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Episode 43: Drag queen de nacimiento (Born to Drag)

By Duolingo on Thu 19 December 2019

In 1980s Quibdó, a rural, Afro-Colombian city, homophobia was a part of everyday life. But when Erlin Mena found the courage to put on heels and dance in drag, he helped create a thriving queer community that endures to this day.

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Transcript

Martina: In the western Pacific region of Colombia, there is a vibrant Afro-Colombian community in the state of Chocó.

Erlin: Soy una persona negra, inteligente, progresista.

Martina: That's Erlin Mena. Thanks to him, Chocó also has a thriving queer scene with drag shows and queer street parties. He's a proud, or orgulloso, member of this community.

Erlin: Me siento orgulloso de ser parte de la comunidad LGBTIQ. Nosotros siempre llevamos luz donde no la hay. Aquí la sociedad LGBTIQ se siente contenta. Aquí una persona gay es libre de hacer lo que quiere.

Martina: But Erlin remembers that this area wasn't always so progressive. There definitely weren't any drag queens around when he was a kid. During Colombia's long civil war, this region was plagued with violence between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or the FARC.

Erlin: Todos fuimos víctimas del conflicto. Las FARC abusaban de todo y también abusaron de mí, porque yo era delicado y diferente.

Martina: But when Erlin grew up surrounded by war, he decided he couldn't live his life in fear.

Erlin: Por esta razón, me compré una peluca, tacones, un traje y un abanico.

Martina: He bought himself a wig, heels, an outfit, and a fan.

Erlin: Y aprendí a bailar. ¡Fue todo un escándalo!

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I'm Martina Castro.

Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening, and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: The capital of Chocó sits on the bank of the Río Atrato, with a long boardwalk, surrounded by lush, tropical forest. It's hard to get to. People travel by boat from town to town. Erlin grew up on his dad's farm in a rural area called Bajo Atrato.

Erlin: Desde niño, yo siempre tuve inclinaciones artísticas.

Martina: But his father didn't appreciate his talents. Erlin remembers one day when he was little that marked him for the rest of his life.

Erlin: Un día, yo iba en una canoa con él y otras personas y vi una sanguijuela.

Martina: A sanguijuela is a leech. When Erlin saw the leech, he let out a loud scream.

Erlin: Un amigo le dijo a mi papá: "Guido, Erlin es raro. Es diferente a los otros chicos".

Martina: His father made it clear he wouldn't support any 'difference.' He told him, "I'd drown my son before having a queer one."

Martina: Since then, Erlin knew he had to get out of the tiny town he grew up in. He made a plan for himself and as soon as he could, he moved to study in Medellín.

Erlin: Me fui para no verlo nunca más. Tenía miedo de lo que mi papá podía hacer. Yo no sabía que yo era gay. Es decir, en ese tiempo, no sabías bien quién o qué eras porque había mucho tabú.

Martina: It was the 1970s and in Medellín, he was able to explore his creative side. He took ballet classes and fell in love with pop music.

Erlin: Mi tipo de baile era muy diferente al ballet. Yo bailaba más bien Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion…

Martina: But his absolute favorite diva was Whitney Houston. He was head over heels for her.

Erlin: Soy un gran fan de Whitney Houston desde muy pequeño. La primera canción que aprendí a cantar en inglés era de ella.

Martina: Erlin began to take modeling classes and because of his striking good looks, his career took off.

Erlin: Estuve en dos comerciales a nivel nacional.

Martina: Though his modeling career was going well, he still felt there was something missing.

Martina: Then, one fateful September in the 1980s, a friend invited him to the San Pacho festival in the capital of Chocó.

Erlin: Yo venía por cinco días, pero me quedé un mes. Todos mis sueños se quedaron aquí en el Chocó.

Martina: San Pacho is a deeply religious festival to honor Saint Francis of Assisi, as well as a celebration of Afro-Colombian traditions. It's a whirlwind of color. Brass bands play chirimías—the percussion-heavy, hyper-infectious, and joyous music of Chocó.

Erlin: Es un gran espectáculo, ¡todo un carnaval! La gente se viste con trajes y baila, y las calles están completamente decoradas.

Martina: The month-long party culminates with massive parades that float down the river by boat. Then everyone takes to the streets to dance through the night.

Erlin: ¡En ese momento descubrí lo que quería hacer!

Martina: After a month of joyful celebration, Erlin went back to his modeling career and ballet classes in Medellín. But they no longer had his heart. All he could think about was dancing on a float, or carroza, in next year's festival.

Erlin: El siguiente año, me monté en una carroza. Yo iba bailando con corona y medio transformado. De ahí en adelante, nunca más paré.

Martina: The second year he wore a crown and danced on a float pulled by horses. Erlin was beginning to embrace performing and dancing in drag, but he wasn't ready to throw himself fully into it just yet. This was the late 1980s, there was still a lot of prejudice and homophobia in Chocó.

Erlin: Había mucho prejuicio en ese tiempo, nadie se atrevía a bailar en drag.

