There (S)he Is . . .
At the Miss Hermosa y Protegida pageant, the curves and eyelashes might or might not be fake, but the HIV/AIDS-prevention messages are very real
It's 5 p.m., two hours until show time, and Christian Gonzalez is struggling to get his handcrafted butt just right. The goal is voluptuousness, roundness and a little shelf.
"I tried and tried but couldn't do the truco last night," Gonzalez says about the "trick." He rubs his behind and adjusts the bulky chunks of spongy yellow foam, the preferred material, beneath several layers of hosiery. He looks in the mirror. His face sags. The foam is also saddled on his hips to achieve a woman's coveted shapeliness. He pushes and adjusts to make sure he's flat in the front and round in the back. He turns to the side, looks again and smiles. He's on his way to pouring himself into the mold of his alias, Samantha Palacios, for the night.
Every man or transgender woman padding around backstage before tonight's Miss Hermosa y Protegidabeauty pageant has employed similar and generally unpleasant tricks to achieve a temporarily disappeared front mound and a luscious derriere.
In a quick pre-pageant lineup rehearsal at 5:30 p.m. called by the mother of pageant etiquette, Manuel "Bibys" Chavez, the contestants scuttle across the stage like curious, centaur-like creatures: lean above the waist in their muscle shirts and trim, pre-wig hair; buxom below, in high heels and fishnets. Their elfin faces are dusted with their first brilliant layers of color. Breasts are almost an afterthought, since for most it is merely a matter of throwing on a padded bra and adjusting the filled-in cups.
"Where's Nicole?" Chavez calls out. When she arrives, Nicole Lopez shuffles softly onto the stage in a short summer dress, her makeup and hair all done. "I was saying my speech way out loud in the car all the way over here," she says. "I think I've got it down. I'm so nervous."
A few weeks earlier, Lopez was still collecting money for her evening gown at the gas station where she works in Santa Ana. She and two other contestants tonight are a bit calmer than the others—they've been living as women for several years and have sprouted breasts and enough around the middle to eschew the foam.
"Do it again!" Chavez calls out in Spanish. There will be several rounds of parading onstage tonight—swimsuit, fantasy dress (made from recycled materials and representing the country each contestant has chosen to represent) and evening gown—and Chavez anticipates the frenzied backstage drama.
"It needs to be done right, girls. It needs to be right!"
* * *
Every beauty queen has a story about her precipitous ascent to the top. Last year, several weeks before being crowned Miss Hermosa y Protegida (Beautiful and Protected) 2007, Carlos Diaz knew nothing about gliding across a stage in heels and even less about hiding his most obvious male asset beneath a flirtatious swimsuit.
"I didn't eat. I didn't sleep," he says. "I was so stressed out."
Everyone does the trucodifferently when it comes time to slip into something feminine, says Jose Luis Amaro, the lively drag MC who founded the annual beauty pageant in 1993, during the height of a national preoccupation with the rise in HIV/AIDS infections. The show is run by the Center Orange County, one of the few nonprofits serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities.
Amaro giggles one evening over his glass of white Zinfandel and resists divulging details. "The tricks you use are secret," he says, laughing. Several layers of stockings are central to one of his favorite methods. So is the elastic ankle part of a sock. He shares a little more: the clasping of the male organ with one or two sock rings and the pulling back and then up with several pairs of stockings. He says no more.
For Diaz, such mysteries were as foreign to him as wigs and temporary butt padding. Last year, when Alfonso Guerrero, the new pageant director, asked the quiet, 34-year-old waiter to participate in the annual pageant after four participants had dropped out, Diaz hesitated. "I had never dressed in drag before, but the directors knew I cared a lot about HIV/AIDS awareness," he says.
The Spanish-language pageant, held for the past 14 of its 15 years at the Community Center of Costa Mesa, only welcomes contestants who have something—or once had something—to flatten beneath their stockings. Their superficial task is to transform into pageant-quality beauties over the course of an evening. But the real challenge is to wow the health professionals who sit on the panel of judges with a potent HIV/AIDS-prevention message. The three-minute speech accounts for 75 percent of their total score.
"We were trying to think of a way to reach out to the transgender community, which we knew was here but had no way of reaching," says Amaro about the pageant's origins. "At that time, things were focused on the gay community and the straight community, and there was nothing in between for this very specific group.
