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Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Puerto Rican Rasanblaj: Freddie Mercado’s Gender Disruption

Abstract The Puerto Rican visual and performance artist Freddie Mercado uses grotesque and humorous female transvestism and animal and monster drag as part of an exploration of transgender, translocal, and transnational Afro-Diasporic, Caribbean, and global phenomena. His life, work, and performance interventions are all intimately enmeshed in a project of staging and rearticulating a complex trans-Caribbean identity that can be understood in relation to rasanblaj, as well as to other critical concepts such as ultrabaroque, disidentification, archival drag, loca-lization, and translocura (or the transloca state). Employing strategies such as dressing himself with canvases on which he has painted self-portraits, creating monstrous hybrid dolls, and impersonating famous large-bodied white Puerto Rican female historical figures, Mercado has become one of the most important avant-garde contemporary performers on the island, one who traffics in creating discomfort and laughter, challenging categories, and questioning received truths.

How do we account for the particularity of Caribbean artists who work in a national context yet create translocal and transhistorical dialogues through the corporeal and performative practice of drag? How do we value divergent gender expressions that upset local hegemonic models (that is to say, dominant, mainstream, enshrined positions, ones that do not necessarily even correspond to the lived reality of people in Caribbean islands or region)? What is needed to complicate local and global art history and performance art models and to explode ossified, repressive conceptualizations of gender and sexuality?

In her introduction to the catalogue for the 2001 New York City Museo del Barrio exhibit Here and There: Six Artists from San Juan, curator Deborah Cullen takes up Elizabeth Armstrong and Víctor Zamudio-Taylor’s provocative categorizations of ultrabaroque and post-Latin American art to discuss the work of six young contemporary Puerto Rican visual artists based (at least at that time) predominantly in Puerto Rico. Cullen would then go on to organize an even more ambitious exhibit titled Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas 1960-2000, held at the same museum in 2008.[1] By ultrabaroque, the critics refer to an intensification of the barroco de Indias, or New World baroque, that has characterized (and, some would argue, limited and pigeon-holed) Latin American art. The three critics seek to overcome the stereotype and celebrate the concept’s energy and power of synthesis, as a mode of transculturation (following the Cuban anthropologist and folklorist Fernando Ortiz)[2]that responds to a particular process of mestizaje or racial and cultural mixture in what is now a very specific postmodern context, one that scholars such as Néstor García Canclini and George Yúdice have carefully outlined in their critical work. [3]Through their use of the term post-Latin American art, Armstrong, Zamudio-Taylor, and Cullen wish to displace the centrality of questions of national identity and attempt to locate these productions in an international, cosmopolitan setting, one in which an artist’s place of birth and ethno-national identification are only one among many other constitutive marks. Their theorizations can be seen as extensions of those carried out by the contributors to Beyond the Fantastic: Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America (Mosquera 1996), who also attempt to reposition this art and propose new models for its reception. In the introduction to the 2008 Arte ≠ Vida catalogue, Cullen engages the phrase Art Is Not Life to further expand conceptions of art in the Americas, highlighting their complex politics and diverse forms (Cullen 2008a; also see Cullen 2011).[4]

There is always a risk with critical gestures like that of post-Latin American art that distance artistic production from its site of origin, even while also highlighting the local. It becomes very easy to favor the former over the latter and to lose the specificity of origins, particularly in a context that is only too happy to absorb cultural productions, homogenize local specificities, and neglect the particularities of minoritarian subjects and cultures. One possible conceptual alternative to post-Latin American art is the framework of rasanblaj, theorized as “Catalyst. Keyword. Method. Practice. Project.” by Gina Athena Ulysse in the call for papers for this issue of e-misférica. Rasanblaj is a word from Haitian Kreyòl that envisions an “assembly, compilation, enlisting, regrouping.”[5]For Ulysse, it is an invitation to engage with the multiplicity and complexity of the Caribbean, not in an effort to move away from it, but rather to dirty metropolitan models: to make them engage the radical, communitarian, erotic, decolonial, utopian, profoundly historical present and future of the region. In many ways, rasanblaj is a feminist, queer, contemporary rearticulation of Glissant’s Créolité, a questioning of post identities, a political recuperation that envisions valorizing the groundbreaking and transformative work of intellectuals such as Audre Lorde, C.L.R. James, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Suzanne Césaire, José Esteban Muñoz, and M. Jacqui Alexander.

What would happen if we try to envision a profoundly queer, Puerto Rican, ultrabaroque rasanblaj framed through the radical disruption of disidentification as envisioned by Muñoz (1999), fully engaging his theorization of “terrorist drag” as a monstrous performance that shocks and transforms audiences and performers? What if we see the potential for this terrorist drag rasanblaj to serve as historical archive, as David Román (2005) proposes when discussing his notion of American archival drag, but in a Caribbean context? What if we expand Marcia Ochoa’s Venezuelan conceptualization of loca-lization (the location of queer madness or transvestism and transgender experience, playing with the double meaning in the Spanish language of loca as crazy woman and effeminate man) (Ochoa 2004, 2008, 2014) to Puerto Rico? Or if we reformulate Diana Taylor’s cosmetic race (her pun that engages the Mexican José Vasconcelos’s concept of the cosmic race, his dream of European-led mestizaje in the Americas, refracted through the televisual presence of the makeup-wearing, light-skinned, queer Puerto Rican astrologer Walter Mercado) (Taylor 2003) and push it to its extremes, also engaging Taylor’s notion of relajo as humorous play or glee? Or if we see Jossianna Arroyo’s cultural drag (2002) as a tool to challenge the whitewashing tendencies of dominant discourses of mestizaje, what she (not unproblematically) refers to as cultural transvestism (2003)?

Freddie Mercado Velázquez is one of the artists included in the 2001 Here and There and 2008 Arte ≠ Vida exhibits held in New York City. [6]Above all else, I would argue, Mercado is a Puerto Rican postmodern doll, a performative Caribbean embodiment, ultrabaroque in many ways but, as we will see, only partially post-Latin American. A master of rasanblaj, he is what I have called elsewhere a transloca, that is to say, a gay Latino man (or loca) who uses drag as part of an exploration of transgender, translocal, and transnational phenomena, and who bridges the trans to account for the multiplicities of gender, sexuality, race, and geography.[7] Mercado’s constant, transformative, always surprising, and sometimes even upsetting queer hybridation (rasanblaj) is an ultimate example of what translocas can do or be: purveyors of an artistic practice that crosses the line between sanity and madness, the known and the unknown, between our perceptions of the real and the imagination.

A consummate visual and performance artist, Freddie Mercado’s life, work, and performative interventions are all intimately enmeshed in a project of staging and rearticulating a complex trans-Caribbean identity, one deeply marked by his questioning of multiple identity categories and conceptual binaries—including human/animal, human/monster, and life/death—frequently through humor and the grotesque. His work has been discussed by art critics such as Manuel Álvarez Lezama (1995a, 1995b, 1995c), Paco Barragán (1998), José Francisco Ramos (1998), Haydee Venegas (1998), Holland Cotter (2001), Deborah Cullen (2001a, 2008b, 2008c), Marina Reyes Franco (2007), and Roberta Smith (2008), and by media scholars and arts journalists such as Félix Jiménez (2004) and Ana Teresa Toro (2011), but mostly neglected by scholars who focus on theater and performance studies, probably because of Mercado’s training as a visual artist and the lack of a written or linguistic component in his work.