Martina: That's when he met Manolo. He recognized in Erlin a shared celebratory flamboyance and embraced it.

Erlin: Cuando conocí a Manolo, me dijo: "¡Quédate! No te vayas".

Martina: Erlin didn't need much convincing. He went back to Medellín one last time to pack up his life and tie up loose ends so he could return to Chocó for good.

Erlin: Empecé a enseñar modelaje, arte, expresión corporal y a darle un poquito de estilo a la gente de acá.

Martina: It was the late 1980s and sequin-loving, big-haired divas were all the rage. Erlin brought some of his favorite records with him to his new home.

Erlin: Yo tenía el LP de Locomía, una banda de España muy famosa en esa época… "Loooocomía". Ellos bailaban con abanicos, chaquetas con hombreras muy grandes, botas y faldas largas.

Martina: Locomía's outfits were extravagant. They had outrageously large shoulder pads, or hombreras, that dripped with sequins and tassels. Some of them wore skirts and they danced with massive fans that they snapped open and closed with attitude and swagger.

Erlin: En ese tiempo, no había Internet y no podíamos ver los videos de Locomía, pero yo me sabía los pasos y se los enseñé a Manolo.

Martina: Erlin and Manolo started practicing their steps and perfecting their look. They didn't know it at the time, but their moves and outfits were about to set Chocó on fire.

Erlin: Yo sabía que era un buen bailarín, pero nunca imaginé el impacto que nuestro baile iba a tener en Chocó.

Martina: One of Erlin's modeling students was infatuated with the new dance moves he brought to town. She also happened to be the granddaughter of the mayor.

Erlin: Entonces, la nieta le pidió mi show como regalo a su abuelo.

Martina: Chocó wasn't exactly one of the typical stops for major divas' world tours, but Erlin Mena believed he was just as good—maybe better. All he needed was a stage.

Erlin: Mientras esperábamos la respuesta del alcalde, seguimos bailando las canciones de Locomía.

Martina: Manolo and Erlin found a third dancer in a friend named Misael. All three of them: black, gay, and proud.

Erlin: Misael bailaba la danza folclórica del Pacífico de una manera increíble.

Martina: Outside of dancing, Misael was a fashion designer and dedicated himself to working with beauty queens and makeup. He brought style and design skills to the group.

Erlin: Manolo tenía un salón de belleza y también preparaba a las reinas.

Martina: Manolo was the business-mind. No matter where the performance was, if money was involved he was down.

Erlin: Él era más ambicioso que yo. Él también trabajaba mucho para hacer las cosas bien y nos hacía practicar toda la noche.

Martina: Erlin was happy with a stage, a full audience, and applause. They were so excited to put on their first drag show in Chocó.

Erlin: Nos reunimos y empezamos a buscar los trajes y los abanicos.

Martina: They heard the show was a go. They were going to perform on stage in a bar and the mayor's granddaughter was going to be there.

Erlin: La gente se sorprendía al ver a tres negros gais vestidos con esas ropas tan impresionantes. ¡En esa época eso era una locura!

Martina: The night approached and the group was equal parts nerves and excitement. But when they got to the bar, they found a group of young men waiting menacingly with sticks and stones, palos y piedras. They all wanted to see the queers in heels.

Erlin: Cuando llegamos, había 27 jóvenes con palos y piedras esperando el comienzo de nuestro show.

Martina: Manolo and Misael were born and raised in Chocó—they didn't have the confidence that Erlin had. Practicing the dance steps was one thing, but getting on stage in dresses in front of their neighbors, suddenly felt dangerous.

Erlin: Con la cabeza en alto y lleno de confianza en mí mismo, yo caminé hacia el escenario, pero mis dos compañeros decidieron no hacerlo.

Martina: At the last minute, Manolo and Misael backed out. But Erlin had lived in Medellín, he believed that art could overcome small-town prejudice.

Erlin: Entonces, yo subí solo y nadie me lanzó ninguna piedra. ¿Por qué? Pues, porque nos preparamos y nos vestimos muy bien. Ellos esperaban vernos hacer el ridículo y, en cambio, vieron arte.

Martina: Once they saw Erlin have a successful show, Misael and Manolo overcame their fears. They started dancing together, and their fame started to grow.

Erlin: Un señor que trabajaba en la televisión y en la radio, nos puso el nombre La Locomía Chocoana.

Martina: Their drag troupe had been named after Locomía, the singing sensation from Spain, they added Chocoana for the state that they lived in. They became La Locomía Chocoana.

Erlin: Fue gracias a nosotros que, por primera vez en la historia de Colombia, un programa de noticias se emitió desde el departamento del Chocó. Vinieron a filmarnos a nosotros comiendo, en las calles, caminando, en todas partes. ¡Fue increíble!

Martina: They started booking gigs all over Colombia—in places they never would have thought of going before!

Erlin: Pasamos por muchos lugares del Chocó: Bahía Solano, Nuquí, El Valle… Y por todas las regiones de Colombia.