"I said, why don't we do a beauty pageant, and people thought I was crazy," he says, "but what the hell?" Then came the name. "Obviously, 'beauty' had to be in there, but how would we get the HIV/AIDS-prevention message across? That's what this thing was really about. We went through everything, some really silly names, and finally settled on protegidabecause that's what she is in the end: a person who considers herself beautiful and is protecting herself from acquiring a sexually transmitted disease."
Amaro and the Center directors thought the pageant would be a one-time experiment. But the first event drew a sellout crowd of 200 from both the transgender and gay communities. Amaro quit esthetician school, joined the Center and managed the pageant for the next 10 years.
Guerrero, director of Latino programs at the Center, took over when Amaro left. "He's done a tremendous job," Amaro says. Chavez, Guerrero's partner, volunteers yearly to help the girls prepare for their onstage choreographies. Guerrero works for months with the contestants on their pageant message. They are all required to attend weekly workshops, and their messages are written and approved by the Orange County Health Care Agency. "They have to give advice to the audience," says Guerrero. "Every year after the pageant, we get a lot of phone calls wanting to know if what this or that contestant said was true—and to find out about getting tested."
Pageant attendence, the makeup of which has also changed over the years, has ballooned to a yearly average of 450. "People would bring their tiasor neighbors, and pretty soon, they would bring their friends, and there were all sorts of people there," says Amaro. "It grew into something for the entire Latino community." The pageant's far-reaching influence is no small feat given the ambivalence a lot of people—Latino and non-Latino—still express toward the transgender community.
* * *
Days before this year's pageant, Nicole Lopez stands on an elevated platform behind the cashier's counter at an ARCO station early one morning in Santa Ana. She punches dollar amounts and pump numbers into the register, her fingers landing softly on the keys before jumping up as if stung. A little box covered in metallic pink paper and featuring a picture of Nicole in a miniskirt and silk top sits in front of the cash register with a short typed note in Spanish:
I am soliciting your donations so that I may participate in a beauty pageant with the central theme of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted disease awareness and prevention.
Sometimes, the 33-year-old Lopez looks slightly boyish. Her profile reveals bone structure untouched by the hormones: an angular, impressive jaw line and shoulders that extend just wider than her limited hips. The platform makes her look taller than she really is, a setup that occasionally leads customers to stop, whisper and sometimes even come right out and ask: ¿Eres hombre o mujer?Are you a man or a woman?
There are times when kids poke around the market in a huddle, looking up at Lopez, then returning nervously to their chatter. They wonder, too, she says. "When they ask me if I'm a woman, it's difficult. I can maybe say, 'No, mijo; you'll understand later.' But you can't speak too loud or say too much because their parents can become upset if they perceive me as disrespecting their children."
So normally she just smiles, the dimple in her right cheek turning inward with her gaze. "Ask your father," she sometimes says.
She remembers one instance that broke her hard-earned cool. A minister once came to the station with his son. "I noticed the man because when I gave him his change, he pulled his hand back and the change fell to the counter," she says. "He pointed at me, and he said to his son, 'This is what we talk about in regard to the word of God. These are the followers of the Devil.'"
Lopez responded with a tirade in Spanish. "I directed my attention to the boy," Lopez recalls. "I asked him how old he was. He was shy, uncomfortable . . . I said, 'I'll tell you one thing: If God would have given me a son like you, I would never talk this way to him. Instead, I would talk to him about why things are the way they are.'"
She challenged the minister to take her to his church. "Let's see how many people there—after I tell them my story, what I've been through and how you've treated me—will judge me," she said to him. "I told him to give me the address to his church. He refused to give it to me, to let me come. I was crying."
Lopez wanted to tell the minister's parish, as well as everyone who had ever pointed and cussed her out, that her desire to live her life as a woman did not translate into living as a drug-addled, transgender prostitute. That her desires for a serene little home with a bit of sunlight and small garden were the same as those of a lady sitting across from her in the pew.
Or maybe she would have told the parishioners about the time when she was 11 and still a boy in Guadalajara and a neighbor urinated on him after tying him up and burying him up to his neck in dirt in the woods behind his farm, Lopez's young body still sore from the rapes and throbbing with fear for his life. Or maybe she would tell them about her uncle who, perhaps after noticing the small boy's softness and delicate tendencies, began to discreetly swipe him from play circles with his cousins and sodomize him in those same woods.
