You never forget the first time a drag queen made you cry.
I was at work when the cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9 was announced. Scanning the names, one jumped out at me: “Valentina? That sounds Mexican. Does Drag Race finally have a Mexican queen?!?” I shouted to no one in particular.
Looking around the quiet room, I discreetly pulled out my headphones and went to YouTube to watch any performances of her I could find. One of the first was a lip sync Valentina did at Mickey’s in West Hollywood to the song “Asi Fue” by Isabel Pantoja.
After about 10 seconds, tears were streaming down my face.
Here was a drag queen performing the music of my childhood: Romantic ballads my mother would blast Saturday mornings to wake me up. Torch songs she would cry to when she missed her family in Mexico. Seeing that song performed in a queer space struck a nerve I didn’t know I had.
A coworker peeked over the cubicle wall and asked if I was okay. “I’m just… I’m just so happy,” I reassured her. This wasn’t just another lip sync to a Selena song, after all. This was old school. This was for all the little Mexican boys who grew up listening to Isabel Pantoja with their mothers. This was a drag queen embracing a culture that often teaches men to be ashamed of their femininity.
Yet there she was, celebrating hers in the most flamboyant way possible.
As the only boy in a traditional family, I was burdened with high expectations to be my mother’s perfect Mexican son. To act right, to be responsible, and to study hard so I could support my future wife and kids.
Once in fourth grade, I asked my mom what she would think if I didn’t end up with a wife and children.
“Why wouldn’t you have kids?” she asked me suspiciously.
“I don’t know. What if I turned out to be gay?”
“Te capo.” I’d castrate you.
My mother has a strong personality, but I don’t blame her. She’s the product of 1960s rural Mexico, and a certain mentality was instilled in her from birth: Men must be masculine, strong providers.
If a man doesn’t have a family to support, then he’s not a man.
When I came out at 23, then, it wasn’t a surprise that she took the news badly. I was completing an out-of-state internship when I came out to my father, who had been raised in the States, over the phone. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll tell your mom for you.”
My mother and I didn’t speak for weeks. But when I eventually saw her in person she just cried. “How could you do this to me?” she howled. “Life is already so hard, why make it harder? Is it because you’re too lazy to support a family?”
The last one hurt, but I knew it was her way of processing the immense shock.
She was in mourning. Mourning the daughter-in-law she would never have, the grandchildren that would never carry on the family name. She was grieving every expectation and dream she had for me ever since she heard the words “Es un niño.”
“It’s a boy.”
Over the next three years, she moved on from shock and anger to quiet tolerance. Except for an occasional “Are you sure?” we never talked about my sexuality.
Until Valentina. My mother knew I loved Drag Race but never understood the appeal. She was worried I was studying to become a drag queen myself but I assured her that I didn’t have the patience to wear a corset.
“¡Mira! This drag queen lip syncs to all of your favorite music!” I told her after discovering that first Valentina video.
“That’s a drag queen? I don’t believe it,” she gasped. “She’s stunning. Look how much money they’re giving her!”
For the next hour, my mother and I sat on the couch and went down a Valentina YouTube rabbit hole together. Valentina immediately became a shared interest.
Her understanding of Mexican culture transcended drag. It transcended entertainment. Between clips, my mother and I would talk about things we had never discussed before: “Are you happy you came out?” she asked me. “Isn’t it lonely?”
I explained how being proud of my heritage and my sexuality weren’t mutually exclusive—and how Valentina was proof of that. When things would get too heated, I would put on another video for us to watch while we calmed down.
Last week she called me over FaceTime.
“What are you wearing?”
“Oh, it’s a Valentina shirt!”
“It doesn’t look good on you. It’d look better on me.”
“I’ll buy you one and we can match.”
Neither my mother nor I is perfect. We’re both still growing and trying to understand each other. It’s a slow process, but I’m confident we can get through it—as long as there are Valentina performances for us to watch together.