Martina: But the three drag queens from Chocó weren't always welcome. Sometimes the crowds booed. Sometimes they were hostile.

Erlin: Nosotros hicimos un show en El Valle, Chocó en donde nos lanzaron piedras. Estábamos bailando y las piedras caían en el escenario.

Martina: As their fame grew, so did the opposition. At times, they had to cancel shows and flee from the venue.

Erlin: A veces llegábamos y nos decían: "Tienen veinticuatro horas para irse del pueblo. No van a venir a pervertir a nuestros jóvenes". Y nos teníamos que ir.

Martina: If they weren't welcomed into the towns that meant they weren't paid for the gigs either. Sometimes they were forced to wait on the river banks for a return boat, not even allowed to stay for a meal.

Erlin: A veces nos quedábamos sentados en la orilla del río hasta el otro día porque no nos dejaban hacer nada.

Martina: They returned home to Quibdó from touring towns across Chocó and they found that many mothers in town didn't approve of their lavish outfits and flamboyant act. The women said La Locomíoa Chocoana was corrupting their kids.

Erlin: Una señora comenzó una campaña con un grupo de mujeres. Hicieron pósteres en contra de nosotros para sacarnos del pueblo.

Martina: But the drag queens had a huge show coming up that they were not going to cancel. They had booked the Coliseo, a venue that could hold 3,000 people.

Erlin: La campaña quería sabotear el show. Las mujeres hicieron presión en la alcaldía y en los medios de comunicación, específicamente a través de un programa de radio. Todos decían que La Locomía Chocoana era un mal ejemplo para los jóvenes.

Martina: The mayor wouldn't kick them out of town, but he did offer them money not to perform. La Locomía Chocoana wouldn't accept that defeat. So instead, the city suggested that no children be allowed at the show without a parent.

Erlin: ¡Pero los niños de verdad querían ir! Ellos decían que iban a estudiar mucho en la escuela, si los papás los dejaban ir al show de la Locomía Chocoana.

Martina: Excitement for the show was palpable. Finally, it was the day of the famous drag extravaganza. Doors were set to open at three.

Erlin: A las once de la mañana, la fila llegaba a la entrada del barrio El Jardín, que estaba al lado de una iglesia. Los niños lloraban por ver a La Locomía Chocoana.

Martina: The three were getting ready when someone told them to look outside. The streets were filled with cars and motorcycles! The protestors couldn't stop them! The police were deployed to help control the crowd of fans that had gathered to see them perform.

Erlin: ¡Moríamos de la felicidad! Todo el pueblo estaba afuera del Coliseo. La gente quería ver a los gais. ¡Nadie se quedó en casa!

Martina: The show was spectacular. This time, in their hometown, all three got on stage without fear and danced for their adoring, cheering fans.

Erlin: La gente estaba sorprendida al vernos ser gais abiertamente. Nosotros nos presentamos como éramos, con pelucas largas, hombreras impresionantes, faldas largas y abanicos. ¡Eso causó una revolución!

Martina: They owned their sexual identities and flaunted them with confidence. They became icons and, because of their fearlessness, things started to change in Chocó. Queer people felt freer to be themselves in public.

Erlin: Era tiempo de demostrarle a la sociedad que nosotros no éramos solamente sexo, que no éramos lo que la gente creía. Nos ganamos el respeto de la gente siendo así, siendo diferentes.

Martina: La Locomía Chocoana performed fiercely throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. As they got older, young new queens followed behind them and became stars themselves.

Erlin: Hoy, maltratar a los gais es menos común. Fue una batalla difícil, pero nosotros siempre seguimos adelante.

Martina: After a while, Locomía Chocoana split up and the founders went their separate ways. Misael stopped dancing. Manolo contracted AIDS and in 2011, he passed away. His dying wish was that the LGBTIQ community come together and fight for its rights.

Erlin: Manolo fue la persona que realmente hizo de todo para darle más visibilidad a la comunidad. Cuando él murió, yo tomé esa gran responsabilidad.

Martina: Erlin still performs in drag. Every year during the San Pacho festival, you can find him in his heels and gown, dancing in the streets.

Martina: Erlin Mena is a drag queen and co-founder of the LGBTQIA rights organization Ébano Diverso. He lives in Quibdó, the capital of Chocó, Colombia—go see a show if you're ever in town.

This story was produced by Sarah Barrett, a Canadian journalist based in Mexico City. Her reporting was originally supported by The International Women's Media Foundation as part of the Adelante Latin America Reporting Initiative.

We’d love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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We're taking a short break for the holidays, but we'll be back in January with more stories from the Spanish-speaking world.

The Duolingo Spanish Podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I’m the executive producer, Martina Castro. Feliz Año Nuevo y gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Scriptwriter: Sarah Barrett
Narrator & Protagonist: Erlin Mena
Script Editor: Catalina May
Mixed by: Maria Murriel
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro