüey is nine hours away in guagua from La Habana. We went back and that same night I got ready, I went out into the streets and recruited faggots, niña! Tomorrow they are opening the office to go to Miami! I was one of the first people to show up the next morning. When the office opened, the workers couldn't believe all those locas.

My mami gave me 400 pesos that I had to throw out of the guagua's window because they told us we couldn't take any money; we couldn't take anything with us. We were taken to a place called Cuatro Ruedas where they gave us safe passage, saying that we were all at the embassy in Peru, which was a total lie. From there we went to El Mosquito. El Mosquito was a port near Mariel improvised to prepare us for departure. I cannot even explain to you how horrible El Mosquito was. It was a beach packed with people, criminals. Eight days I spent there. Imagine! I was there without showering, shaving, or eating. I remember this like a delirium. People stealing. Horrible. This was my first contact with the world, unprotected by my family or anything. I was in Cuba but I wasn't really in Cuba. I was with six other locas, we came together all the way to the U.S. Rumors circulated of what could happen once you were at sea, like you'd get thrown to the sharks, or that you were going into a concentration camp to work for the rest of your life. You really didn't know where they were taking you.

In the ship I passed out. A woman gave birth in that boat. We weren't given food. After eight hours, I hear the coast guards shouting in English.

And, oh Dios, it's Key West.

Women from Miami reeking of Uncle Charlie's perfume greeted us, screaming, "You're in America, don't be afraid!" They'd give you a rosary, cigarettes, and Coca-Cola. Then you'd enter an immense structure with tables and tables stacked with food. Hot food, Cuban food. I was exhausted and just passed out for a minute when my girlfriends woke me: "We are going to Miami on the next plane!"

But, not Miami. We arrived at Fort Smith, Ark. I was hysterical! And a little scared because from the airplane's door to the guagua were federal police lined with machine guns. The guagua took us to Fort Chaffee. Fort Chaffee was built to train the military during World War I. Immense, with churches, hospitals and everything! Laundry room. Cafeteria. There you swore your allegiance to the flag. The Red Cross gave us little hygiene packets: man or woman? "Give me one of each!" I said.

I spend a wonderful month and a half there: I got married several times, cruising and fucking a lot. That's where I fucked that kid with the tattoo, "vaja y gosa mi savor" ["drop down and enjoy my flavor"] all misspelled and with an arrow pointing to his dick. His dick this big.

My friend Lucy got us out of that place. The Catholic Church would give you $100 and a plane ticket wherever you were going. We learned Cubans were getting sponsored at the L.A Gay Community Center, and there we were met with our godmother and fierce faggot queen, Rolando Victoria, may he rest in peace. A wonderful, funny alcoholic who took us under her wing. I lived with him from July 1980 until March 1982. He got me a job at Neiman Marcus wrapping gifts.

Oct. 23, 1983, I got to San Francisco with my friend Catherine a few days before Halloween. It was the first time I lived in the ghetto, the Tenderloin. Right on Eddy and Taylor. I was dating Alicia. A bunch of Cubans and Alicia lived in that apartment. We slept on a mattress made of pillows, lying in the kitchen along with mice. This was the first time I went to The Endup; I walked on Sixth Street. I was fascinated by San Francisco. Then I got a job at a hotel where everyone was from the Philippines and we had some communication problems with our accents, ha!

I worked in several places in clothing design but, mainly, cutting hair. In one of these places, a tiny place over by the avenues, I worked with my girlfriend Jorge Luis and three other fags. All three of them died of AIDS. I was left alone and in 1989 I moved to back to L.A. and that's when Adela was born.

When I won Miss Gay Latina the AIDS epidemic was still strong. There was no pill, none of those things we have today. I'd do my show at different places. I'd performed at a hospice where people went to die and that's how I realized that there were a lot of us, that the transsexual thing was not organized and there was nobody representing the Latinas as a community. For instance, the Latinas taken to the hospices to die were not allowed to dress as women. They'd be there dressed as men. I mean, it wasn't that they didn't let them but the place was not conditioned for them to be who they were.

I said to myself: Okay Adelita, mama, you need to do something.

