By Lyanne Alfaro (United States, 1993), member of the 2nd generation of the Latin American Network of Young Journalists [This text is part of the special “Lxs calientes en América Latina” that incorporates reports, chronicles and research from 12 countries in the region]
We are approaching the early hours of Sunday morning in a cozy and crowded Brooklyn bar. Young adults from all over the city have come together to celebrate a special event. They bump and grind to Shakira as they wait for the first emcee to step on stage.
When the DJ presents Lady Quesa’Dilla, the crowd roars and fans whistle. She steps on stage draped in a hot pink polka dot dress, magnificent red wig and long eyelashes. Everyone is still.
“That’s power,” she says. Her audience laughs. She lifts a finger to open her tribute to Cuban artist La Lupe’s “Se Acabó,” and eyes follow. They are in presence of a queen — a drag queen, that is.
Her show is the culmination of years of practice and support she’s received from a community of performers including Queen Horrorchata, whose birthday they are celebrating tonight.
But Lady Quesa is celebrating too. This year not only does she turn 29, she also completes a decade since trading in her hometown of El Paso for the concrete jungle that is New York City.
The queen, albeit houseless, has no intentions of leaving.
FIRST HOME: EMBRACING FEMME
Lady Quesa was born Alejandro Rodriguez to two working class Mexican parents from Ciudad Juárez and raised in Texas. Off-stage, he identifies as a cisgender person and looks no different than your typical Brooklynite. In an East Village tea shop, Rodriguez is easy to spot once you scrolled through Lady Quesa’s Instagram. The wig is off for this ocassion. His attire is eccentric but practical: a fuschia bomber jacket, sneakers and tote bag. We’ve spoken only a handful of times but he greets me as you might your primos, a hug and warm “hello.”
While many Chicanos tend to answer the question of belonging and identity with being “neither here nor there,” Rodriguez had quite a distinct understanding of where she was from.
“I flip (the saying) and I’m like, f**k that, I’m from here and there,” she tells me.
She knew from a very young age that her personality tended to stray femme. In high school, she turned to be a well-rounded student involved in extracurriculars ranging from theater to speech and debate, and she never hid her personality.
“I was unabashedly femme and flamboyant,” she says. “I’ve always been a character, and I’ve always been silly.”
A memory that stuck with her was when a football player watched her perform a comedic role on stage and remembered her – Rodriguez felt she had a place. And the young actress did not shy away from the attention. She relished in it.
What took a little more time was embracing and defining exactly what her sexual identity was, something that continues to change to this day.
Sophomore year of high school, she started telling people she was bisexual. Later she told her parents and siblings she was gay. It helped, she says, that her girlfriends supported her femininity and that her parents and siblings were supportive.
At 18, Rodriguez received an offer that would be the cause of her first adult move, from the Mexican-American border to Midwest America in Sioux City, Iowa where a full-ride scholarship awaited.
She would not be back for a while.
While Texas had been a warm place that enabled her to embrace her personality, it was her new environments that possessed ingredients to help her blossom.
SECOND HOME: BECOMING QUEEN
It did not take long for Rodriguez to realize that a school in Iowa was not quite the right fit. A year later, she left the Midwest to pursue her calling in the city that housed Broadway.
She arrived in New York City with a plan: To attend Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts and to follow up the year after with a masters in performance studies at New York University.
Rodriguez had scholarships to cover some of her tuition, but she knew she couldn’t sugarcoat the cost of living in NYC. As she saw her loans pile up, she started working at the local box office. It was her first hustle — one to pay the bills, but she didn’t lose sight of what was quickly becoming the dream.
On weekends, she would visit the local drag shows and took notes. That’s when she started meeting some of the big names of the drag scene in Bushwick, who later became close friends. Many were ladies who worked on Bushwig, their annual drag event. Among them were Queen Horrorchata – the queen whose birthday was being celebrated in Brooklyn – and Untitled Queen.
Rodriguez didn’t go unnoticed. Performers soon began asking when she would start doing shows herself. Little did they know the NYU grad student already had a debut performance coming and a name: Lady Quesa’Dilla.
“I like to feed the children,” she told me.
When she first started performing, she also meant it quite literally. Lady Quesa’Dilla says she developed her local fame presenting her drag shows while preparing guacamole on stage. Today, she “feeds” her viewers through the messages built into her shows, including those of self-love, acceptance and privilege.
Lady Quesa was finally doing drag, but she realized she needed another paycheck to afford her necessities. After leaving the box office, she picked up her second gig, which was more closely aligned with her interests: a job at the reception desk at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in Manhattan. She was offered a way into the center via a role at the front desk, which Rodriguez called “the nervous system” of the office.
“It’s like a glorified security guard,” she explains.
And it’s all been part of a bigger plan, where the goal is to be a teacher working with young people. As it turns out, she says she’s learned plenty from them as well in a journey to self-discovering exactly where on the spectrum of sexuality she stands.
“I recognize that I’m a mentor and that I’m far from perfect. (But) I know who I am and what I bring to the table.”
THIRD HOME: IT TAKES A VILLAGE
Last year, Bushwick’s resident drag show, Bushwig, was relocated to Queens after rising rents priced out the festival.
“The latest performers in New York are struggling as the city is getting gentrified faster than ever. But the creativity and the freaks aren’t going anywhere,” Queen Horrorchata told DNAinfo. “We are dealing with the fact that this city is constantly evolving and what really matters is the art will always be here.”
The annual celebration, which took place in September of last year, had scheduled performances from the likes of musicians Occupy the Disco and reality television show RuPaul’s Drag Race star Latrice Royale. Lady Quesa is also known to perform at the annual festival.
Today, she too faces displacement after leaving her rent-stabilized building due to issues with her landlord and is trying to find affordable housing in Brooklyn. The outlook is bleak. Rent prices like these are costing over half of New Yorkers more than 30 percent of their paychecks, according to some studies.
While publications like Curbed have noted decreasing median rent prices in the city and The New York Times even published a piece touting 2017 as the “Year of the Renter,” it’s clear that this kind of optimism only applies if you can afford anywhere near median rent in your neighborhoood. In Bushwick, the average price for a 2-bedroom apartment is $2,397, according to an MNS report from May.
When I ask whether she thinks about moving out of NYC, Lady Quesa admits that she’s thought about going back to Texas. Ultimately, she decided on staying in the city for much longer: “I made myself a fantastical and magical life in New York City and I’m not ready to give that up yet.”
The city is where her formative years took place, she says, and where her life belongs now. She has much work to accomplish here still.
“It’s the epicenter of culture, and I think, in many ways I’ve worked to get here,” she says. “I recognize how Brooklyn is a cohort of my best friends and me.”
In the meantime, she is sleeping on her friends’ couches until she finds a permanent living arrangement, ideally in the same borough. She makes some money while performing on weekends and working at the LGBT center.
FOURTH HOME: UNCERTAIN FUTURE AND UNAFRAID
Although she and her peers are in a time of transition and uncertainty, it’s evident Lady Quesa is proud of how far she’s come. This is apparent through her performance on stage.
Back at bar in Bedford-Stuyvant, being vulnerable in front of her audience seems to come quickly and simply. In the span of less than two minutes, she has shared with a room of onlookers her triumphs and insecurities since migrating from Texas, adding: “I have all these notions that I’m not enough for you.”
“What I want us to do moving forward is to move through that anxiety but let’s acknowledge one another, let’s appreciate one another, for just the way we are. Just like this.”