What would a Spanish-English dictionary for queer San Francisco look like?
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.
Those words are not as alien to a mass audience as they once were, thanks to a growing presence of LGBT and Latina voices in popular culture—and evolving intersections between the two communities, such as the Undocuqueer movement. But tracing the etymology of that queer vernacular draws us deeper into an obscure past. These definitions are part of a glossary that accompanies the first batch of narratives in an unorthodox history project: Cuéntamelo: An Oral History of Queer Latin Immigrants in San Francisco.
Culled from hours of transcribed conversations with editor Juliana Delgado, the still-in-progress project splices together memories of the Bay’s queer scene when the scene itself was first blossoming. Diving underneath the camp and glamour, the collection, to be published next year as a print collection of eight to 10 stories, in both English and Spanish, with support from the Queer Cultural Center, is a small homage to the city’s legendary LGBT scenes. Having interviewed subjects from Mexico, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, Delgado plans to stitch the stories into a collective memoir of the generation that moved queer San Francisco out of the underground.
The oral histories Delgado has gathered so far (several have been published in SF Weekly) illuminate a community that wavers between overexposure and deep intimacy. Like the glossary, her stories speak to a general audience, without succumbing to voyeurism. Her project stemmed from her personal friendships—as a young, queer, Latina writer and editor, she looks to the generation that came before her as wise elders—as well as her fascination with oral history as a raw and imaginative platform. She started by interviewing one close friend and over time began reaching out to other members of a tight-knit circle of aging, Latina queers.
Their lives have been consumed and shadowed by drama, romantic and otherwise, yet underneath the theatricality, the sinews of everyday struggle shine through. For some, it starts in childhood with the first flirtations with dressing glamorously that unleash the rage of neighborhood bullies. For others, the awakening comes later in life when lovers turn violent, or wind up dead. Several of the stories are colorful vignettes of trans women who worked in the 1980s as “female impersonators” in the local queer club scene. The darker stories recall the trauma of the mass exodus from Cuba to Florida in the 70s and 80s. After arriving by sea and finding their way to San Francisco, the Mission became a springboard into a kind of freedom quite different than the one Uncle Sam claimed to be offering Cuban refugees. It was a queer, new world.
Adela Vazquez’s migration story is tangled up with her coming out story. One day in Havana, she undertakes a rite of passage for local boys—an examination at the military draft office—and scores a one-way ticket to Miami:
And I planned all this: that day I had shaved my legs, I borrowed one of my mami’s panties and wore it and when all of the boys stripped themselves naked I left my panties on. The man who was checking everyone asked me, and why don’t you take that off? Because I’m not going to be naked in front of all these boys! I said to him. Immediately I was sent to psychiatry where another man looked at me with a smile and a big ohhhhhh! You know this is the military not the Confederation of Cuban Women, right? He stamped my identification with a big HOMOSEXUAL. And that was the paper I took to get my passport as proof that I was homosexual so I could leave Cuba.
But the stories grow darker as the memories edge closer to the present. They lost friends and adopted family to AIDS in the 80s, and endured beatings and drugs, while constantly clawing for the audience’s gaze masquerading as love. Delgado shows this to the reader with an odd glamour sometimes against backdrops of ugliness and desperation. As their bodies sag and their hair grays, they might not attract the same audience, or the same kind of gaze on the street, as they once did. But their stories still remain a living testament to lives lived half in the shadows and half in the spotlight.
In one scene from Nelson D’Alerta’s history (he is also known as Catherine White), D’Alerta recalls how, as a boy, his infatuation with the stage budded in Havana and later blossomed, in an unexpected way, on Miami Beach:
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.
In 1980, I arrive in Miami from Cuba on a Monday. When I arrive there is a man who helps me find a job, a gay man, an intimate friend of Reinaldo Arenas. Daniel Fernandez. For the record, Reinaldo Arenas is an acquaintance of mine because he was tremenda hijeputa. We passed each other randomly in some stairs one day and when she saw me she said, but what a fierce faggot! And I tell her, and you niña! I didn’t even know who he was.
So I tell Daniel Fernandez that I am a drag queen, a transformista. He tells me: tu si la bateaste people have come here asking for all sorts of jobs, but drag queen? Then he says: alright, come Wednesday and I’ll look for a job on the beach for you.
Some of the oral histories document lives that have taken on and shed several identities over the years, on and off the stage, but the narrators have reached a point in life when they have nothing to hide. The candor of their aging voices now pours out in a raspy but lyrical sigh.
Marlen Hernandez, who crossed over from Cuba to the U.S. in 1985, talked about her descent from the spotlight to a detention cell, and a slow rehabilitation.
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 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.
Delgado, a native of Colombia, began developing the idea for the oral history project when she discovered gaps in the documented history of queerness. Though the stories of black and white queer communities were represented, she was missing stories like her own—stories of those who identify as queer, Latina, and migrant.
In some stories, “their own queerness is what catapulted them to leave and seek a new home,” Delgado says. “I think it’s the intersection of [these] things.” Though the stories are presented individually, they create a composite of a community of people “getting together and trying to survive. Being an immigrant, and maybe being undocumented, and through the AIDS epidemic,” she adds.
The unvarnished accounts of their lives that unfolded reminded Delgado of “magical realism, in a very queer way.”
When they arrived a generation ago, San Francisco struck Vazquez and her friends as, in her words, a surreal “small heaven,” where they could abandon themselves and explore each other. But their affair with the Mission was temperamental. Later in her story, Vazquez recalled how her stage career slowly curdled as an epidemic bled through her community, and how she eventually turned her performance into social empowerment:
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.
Vazquez eventually became the leader of transgender HIV prevention programs at Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vid and other local organizations. She’s also become a representative for her community in many arenas—marching at the helm of the San Francisco Pride Parade and presenting at the Toronto International AIDS Conference.
When exposing her life in retrospect, Vazquez is a natural performer, and self-effacing in her storytelling. Despite the cinematic flair often associated with the Mission’s LGBT communities, the images captured in the oral history project are neither exploitative nor tragic. As friends and old haunts die out or fade away, the narrators are in some ways growing lonelier and quieter, compared to when they were living life in overdrive. But by taking the time now to chronicle their experiences, they rediscover their vulnerability with a new tenderness. The Mission has been both kind and cruel to them over the past three decades, but at the end of the day, it’s still their first love.
Read more excerpts from the Cuéntamelo project at SF Weekly or in the forthcoming published collection, to be released during the 2014 National Queer Arts Festival. For more, see Juliana Delgado’s blog.