We sit across from each other at Barnes and Nobles at the Fountains Shopping Mall. I catch him day dreaming as he stares out the window. He picks up his Passion Iced Tea, takes a sip, and continues to watch out the window. I look out the window to see what he is staring at, its dusk time outside, people move across the sidewalk towards their vehicles as cars pause for them to walk across, he looks back at me, smiles, “What’s the question again?”
I ask him, “How involved are you with this character, is she a character, or is she even real?”
“She’s definitely a character. I’m Robert Fernandez right now up until the minute I put on the last lash then I am PUTA KAHLO. When I take off my shit then I’m Robert again. Because drag, while it is fun and empowering it is also unhealthy. It’s important to differentiate yourself from being a drag queen.”
I remember the first time I saw her, a year ago, I was quite petrified to be honest. I was among the audience waiting for the next drag performer to take the stage. It was at Alive Club, back when it was still open, the MC introduced her as PUTA KAHLO. Her name stayed with me, as well as her performance, because it held so much power like a punch. I wondered why she decided to go with that name.
She came out of the dressing room and walked towards the stage with a cape on, her head was the only visible part of her body at this point. But even just her head held this kind of beauty, the kind of beauty that no one can replicate. Every eyelash perfectly placed, the crimson lipstick wisely chosen to make the rest of the make up pop out, and her hair up revealing the fine structure of her cheek bones.
Once she graced the stage with her presence “Did On Em” by Nicki Minaj came on, her cape came off about thirty seconds into the song, which revealed her curvaceous body. With every move of her hips the crowd cheered and handed her dollar bills. Not once did her facial expression change from her concentration until the end. At the end she smiled, but not an ordinary smile either, it was a smile of being pleased, of achieving something.
After that first performance I did see two more of her performances and I would bump into her when I went out for a drink or two at the Gay Bars in El Paso. I’ve always been curious to find out more about her and how she came to be. I contact her via Facebook and ask her if she can meet me for an interview. She agrees. I tell her we can meet at a bar downtown (The tap or International), Starbucks, or Barnes and Nobles; she chooses Barnes and Nobles. We set the date for 6:30PM on Wednesday October 26, 2016.
Three hours before our meet up I picture how they will come dressed, will I be expecting him or her? I picture how people will perceive us at Barnes and Nobles, if they come dressed as her, will they look at us funny, laugh at us, avoid us, or look at us in disgust? I wait in the parking lot of The Fountains, decide to make my way to the cafe inside Barnes and Nobles and wait for her arrival.
Back at the cafe inside Barnes and Nobles I underline the word unhealthy and continue to ask him, “Unhealthy? What do mean by unhealthy?”
“I mean, the next day when I’m done doing drag I feel exhausted. You exert yourself, you constrict your body with corsets and layers of padding and tights, your standing on heels, you can’t pee because you’re tucked tight, you have bruises, and even part of you hair gets yanked out because you glue stuff to your head,” he laughs and raises both of his hands up as a theatrical gestures.
I laugh too.
“That’s just the physical part of it and let me tell you it’s so easy to get a hold of drugs and consume alcohol too. That’s something I still struggle with because you become friends with club management, staff, and drug dealers. People want to buy you drinks or drugs, I mean come on I even have a relationship with the Burrito Lady. I’ve seen people get drunk off their ego because they get what they want when they are in drag. I’ve been through it. I felt entitled because I was a popular drag queen in Austin. It can also ruin friendships and relationships when you’re in character. That’s why it’s unhealthy.”
He finishes his sentence and looks out the window again as if reflecting on his younger years. He says, “You know as child I was scared of drag queens. My uncle is gay and when I was little I went over to a party and there was a drag queen. She looked at me and told me I was a cutie pie. I screamed and ran to my mom crying. I was traumatized.”
“What made you want to do drag then?” I ask.
“While I was studying Art History at St. Edwards University in Austin, TX I was lost in terms of who I wanted to be. But in the back of my mind there was always this character, a girl, that wanted to like emerge. So PUTA KAHLO to me, I created her as a character who sold her soul to the devil for eternal beauty. In return of course she lost her humanity, so she’s trying to figure out how to become human again. You know, like socialize with people. Through her performances she always tells a story of being lost and finding well… her humanity.”
“That’s interesting that you have developed this persona with precise detail, ” I say.
He responds by saying, “I’m a storyteller after all. The fact is that people in the gay community are savages, you know that, if something isn’t right or well correlated they will critique and talk shit about you. Like… No…”
“I have to remind myself that I’m not going to talk shit about other people because their work speaks for itself. But like I was saying its tough out here for a gay person. Even within the gay community you have those people who stereotype you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like when it comes to being feminine. Guys want a guy and the minute they see you not be masculine they don’t want anything to do with you. Being PUTA KAHLO has helped me accept my femininity and be confident. People even ask me sometimes if I would ever transition and my answer is no. I don’t want to live as a women because I know my truth.”
He looks at me waiting for a reaction from me as a sort of approval to confirm that he is right. I try to relate and say, “It’s a hard to balance trying to act like something that you’re not.”
“Exactly! Like when I came out, I escaped to school in Austin. I didn’t want people judging me here. I felt like I was wearing a mask. And in Austin I was able to be more of myself. Then when I came back to El Paso as a performer I felt like I was wearing a mask under the mask. It was like this constant struggle to hide my true self or my feminine qualities from people or society in general.”
He continues to say, “There are just many expectations, regardless if you do drag or not, that people expect from you like if you owe them something, you know?”
I nod my head, he looks out the window again, and talks to the outside world, “You know I left Austin because I got lost in the unhealthy part of being a drag queen. I suffer from manic depression, anxiety, and being bipolar. But like doing drag, being PUTA KAHLO I get to escape from being Robert and take on this persona who’s unapologetic, beautiful, and trying to find her humanity. It’s like wearing a mask all over again. But this mask is more like a part of you. You have to wear this mask for survival. It doesn’t hide who you are, it only allows you to be a different side of you. Like putting on a uniform or a name tag, you become someone else. You play another character, you know?” He pauses again, looks at me, and says, “At some point sometimes you need that mask, name tag, uniform, or whatever it be to reaffirm that it is okay to act a certain way. Ultimately drag opened up the door for me to become comfortable with myself. I don’t know. I feel like I got off tangent.”
“Can you picture your life without being PUTA KAHLO?”
“Hell no. She’s like an old friend. She knows me and I know her. She’s taught me so much and has given me so much confidence. Sometimes I talk to her, you know, like I tell her, ‘hey girl I know you’re there, thank you for pushing me and giving me confidence.’”
We both look at each other and laugh.
He smiles at me, “Oh god, I sound psycho don’t I?”
“Not at all,” I reaffirm.