It’s my first time at Heladería Georgetti—the local ice cream shop located next to Río Piedras’s Catholic church. Inside it, people are loudly buzzing in conversation while sipping on their smoothies and licking their spoons—I usually just go to the refrigerated goods section at Walgreens, mea culpa. Jhoni Jackson’s texted me that she’s just around the corner, and she’s coming with her close friend and local DJ, Ien Grave.
Jhoni’s been on my mind a lot recently. The founder of De Show—a monthly LGBTQIA pride party in Río Piedras featuring drag queens, drag kings, DJs and more—I first heard of her from a local drag queen, Vena Cava, who suggested I get in touch with her. She’d written an article for Paper where she talked about queer experiences in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. I decided that I should definitely talk to her after I went to Vena Cava’s goodbye party, which Jhoni organized. It was November 2017, two months after the Hurricane, and Río Piedras had no electrical power.
The party took place at El Paseo de Diego—a now-not-too-thriving commercial street in the heart of Río Piedras. What was once Puerto Rico’s most booming shopping area is now a ghostlike street, with closed up stores lined up one after the other. I’d never seen El Paseo the way I saw it that 22nd of November: busy, an electric generator rumbling, a spotlight connected to it, a wooden stage in the middle of the street, and Mondo Bizarro serving drinks outside of the venue. The Paseo was dark except for the area that De Show had activated and brought to life as Ien played his beats and Río Piedras’s queer kids gathered in their cliques. During a period of time where uncertainty, sadness, and post-traumatic hardship abounded, Vena Cava’s farewell party was quite literally a light at the end of the Paseo, a celebration that brought the LGBTQ community a much needed distraction, and one that breathed life into one of Río Piedras’s most derelict streets. For a few hours anyway.
Interview: Jhoni Jackson
You do a lot of work with the LGBTQ community in Puerto Rico, in particular in the Río Piedras queer scene. I’ve seen you organize events as well as writing about it, but I wanted to ask you, could you tell me how you describe the work you do with queer youth in PR? What’s your goal?
JJ: As a writer, I’m able to cover things. That’s my journalism work. For oganizing, I opened Club 77, that’s around here. In 2012 is when we started, when I moved here, and we opened in 2014. Me and Jose Javier, and this girl Kristen Fink, who doesn’t live here at the moment, that’s where I started booking and organizing. Then I started organizing drag shows there. I met Warhola Pop who now lives in New York, and started doing shows with her and Adi Love. Eventually we did a Kings show. We used to do a Queens of the 90s, and we were like “Let’s do King of 90s”. From there we decided to do a monthly show and we launched, June 2016, pride month, was the first De Show. It was gonna be a monthly at Club 77. That September I decided to leave the club, focus on writing and eventually work toward opening my own club by myself. It would be a queer club specifically. But I took De Show with me and we kind of hopped around different venues in Río Piedras. We did one at El Local, but mostly it was in Río Piedras; we were at La Beckett at one point. We did a rooftop party there after their karaoke, that was really chaotic cause it was really crowded and full of their karaoke crowd. We were at El Ensayo for a while, we had an issue there with the manager not showing up one night—they’re under new management now, it’s nothing against whoever’s managing now. That night we ended up at Baker’s Bakery last minute. It was our queer priDe Show and we were like “What are we gonna do? They’re not even here to open the door and it’s 9:30.” So Baker’s graciously took us in and we performed there. Then, the hopping around was a lot, so we settled in at the Tiki Bar—El Escondite—that’s right next to Mondo. It’s no longer open.
We kept running monthly, stopped during Hurricane Maria. Then we did a couple of farewell shows for people at el Paseo de Diego, with a generator and the spotlight from the police [she laughs]. We’ve done shows at the Tiki and Mondo since. When Mondo was running with a generator, we did it beside Mondo, instead of just using the generator power for the Tiki, because it’s so much bigger. Now we have a campaign to open a new bar, called Lover Bar. That’s still in progress, but it was set back by Maria. I was personally financially set back by Maria, like anybody else, so I had to take a beat and come back to it. Now I’m waiting for finding a lease at a space.
