Last month, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Phi Phi O’Hara announced she was organizing Reinas Unidas/United Queen, a drag benefit show in Minneapolis (Nov. 6 at First Avenue) raising funds for Puerto Rico. The benefit’s proceeds will all go to Somos Una Voz, a relief initiative created by Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. It has a stacked lineup featuring some of the show’s most beloved queens, including Cynthia Lee Fontaine, Naysha Lopez, and Madame LaQueer, whose drag careers flourished in Puerto Rico before joining the iconic competition.
Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still recovering. Most of the island’s residents still do not have electricity and basic needs, and there’s been a leptospirosis outbreak due to lack of accessible potable water in certain parts of the island. To O’Hara, whose husband is Puerto Rican, and the many Puerto Rican queens who are part of this benefit, joining together to help the island is vital.
Uniting for Reinas Unidas
For Cynthia Lee Fontaine, who is currently based in Austin, hearing about what her loved ones have experienced is heartbreaking. “I can’t tell you how many nights I cried because not knowing about them not knowing, ‘How is everything with you, are you guys ok?’,” she tells Billboard. For the past month, Fontaine has been trying to do everything she can to help out both her biological family and her drag one. She’s been communicating with them through WhatsApp, but it’s been challenging with the island’s electricity issues. Her family is based in Mayagüez, a municipality in the west side of the island, and has to drive an hour to get WiFi to remain in touch with Fontaine and their friends. Now, cell towers are beginning to be restored, but many parts of the island still lack proper reception, which leaves those on the island unable to communicate with their loved ones who live in the states.
When O’Hara asked her to become involved with the Reinas Unidas show, Fontaine understood the crucial need to join forces to help. “I think I was the first one to say yes. When [O’Hara] contacted me, that was one of the nights I was crying. I was crying uncontrollably,” says Fontaine. She immediately thought about how this benefit would help her family (both drag and biological), her best friends, and everyone who has been struggling to survive in the island.
Naysha Lopez, who is currently based in Chicago, announced on Sept. 23 via Twitter that she would not be competing in Miss Universo Latina USA because she had to focus her energy on her people from the island.
— Naysha Lopez (@nayshalopez) September 23, 2017
Shortly after, O’Hara announced her plans for the benefit. “We used to work on a show together and my family would come to the show and see us there,” explains Lopez. “When she decided to do this, she gave me a call… I was one of the first people she called and asked, ‘Would you like to be a part of this, because I know it has personally affected you.’ Of course, I definitely jumped on. She knew right away that this was something that affected personally, because I’ve known her for quite some time.”
Madame LaQueer, who moved from Puerto Rico to Orange County, CA shortly after appearing on season four of RuPaul’s Drag Race, says that she doesn’t have immediate family on the island, but feels the need to do everything she can for the island she called home. “That is a humanitarian crisis: There are people dying, and we have president who is an hijo de la gran puta [son of a bitch], pardon my language,” says LaQueer bluntly. “So on my part, I saw the benefit and I said, ‘I’m going to have to make some time.’ I bought my flight so they wouldn’t have to spend money on me and I said ‘let’s go, vamonos, I’m in, I’m in.’ And I was one of the first people to jump in.”
One of the things that overjoys Fontaine the most about the event is seeing how hard O’Hara has worked to prepare it. “What she’s doing is just incredible, because she’s not just only calling the girls to organize the benefit show, she’s organizing travel fare, travel accommodations and hotel, everything. Everything. By herself with the help of the promoters, that are amazing too, but it’s three of them organizing this huge benefit show. It’s amazing. The response from all the entire girls from RuPaul’s Drag Race is amazing. Even the girls that are not going to be able to accept for the benefit show, they are sending money.”
The response from the other queens was immediate as well: the lineup currently holds more than 20 legendary fan favorites. “I think she breaks the record in two days, when she posted [the news of the benefit], she already got more than 18 of my sisters of RuPaul’s Drag Race saying ‘Yes, I’m going to do the benefit show.’ That brings me to tears, you know what I mean? Because you expect a group of people that is going to help, but not this amount, massive number of all my sisters helping for Puerto Rico.”
