Over the past month I have seen drag shows at nightclubs, state and private. One of them is the Bar Esencia, where Monday nights are dedicated to diversity. The hostess is Chantal (Leo) and the performers rotate. One of them is Maridalia.
My friend Alejandro has seen a lot of drag acts, and when she's announced he tells me: "She's good." When I spot her approaching the stage, I think: "What? Where did this being come from?"
The "being" is a fat, potbellied mulatto "woman" with a double chin and enormous feet. But I assume that she must be good if she dares to share the stage with Chantal, who's a beauty. She had barely begun her performance when I had to admit my mistake. She wasn´t just good. She was stellar.
Maridalia, unlike most drag queens, does not lip synch. She really sings, and her histrionic antics are brilliant.
The performer's real name is Manuel Proenza Quintero. He's 51 and fell into the drag scene "accidentally" 25 years ago, when parties for gays and tranvestitism were illegal.
We used to hide it
"We did it hidden at houses and in backyards. There were even snitches. The police arrived, the party was broken up, and they seized everything ... sometimes we got a permit for someone's birthday. If the police came we showed them the person's license, but the transvestites had to hide. They used to put you in jail for crossdressing, or even for wearing powder on your face, or tight clothing," he says.
"I liked doing drag, but I didn't plan to get into this professionally. One night there was no one to host the show. One of the performers asked me to present her. They dressed me up, did my makeup, and dubbed me "Maridalia," like the singer, who I liked a lot and was a mulatto like me. Back then I had long hair," he explains about his beginnings.
"The audience loved it. The owner told me to come back the next week, but I told him 'no.' But then I got the bug, I took it more seriously, and the rest is history. Down to today."
Although transvestitism was illegal, sometimes they hired them to perform at factory parties and state enterprises anyway. "They gave us a gift bag, or paid us. Back then they didn't pay much."
Live on television?
Back when drag was still prohibited, Maridalia won the Gunila Festival, "the only one for cross-dressing performers held in Cuba."
"It was held at the Teatro América, and it was hard to get all the staff out of the theater. But it wasn't done in secret. The place filled up, journalists came from all over the world, and it was broadcast live on TV ... foreign TV. Gunila brought to light that there were drag shows in Cuba," he says.
While acknowledging what Mariela Castro achieved, he believes that homosexuals continue to face obstacles.
"The police step out of line whenever they want to. And we have no one to turn to. For example, I don't understand how the Poder Popular (government body) of Guanabacoa could tell me that there wasn´t enough space at my house for my partner to live with me. I had to ask for permission, because supposedly the space was for one, not for two, and they turned me down," he says.
Manuel bought his apartment with money from his job, in 2012, when it was already legal to buy and sell houses.
According to the authorities, he would have needed a permit even if his partner had been a woman.
"A surveyor measured the house and asked the neighbors if it was true that we were a couple and we were living together. Someone suggested I find a lawyer at the CENESEX (National Center for Sexual Education) and I said 'no, they should give it to me because I'm a Cuban citizen. I don't want to be on the street for no reason, when I have a home.'"
Work? What for?
The projects performing at nightclubs belong to companies and are coordinated through the CENESEX. The companies are supposed to pay them, while in private locales the transvestites have a verbal agreement with the owner.
"All the projects must be legalized and monitored. I started working with Bravísimo, in Las Vegas. I was among the first transvestites to work there. Then I went to Olimpo, where I was tested. They carry out HIV prevention campaigns at the shows," he says.
Although he cannot explain how he was registered with the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT), he knows that he pays his taxes, on time, every month.
But the money is "a conflict." At some private venues they pay 10 CUC, which seems like a lot if compared with the monthly salary of a state employee. "The clothes, the makeup and the perfumes aren’t cheap. And on top of it, you have to pay the ONAT."
Manuel stands 180 cm (5’9”) and wears a size 45 shoe (11 ½). "A friend who lives in the US orders my shoes online. He brings them to me and I pay him. For my clothing, we’re talking about more than three meters of fabric. It can cost me 10 CUC to have it made, and then there’s the car that takes me and my bags. The main thing is that the audience gives tips, which sometimes can amount to 100 CUC. Other times, there’s nothing. Just the 10 CUC from the establishment. When you've already paid for the car. And you think: ‘Why did I even do this?’"
Cuba’s four drag queen superstars
Without any promotion in the the media, the Teatro América recently put on a drag show, to a packed house. The host was the renowned television presenter Marino Luzardo. In the end he said that the National Ballet of Cuba had four superstars, and that now Cuban drag has four too; one of them is Maridalia, and others are Imperio, Samantha and Estrellita.
"We went from songs to performances, then to each of the characters, and in the end we showed the audience that those were were not just any four guys, but four men who were true artists," Manuel recalls.
At the show they also played a recording of a performance in Miami by the exiled Cuban singers Las Diego. Mirta Medina, Yaíma Saenz, Malena Burke and other artists attended. The show at the América was seen in Miami. "I'd like it to be repeated and for the transvestites there to be able to come and join us on stage."
But is everything as nice as audiences see it? Some former performers speak of a sordid and very competitive world.
"They are some ugly things. You know. 'I'm better than you. I make more than you.' But the same is true at the Miss Universe pageant, a movie, a novel ... " Manuel points out.
Miss Talento Latino 2006
Manuel appeared in the documentary Mariposas en el andamio and movies like Havana Blues, by Benito Zambrano, in which he plays La Chari.
An Irish film director made a film in which one of the characters, La Mama, was inspired by Maridalia. "He’d been watching me for three years," he says.
And a German journalist wrote a book about his life. "I don't know his name. He told me he was going to send it to me, but he never did. I think he was afraid I'd ask him for money. I've also shared the stage with international artists, like Massiel, at the Rosalía de Castro. When the parties were still illegal, there were drag shows at centres for the Spaniards in Cuba. It was legal there."
In 2006 Maridalia participated in the Miss Talento Latino competition ... through a video in which she appears with other transvestites from the country, which was sent to Miami.
They won, but they were unable to pick up their prize. They had to get it in Cuba, at a house. Maridalia won that contest for three years straight.
Although he is now one of the most accomplished drag queens on the scene, Manuel continues to study women. "Not just me, all of us. You have stay up to date and keep an eye on the clothes, makeup, hairstyles.”
"I watch American TV. In Cuba, only soap operas and the news. On foreign programs I see how women have advanced. Here, ever since I was born I've seen Cuban women without even pantyhose, weary and going out with the same clothes they wore to work."
"Thanks to the Revolution"
Manuel feels that there is still not enough freedom for homosexuals in Cuba, with homophobia at every level. "Those are the ones that the CENESEX should be giving classes to."
He'd like to would like to work in cabarets in other countries and share the stage with foreign transvestites. He believes that there is much to learn in this "ancient art, dating back to the theatre in Beijing, where female characters were played by men."
But as life is full of contradictions, especially for Cubans, this interview could not end without the recognition that "Now, thanks to certain things - yes, including the Revolution - there is a place for us," he says.
While all the things he mentions happened under the Revolution, "now they have realized that we were good kids, good teachers, good workers, and we deserved a place in society," he says. "They didn't have any reason to discriminate against us."