Previously by Lauren O’Neal: A Woman Reviews Patricia Lockwood.
When she was fifteen, Juliana Delgado Lopera moved with her family from Bogotá, Colombia to Miami. As her mother became more and more involved with an Evangelical Christian church there, Juliana “started realizing I was queer—and it was a horrible realization when you come from a very religious family.”
After high school, she left Florida for UC Berkeley, where she applied because she knew Judith Butler taught there. It was more or less impossible to actually take a class from Butler, but Juliana found something better.
In a class on queer visual culture, Juliana met Adela Vázquez, a trans woman from Cuba who talked to the class about the graphic novel Sexilio (“Sexile”), based on her life. The two hit it off right away, and it wasn’t long before Adela became Juliana’s adopted queer mother, drawing her into a community of LGBT Latino immigrants in San Francisco. Listening to members of that community reminisce about their lives in Adela’s apartment, Juliana decided the world needed to hear their stories.
Her project started as a cover story for SF Weekly, and then, funded by a grant from the Queer Cultural Center and Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, became the book ¡Cuéntamelo! (“Tell Me About It”), a collection of oral histories by LGBT Latino immigrants over age 45, now available as an ebook. The book documents the life stories of Adela and five others, with gorgeous illustrations by Laura Cerón Melo (Juliana’s then-fiancée, now wife, who is also from Colombia). It has two sides, so you can read it in Spanish, then flip it over and read the English translation. (The only drawback is that if you read it on the bus, everyone to your right thinks you’re reading a book upside down.)
I met with Juliana at Borderlands Café to discuss “stories of the glamorous, fierce, sad, immigrant queens, faggots, and weirdos that roamed San Francisco in the ’80s and ’90s.”
So how did this project get started?
I studied queer history a lot, because I went to school for gender and women’s studies, and I studied a lot of subcultures. But a lot of it was white with a few black people here and there. There was a lot of Chicano or Mexican-American or Cuban-American or Nuyorican, or these cultures that are second- or third-generation and had access to English and to a better education, etc. The monolingual, I did not feel like there was so much of it.
I remember seeing a documentary by Susan Stryker, who’s a famous trans historian, around the Compton’s Cafeteria riots, which were before the Stonewall riots. She sort of presented the entire thing, and there was a lot of trans history, and a lot of it was white trans history. I’m not saying she was trying to exclude; I just think that it’s not registered, the Latino [experience]. It’s harder to find. I guess I’m lucky, because I have Adela as my mother, so I was sort of thrown into this world, but it’s just not really available.
I was talking to Adela that day when I came out of the Susan Stryker documentary, and I was like, “We need to do something like this, this is great.” I did a few things. I recorded her, tried doing podcasts—it didn’t work. I mean, she’s been in a few documentaries before, talking about her trans experience, but I didn’t want it to be like “the trans experience.” I hate that. I just wanted her to, like, tell her story.
[Illustrator/wife] Laura was working at McSweeney’s at that time, and she brought me these books, the Voice of Witness series, and I started reading through it, and I thought, Oh my God, this is a genre that I would love to use. Then I found all these other testimonials I had read in Spanish, and I thought, This is a great genre where I can get people’s voices, I can mold them, I can sculpt them. They’ll still pass through me, but I don’t want to be the one who’s speaking. I don’t want my voice to be on the page.
Why did you decide to focus on people over 45?
That’s the other issue: I talked with [Adela] a lot, especially about how for that generation of queers, who do not pass—and today there’s a lot of controversy…but she comes from—and a lot of the folks come from—a moment in history where it wasn’t even about passing. Their experience was very different. It was incredibly sad to listen to her and to a lot of her friends and see how once they reached a certain age, they were sort of pushed into their houses and weren’t really visible to the public eye. Especially the trans women and some of the gay men, especially the drag queens…because I know that for dykes, it’s a very different issue, when you’re a masculine-presenting person or whatever. It’s a different culture, it’s a different community. But they really got pushed to the side.