"There was this tremendous solitude. All those trees," she says. "I still have dreams of the woods and wake up terrified."
There was the time the young boy went to feed the family's animals and was beaten unconscious by his uncle after being raped. He missed school that day and woke in the afternoon. "I came home with my clothes torn and bloody, and no one said anything. How could no one know?" she asks. He sewed those same tattered pieces back together and wore them again.
There were guns on the farms for game hunting. One time, Lopez spotted a gun while everyone was away at church, and he grabbed it and took it to his uncle's house down the street. By this time, he had often fantasized about killing his uncle as a way out of the abuse. He found his uncle and shot at him once, then twice, but the gun wouldn't fire. "He really beat me and raped me that day after I tried to kill him," Lopez says. "But thank God I didn't kill him. Imagine what my life would have become if I had killed someone?"
* * *
Carlos Diaz didn't have a thing to wear when he went from pageant volunteer to contestant last year. Friends lent him an evening gown and accessories and gave him the coaching he needed to parade onstage like a diva. Over the course of a few weeks, he became Kayla Montesdeoca, representing the country of Jamaica. "I wasn't thinking about winning," he says. "I so stressed over my walk and how I would look and sound. But my worrying wasn't helping, so I decided to just focus on my message." He thought about his two best friends, who had been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in the small province he's from in Guerrero, Mexico. "The situation in Mexico is very difficult. It takes a lot of effort to survive with HIV there." He remembers how he became an advocate for his friends, driving hours to clinics for their medications and learning as much as he could about living with HIV in a hometown where the disease was only ever whispered about.
When he came to the U.S. in 2002, he sought out AIDS-awareness resources locally and became a diligent volunteer at the Center.
When it came time to deliver his message last April, Diaz ambled up to the microphone with his newly perfected womanly gait in a glittering red halter gown. Dipping his thick, new lashes down, and then up, he said, "I know you love your children, but is there a frank discussion that you're having with them about sex?"
Diaz ate up his time limit but would not budge as the crowd, full of families, elderly couples and friends, cheered him on.
A short time later, the gay man from a little town in Guerrero was crowned queen.
He gained no preference for dressing in drag after his pageant experience. "I made an ugly woman," he says. "But I think people now say, if he can win, then why can't I? Which is great."
The discomfort of cinched hosiery didn't end with his win. The annual winner is charged with a year's worth of volunteer events to educate the Latino community, a task Diaz took seriously. He frequented dance clubs less and took up speaking engagements—usually in full drag—with various nonprofit centers throughout the region. "I was representing the Center," he says. "And this was an opportunity to reach communities that I might not have been able to reach in the past."
As pueblo-quaint as some of the pageant's moments may be, Diaz considers the passing on of the torch gravely. "The next Miss Hermosa y Protegidaneeds to understand what a tremendous responsibility she has to the community," he says.
* * *
Three years ago, Lopez injected her first estrogen shot, delivered from Tijuana, into her bristly thigh. A few months later, she experienced the elation of a young girl at the sight of the small mounds poking through her shirt, the first visible marks of womanhood.
About a month ago, she decided to go public with her secret by propping up the little box at the gas station. A lot of her longtime customers had seen her go through her transformation and supported her, but not everyone knew, she says. Instead, the little box has prompted curiosity and questions and chats long into the night during her late shift about what it means to be transgender, her history of abuse and the importance of talking to one's children.
"I've realized that so many people are lost the way I was when I first came here," she says. "I mean, it was my experience at the beginning, to not know anything . . . I'd never learned anything about prevention, diseases, nothing. I had never been tested. . . . And to see that there are so many people in the same situation—and I'm not just talking about the gay community—there are so many people who don't know what to do or how to handle prevention."
The box filled up with $800 in donations from customers. "It's been so emotional for me, the response," she says. The money allowed her to pay for her $600 evening gown, swimsuit, jewelry and various pairs of heels. "If I can get two families to walk away from the pageant with some questions in their minds, that will be the winning of my crown."