Do you know where it’s going to be yet?
JJ: It’s going to be in Río Piedras.
What made you want to get involved with the drag scene here?
JJ: I think it was through Warhola Pop. I liked drag and I wanted to incorporate queer-friendly programing into the mix. I didn’t so much openly identify as a queer person, but by getting closer to the queer scene—getting closer to my queer friends, I guess—helped me feel more comfortable with that and feel more like myself. As the queer scene started to develop I wanted to push it further, because I saw people were feeling like I did, like I’d found a place, like “This feels like me, I feel comfortable. I feel like myself.” I just wanted to keep it going.
I was a student here back until 2010. I’m not sure if the queer and drag scene was more quiet back then, or if I just wasn’t part of that circle.
JJ: I feel like the whole population of Río Piedras changes every 4-5 years because it’s so many students. From what I can tell and what people have told me about the entire drag scene in Puerto Rico, there’s always been drag but the queer movement within the drag scene is newer.
Why does Río love drag?
JJ: I think there’s a lot of queer students at the university. Drag is having a huge moment in terms of its popularity, and there’s a lot of queer younger students that love that, and there’s nothing else in Río Piedras that’s offering any queer kind of community besides it. In the queer drag scene, it’s a community where anybody can go.
What would you say is unique about the Río Piedras queer scene?
JJ: It’s a place where you can do drag for the very first time. It’s very DIY. There are queens that go all out and send more money on their outfits and stuff, but you don’t have to. It’s also not just drag queens, there’s drag kings too. The Santurce scene can sometimes very strictly stick to those definitions of what drag is, and here it’s way more fluid. I think it’s a little scrappier, a little startup, and that makes it more inviting to people. Anybody can be part of it.
IG: I think the university and the campus itself gives the opportunity for students to be scholarly about how free they can be within their own cultural boundaries. Sometimes when you live in an island where everything is so religion-based, and families are so traditional, when you come to a hub of, not only education, but cultural exchange, having students come from all over the world or even different parts of the islands—more conservative—it creates this mass of constant exchange of information, cultural experiences, language and things you can sort of adapt.
JJ: You just got me really excited about thinking that connection to college life and that period in your life, and why culture feels different over here, because it’s rooted in college. It’s a coming of age in college. Of course they feel their most creative and most freest. It has that vibe to it—of discovery.
But I mean, Ponce has various universities, but I keep hearing that Ponce’s more conservative, repressed.
IG: I’m from there myself.
What’s your take on that?
IG: Being from Ponce, moving to San Juan I thought I was going to have a better outtake, find a job, getting the kind of education I wanted. I studied at Sagrado Corazón, which is the place for Communications. I didn’t have the experience that I had here when I was in high school. Everything was repressed, and everything was very criticized. If you were even a little bit queer, or a little bit strange, people would verbally attack you. And that’s something that’s very common, not just in the south, but in other parts of the island. So when I came here to San Juan, you find a mix of everything. When I started going out, I went to goth parties and industrial events. But I was still very much that kid. I met Jhoni after college, when I started hanging out at the club, I saw a change in myself in the last couple of years. I became more open, I got queerer, I became less restrained with myself. I started doing things, like even performing as a fluid drag king and dj, that I didn’t think that I could do because I didn’t feel there was a space for me.
JJ: Speaking as to why there might not be the same kind of scene in Ponce or Mayaguez, when they have universities there, we very intentionally always said “Anything goes at De Show, anybody can do anything”. People saw brand new performers one after the other, so it encouraged other people to join in and support it. It holds space for everybody.