With the [AIDS] epidemic—even though the epidemic actually helped to create some community around trans issues, because there wasn’t before—to me, it’s a lot about invisibility. Just in general, in this country, older people are not really valued. And if they’re queer, and all these people migrated here, they don’t have family at all. And since they don’t have any entertainment value, they’re just really pushed aside and treated as worthless, and a lot of them are dying in their houses. I heard a lot of stories about people with AIDS dying in their houses, completely by themselves. Even to this day, you’ll see, “Oh, that loca, she’s on the street.” A lot of monolingual Spanish people.
To me, there’s this lack of intergenerational dialogue. There are a lot of queers, especially in the city, that don’t even know or acknowledge everything that everyone else had to go through. They don’t get any recognition at all. It’s really sad.
I’m interested in what you were saying about how it’s a different experience for dykes or masculine-presenting women. Can you talk a little more about that? Because none of those people are in the book.
When I was going to do the book, I was like, “I want to include every single voice, so let’s get the lesbians, and let’s get the trans men.” And I went out trying to seek, but for me, it wasn’t only about getting a story and leaving. I needed to develop a connection with everyone, and I did. I really made close friends with people that I wasn’t before. It just did not happen.
Do you think it was more like those individual people that you didn’t click with? Or do you think there was something about their experience that didn’t click with the rest of the book?
I think it has to do with me, that I’ve been very involved with this particular group of people. I was thinking maybe if I do a sequel, I’ll focus on the lesbians and the trans men, and it’ll be completely different. But this was so immediate to me, and none of them are lesbians or trans men. That’s just how it happened. I thought, and I talked to Laura about it. Just, I don’t want to get a diversity stamp. I don’t give a crap about that. If it has to be all trans women, we’ll do it [with] all trans women… I want it to be real, and I want to have that connection with them. And it wasn’t going to happen. I mean, I wanted it to happen because I’m a lesbian too, but it didn’t, so.
It was very exhaustive. What I wanted to do was create short stories that really have scenes and something in there, like a little narrative. So I had to spend many, many, many, many hours. I did a lot of follow-ups with them.
To me, the last ones that I did are much better. I like them much more. I like Mani’s a lot because there’s a lot of emotional vulnerability in his, even though it’s not as shiny or glittery as maybe Nelson’s or Adela’s is. But there’s so much emotional vulnerability. And the story’s not chronological. I got a lot better at pointing and guiding the interview as I went along.
And as I said before, I did not want them to just see me as someone who was coming and stealing their story and leaving and making money out of it. I mean, I haven’t made any money out of it, but I did not just want that to happen, because it does happen a lot in this community. A lot of people who have more privilege and are more educated—which is like me—they just come and sort of take down their story because they feel like it’s so interesting, and then they leave.
What was the editing process like? How did you shape it into this thing you wanted with scenes and a narrative?
It was endless. I had to transcribe, and as people who interview know, when we speak, we go all over the place. We don’t make sentences. With all of them, it went all over the place. With some, like I said before, the more I did, the better it got. But I transcribed the whole thing. And then for a few, I did it differently. First, some of them, I organized by timeline. So they would start talking about Cuba, and then the next moment, they’re like, “Yeah, but I did this yesterday!” And then the next moment, it was like, “Three years ago,” and the next moment… [snaps fingers]. So I organized like that.
Then, by the end, with Mani, I just let it flow. That’s how his brain’s working, which would be more like a story, you know? Something triggers something, something triggers something, something triggers something. But I had to make a lot of decisions about what to include and what to exclude. That’s where my hand is. To include even a transition…it is completely their voice, but I did include some transitions, one or two words, and I translated the whole thing. So after doing it, after putting it together in one language, in Spanish, I translated the entire thing to English.
Why did you decide to do that? The book is amazing—you flip it over, it’s in English, flip it over, it’s in Spanish. What was your reasoning behind that?
Well, first, it’s one side predominantly in Spanish, one side predominantly in English, but they’re both in Spanglish, which is just exactly how the community speaks. They all talk like that. The first article that came out in SF Weekly was all in English, because it was SF Weekly, and I couldn’t do what I wanted—it was just a certain amount of pages and a certain amount of words. And three of them could not read it.