Lopez's ex-fiance may well never know that the man who left her and fled to the U.S. from Guadalajara, Mexico, 14 years ago has a thing for Victorian-era statuettes and spent a recent Saturday making her way down a runway in a decadent peach-and-deep-pink evening gown before a panel of pageant judges. Lopez left one month before their wedding. "She was a nice girl," Lopez remembers, "but I couldn't bear the thought of creating a family, and then bringing suffering to us all because I was hiding who I was."
* * *
At the pageant, Lopez stands defiant in front of the crowd. Her pageant etiquette washes away, and her face sobers. She pulls a male condom out of her bodice, then a female condom. "Sadly, we still refuse to talk to our children about sex. Talk to them," she implores. "Homemakers, you must take care of yourselves," she says, holding up the female condom and talking ardently about the high rates of HIV/AIDS infections among married Latina women. She goes beyond her time limit, but the crowd, listening intently, explodes in applause.
Other contestants are equally passionate: Samantha Palacios says that as Latinos, the audience is one entire family. "It's time we started taking care of each other," she says. In a shimmering gold and leopard-print gown, Kasandra Montenegro offers up a personal testimony: "I am a living example of what can happen despite a life of domestic violence and rejection by a machistafather," she says.
"It's time we put a stop to children being born with HIV infections," Zuleyka Flores says.
"Maybe you think salt and lemon will get rid of an STD, or washing with soap and water, but you're wrong!" Valeria de Montecarlo booms passionately to the applause of the crowd.
Sisters Rosa and Angelina Castro are sitting near the stage at a table with family members and their granddaughters. They're cheering Frida Marin, Miss Puerto Rico. "The children say the girls look pretty, and that's fine. If they ask, I'll tell them," Angelina says of her decision to withhold the entire boy-to-female explanation for now. Both grandmothers say they're glad for the openness of the pageant.
"In this day and age, you have to talk to your kids openly about these things. There are still people who don't want to talk about it, but it's good to do it. You have to do it," Rosa says.
"I always told my son when he would go out, take your sombrerito [little hat]," Angelina says, laughing about the condom advice she gave her son.
Rosa is quick to get to the point regarding the transgender community: "They need to be accepted, and that's it," she says. Angelina nods in agreement and calls to the little girls, who are running around the table.
Not far from the Castros sits Amaro, the guest of honor tonight, who, as "La Pepa," is dressed in a gleaming red sequined gown and a bed of hair piled high above his barely recognizable face. When he is called onstage a short time later, the pageant founder's face is flushed and glowing. He has never had the pleasure of having his mom at one of the pageants, and none of his immediate family is here tonight. "I remember one year, an old woman came up to me," he says. "I have it burned in my memory. She came up to me—she was around my mom's age—and she said, 'Oh, your mom must be so very proud of you.' I was so moved. I said, 'Yes, she is proud of me,' because I know she's proud of me for other things, even if it's not this specifically. But it really touched me.'"
While her son received an award tonight, Amaro's mother, who is ill, was at home, not suspecting a thing. "It would be too hard on her," he says. "If she asked me, I would tell her. She already knows I'm gay. But this would worry her. She's very Catholic. It just would be too much. . . . She would think I was trying to become a woman, even if that's not the case." Amaro's siblings also know he's gay, but like their mother, they are unaware of his involvement with the pageant.
The absence of his family members tonight—and at every pageant he ever put on—speaks to a community in flux. As comfortable as the Castro sisters are, there are many among their generation and younger who still struggle to accept their children for who they are.
"It's okay that she can't come. She loves me. I know that," he says wistfully.
* * *
After their speeches, five finalists are selected: Nicole Lopez, Samantha Palacios, Alexa De La Riva, Kasandra Montenegro and Zuleyka Flores. The five women are asked: Why do you want to spread the message of HIV/AIDS prevention to the community? How should you have sex if one of the partners is infected? Why is there a window before one gets tested? What is your opinion of a child with HIV/AIDS?
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Each answers, and then waits for the judges' decision while Carlos Diaz, now dressed as Kayla Montesdeoca for one last time, bids the audience goodbye. The judges announce this year's pageant winner: Palacios takes the crown. Montenegro comes in second for the second year in a row, and Lopez comes in third. Despite her smaller, second-runner-up crown, she can't stop smiling.
"I'm proud of myself tonight. I did everything I set out to do, and I couldn't be happier," she says, clasping her crown above her head with one hand.
For a slideshow of Russ Roca's photos from the pageant, please click here.