In this essay I will build on art historical scholarship, but also position Mercado in relation to theater and performance, particularly given his importance as a collaborator and participant in what scholars such as Lowell Fiet (1997; 2004, 319-65; 2012), Vivian Martínez Tabares (1997), and Carlos Manuel Rivera (2014), among others, have identified as alternative or marginal theater in Puerto Rico, in other words “el ‘otro’ teatro puertorriqueño” (the ‘Other’ Puerto Rican theater), or what José O. Rosado (1997) has called the “liminal” works of “ la ‘nueva’ nueva dramaturgia puertorriqueña” (the “new” new Puerto Rican dramaturgy), which is to say, works that truly challenge Roberto Ramos-Perea’s self-named (yet somewhat staid) “New Puerto Rican dramaturgy.” My placementof Mercado, his loca-lization (to employ Marcia Ochoa’s clever word play, developed in relation to the location of Venezuelan transgender sex workers who negotiate the complexities of a hostile government and society [2004, 2008]), corresponds to Dorian Lugo’s inclusion of the artist in the contemporary Puerto Rican avant-garde anthology Saqueos (2002), where Mercado appears together with other island-based, experimental performers, such as Eduardo Alegría, Ivy Andino, Javier Cardona, Teresa Hernández, Nelson Rivera, Ivette Román, and Bernat Tort. It also corresponds to the great affinity between Mercado’s work and that of Latina/o and Latin American performance artists and groups, such as the ones included by Coco Fusco in Corpus Delecti (2000), by Diana Taylor and Roselyn Costantino in Holy Terrors (2003), and by Cullen in Arte ≠ Vida (2008). Finally, it has to do with the long-standing links between visual artists and the Puerto Rican performing arts that Nelson Rivera (1997) has so carefully documented, and to the fact that Mercado has participated as an actor or collaborator in productions by María de Azúa and Zora Moreno, among others.[8]

Much like Frida Kahlo, Mercado highlights his own corporeality (in this case, that of a large-bodied, overweight, androgynous or effeminate Puerto Rican white man, confused for a woman and at times thought to be of African descent because of his curly hair and body type), as well as his hybrid cultural milieu, and turns it (and himself) into his own greatest creation. As he has stated, “My work is a constant performance,” one that is achieved by wearing intricate female, animal, or monster costumes; engaging in long dressing sessions; making public and private appearances (at times transformed into famous historical female characters); painting self-portraits in multiple disguises and costumes (perhaps the most direct link to Kahlo); and creating self-dolls.[9]

Process and transformation are integral parts of Mercado’s work: being and becoming, or, to quote Elin Diamond’s succinct definition of performance, “a doing” and “a thing done” (1996, 1). Like Kahlo, Mercado directly foregrounds issues of gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and self-fashioning. In his paintings, drawings, installations, and dolls, he documents and deconstructs his creations and imagines alternative racial and gender possibilities. Yet, quite unlike the Mexican painter, Mercado’s world has not (so far) included masculine objects of affection. While his eternal transformations are (at times) accompanied by the solitary self-generated birth of his doll “children,” they are most often about the here and now of his ever-changing masculine/feminine (or monstrous) presence in time and space.

Mercado’s “constant performance” occurs whether he is locked up in an apartment, in a random space, or at an art gallery or museum in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, or New York; dressed up as a fantastic or grotesque female character, perhaps with one of his doll creations in tow; or perhaps wandering down the streets of Old San Juan or Santurce or Río Piedras in his habitual manner, wearing large, loose tunics crowned by his long unfurled curly hair. At other times, he is transformed into a divine apparition for Noches de Galería (Gallery Nights): a mobile public work of art, transportable, eternally changing, wandering from place to place, being inside and out, simultaneously part of city street life and of the rarefied indoor environment of the arts; a cultural street-walker, working the sidewalk with a combination of explicit sensuality and art, the opposite of an anonymous Baudelarian flâneur or of Michel de Certeau’s citizen-subject (1985); a standard-bearer of a very, very queer democracy, nomad-like like Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s theoretical subjects (1986), disruptive and uncontainable; a creature of the night that appears at all hours of the day.[10]

Figure 1. Freddie Mercado Velázquez, First Gulf Action, Escuela de Artes Plásticas, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1990. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 1. Freddie Mercado Velázquez, First Gulf Action, Escuela de Artes Plásticas, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 1990. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

There are other Freddies, those of the cultural citation or appropriation, of invented characters that reference global cultures not necessarily associated with Puerto Rico: a veiled Arab Muslim woman opposing the war in the Persian Gulf and decorated with a tiara of military green plastic toy soldiers (Figure 1); a historical character of the colonial West Indian baroque (Figure 2); an Italian Renaissance damsel. Here, Freddie becomes mysterious, pseudo-orientalist and, at times, Orientalizing (Said 1979)—not simply because of prejudice, but as a strategy of the weak, a reenactment of schizoid mimicry (à la Henry Louis Gates [1988] on his head), what Josefina Ludmer (1985) calls, in reference to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a treta del débil (a tactic or feint of the weak); historical—hysterical—and historicizing.

Figure 2. Freddie Mercado, Virgenes Caribeñas, 1996. Collaboration with Santiago Flores Charneco. Photo by Santiago Flores Charneco.
Figure 2. Freddie Mercado, Virgenes Caribeñas, 1996. Collaboration with Santiago Flores Charneco. Photo by Santiago Flores Charneco.

With Mercado, the insular space of Puerto Rico suddenly becomes the creative citational space of the One Thousand and One Nights (Freddie/Scheherazade) or an encyclopedic catalog, marked by its sharp, critical, socio-political bent, visible to those who can read between the lines. This is something that escaped the New York Times critic Holland Cotter (2001) in his review of the Museo del Barrio artists, when he stated: “Minimalism isn’t their scene; nor, in any overt way, is politics.” Mercado represents a mystery somewhere between absurd and perfectly recognizable, which fragments the Puerto Rican “insularism” of the canonical intellectual Antonio S. Pedreira (1934) in an unexpected, almost Borgesian, way that confuses trivial matters with the sociological referent.[11] The exotic other is mixed with the exaggerated localism in an aesthetic where everything counts and has value (rasanblaj as bricolage or assembly), and everything can be indexed or referenced, if, after all, the very ontological being operates at the margins, outside of the accustomed order and within the sphere of those rejected and violently censored by intolerance and conservative petit bourgeois provincialism. Curiously, living exclusively on the island (and avoiding migration) provokes a radical distancing option.

Figure 3. Freddie Mercado as Gallo/Gallina (Rooster/Hen), Exhibit Opening Here and There: Six Artists from San Juan, Museo del Barrio, New York City, 2001. Photographer Unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 3. Freddie Mercado as Gallo/Gallina (Rooster/Hen), Exhibit Opening Here and There: Six Artists from San Juan, Museo del Barrio, New York City, 2001. Photographer Unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Mercado’s strident performances achieve the most complexity and posit their very own liminal frontiers with his not-quite-human characters that lead to the disintegration of the subject, to his literally becoming an animal, a monster, or a doll. These include Freddie as chicken or hermaphrodite rooster/chicken, a female creature that lays eggs and looks for her rooster (himself), cackling down the halls of a museum, as in the opening of the 2001 Museo del Barrio show (Figure 3), and as La Vaca Maja (The Spanish Maja Cow), a mantilla-wearing creature that milks herself and feeds cold yogurt to spectators out of a cow udder prosthetic, as at the CIRCA 2007 International Art Fair in Puerto Rico.[12] He also becomes an ostrich at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico in 2010; an anthropomorphized black swan/duck/ballerina (a perverse homage to Darren Aronofsky’s 2010 film Black Swan, playing with the double valence of pato or duck in Puerto Rico as a stigmatized euphemisms for faggot and with Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling”) in his El Black Patito Swan Feo performed at the Asuntos Efímeros Cabaret hosted by Mickey Negrón in Río Piedras in 2011; a grotesque, oversexualized, burlesque, female doll/fetish creature with a giant multicolor head and enormous foam penis, also at Asuntos Efímeros (2011); a large-breasted, female American bald eagle crowned with toy soldiers in Santo Domingo in 2013 and in San Juan in 2014 (titled Viaje-Se); and the blue Hindu elephant god Ganesh.[13]

This Freddie blurs the distinction between male and female, but also human and non-human, subject and object, individual and sexual fetish or charm: Freddie as Surrealist doll, esperpéntica, with sinuous curves and overcharged sexuality, reminiscent of Caribbean sex-pot vedettes, such as Iris Chacón, dressed up for Halloween; Freddie as a double doll who masturbates: a critique of the talk-show host Laura Bozzo and her show Laura en América; Freddie as a prosthetic made of mannequin arms and legs, with a sculpted and painted foam head, decorated with ribbons and fabrics, as for his performance at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics Encuentro in Lima, Peru, in July 2002. This is the Freddie of sexual effrontery, of voluptuousness created by hip, buttock, and breast prosthesis, closer to a Latin American travesti than to a good ole’ drag queen or cross-dresser.[14]And let me clarify that I have not really spoken of Mercado’s dolls, that is to say, his sculptures and plastic creations (at times performative objects), which have a life of their own: the objects he sells and exhibits in galleries; the small Freddie miniatures (more recently including Freddilicias, small-scale portraits he has been creating since 2013) that select collectors and friends snatch up, that barely subsidize his life.