So it was like, “Oh, this is great, this is great, I’m in this thing,” and they put it up in their room or whatever, but they had no access to it. So when I was thinking about the book, I wanted everyone in that community to have access. Mani, he speaks both languages, but he was born in New York, and then he came here, so his was…
Yeah, his was almost half and half.
Exactly. So I do think that for the Latino community here, more and more, the hybridity of the languages is very intense. We’re still here [in the US], and I still wanted to have a little bit marketable book. If I only made it in Spanish, it was even harder for people—for other folks, other communities—to come here and relate to that or have some empathy for that experience. Even people in Spanish, here, there’s a lot of people who have Mexican Spanish or Nicaraguan Spanish, so even for queer Latinos to have access, we have to make it available, I think, in both languages. So I did.
What was your biggest surprise (during the interviews or putting together the book or anything)?
This is just for me, but as a young person who’s very…how can I say this? I may have come with less humility than the humility that I left with. I think that I’m much more humble. I came with, like, “I know this, I studied this” crap. I was coming from a place where I was like, “I know what I want from this.” I entered seeking a specific narrative. Sometimes they were not giving me what I wanted, and I was very upset about it.
I had a huge debate with the illustrator, with Laura, about including Carlos or not including him, because he lives in LA, because his story is much more different than the other ones. We had this huge discussion, and I ended up including him, precisely because it’s very different. It ended up being something much more beautiful where he had this internal struggle around God and his mother and internalization of homophobia, which a lot of people have to deal with. So I let myself go in certain places where I did not know what was going to happen.
Was that also the most difficult part?
The most difficult part is dealing with each person’s emotional baggage once it’s happening, because as I said, I didn’t just want to go in and leave and take that with me.
Right, you wanted a connection.
Right, but having a connection with people is incredibly draining. I couldn’t just be professional with them. And maybe that was an error on my part, I don’t know, but I thought I could just not draw these very professional boundaries with them. I mean, I didn’t go to them with a pen and pad or anything, I was just chatting, having a conversation.
This is taking a completely different branch, but almost everybody in the book talked about Esta Noche, which is an iconic gay Latino bar. It seemed like that was a place where a lot of them were able to explore their identity and find community. And it just closed down. Do you know how people have reacted to that?
Yeah, it’s horrible. It’s super sad. When I moved here, I also went there many times. My best friend is a drag queen named Jorge, and I used to go with him and do his hair and help him pad and everything, downstairs with all the queens, and we’d be having shots, and it was just like…I entered a community. It was incredibly saddening. I mean, Marlen was still performing there. That was where her community was, so it’s been incredibly devastating for her specifically. I’ve talked to her and her friends that were performing there every single night. They have to find other ways of having an income. And it’s more about the community you find there. Specifically, for monolingual queer people who come into the city, there’s nothing. They found a few other places to go, but you know.
Adela and I had this conversation, and she was like, “It’s devastating, the way that they’re”—I mean, “they,” I don’t want to point fingers—but the way the city is changing is really just killing certain communities. For some folks, that was where they went to connect with other people. As I said before, a lot of these people live alone in very small rooms, in government housing, they barely have stuff to eat. But they would really look forward, they would prepare the entire week to go to this place, to have that connection with everyone. It was what they did. It’s an incredible loss, and I don’t think that the city even understands the amount of sadness and devastation that is in the community because of that. When I was interviewing all of them, they were like, “It’s the only place, it’s the only place.” And now it’s not even there.
As one final question: What has been the reaction to the book? How have interviewees reacted, or other people in the community?
It’s been just incredible. A lot of people that were in that subculture, in that community here during that time, have contacted me, just like, “Oh my God, thank you for doing this. Thank you for gathering these stories and not letting them die.” I mean, I don’t know, I don’t want feel special about this at all. It’s all about the people who are in the book, and I just happen to be an instrument of that. But it’s been really great, the way everyone who’s in it felt their stories were elevated and in the spotlight, even if it was just for one second. And it’s important for history in general to have more competing narratives out there about what’s happening and what happened.
Lauren O’Neal is a freelance writer and editor in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in publications like Slate, the New Inquiry, and LA Review of Books. She is the former assistant editor of The Rumpus and is currently an associate editor at Midnight Breakfast. You can follow her on Twitter at @laureneoneal.