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.
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.