That's when this lady, this drag queen, this boy who dressed as a woman, this person calling herself "La Condonera" appeared in my life. Mexican. This Communist Mexicana giving away condoms in the streets. I don't even know where she was getting those condoms from, but she'd go out at night where the prostitutes, the drag queens were. She saw me performing and went up to me, could not stop herself and said: "Mamita! I want you to work with me."

When I started working with her I realized there were a few other people I could recruit. I recruited Alexandra. At that time Alexandra had just graduated high school, a pretty chubby girl. Alexandra is Puerto Rican. She was 18 at the time. After I recruited Alexandra there was another Salvadorian loca, very tall, and another kid who is around somewhere. There were four of us. We were called "Las Atredivas," a group of transformistas; let's say female impersonators. We created that group. Really it was my idea, and Hector León, La Condonera, had the ease of knowing people, the connections, because he was involved with Proyecto ContraSIDA. Proyecto ContraSIDA was on 18th Street and Dolores, where the ice cream shop is now.

Las Atredivas spoke with Gustavo Arabioto, an HIV coordinator for an organization of the time. He also got involved. He connected me with the bartender at Esta Noche, this beautiful Puerto Rican boy who died. He asked the owner if we could perform there. He said we could. And I proposed to them a show with the Atredivas that began at 1:45 a.m. They used to have a license that let them open until 4 a.m. on Saturdays. I'm not sure if they still have it. Word got around as I told my friends who hung around the area, many were straight, and so the bar would fill at that time with a completely different crowd.

That's how people began to know me. Immediately when Proyecto ContraSIDA saw me doing this, they recruited me and offered me a job. Back then they had to train me. I didn't know anything about community. I was scared people would call me a Communist. I was the first trans Latina employed to address issues of HIV in San Francisco.

When I first arrived in this country and saw the first transsexual women, I was like: wow. When I saw Zulca in L.A, for instance, the first time, I looked at her and just staaaaaared. All silicone. A very beautiful monster. She is a marvelous person that Zulca. With a wide knowledge about all this! It was like talking with the guru of transsexualism. That's when I began to transform myself, to transition.

So I never went to the doctor. In that, trans Latinas hold the power because they bring their hormones from Mexico. During that time there wasn't that thing where you could just say: I'm going to make myself a girl and go to the doctor. I'm not sure how it was for the white girls; I think they could because there was that problem of the gatekeepers. But I, personally, never heard about that, going to the doctor.

This is what you did: You went with an older loca who advised you in what hormones to take. They gave you fantastic recipes and you'd try and see which one worked for you. Some would turn you hys-te-ric! Ha ha! It was wonderful. We got them through the black market. What many of these hormones are is really strong birth control. And they'd turn you into a beauty! So-much-tits.

It's great that now doctors intervene because the problem with all of this is that people get sick, they get cancer in their brains, for example. When I began working with the community I saw horrors! I've seen locas shooting straight to their tits, which can provoke cancer.

And then there is silicone. Silicone is also very Latino. Silicone is from South America, that's why the locas Latinas are super involved in this because silicon was brought from Venezuela. There are people who are all made of silicone and then, imagine, the body tries to get rid of it.

You now can also buy silicone by getting that thing to close pipes, that clear liquid, and then add baby oil. And you inject that. The body absorbs the baby oil and you are left with a piece of solid rock stuck up your ass.

Before starting my work with Proyecto ContraSIDA, Tamara Ching asked if I wanted to represent trans Latinas in the Human Rights Commission during a meeting at City Hall. At that time, transsexual people got disability because transsexualism was a mental disease, and I thought this to be horrific because in this capitalist country when they give you disability you don't count, because you are not producing. What they want is for you to die so they can stop paying you. Okay, it is not like that, but basically, it is like that. I went there to protest.

One of the first things I advocated for is that there are a number of people in the Latino community who don't dress as women but are women. You know? These loquitas who have their woman's name, they don't take hormones but are fierce tipas. They have to be respected as women. That happens a lot in the Latino community. I was bringing these issues to the forefront and people were realizing what was truly happening in the community. Because Proyecto ContraSIDA, you know, we were in a fantastic location: 16th and Mission was truly the Mecca of transsexualism and faggotry.


About The Author

Juliana Delgado


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