Beginnings in Puerto Rico
RuPaul’s Drag Race has become the goal for many of the island’s queens. From the show’s beginning, queens like Nina Flowers and Jessica Wild brought attention to the island’s incredible drag community, giving visibility to a side of Puerto Rico that many viewers may not have known about before. It became one of the first instances where Puerto Rico’s current queer culture became part of mainstream pop culture, instilling pride and acceptance to viewers from the island and of the diaspora. Even in All Stars’ first season, three Puerto Rican queens, Yara Sofia, Alexis Mateo, and Nina Flowers, broke stereotypes of what it means to be a Puerto Rican queen. Sofia and Mateo made Drag Race history by clapping back at queens who mocked English being their second language, not letting this get in their way of wowing the judges.
Most queens have moved to the United States right after appearing on the show, but they still have close ties to the island’s drag culture and recognize how Puerto Rico’s drag community helped shape them into the stars they are today.
Fontaine started doing drag in the island in 2006 in Mayagüez’s welcoming community, when it was just beginning to blossom and grow more diverse. “I see that explosion [in the island] of trying to express yourselves the best that you can through the art of the form of female impersonation. Then when I moved to Texas, I saw another perspective of drag, I see more diversity. But now, I can tell you today, the drag community in Puerto Rico, we have a huge influence for a lot of other drag communities in the world.”
Lopez, who had met Fontaine in the island while competing in the same pageant, has a different relationship with Puerto Rico’s drag community as someone who spent most of her life in Chicago, yet shares that kinship with the rest of the Puerto Rican queens. Lopez started doing drag in Chicago but would make regular trips to the island. She had her first drag house experience in Puerto Rico. “It was the one drag queen there, somebody who’d do her makeup and somebody would get all the costumes together. There were like seven or eight dancers that would to all the talent, do all the production. From one is sewing and doing hair… and it was just this whole house of people that were so in support of this one drag queen, so family oriented,” recalls Lopez.
For LaQueer, Puerto Rico’s drag community also was vital in shaping her drag persona. She became Madame LaQueer on her birthday in her teen years. During her drag beginnings, it was a time for exploration, diving into a new world where she had to figure it all out by herself. “I was a mess. I would show up with my Pueblo grocery bags, with all my makeup. All the queens had makeup cases and professional suitcases and I would show up with everything in bags, making a huge mess on the floor, dumping everything on the floor, to make a mess on my face without even knowing what I’m putting on,” she admits. “I didn’t know what drag was; I just thought let me put something on that looks good, that I think looks good. So my fashion was a little distorted, but either way, it was a style, that people understood as what I did.”
LaQueer found her calling and ended up refining her craft, winning crowns and titles and forming the event Queen of the Night, a platform for newcomers to perform and compete, with the audience-chosen winner receiving a cash prize. It cleared the path for many RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, including April Carrión, Lineysha Sparx, and Kandy Ho. “April Carrión and Kandy Ho tied, because they competed at the same time,” she says.
A New Generation of Drag
The show has inspired many from the island to take up drag after watching the island’s queens represent Puerto Rico, including her drag sister Vanessa Lee. “She saw Lineysha Sparx [perform] for so many years then she saw Lineysha on the show, and we were a huge inspiration for her, because she got the opportunity to meet us before she watched the show,” says Fontaine. “She was impressed and amazed by drag, and now she’s a drag queen. And she’s a huge, huge fan of the show. She knows every single name of every one of the girls; she knows who got eliminated in what episode in what season. That’s amazing. And her drag is beautiful.”
Puerto Rico’s own drag community has recently begun to flourish, with more venues hosting drag events and the island’s queer community enjoying increased visibility, in part thanks to the show. With Hurricane María, this has become more challenging. Fontaine’s drag family in Mayagüez was unable to perform given that most venues don’t have electricity or running water. “The good thing for example with my drag family in Puerto Rico, is that they have daytime jobs and they return back to their jobs a week ago,” says Fontaine. “But I mean, knowing my drag family — my best friend, my drag dad, and my drag mom — they are passionate about doing drag, and not being able to do what they like to do, it’s kind of frustrating for them.”
