By Caitlin Donohue; Top photo of Yolanda by Edgar Ramírez Asher; Read the rest of the AHDM4U Pride Issue
It is 10:30pm on a Friday at La Sacristía de la Purísima and there’s really only enough space to rock your shoulders rhythmically to the music. People are packed in wall to wall, conditions that one get used to Mexico City nightclubs, especially the gay ones in the central historic district. Above a catwalk, disco balls in the shape of crosses spin. The bathroom stalls are made to look like church confessionals. Barbacks wear priest uniforms. Blenders whir in the pursuit of margarita.
On any given Thursday, Friday or Saturday night here, you can find a comically ugly drag queen presiding over the chaos. She dances on top of the bar under chandeliers draped with rhinestones and pink feather boas. She bugs her eyes, grins luridly at the crowd to show off her blacked-out teeth. Sometimes she brandishes a pregnant belly and maltreated baby doll. She maintains no illusion of glamour — “Don’t look at me, I’m a man in a wig!” she’s prone to screeching at customers — but it’s hard to not watch her. If you came here a lot, you’d know she never repeats an outfit. I found out on the first night I beheld her glory that her name was Yolanda.
Yolanda by Antonio Aldair Moreno
“Once another drag queen told me I looked horrendous. I told her look, they pay me to be ugly.” One week after we made our sweaty, giddy acquaintance, Yolanda a.k.a. 26 year old contemporary dancer Raúl de los Santos and I were in the long, narrow backroom of Purí (as the bar is known to its fans). Raúl had on a strapless black dress and was lining his lips a full half inch outside their natural circumference. He was telling me in Spanish about the perils of being Yolanda.
The previous weekend, someone pulled so hard on his wig that it nearly ripped him off the bar. When he whipped around, everyone on the floor below played dumb. Another time, a girl poured a beer on him. Raúl says that in Mexico, gay club goers are more used to the perfectly made up, celebrity impersonator queens like those that perform down the street at La Perla cabaret as classic Mexican vamps like Yuri, Gloria Trevi, Jenny Rivera and the Argentinian diva Amanda Miguel.
Yolanda by Christian Hernández
Raúl’s an actor and dancer into minimal movement concepts, not a dedicated club kid. He started this gig at the manager’s behest after he and his friends came through and made a scene at Purí’s Party Monster theme night. At first he would wear a mask when he dance, which was partly an aesthetic decision and partly to avoid the distraction of interacting with people he knew while he go-go’d. Soon though, friends recognized him atop the bar and he ditched the mask, leaving him free to explore looks like the freckled, spoiled little girl he played on a recent night. The look is less party monster now, more humorous clichés of Mexican femininity – the housewife, the spoiled little girl with exaggerated freckles. Yolanda is dumb, but confident. She always knows what to do, says Raúl, unlike her creator.
Raúl tells me he plans on taking the character out of the club at some point. Though people have grown used to Yolanda’s busted look in the year that he has been dancing here, they rarely see the subtleties of what he’s doing through the boozy chaos. “It’s a hostile environment,” he says. “It’s hard. Sometimes there’s fights.” As if to prove his point, after we part ways so he can ascend to his spot on the bar my friends tell me there was a pitched scuffle on a go-go platform between two men while we were in the back prepping. Drag is not for the faint of heart anywhere, but even less so in Mexico City.
Momo Ulises and Demetrio Mondragon by Maricel Herrera
But crowds vary. Take, for instance, those of feminist art festival fundraisers. My friends and I were surprised to find the house in the Obrera neighborhood where the Feminem event was taking place as full as Purí had been the other night. After a 20 peso mezcal from the kitchen though, you felt pretty good about your neighbors. A band of queers packed into the front of the living room to play traditional mariachi tunes. While they played, a person in a face full of white makeup, a corset and petticoats lurched into view of the audience, holding a liter bottle of Indio beer. They were holding onto their fantastically-attired buddy and looked like maybe they were about to vomit. In DF cantinas I often see an old photograph of two women double fisting shot glasses and holding each other up – this was the deconstructed drag remix. White Face spat a fountain of beer into the air a moment later, spattering the crowd which had somehow found the space to give the two had a wide berth. Just when I was becoming concerned for the integrity of my own outfit, the drunk act melted away and the two lifted their skirts to dance gracefully, the one in the white face hoisting the fabric over white lacy panties. They twirled to the instrumental mariachi, inviting women from the front row to join them. A hetero couple took the opportunity to join in, dancing neatly into the familiar, yet tweaked Mexican dancefloor scene. Drag at a house party! I live.