There are other performative Freddies that surface at cabarets (historical figures, for example, when he performed with Ivette Román, as I will discuss later), at rock concerts, and in music videos. With singer José Luis Abreu, “Fofé,” he appeared as some baroque postmodern adornment, first on the stage of Fofé’s rock band El Manjar de los Dioses (The Delight of the Gods),[15] and later with Fofé’s subsequent band, Circo,[16] not to mention Mercado’s appearance in reggaeton videos such as Calle 13’s “Tango del pecado” (2007). There is also the backstage Freddie, an apparition, a participating specter, as costume designer for a performance of the modern dance troupe Andanza (with whom he has also performed),[17] or for his former teacher, the enormously talented Awilda Sterling.[18] Finally, there is Freddie as the demented sunglass-wearing housewife, head full of hair curlers, dancing with a masked wrestler (José Luis Vargas) in a video titled “El Santo de Santurce, episode 5,” alluding to the rich tradition of Mexican lucha libre—and particularly to Mexican films starring El Santo (Rodolfo Guzmán Huerta)—in the context of Santurce, a working-class San Juan neighborhood recently characterized by the heavy presence of Dominican immigrants (see Vélez 2002). Mercado’s hair-curler-wearing, loud-gum-smacking character Chiwanda Sánchez (Reyes Franco 2007), who makes occasional unexpected appearances at museums, as well as at dive bars such as La Grilla (a liquor store/pool hall located on Fernández Juncos Avenue in Santurce, which has a portrait of its female owner by Mercado), is a parodic drag antecessor to the better-known (and, to some, more cruel, class-biased, and somewhat controversial) character of Francheska or Frenchy “La Caballota,” a contemporary “ yale” (working class young woman) interpreted by Natalia Lugo in numerous YouTube videos (Marrero Rodríguez 2014).

These are some of Mercado’s multiple incarnations, his ultrabaroque assemblage of types, his living rasanblaj. They range from the individual and collective performances to visible and invisible (unmarked or unacknowledged) collaborations with other artists, and I have listed them in a demented stream (my own critical, ultrabaroque rasanblaj: the free association or rhyzomatic explosion of the transloca theorist), a Puerto Rican and transnational archive and life. With the exception of the music and collaborative videos, however, these performative interventions are mostly ephemeral works, recollected in memory, as a sensory experience, reconstructed and portrayed in the artist’s own plastic work, or salvaged through incidental photographs or the scenes choreographed for the camera lens of the Brazilian Fernando Paes and others (Cullen 2001a, 58). The ephemeral character of these pop-up performances leads to complex archival strategies: Mercado greatly relies on the photos taken by friends and acquaintances, a practice that has greatly increased in the 2000s since the advent of cell phones with cameras and that is also enhanced by social media platforms such as Facebook. The artist’s Facebook page currently serves as an important repository of his work.

Life as (Strange) Art

Freddie Mercado Velázquez was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, on 24 September 1967. He received a Bachelor of Arts from the Escuela de Artes Plásticas (EAP) in San Juan in 1994 after nine years of study. He has never lived outside of the island.[19] He has presented his work since 1987, but only started to receive more sustained critical recognition towards the mid- to late-1990s.[20] His performative and visual work acquired an international dimension through his participation in important expositions and shows in the Dominican Republic (1995, 2013), Spain (1998, 2000, 2002), the United States (2001, 2002, 2008), and Peru (2002), as well as in major international art fairs, such as CIRCA 2007, held in San Juan, Puerto Rico. [21]In spite of his notoriety, Mercado is not a commercially successful visual artist and is (as of this moment) not represented by any gallery, although he has had solo shows in spaces such as La Pintadera (2006) and =Desto (2007) in San Juan (see Weinstein 2007), and more recently in the Dominican Republic (2013) (see Grullón 2014, Rosario 2013). The ephemeral, performative, and essentially anti-assimilable character of his oeuvre (quite possibly because of its sexual content or the artist’s stigmatized persona) frequently makes it hard for the artist to live off his work and has implied at times economic impoverishment, which has even included temporary homelessness in 2001. The artist addresses this situation through frequent collaborations and by working in interior design, costume design, and as an extra or technical assistant in film and video productions; he also currently teaches introductory painting classes at the Escuela de Artes Plásticas on Saturdays.

Mercado’s “strangeness” and his importance is remarked upon in several passages by the Puerto Rican art critic Manuel Álvarez Lezama, who is credited with having coined the term “los novísimos” (the newest ones) to describe the group of young artists (in their twenties, at the time) that appeared on the island in the 1990s. As Álvarez Lezama states:

Freddie Mercado is probably one of the best-known characters in our local arts scene. You will find Freddie exotically dressed as a woman at every opening night of our San Juan Galleries. He is indeed a one-man show, a happening, a walking work of art. His costumes are fascinating artistic creations that go from the aristocratic to the bizarre. One day he is in the XIXth century and the next day he will be exploring Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. (1995b)

In another article, Álvarez Lezama adds:

Mercado cannot pass unnoticed because he is, in the context of our extremely conservative culture, a constant provocation, a disturbing work of art, a walking ‘happening’, a celebration of the absurd, a threat to some of our deceitful moral values and our confined sexuality, and an existential tribute to the carnival we unfortunately do not have in Puerto Rico. (1995a, 16)

Álvarez Lezama affirms that Mercado’s clothes have a very clear intentionality and purpose, and are not merely frivolous distraction; he insists that their finality is “to amuse us, to teach us, and to make us think” (1995a, 16). The critic also acknowledges his fear and initial wariness and suspicion, which is to say, the discomfort he experienced when confronting the transgressive figure of the artist: “At first, I was somewhat uneasy with Mercado’s exuberance, but then I became accustomed to his presence, to his parodies, to his threats. Now if he does not appear in an important activity, I feel as if something is really missing” (1995a, 16).

Álvarez Lezama’s reaction corresponds to that of many critics and, in fact, to my own personal process of approximation to and familiarization with the artist. I remember my initial fascination with Freddie, always accompanied by a fear of approaching him—a fear due in part to my own shyness about open displays of sexuality or, specifically, about non-parodic hypersexualized female embodiment, but also in part to the aura of the artist and his monstrous hybridity. These are sentiments that came with an enormous desire that he always make an appearance wherever I was. In a sense, Freddie became the grotesque monster that I carry inside, a screen of what sexist Puerto Rican society proposes for all readings of male homosexuality, inevitably seen as effeminate. At the same time, Freddie was that which I at times have not allowed myself to be: espejo de libertad (a mirror of freedom). He is also an example of what I would go on to do (perform in drag) thanks to the invitation of other artists, and a collaborator and accomplice in the Río Piedras performance scene.[22]

Rituals of Dress: Process and Intersectionality

Mercado’s transvestic uniqueness has to do with the materials he employs, his compositional process, and the ways in which he self-documents his own work and re-uses or recycles these self-representations. Dyanis de Jesús (2001) has commented on Mercado’s compositional and exhibition technique, on the shifting, transformative nature of his work, what I would call his transpictorial oeuvre: living paintings, images on canvas that make it onto the body as much as onto the exhibit wall. As de Jesús observes, Mercado’s plastic work, specifically his paintings (self-portraits and images of dolls), become performative objects and/or costumes for his performances: “Freddie Mercado exhibits his painted works converting them into pompous skirts which he himself wears as part of some extravagant woman’s dress. The enormous canvas becomes a skirt to later go on and become a canvas once again.” De Jesús, among others, has also identified the artist’s ritualistic composition technique of quick assemblage, which consists of tying fabric and pre-sewn clothes with knots, which he generally does not sew together.[23] Recycling and speed are fundamental elements of this process of experimentation. As Mercado points out: “Some of the pieces are sewn by my uncle [who is a tailor]. I make things by hand. I recycle a lot. I like to transform pieces, use a [woman’s] slip on a pant leg, things like that” (quoted in Ramírez 1999, 17).

Figure 4. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Closeup, front upper torso and face, Telas presento installation, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, 1999. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 4. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Closeup, front upper torso and face, Telas presento installation, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, 1999. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Mercado’s process of creation (transvestire, to transform/deconstruct not only dominant gender norms, but the normative act of dressing itself, as if an eternal, cyclical repetition) also becomes, or perhaps is always already part of his performance. On occasion, this constitutive process (his intrinsic, vital, life-process-performance) takes center-stage, with an audience or without. A key example: Freddie engages in a four—or nine—hour long process of transformation in private (dressing and undressing at home on a Noche de Galería), and becomes so caught up in this play that he forgets to leave the house and make his appearance. At another time, he stages this process behind the lit gallery window of the closed Joaquín Mercado gallery, in Old San Juan, so that it clearly becomes a performance that is visible to the public on the street (Cullen 2001a, 56).[24]At other times, such as in Telas presento, the performance consists precisely of dressing and undressing in front of an audience that is inside a gallery, and then dressing a mannequin or doll that will remain in place; in his cabaret acts, Mercado dresses and undresses while the musicians play, and he transforms himself into different people and creatures, one after another (Figure 4).