IG: It’s a judgement free zone where you’re able to start your own thing and develop it, and no one’s going to question you. First time experiences in drag are very competitive, you have to come out with a really polished looks, you often present as a pageant queen and that’s expensive. But in Río, you’re presenting a concept rather than an overall look.
JJ: I’ve seen really elaborate looks and some minimal looks, it just depends on what they’re trying to get across. There’s a whole spectrum here.
One of the cool things about De Show is its structure. It rotates venues, kind of like this nomadic thing. Could you tell me a little bit more about that kind of party structure? Why rotate? Is it about flexibility, economy…?
JJ: It works right now because we don’t have a space—we don’t even have the Tiki available to us at the moment. We could literally be anywhere. We haven’t had a show in the past couple of months because I’ve been trying to get really focused on opening that new space. But I mean, in the beginning it allowed us to be anywhere, I think out of necessity. My point was to stay in Río and provide something here, because in Río Piedras, at that moment, there were no other queer events. We’d go with whoever would take us.
Which places took you in?
JJ: We were at Club 77 first, then we’ve been at Teatro Beckett, on their roof—that’s where we did the ball Río Piedras is Burning. We were at Taller C, which is across from Bori, but it’s not Taller C anymore, it’s called El Ensayo. Baker’s Bakery, the panadería on the corner. We’ve been at Mondo and Tiki for the last portion so far, and in the Paseo when there was no light.
Do you select these places or do they come to you saying they want a De Show party?
JJ: We had to reach out and ask if we could do shows there.
What were you looking for?
JJ: Just space and an environment where they’d be open to have queer performers. I wish that I’d maybe been a little more selective at times. Teatro Becket was not the most welcoming environment because they had their own crowd. I thought when their karaoke’s done, people would clear out, especially seeing drag performers arrive. A few potentially close-minded people stayed, and a few people complained that it wasn’t a welcoming environment. That made me want to have our own space even more, because I can’t have our party in a place where people don’t feel comfortable because that’s the whole point—for people to be free and safe. Not having any control over that is terrible.
Most of these venues are straight?
JJ: Yeah, there is not one specifically queer venue in Río Piedras right now. Not one. Not one. I don’t know understand how that’s possible when there’s a college right here. How come no one’s opened one now? How is there not even one tiny gay bar? Not one?
We want to provide a platform to invite people to perform and be free to do their art however they see fit, however that may be. And for the people who want to be part of it, we want them to see that art, enjoy that art, and feel that they’re in their own queer community, in a safer space where they could also be themselves—even if that means artistically off the stage.
The first time I went to a De Show event was for Vena Cava’s farewell event. I was struck and blown away with how el Paseo de Diego was transformed into such a queer space.
JJ: One time we had a pool party—Tropidrageo. I put a mini pool in the Paseo [she laughs].
JJ: Oh God, that was last summer. It was just one of those inflatable ones, but there were easily 15-20 people inside it.
Whose water did you use?
JJ: It was the Tiki’s.
And did you have to get permission for that?
JJ: I didn’t. There was a cop circulating though, but I didn’t see him. That’s another reason why I want my own place. I want to have security at the door, I want people to feel safe and offer a place where people can go to if there is a problem. I don’t have the funds to do that when I’m doing an event somewhere else. I get a percentage from their bar, and that goes to the performer. Each night there’s a host, and we’d rotate hosts, because there was so little money to go around. I can’t get the funding I need for security unless it’s my own space.
For Vena Cava’s show, it was interesting timing. It was a few months after the hurricane, there was no power and not a lot happening. What did you want to do that night? Was it about her or were you sending a message?
JJ: We did two farewells during that time. They were specifically so they could raise some money in tips for their trips to leave the island, and so they could have one more performance.
So a few people from De Show left the island post-hurricane?
JJ: Yeah, but two of the people that left are back now.
What was putting an event together under post-hurricane conditions like?