After the show I lingered the bedroom being used as the artist’s hangout until the two performers emerged. The person in the white face was Demetrio Mondragon, his partner in metallic shorts and shawl (he’d ditched both for a tiara and sleeveless tiger print tank post-performance), Momo Ulises Mondragon. “We’re spiritual sisters,” explained Demetrio, fanning his face with a soplador, a woven straw paddle traditionally used to fan cooking fires but also, he tells me, employed as wings by witches in Mexican folklore. “We use the soplador to transform into witches, to be able to fly, to be able to be what we want, the wonder of being.”
Demetrio and Momo Ulises Mondragon by Joel Olmedio
The duo often perform together with the same band as Colectivo Cuba 59. They have shows in bars and clubs, even in the streets. That night’s show was commentary on the nature of drunkenness, which Demetrio tells me often leads to a more true expression of self. They tell me their numbers are mainly improvised works of criticism of society, machismo, homophobia. They take cues from lucha libre, traditions from the state of Michoacán, and reject many parts of traditional drag culture. “We don’t want to be women,” Demetrio tells me. “But we don’t want to be men either!” Momo Ulises interjects. “We want to destroy those stereotypes,” Demetrio continues. “Maybe they worked at one time, but now we just want to be us.” The two occupy the more esoteric branch on the drag tree, the artsy performance types. One gets the idea if their wig suffered a snatch attempt off the back of the bar they would rip it off themselves and whip it at the offender.
Though many outsiders know of Mexico as the land of macho, culture here has always allowed for more visible signs of gender deviance, if not for their endorsement. Since the 1940s, exóticos have stamped the lucha libre ring, gay characters known to kiss their opponents as a final knockout move. Since the 1950s, gay figures have appeared on film, often the comedic standard bearers in a scene. It may be argued that these fey signifiers are allowed to romp about only to reinforce hegemonic notions of sexuality and provide opportunities to tug on their wigs. But hey, at least society here has long acknowledged that queer people exist – one often wonders how long this has been the case in the United States.
And let us not forget, those capacity crowds at La Perla underline the fact that drag has long has it’s hold on Meixco City. Consider the pretty-ghoulish Hermanas Vampiro, trotting the world in an undead way since 1997; the unending parade of younger queens at clubs like Wawis El 69 and Paris Bang Bang.
“Paris Bang Bang is the coolest drag queen in the city,” writes Paris Bang Bang, a.k.a. Paris Meneses after I fall in love with the queen’s lo-fi club anthem “Fresh”. “She’s the party girl that everyone wants to go out with. She’s a good time, an unforgettable night.” I’m not arguing. “Fresh” take place in the world of a ringleader DF gay club kid. Watch the video and you’ll kind of get what a night out is like here – a lot of strutting down the sidewalk en masse, stops at the OXXO convenience store, vamping in the bathroom, packed and sweaty clubs of course and that moment when you realize the Metro is finally open again after a long night. Paris, who counts Spanish-born DF queen Tigrida Revuelta as her drag mom, gives far more Drag Race than Raúl and the Mondragons. Her studded eyebrow look and veiled majorette hat are TV ready — and it’s not an aesthetic coincidence. Like pretty much everywhere else in the world I’m aware of, RuPaul’s show has made an impact in DF. Paris proudly posts screenshots of her social media moments with the ladies of Drag Race. There’s a tweet from Bianca Del Rio, Laganja Estranja’s response to Paris’ request for a birthday Facebook message. Paris recently competed in a local, live, multi-night version of the show at a club that was breathlessly narrated on Facebook.
“Right now,” she tells me. “I’m embarking on an adventure on social media where I’m not limited to lip sync, which is what everyone expects of a drag queen. I make my own music, we’re starting a vlog and a series of sketches to develop my character and the spectrum of my impact.”
Paris is trying to build on DF’s marked legacy of drag greats, develop it for a 2014 in which people who have never stepped foot inside a nightclub know drag slang from the growing ubiquity of queens on TV. “I think that the drag scene in DF stagnated many years ago,” she says. “Drag queens here are very wedded to the Spanish drag aesthetic which, to my tastes, is not the only way of doing drag. Fortunately, I’m part of a generation of artists that are coming hard with fresh ideas and the desire to eat the world whole. So much talent in makeup, in performance, costume – in every aspect. I think that the scene is going through a revitalization, that it’s growing in huge steps and gaining people who have never come to see drag before.”
I suspect the drag scene here is pushing forward as quickly as in any queer mecca in the world nowadays – except Mexico City has the weight and chemistry of its 20 million-some population, not to mention a natural talent for drama, pushing it forward. Not every thing is a drag race, but these kids stand a good chance of winning.