The compulsive autobiographical nature of his self-referential paintings and dolls approximates his work, as I have mentioned, to that of Frida Kahlo (turning both of their faces into recognizable icons), but also to other contemporary gay and lesbian visual artists who paint or photograph themselves obsessively, at times in drag, such as the Mexican Nahum Zenil and the Puerto Ricans Arnaldo Roche Rabell and Ángel Rodríguez Díaz,[25]as well as to the Chilean trans performance collective Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis (The Mares of the Apocalypse), comprising Francisco Casas and Pedro Lemebel, who in fact recreated Kahlo’s painting Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas) of 1939 as an installation in 1990.[26] It also connects him to the work of the large-bodied, Chicana lesbian photographer Laura Aguilar and to the performance transcriptions of the Cuban-American Ana Mendieta, which Charles Merewether has called “performing the self” (2000, 134).[27] Another crucial comparison is to the gay Chilean painter Juan A. Dávila’s enormously controversial transvestite portrait of the liberator Simón Bolívar,[28]or perhaps to the Anglo-Australian enfant-terrible, club kid, and performance artist Leigh Bowery, whose large body was often the subject of Lucian Freud’s paintings and etchings.[29] Mercado’s uniqueness resides in how his images of himself and other dolls become layers to be worn on his own body, turned into clothing, so that in effect he carries with him, on him, a referential transcription, a history of his own production: he is his work, and that work is literally and figuratively on his skin. All of this exists in a profoundly Caribbean context, in dialogue with Puerto Rican history and culture, as what we can identify as a practice of rasanblaj.

Corpus Tabula Plena: Racial Ambiguity and Gender Androgyny

A great deal of the impact of Mercado’s work has to do with the very materiality of his ample androgynous body, which is perceived as violating norms of weight, masculinity, and propriety, and the fact that his long, curly hair, light skin, sartorial practices, and physical voluptuousness complicate easy readings of his race, ethnicity, and gender in a country (Puerto Rico) where people are obsessed with distinguishing between whites and blacks (and males and females), as well as with denying the persistence of racism, and where racial mixture (“fusion”) was in fact believed to bring about “confusion” (Pedreira 1934).[30] As Gladys Jiménez Muñoz (1995) and Yeidy Rivero (2005) have remarked, some popular artists have taken up noxious racial stereotypes as a form of uncritical comedy, as in the blackface (and cross-dressing) 1950s televised performances of Ramón Ortiz del Rivero, better known as Diplo. This racial/ethnic and sex/gender indeterminacy (for example, the fact that Mercado’s chest is often read—and presented by the artist—as large, exposed female breasts) provokes multiple forms of anxiety regarding his presence; he very successfully exploits this crisis in his performative and pictorial work. This challenge to dominant racial/ethnic and sex/gender norms is a common trait in the work of several contemporary Puerto Rican performers, particularly Javier Cardona and Marcus Kuiland-Nazario (“Carmen”), as a number of writers have observed, including Jossianna Arroyo (2002), in her superb analysis of black identity politics and “cultural drag” (a term she borrows from Kuiland-Nazario) in Puerto Rican translocal culture, and, more recently, Mickey Negrón, Macha Colón (Gisela Rosario), Awilda Rodríguez Lora (La Performera) and Lío Villahermosa. Performance art, it would seem, is a privileged site for this critique and for the invention of alternate possible orders. Then again, Mercado’s insistent use or appropriation (and perhaps misuse) of Arab and (Far East) Asian cultural forms further complicates his work, rendering him a rather slippery subject.

Mercado inserts himself within a cultural tradition of transvestism (a word I have been using interchangeably with drag) but resignifies this practice in a radical manner, since it is no longer a question of recreating typical images of female beauty, but rather alluding and engaging it in a strange, distorted visual and aural (but not linguistic) way that at times includes elements of burlesque.[31] His “monstrous,” psychedelic, or surreal appropriation of femininity is reminiscent of other drag performers, such as the “drag terrorist” Divine (Glenn Milstead), whom John Waters has referred to as “the Godzilla of drag queens.”[32] This hybridity and visual incongruity is in line with what we could call experimental or disidentificatory drag (following José Esteban Muñoz 1999), if we think of the work of Vaginal Davis, for example, another “terrorist drag” performer who plays with her race and ethnicity (African American/Chicano), as much as with her gender and sexuality. The at-times hypersexualized nature of Mercado’s work also comes close to the excessive performance of the cisgender Chicana performer Xandra Ibarra, La Chica Boom, who plays with stereotypes of Latino culture and violates all norms of propriety, enacting a hyperfeminized, aggresive gender drag (Rodríguez 2014). Mercado could also be placed somewhere between what João Silvério Trevisan describes as a Brazilian drag queen and a “caricata de carnaval”or carnival cross-dresser, both defined by their “postura escrachada” or messy (non-mimetic) appearance and by their distance from silicone-injecting travestis (2000, 379).[33]

It is for these reasons that I feel obliged to state my discomfort with some critics’ dismissal of Mercado’s link to transvestism, evidenced in comments such as Deborah Cullen’s observation that “Mercado is not a drag performer” (2001a, 56). While I appreciate Cullen’s attempt to place Mercado in the context of feminist women artists, such as Valie Export, Adrian Piper, and Orlan—and I would add Ana Mendieta, Laura Aguilar, and Cindy Sherman—and in fact agree with the validity of reading Mercado’s work in relation to feminism (as well as critical race and ethnicity theory), I do not think this excludes his location in the tradition and history of gay male drag; this comes across particularly strongly in Mercado’s appearance on actor and drag legend Antonio Pantojas’s television show Estoy Aquí (2005), a program that in many ways serves as the coming together of two generations of transgressive Puerto Rican drag.[34](Precisely the year before, in 2004, the media scholar Félix Jiménez had made a similar point about the connection between these two artists in his book Las prácticas de la carne: construcción y representación de las masculinidades puertorriqueñas, 259.) I embrace Marjorie Garber’s assertion: “transvestism is a space of possibility structuring and confounding culture: the disruptive element that intervenes, not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself” (1992, 17; original emphasis).

Mercado’s performances differ from those of typical, entertaining Puerto Rican cabaret actors or gay disco drag queens and trans performers, like Ruddys Martínez and Alex Soto, or the more recent television personality Dreuxilla Divine, who joke with the audience as a means to weave a web of complicities and effect parodies and self-effacing critiques, as perverse clowns or comedians that make raunchy comments, use vulgar or lewd terms, and make the most out of insinuations and gossip.[35] For starters, Mercado generally does not talk while performing. He also does not follow the particular visual style or highly affected, effeminate metaphysical speaking style of the extremely well-known Puerto Rican queer astrologer and performer Walter Mercado, in spite of the coincidence of their last names, although he can be said to share the ethics of relajo (as a Caribbean twist on camp and rasquache aesthetics, a type of irreverent humor and glee) that Diana Taylor (2003) identifies as a defining trait of the astrologer’s performance. Freddie Mercado places himself outside of these dominant models: neither a transvestite prostitute, nor a beauty queen wannabe, nor the malicious and perverted entertainer, nor an astrologer to the masses—even when he maintains and borrows much from them. He does not lip sync, except perhaps by chance, such as a time I saw him grab a pernil (pork shank) bone at a Three Kings’ Day party in Fernando Sosa’s kitchen in Santurce and imitate the merenguera Olga Tañón, using the carcass as a pseudomicrophone. It is much more common to hear the performative Mercado emit small onomatopoeic or musical sounds, as Santiago Flores Charneco (2002) has observed: the abstract laments of a geisha; the cackle of a domestic bird; perhaps one laugh or another. His voice (a regular or modified human speaking voice, that is) somehow seems to break the artifice or illusion, and as such it seems Mercado wants to distort sound as much as image: to provoke a discontinuous aural rupture, in synchrony with his visual dissonance; a refusal to talk that also places him closer to the non-understandable, the mysterious, impenetrable Other, what is construed by him as the Orient or culturally unintelligible, the animal, the mute; a surface to be read but which avoids or displaces easy interpretations; a practice that causes great discomfort among Puerto Ricans, who frequently tend to be very conservative and at times xenophobic. This is most pronounced when he is dressed as a hybrid animal, especially a cackling rooster/chicken, as in his performance at the Museo del Barrio exhibition opening in 2001, or some other “not-exclusively-human” form, such as the gallina/samurai/androginoide (samurai/chicken/androgynoid) he portrays in Coco Barroco, as a criatura cacareante: “Croooo, cro cro cro croooo. Cro crooo cro cro cro croooooo” (Flores Charneco 2002).

