We came to this country from such a repression, honey!

In 1980 I arrived in Miami from Cuba on a Monday. I was part of the 10,8000 people who congregated in the embassy in Habana. Castro decided to change history: Prisons and mental hospitals were opened. There was an advertisement in Cuba at the time that completely shocked me. This bold dictator saying: "The safest route to Miami is via Mariel." I could not believe it, at the end of the news program! So millions of Cubans arrive in Miami.

There were two bars on Miami Beach at the time along with Scarface selling cocaine and all the locas dressed up with disco stuff and their beards. They shaved but when we dawned at the hotels near downtown we said to each other in the morning: niña, hide that beard! I had grown out my beard in Cuba so I wouldn't go to prison again. So I'd look heterosexual.

I started working on a Monday. I still have the envelope of my first payment in 1980 of $75. I was in the most fabulous show in Miami, imagine! I had just arrived. Still I was salty. When up stage doing my number, a song by Italian singer Mina, the bar went nuts, it looked like a political upraising. Cuba! Cuba! Cuba! And the locas afterwards asking me, "But who are you, niña?" Because I was very famous in La Habana. I had a ballet company and all the faggots there knew who I was. I was a drag queen in Cuba when faggots were outlawed.

From Miami I moved to Dallas. I was 25 years old. In Dallas everything is very big. I still can't believe I lived there for three years. The bartender connected us so we could perform at that bar. This was a straight bar. And, they told us: "We are going to try you on a Saturday and if the owner likes it you'd be hired." None of us had clothes for this. We bought leotards of all colors, heels, fishnets, and wigs. We made up a story: that we came from Las Vegas and that we were called "Las Locas por el Mambo."

This group of friends saved my life.

In 1983 I arrived in San Francisco because Sofia Lamar — now The Queen of Manhattan — told me: "I have The City! We're moving to San Francisco." She told me: "Yours is Polk Street." At the time Polk was gay. I didn't much care for the Castro because I thought everyone looked the same.

San Francisco has always been a dream. When I was a kid I had a projector in my house in which we watched the streets of San Francisco. I was completely fascinated and told myself one day I was going to live there.

When I arrived in San Francisco, Esta Noche did not have a gay show and I was one of the first people to perform there. It was really just a bar for gay and lesbian Latinos but without a show. There was no stage. The same hole-in-the-wall with that awesome flavor. It's the only thing we have. The only place that remains. Too bad that in a city like this one, with so many Latino intellectuals, artists, performers, writers, we don't have a place we can call our own.

Anyway, after some time someone approached me, asking if I could orchestrate a show. She said she had a cabaret on 181 Eddy and that she didn't have a show; it's only herself performing as Diana Ross.

And I told her: "Niñaaaa, ready! Of course I'll do it."

This is the most fabulous show I've done in my life. I even had a spiritual experience in the show. Because I had everything I wanted for that show: I had lights, I had a 1940s cabaret, and an amazing cast! I had scenography and an audience that was an all-Cuban audience just arrived in the U.S — look, I'm getting goosebumps and all, they screamed and cheered. It was phenomenal, really.

The group was called Dream Girls because it was all like a dream. Every single weekend it was a new show. We were all stars. Everyone had to have talent to be there, you couldn't just kick it and stick around. Couldn't be a chicle. We'd sing old songs in Spanish, boleros, songs by Cuban artists. Most of the songs were in Spanish because my community is really important for me. And I've been a voice for my community where there was none.

It was a drag show in Spanish. It became so popular that at that time the only cabaret was Finocchio's and Finocchio's sent people to watch us, see what exactly we were doing. My boyfriend at the time, a Venezuelan film director, had a fantastic idea. He said we should sell it as a tour for tourists; we'll get a bus and bring them here. We did. It became very famous.

It was right there that the epidemic started. Nobody called it an epidemic. The government had it hidden, were really silent about it. I found out through a friend whose lover died and we were all freaking out about it. Then the "gay cancer" broke on the news. We didn't know what it was. It was 1983 and I was there.

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These stories are inspirational and touching. Natural born citizens take so much for granted. The struggle to be more than the sum of your bits and pieces is one that every person can identify with. I hope to read more articles like this one in SF Weekly!

Faithful reader,

John Gunderson

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