JJ: Well Mondo said we could use their generator, and their was already a huge spotlight at the end of the Paseo cause it was really dark, so we figured we could just use that. That was November 22nd, so we had more cell phone communication during that point, but there were still a lot of people without power. I got power back after like a month, because I’m right by the cuartel and el hospital.
It started quite early, as opposed to most shows.
JJ: Yeah, because we were under curfew by the government. We had until midnight.
Do you need permission to put on an event at the Paseo?
JJ: Normally you would, but we didn’t.
And nobody complained?
JJ: No. There wasn’t a lot of people around. We usually get permission for things like that, you get it through CAUCE and there’s a Junta Comunitaria and stuff. Once a month we used to have Jueves de Río Piedras, and we used to have tons of stuff at the Paseo that was organized by Luis Irizarry who has a studio about Mondo, Mondo Bizarro and a lot of other local businesses. There would be an artist market and stuff, but those funds are gone now. That made the process easier, Mondo had an easy connection to get those permits.
The Facebook event described is a “farewell show relámpago”. It had this slogan that said “El verdadero desastre es el colonialismo”. What was the idea behind that?
JJ: It was close to Thanksgiving, and I wanted it to be clear that I was not celebrating Thanksgiving. I asked la Colectiva Feminista en Construcción if I could borrow that phrase. They use that slogan in their graffiti a lot, and I didn’t want them to think I could rip it off. I wanted it to be about Vena Cava, and I wanted it to be political.
IG: My interpretation on it was a reaction to what was happening after the storm—how slowly we got the surprise from the mainland. The problems we were having pointed out that the storm wasn’t the biggest tragedy, it’s the fact that we’re under this oppressive state.
JJ: I guess that was part of it too, cause it also felt weird to throw a party while stuff was still so chaotic and absolute crisis in November.
IG: Culturally we tend to party a lot, regardless what’s going on. People would still come out because they needed distractions, they needed to be uplifted.
JJ: And they need that queer community too. They need that sense of support, so it was about reuniting people.
The stage that was there, is it always there?
Yeah. That was part of Jueves de Río Piedras. CAUCE and I think the Municipio worked on the plans for that. There’s a little stage there, they put some planters and some tarps above. They tried to pretty it up a little.
And the bar that was running that night, accessible from the street?
JJ: That was Mondo. They have a window that opens to the street. But they’re no longer open. They announced that they were having their last event not long ago.
You mentioned earlier having to leave to make a name for yourself. When you get together do you discuss what the Island, the government, the university, or the powers that be do to keep the queer community here and able to make a living?
IG: We haven’t even thought about this. We just feel like we’re looking out for improving our own quality of life and pulling this all off without necessarily having to rely on governmental sources, because I don’t feel that’s going to happen. I don’t think the government itself cares or worries about youth culture or any alternative culture. Education is a perfect example. They’ve been closing up schools because of lack of funds, so we could naturally ask, “Why would they care about subcultures?”
I think that Río tends to be more open and inclusive anyway. I don’t feel totally out of my element in most places here.
JJ: For example, when we were first moving around spaces, El Bori had just opened their second floor, and I had asked several people in our group, “What do you think about doing a show there?” They were like, “I don’t really wanna be in drag at El Bori.” They didn’t feel that they’d be comfortable in that huge crowd of people you see on Thursdays, coming in there in drag, so yes the spaces here can be more inclusive but it also depends on how outwardly you present as queer. There’s degrees I think.
Do you have a timeline for when you think Lover Bar might happen?
JJ: The landlord is working with lawyers to finalize the dissolution of the old lease, and I’m waiting for that to be done so I can sign a new lease. I’ve thought about maybe opening with the decor that’s already in there, and changing it poco-a-poco.
I wanna have the funding through Lover Bar to bring back people for special appearances from performers who have left, like bring back Vena Cava, bring back Victoria Holiday. A lot of people left in search of other opportunities, but in a way it’s like they’ve been forced out of here. The situation has forced people out. People don’t want to leave where they came from.