Freddie’s sexual and gender identity has been described in multiple ways: from hermaphrodite (Barragán 1998) to possessing a “non-sexuality” (Verguilla Torres 1999); “he suffers from androgyny” (6), the same author later affirms, as if androgyny were an illness or condition. Mayra Santos-Febres (2003), one of his most subtle critics, has affirmed that Freddie “blurs the division between the sexes”; the author celebrates his androgyny, but in a positive manner. It is an interesting androgyny, if we wish to call it that, one caused by bulk (large body mass) and not by thinness (the dominant 1970s female beauty standard). But, then again, it is perhaps not androgyny at all, but, rather and quite simply, the femininity of what (when speaking about women) is often called Rubenesque or zaftig bodies: an excess that tends to be read as anti-muscular (and anti-testosteronic) softness and that is shunned in mainstream conceptions of female beauty, as well as in mainstream gay male culture, which is dominated by conceptions of thinness, on the one hand, and excessive muscularity, on the other (see Whitesel 2014). It is also an androgyny that a number of critics (Barragán 1998; Venegas 1998) have likened to the political situation of Puerto Rico itself; Barragán refers to the artist’s performance as “transgresor, travestido y hermafrodita…metáfora del propio Puerto Rico: americano de pasaporte, caribeño de corazón” (“transgressive, transvestite, and hermaphrodite… a metaphor for Puerto Rico itself: with an American passport and Caribbean heart”).[36]

Figure 5. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Detail, face and self-portrait mask, Telas presento, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, 1999. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 5. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Detail, face and self-portrait mask, Telas presento, University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, 1999. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Freddie has explored his racial/ethnic and sex/gender hybridity or indeterminacy in a major performance/installation piece called Telas presento (1999) (Figure 5),shown at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras, as part of his Entre telas exhibit, where he created a biracial, multifaceted figure with two faces, one in front and another in back: half black, half white, as a double who rescues the experience of slavery and its traces inscribed on the body in a game of front and reverse.[37]The name of this piece is a linguistic pun with two meanings. The first, “cloth or fabrics I present,” is a hyperbaton, alluding to a salesperson, perhaps, or to a seamstress showing material for dressmaking. The second, “I present them to you” (te las presento, in which the “them” possibly means his identities, the women he portrays), refers to the acts of artists as the ones who introduce, show, or bring light to new things. Both play with the links of sewing and painting, specifically through the materiality of the canvas and of clothes.

Figure 6. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Backside, Telas presento installation, Interamerican University, San Germán, Puerto Rico, 1999. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 6. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Backside, Telas presento installation, Interamerican University, San Germán, Puerto Rico, 1999. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Telas presento involves Freddie dressing and undressing in front of an audience, and eventually dressing a large, free-standing cardboard paper doll that remains as an installation, surrounded by sculpted and painted foam dolls and other constructed objects. The life-size two-dimensional (flat) mannequin has two faces: one in front, which is very pale white and in sharp focus; the other in back is black and somewhat fuzzy. They are not self-portraits (Figure 6). The large cardboard doll is dressed in several layers of cloth skirts (an underlying white petticoat and an outer skirt made out of painted canvases), which give it three-dimensionality. The main skirt is actually made out of self-portraits and images of dolls sewn together. This pictorial front/back opposition suggests multiple readings, particularly as a self-portrait of Freddie hangs at the neck with a huge sewing needle to its side, as if it were a carnival mask to be held up to the face with one hand. The two women can be read as that which is behind the mask: a woman paler and a woman darker than Mercado’s self-representation, the images of two mothers and two races. The fact that the black woman is in the back and fuzzy can be read as a comment on the invisibility of racialized labor (African slavery, for example) or as a metaphor for racial anxiety, that which is inside or in the shadows (not visible but still there), particularly in relation to how dominant processes of racial “whitening” in Puerto Rico attempt to efface and minimize African (and indigenous) ancestry. This tendency to hide Blackness has been synthesized in the famous poem “¿Y tu agüela, aonde ejtá?” by Fortunato Vizcarrondo (1942), in which the poetic speaker criticizes his friend for literally hiding his black grandmother in the kitchen, out of sight. The Janus-like character of the sculpture suggests that these are one and the same woman, as they share the same body; Mercado’s inclusion of both should be seen as a tense and contradictory affirmation of what is visible and invisible and of the potentially deceptive character of the visual to reveal deeper truths.

Figure 7. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Untitled (self-portrait), oil on board. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 7. Freddie Mercado Velázquez. Untitled (self-portrait), oil on board. Photo by Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Mercado highlights maternity in another important visual representation, an untitled carnival or ball scene self-portrait of a light-skinned Freddie in a green dress holding a chocolate-brown baby (or perhaps a doll) dressed in white lace dress and headdress (a typical Santería or Yoruba ceremonial garment) (Figure 7). The baby or doll is actually held with a set of mysterious extra black arms that sprout from Mercado’s shoulders and back. We can also see one of his white arms, resting on the ballooning skirt. In this painting, it is impossible to tell if these extra arms belong to Freddie or to a person standing behind him whose face is not visible. It is also impossible to tell if the arms are black because of their skin color or if they are covered with long opera gloves, or, for that matter, if the subject is holding a “real” or a “prosthetic” baby. In addition, there is a large black shape to the left of the main figure’s face, which could either be her hair or some unidentified form. These visual ambiguities make the painting somewhat disconcerting upon closer analysis, and suggest a possible fantastic or monstrous configuration. The serene (or perhaps serious) look on the main figure’s face and the baby’s wide-open eyes and mouth convey a more tranquil image. Over all, the juxtaposition of strong primary colors (blue, yellow, red) in swirls in the background compete with what seem to be black flames that complement the black arms and black hair. This backdrop to the two central figures saturates the painting with energy and movement, presenting a contrast to the figure’s stillness. Who (or what) is this possibly four-armed, multicolored, possibly biracial figure? The presence of a white adult holding a black child also inverts the traditional role of black nannies, milkmaids, and caretakers minding white babies (see Arroyo 2003).

It is important to explain how and why Mercado’s work, which is grounded in a position of difference, marginality, and abjection, does not participate in what Jossianna Arroyo has termed “cultural transvestism” (2003), which is to say that it is not a discourse of integrating mestizaje (of the white authorial subject, who appropriates the other in his discourse) but rather one of mestizaje as radical rupture: one of blackness within, carried on one’s back, and genetically predisposed to reappear in a queer act of progeny, perhaps closer to the ideas of Gloria Anzaldúa in her landmark Borderlands/La frontera: The New Mestiza (1987). Arroyo, in fact, distinguishes between the concept of “cultural drag” used in her essay on Javier Cardona (2002) and the notion of “cultural transvestism” that grounds her book Travestismos culturales (2003). For Arroyo, cultural drag implies a voluntary political adoption of drag as a tactic that questions race, gender, and sexuality, while cultural transvestism implies a type of sleight-of-hand by a hegemonic (white, male, heterosexual) writing subject that ventriloquizes or appropriates the voices of minoritarian individuals (rendered as objects). While I appreciate the distinction Arroyo makes between different types of cultural engagements, I am troubled by the radical difference she sees in the words “transvestism” and “drag,” which to many are simple synonyms. In his work, Mercado’s “white,” queer, transgender “mother” gives birth to multiracial children out of her own mixed background (like a multiracial Athena springing forth from the head of her father). There are no love stories or sexual partners in Mercado’s work; s/he is the father and mother of his/her doll children. And, as we will see, Mercado further explores racial ambiguity in his representation of Myrta Silva, a white Puerto Rican female singer and composer associated with Afro-Caribbean and tropical music.

Historical Performative Dolls: Temporalities of Cabaret

“Niña, no hables tan duro, que lo más lindo que le ha dado Dios a la mujer es la voz.”

Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier, recalling what her mother used to tell her as a child[38]

Figure 8. Fofé (José Luis Abreu, left) sings while Freddie Mercado Velázquez Performs as Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier (right) at Cabaret Círculo, Nuyorican Café, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2001. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 8. Fofé (José Luis Abreu, left) sings while Freddie Mercado Velázquez Performs as Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier (right) at Cabaret Círculo, Nuyorican Café, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2001. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Amidst the enormous and ever-changing list of characters that Mercado has represented, he has portrayed a very select number of real women, engaging in what David Román has identified as archival drag: the representation of figures from the past or present, whether in a camp, parodic, or serious and admiring way (2005).[39]Two of Mercado’s most famous female impersonations are those of white grande dames of the Puerto Rican collective memory, specifically the populist aristocrat Felisa Rincón de Gautier (1897-1994), better known as “Doña Fela,” the notorious co-founder of the Popular Democratic Party, right-hand woman of Governor Luis Muñoz Marín, and ex-mayor of San Juan (1946-1968), best remembered for flying in snow for the children of Puerto Rico in the early nineteen fifties;[40] and the popular singer, composer, television host, and impresario Myrta Silva (1924-1987), nicknamed “La Gorda de Oro”(The Golden Fat Woman, or The Fat Woman of Gold), whom I would like to call la sandunguera guarachera, the queen of low-brow or popular entertainment, who anteceded Celia Cruz as lead singer with the Sonora Matancera in Cuba and was credited with authoring some of the most successful boleros of her time.[41]This is the Freddie of the collective trance, of spiritual ecstasy, of espiritista channeling; the one that leads people to confuse him with historical grande dames when he performs as part of Ivette Román’s cabaret, or just walks down the street or appears at unexpected places; the one that allows him to celebrate grande dames for being damas grandes, that is to say, physically large (white) women like himself (Figures 8 and 9).

Figure 9. Freddie Mercado Velázquez performing as Myrta Silva at Cabaret Círculo, Nuyorican Café, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2001. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.
Figure 9. Freddie Mercado Velázquez performing as Myrta Silva at Cabaret Círculo, Nuyorican Café, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2001. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

Freddie’s performance of Doña Fela is spectacular: she is the lady of overflowing, intricate wigs, turbans, and old-style Spanish fans; the one who gave her name to a large, multi-story parking lot in Old San Juan; the one adored by the people. According to Mercado, people saw him dressed in her style at her funeral and believed he was a relative of hers, spoke to him, and took his photo. As such, we can say (as Freddie does) that it was the crowd, the popular mass, el pueblo de Puerto Rico, that made him into Doña Fela, consecrating their similarity and hailing her reappearance.[42]

Mercado’s performance and impersonation follows in a long tradition of drag appropriations of her image, carried out even while Doña Fela was still mayor of San Juan, in spite of the fact that she was also known for incarcerating working-class, effeminate homosexuals (Santiago Solla 2014, 93). One memorable example of Doña Fela drag is the 1965 Mexican co-production feature-length film Puerto Rico en Carnaval (dir. Tino Acosta), where the noted gay female impersonator and night-life impresario Johnny Rodríguez, who owned the notorious El Cotorrito nightclub, appears dressed as her in a scene shot at the Isla Verde International Airport. Rodríguez is also known to have performed as Myrta Silva in New York City nightclubs.[43]

It is fascinating to note that, in spite of her elite upbringing, Felisa Rincón de Gautier was an accomplished seamstress and pattern designer who trained in New York and dreamed of opening clothing factories, and who even briefly had a very successful store named Felisa’s Style Shop in Old San Juan. She is invariably described as motherly, obsessed with children, and heavy-set, always wearing ornate hairpieces, turbans, and dangling earrings.[44]In her youth she occasionally dressed in men’s clothes and hunted with her sister Finí (see photo in Gruber 1972), although she was also adept in the very feminine “language of the fan” used to court male suitors. She was a pioneer of women’s participation in politics, being one of the first women to vote in 1934 and having had to struggle against her father and her husband to gain permission to run for office. Gruber (1972) describes her as having been influenced by Nemesio Canales, a pioneering defender of women’s rights, and having had contact with the suffrage leader and novelist Ana Roqué de Duprey. Rincón married Popular Democratic Party colleague Genaro Gautier when she was 43, and they had no children. She was also notorious for changing outfits several times a day while performing her many tasks as mayor of the capital, and was constantly referred to as a woman with a feminine disposition and masculine virtues and political skills: “She combines the grandeur of a Spanish marquesa with the bumptious energy of Fiorello La Guardia,’ said Life magazine” (Norris 1969, 73). “‘She’s a combination,’ her enemies charged, ‘of Marie Antoinette holding court and a tough Tammany Hall politician’” (Gruber 1972, 209). What’s even more astounding is that there were even dolls made of her in life, as well as a musical comedy.[45]

Quite to the contrary, Myrta Silva, the divine gorda who was also known as “La Bomba Atómica Puertorriqueña” (the Puerto Rican Atomic Bomb) and “La Vedette Que Arroya” (The Run-You-Over Vedette), as Frances Aparicio mentions (1998, 177), was a mythical singer who began her career in Puerto Rico in the 1930s when she was only ten years old, and who was already performing in New York City by 1939.[46] Myrta Silva, of course, is fascinating in that she was not a descendant of the “refined,” Spanish and French creole island aristocracy, as Felisa Rincón de Gautier was, but rather a poor, rural, migrant subject from Arecibo who went to New York City with her family at an early age. As Ruth Glasser describes,

In the late 1930s… Rafael Hernández discovered Myrta Silva, who became one of the first Puerto Rican female singers of popular music. When Hernández saw her, she was barely into her teens, a former dishwasher and chambermaid who was performing twenty-one shows weekly at the Teatro Hispano for twenty-five dollars. (1995, 116)

Commenting on her body and physical presence, Frances Aparicio has observed:

Mirta [sic] Silva was not the sensual, sleek vedette that Latin America saw in Tongolele, nor was she a motherly, tender figure. Through her irreverent humor, singing style, and physical overendowment, she self-parodically subverted popular expectations of the delicate, fragile, and even sexy female singer. Although matronly, she was not at all a maternal figure but rather more of an androgynous image on television, her body and voice a social space of conflicting gender expectations. (1998, 177)

Licia Fiol-Matta’s (2008, 2010) groundbreaking analysis goes even further in highlighting Myrta Silva’s radical rupture, as a Puerto Rican who triumphed in the genre of the Cuban guaracha and as a well-known lesbian who specialized in singing risqué songs full of double entendres highlighting heterosexuality. For Fiol-Matta, Silva’s life is encapsulated in the tension between several characters or personas: the initial “Myrta,” child ingénue who went on to become a transnational sensation, and the later “Chencha,” a grotesque, obese figure who negotiates her own abjection and becomes feared as a television personality known for publicizing malicious gossip. In many ways, Freddie Mercado’s recuperation of Myrta Silva (his archival drag performance) serves as a way to propose a genealogy of Puerto Rican abjection, of women that audiences love to hate.

Interestingly, both Doña Felisa Rincón de Gautier and Myrta Silva have been described as proponents of yet another stigmatized ideology, Puerto Rican nationalism and independence, at least once in their lives (Glasser 1995, 162). Perhaps this was one of the factors motivating their grinning smiles in a photograph included in Josean Ramos’s book Palabras de mujer, in which the younger, more robust Myrta envelops the slightly more dainty Felisa in a cheek-to-cheek bear hug, as twin souls separated at birth (1998, 208). In a rather bizarre coincidence, the Legislative Assembly of the Commonwealth or Estado Libre Asociado (Freely Associated State) of Puerto Rico declared through Law 182 of 1999 that Myrta Silva’s birth and musical contribution shall be celebrated every year on 11 September.[47]

Figure 10. Ivette Román (left) sings Silvio Rodríguez's song "Rabo de Nube" (Tail of a Cloud) while Freddie Mercado (right) performs as monstrous doll, Cabaret Círculo, Nuyorican Café, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2001. Photographer unknown. Collection of Freddie Mercado Velázquez.

It is in the space of the cabaret where Freddie Mercado has found a most welcome environment to play with his recreations of what we can now see as quite transgressive historical grande dames. I will conclude this essay by chronicling a memorable Cabaret Círculo night at the Nuyorican Café in Old San Juan (2001). Freddie begins by playing on stage with Japanese paper parasols while Ivette Román sings and Amed Irizarry plays the electronic keyboard, accompanied by other invited musicians. Gradually, Freddie abandons his divertissement and begins to add elements to his costume: a silk scarf on his head, dark Jackie-O sunglasses, a large black patent leather handbag that perfectly matches his black high heels, a dress and long black gloves, a dramatic fan. Suddenly, Freddie has become Doña Fela, silently waving hello to her audience, moving her hand from side to side. After several provocative crotch-shot leg movements and tongue flickering insinuations, Doña Fela takes off her sunglasses, puts the fan away, changes her head wrap, pulls a maraca out of her purse, fixes her lipstick, and quickly becomes Myrta Silva. After engaging in a delightful rumba, Myrta disappears before our very eyes, and Mercado becomes a gigantic white doll in women’s underwear and gauze veils, turning around provocatively and showing her derriere. Her head is a gigantic foam sphere. The doll plays with her veil as if it were a cloud, accompanied by a song written by the Cuban Silvio Rodríguez and performed by Ivette Román (Figure 10).

Mercado inhabits, occupies, and appropriates these characters, giving credence to Joseph Roach’s observation that “the voices of the dead may speak freely now only through the bodies of the living” (1996, xiii). In the aforementioned progression, Mercado goes through multiple incarnations of the feminine: he begins by gesturing towards Asian archipelagos and islands (Japan) with paper parasols (perhaps as a citation of a geisha), moves towards emblematic historical white Puerto Rican womanhood, and ultimately becomes a non-human creature, a performative, theatrical, hybrid, monstrous, playful doll. These characters are achieved by costume changes and artifices that are clearly visible to the audience, which witnesses their implementation, but also by prosthetic padding in the hips, buttocks, and chest that might be taken by some to be real. Mercado’s ability to inhabit these characters has a lot to do with camp, with the way in which Doña Fela and Myrta Silva lend themselves to camp parody and homage (and were unwittingly campy themselves). Mercado’s (scandalous) recuperation of them is thus a monstrous gesture of love, of what Chela Sandoval has termed “a hermeneutics of social change, a decolonizing movida” (2000, 139).

Mercado’s disruption processes these figures for us, confounds our expectations, confuses and delights. His constant juxtaposition and merging of real (historical) and fictitious, of fantasy and the quotidian, of the autobiographical and the invented, and of hyperbolic and the quite frankly monstrous, disrupts our daily vision, causing a rupture and constant reevaluation and revalorization. The fear he provokes often comes together with the laughter and complicity of recognition and solidarity. Mercado reaffirms the Russian Formalists’ ostranenie or estrangement and Bertold Brecht’s alienation effect. He confounds race, gender, and sexuality, turning space and place upside down, confusing categories and erasing/rearticulating/redefining borders. Mercado allows many Puerto Ricans to see again; he has opened my eyes many a time, and leaves me, quite frankly, in amazement and constant surprise. His eccentric juxtapositions, his unbounded creativity, and his prodigious, under-acknowledged, and underappreciated work make him a master of queer Puerto Rican rasanblaj, an emblem of relajo, a cornerstone of archival drag, a transloca par excellence.

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes is Director of the Latina/o Studies Program and Associate Professor of American Culture, Romance Languages and Literatures, and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He teaches courses on Caribbean, Latin American, and U.S. Latina/o studies; women’s, gender, and sexuality studies; lesbian, gay, and queer studies; and theater and performance. He was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and received his A.B. from Harvard College (1991) and M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University (1999). He is the author of a book of essays on migration and sexuality called Queer Ricans: Cultures and Sexualities in the Diaspora (University of Minnesota Press, 2009) and of two books of short stories: Uñas pintadas de azul/Blue Fingernails (Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, Arizona, 2009) and Abolición del pato (Terranova Editores, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 2013). He was one of the co-editors of a special issue of CENTRO: Journal of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies on Puerto Rican Queer Sexualities (19, no. 1, Spring 2007). He is currently coediting “Keywords for Latina/o Studies” with Deb Vargas and Nancy Raquel Mirabal for NYU Press and working on a book titled “Translocas: Trans Diasporic Puerto Rican Drag.” He performs in drag and blogs under the name Lola von Miramar.


This article forms part of a broader book project entitled Translocas: Trans Diasporic Puerto Rican Drag. All Spanish-to-English translations of quoted materials are my own. A previous shorter version in Spanish appeared as “Freddie Mercado y el travestismo radical: entre Doña Fela, Myrta Silva, gallo/gallina y muñeca esperpéntica” in Stephany Slaughter and Hortensia Moreno, eds., Representación y fronteras: el performance en los límites del género (Mexico: Programa Universitario de Estudios de Género (PUEG), Universidad Autónoma Nacional de México (UNAM), 2009), 113-32.

  [1] See Cullen 2001b: 6; Armstrong and Zamudio-Taylor 2000; Cullen 2008. The six artists included in the Museo del Barrio Here and There exhibit (which was also shown at the Blaffer Gallery of the Art Museum of the University of Houston and at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico) were Nayda Collazo-Lloréns, Charles Juhász-Alvarado, Freddie Mercado, Ana Rosa Rivera Marrero, Carlos Rivera Villafañe, and Aarón Salabarrías Valle. The catalogue includes an essay by Cullen (2001a) on Freddie Mercado, as well as numerous photos of Mercado and his curriculum vitae.

  [2] Ortiz develops his idea of transculturation in his classic text Cuban Counterpoint (1947).

  [3] See, for example, García Canclini 1995; Yúdice 2004. For a rigorous critique of dominant notions of mestizaje and transculturación, see Arroyo 2003. Diana Taylor (The Archive and the Repertoire, 2003) also engages these issues.

  [4] Issue 8.1 of e-misférica (Summer 2011), titled Performance ≠ Life, retakes Cullen’s conceptualization and includes her own reflections about the project (Cullen 2011).

  [5] See e-misférica 11.2 Caribbean Rasanblaj Call for Papers.

  [6] For reviews of the Here and There exhibit, see Jana 2001 and Cotter 2001. Cotter’s comments about Mercado are rather uninspiring and even infantilizing: “Posing is what Freddie Mercado’s art is about. Mr. Mercado creates and wears an elaborate wardrobe of gowns, veils and capes, which he supplements with wigs, extravagant makeup and portable props (pineapples, dolls, gilded picture frames). Sometimes he dresses for himself at home; sometimes he appears at art events in San Juan. In the show, he’s seen in photographs as a chunky sprite beside a jungle stream, as a dryad-with-parasol by the sea. Call him a performance artist, a sculptor, a stylist, there’s some kind of multimedia transcendence going on here.”

  [7] See La Fountain-Stokes 2005, 2008, 2009a, 2009b, 2011. Also see Ochoa 2004, 2008; Wesling 2002, 2008. For an appraisal of Mercado as baroque, see Weinstein 2007.

  [8] Mercado has participated in numerous collaborations with María de Azúa, including her Hacer el amor a una mujer triste (play by Roberto Ramos-Perea, 1998), and in Zora Moreno’s staging of Con machete en mano (Producciones Flor de Cahillo, 2000). On Moreno, see Carlos Manuel Rivera 2014.

  [9]p “Mi obra es un performance constante” (Mercado, quoted in Ramírez 1999). A similar quote appears in Weinstein 2007.

  [10]Noches de Galería [Gallery Nights] was a monthly cultural event that occurred during the 1980s and 90s; it was held in the evening of the first Thursday of the month in San Juan. Multiple galleries (predominantly in the gallery district in Old San Juan) opened their doors in the evening, and people would wander from one to another. Many times it included openings, cocktails, or other special events.

  [11] See Gelpí (1993) and Carlos Manuel Rivera (2014) for a critique of the paternalist nature of Pedreira’s work. There is an ample bibliography on the topic of the encyclopedia in Jorge Luis Borges’s work.

  [12] Marina Reyes Franco describes the performance as follows: “Mercado se paseó por la feria de arte con un tocado de maja española en la cabeza, cuerpo pintado de blanco y manchas negras, cola, senos falsos descubiertos, y una ubre de vaca hecha de condones de sabores rellenos de yogurt ‘friíto.’ Sorprendentemente, quienes estaban encantados eran los niños, mientras los adultos, más conscientes de los parámetros de lo ‘correcto’, miraban de lejos” (2007). Also see Javier Rivera 2007.

  [13] Mercado had a solo show in the Dominican Republic in 2013 titled Las Caras de Freddie, which was held at the Colegio Dominicano de Artistas Plásticos (CODAP), Ciudad Colonial, Santo Domingo. For video documentation of this exhibit see Grullón 2014. For a discussion of Puerto Rican rewritings of “The Ugly Duckling” see La Fountain-Stokes 2007.

  [14] For a detailed description of how Brazilian travestis inject silicone in order to alter their physical appearance, see Kulick 1998. For an analysis of contemporary trans subjectivity in Venezuela see Ochoa 2004, 2008, 2014.

  [15] Mercado appeared in one of El Manjar de los Dioses’s videos, “Déjame vivir,” in 2000.

  [16] Mercado appears in and was the artistic director for Circo’s video “La Sospecha,” filmed in 2003 (Circo 2003, Soto 2003). Also see Fernández Barreto 2003; Pagán Sánchez 2003; Vélez 2006.

  [17] On Mercado’s collaborations in 2000 with Andanza during their trip to Spain for the First Festival of Performance sponsored by Casa de América in Madrid, see Juliá 2000; Roche 2000. Mercado also appeared with José Luis Abreu as part of Andanza’s debut in Puerto Rico, held at the Centro de Bellas Artes in San Juan. For a general history of Andanza, see Villanúa and Villanúa 2007.

  [18] On Mercado’s collaborations with the dancer, visual artist and cabaret entertainer Awilda Sterling, see Aponte Ramos 1997; De Cuba Romero (n.d.); Rivera Sánchez 2011; “Sterling Duprey Takes Center Stage” 2007.

  [19] See Mercado 2001, 2006; Pantojas 2005; Viguié 2003.

  [20] An early mention appears in the San Juan Star, when Peggy Ann Bliss (1991) began her review of the opening of the Ninth Biennial of Caribbean and Latin American Graphic Arts making reference to Mercado, who attended the event completely dressed in black with a long veil in the style of a Renaissance courtesan woman.

  [21] Mercado presented the piece Coco Barroco [Baroque Coconut] in Santo Domingo in 1995 as part of a multidisciplinary exhibit titled “Aproximación del Caribe” at the Colegio Dominicano de Artistas Plásticos. He presented a variation of this piece at the Museo Extremeño e Iberoamericano de Arte Contemporánero (MEIAC) at Badajoz, Spain, in 1998, as part of the “Caribe: Exclusión, fragmentación y paraíso” show. He returned to Spain in 2000 with the Andanza dance company. In 2001, he participated in Aquí y Allá: Six Artists from San Juan, PR at the Museo del Barrio in Nueva York. In 2002 he performed in Lima, Peru, as part of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics’ Encuentro programming in Barranco and also attended the ARCO art fair in Madrid, sponsored by Galerias Botello. He also accompanied El manjar de los dioses in their rock shows in New York, and worked with the rock band Circo. In 2008, he was included in Arte ≠ Vida: Actions by Artists of the Americas, 1960-2000 exhibit at the Museo del Barrio in New York. In 2013, he exhibited again at the Colegio de Artistas Plásticos in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, this time with the solo show Las caras de Freddie: por que todos somos frutas y estamos sabrosas.

  [22] See La Fountain-Stokes 1999 and 2002 for more extensive self-reflexive or autoethnographic analysis of my own subject position. I have been performing in drag as Lola von Miramar since 2010 and collaborated with Mercado twice in 2011 in San Juan: on January 20th at Asuntos Efímeros at El Cabaré, hosted by Mickey Negrón, and on February 14th at the Librería Mágica (13 rosas y una Lola para el amor), hosted by Mairym Cruz Bernal and the PEN Club Puerto Rico.

  [23] Also see Reyes Franco 2007, Toro 2011.

  [24] See Cullen 2008c for a detailed description of the performance work of Joaquín Mercado.

  [25] On gay Latin/o American art, see Bleys 2000. On Nahum Zenil, see Viego 2011.

  [26] See Casas 2000 for an image of the Yeguas’s performance of Las dos Fridas.

  [27] On Aguilar, see Viego 2011, Yarbro Bejarano 1998.

  [28] See Masiello 2001: 53-55; Richard 1994.

  [29] On Bowery, see Atlas 2001; Greer 2002; Tilley 1997; Violette 1998.

  [30] On race in Puerto Rico see Blanco 1942; Flores 1993; González 1989; Torres 1998; Zenón Cruz 1975.

  [31] On transvestism, see Esther Newton’s classic Mother Camp (1972) and Garber 1993. Butler (1990, 1993) extends this analysis into the realm of the performativity of gender. For a history of drag and performance, see Baker 1994; Selenick 2000.

  [32] See Yeager 1998. Pat Moran refers to Divine as a “drag terrorist” in Divine Trash (Yeager 1998), while John Waters talks at length about his own collaboration with Divine.

  [33] Trevisan distinguished between professional drag queens, transvestites (usually prostitutes, who inject hormones and silicone), and men who dress up as outlandish women for carnival: “As atividades que misturavam vida noturna e afirmação de orgulho guei não se poderiam compreender sem a presença das drag queens, profissionais praticantes de um travestismo diferente da travesti siliconada e mais próximo das caricatas de carnaval, por sua postura escrachada” (2000, 379).

  [34] See Laureano 2007 for an insightful oral history of Antonio Pantojas. Carlos Manuel Rivera 2014 offers an analysis of Pantojas’s La dama de las camelias (96-132). On drag and television in Puerto Rico, including the importance of Pantojas, see Jiménez 2004. For a video, see Guzmán 2014.

  [35] Dreuxilla Divine appears in Guzmán 2014.

  [36] I cite: “Bello sin duda, transgresor, travestido y hermafrodita fue el performance del puertorriqueño Freddie Mercado, cuyo uso de paños, encajes y vestidos, en momentos muy barroco, siempre suntuoso, refleja una personalidad que bien podría servir de metáfora del propio Puerto Rico: americano de pasaporte, caribeño de corazón” (Barragán 1998: 17).

  [37] Mercado also appears as a two-faced female subject at Charles Juhász-Alvarado and Domingo Sánchez’s very masculine boxing performance Text Mix Road Movie: Boxeo (2000) at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. According to Cullen, “The jury included Teo Freytes, who reprised his role as the Blind Juror, and artist Freddie Mercado, who wore a mask on the back of his head and sat facing away from the ring, breasts bared, during the entire fight” (2001b: 16). Photos of this event appear in the Here and There catalog (Cullen 2001b: 18) as well as in Zaya and Marxuach (2000: 118-19). Mercado is not identified as a participant in the latter. Mercado has also used the doll/mannequin format as a means to exhibit more recently at the Cuerpo/Materia: Performance 2000-2014 exhibit held at the Antiguo Arsenal de la Marina Española, Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was curated by Sabrina Ramos (see Toro 2014).

  [38] “Girl, don’t speak so loudly, for the loveliest thing God has given women is their voices.” Felisa Rincón de Gautier, quoted in Cruz 2002.

  [39] In this sense, it would be interesting to compare Mercado to other (women) performers who portray historical female figures, such as those presented by Miller et al. in Voices Made Flesh (2003). In their introduction to the volume, Miller and co-editor Jacqueline Taylor identify this type of performance as “auto/biography, as this kind of historical presentation represents a negotiation between the autobiographical self of the writer-performer and the biographical record of the historical personage” (2003, 7).

  [40] Villanueva Collado’s short story “The Day We Went To See the Snow” (2000) describes the famous 1951 event. Also see Martorell, “White Christmas” (2000).

  [41] Myrta Silva has also been brought to life very suggestively by another Puerto Rican drag performer, the Bronx-based Jorge Merced, when he sings “Life Is a Problem, I Really Know It” in his Pregones Theater performance El bolero fue mi ruina [The Bolero Was My Downfall]. See La Fountain-Stokes 2005, 2008.

  [42] The social and historical importance of funerals in Puerto Rico has been observed by writer Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá, who became well known after writing two chronicles detailing the funerals of important Puerto Rican men: Las tribulaciones de Jonás (1981), which focuses on the funeral of former governor Luis Muñoz Marín, and El entierro de Cortijo [Cortijo’s Wake] ([1983] 2004), which describes that of the plena musician Rafael Cortijo. Diana Taylor also discusses funerals in The Archive and the Repertoire (2003).

  [43] See Laureano 2007 on Johnny Rodríguez. My mother Ramona Stokes recounts seeing Johnny Rodríguez perform dressed as Myrta Silva in New York City nightclubs in the late 1940s/early 1950s.

  [44] See Gruber 1972; Norris 1969; Josean Ramos 1988.

  [45] The musical was called Fela; see Maldonado and Torres 1984. Clips of this musical appear in Noel Cruz’s (2002) documentary.

  [46] Also see Fiol-Matta 2008.

  [47] See LEY NUM. 182 DEL AÑO 1999 [Para declarar el 11 de septiembre el natalicio y de la obra artística musical de la compositora Myrta Silva], [accessed 20 April 2015].

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