To help, Fontaine teamed up with a drag brother from Florida who works for an airline, sending him all the items she collects for them in Austin. “I always try to send them stuff for drag but my priority is that they have batteries so they can charge portable lights and all this stuff, and you know, the priority right now is only right now making it possible to make their living situation more you know easy, under the circumstances they’re living right now.”
Reflecting on how it would feel to have that outlet of expression taken away, Fontaine says, “I cannot imagine for example myself, not just as a Puerto Rican, let’s talk about humanity, me as a person, being in a place where you see this devastation and destruction and not being able to work because you feel yourself completely incapable.”
Lopez, who also has friends within the island’s drag community, says it has been devastating to see them trying to push forward under such terrible conditions. “There was a pageant that sends some Puerto Rico representatives to, I think it’s Mexico, that they go and compete. The promoter for that pageant actually moved to Chicago and couldn’t get a hold of any of the contestants, didn’t know any of their living conditions were, if they were okay. So they had to cancel and they couldn’t go compete at the international level, because they couldn’t get out of the island.” Lopez recalls seeing pictures on Instagram of April Carrión standing outside her home, showing the severe damage caused by Hurricane Maria. In the caption, Carrión mentions that the roof of her home was destroyed and the interior was flooded.
<blockquote class=”instagram-media” data-instgrm-captioned data-instgrm-version=”7″ style=” background:#FFF; border:0; border-radius:3px; box-shadow:0 0 1px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.5),0 1px 10px 0 rgba(0,0,0,0.15); margin: 1px; max-width:658px; padding:0; width:99.375%; width:-webkit-calc(100% – 2px); width:calc(100% – 2px);”><div style=”padding:8px;”> <div style=” background:#F8F8F8; line-height:0; margin-top:40px; padding:50% 0; text-align:center; width:100%;”> <div style=” background:url(data:image/png;base64,iVBORw0KGgoAAAANSUhEUgAAACwAAAAsCAMAAAApWqozAAAABGdBTUEAALGPC/xhBQAAAAFzUkdCAK7OHOkAAAAMUExURczMzPf399fX1+bm5mzY9AMAAADiSURBVDjLvZXbEsMgCES5/P8/t9FuRVCRmU73JWlzosgSIIZURCjo/ad+EQJJB4Hv8BFt+IDpQoCx1wjOSBFhh2XssxEIYn3ulI/6MNReE07UIWJEv8UEOWDS88LY97kqyTliJKKtuYBbruAyVh5wOHiXmpi5we58Ek028czwyuQdLKPG1Bkb4NnM+VeAnfHqn1k4+GPT6uGQcvu2h2OVuIf/gWUFyy8OWEpdyZSa3aVCqpVoVvzZZ2VTnn2wU8qzVjDDetO90GSy9mVLqtgYSy231MxrY6I2gGqjrTY0L8fxCxfCBbhWrsYYAAAAAElFTkSuQmCC); display:block; height:44px; margin:0 auto -44px; position:relative; top:-22px; width:44px;”></div></div> <p style=” margin:8px 0 0 0; padding:0 4px;”> <a href=”https://www.instagram.com/p/BZZwpwoDJeX/” style=” color:#000; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; font-style:normal; font-weight:normal; line-height:17px; text-decoration:none; word-wrap:break-word;” target=”_blank”>– HURRICANE MARIA — Without a doubt this has been the scariest experience I've ever been apart of. Running around the house to push boxes against the doors so the wind wouldn't break the doors, house getting flooded due to so much rain. Staring out the window watching my patio's roof & the neighbors roof completely destroyed and flying around is nothing short than impressive and alarming. Watching everything crumble and being totally incapable of doing something is horrible. Knowing the world is suffering all over due to natural phenomenons is a sign of Mother Nature screaming waiting to be listened, to be loved, to be appreciated. Let's take this time to rebuild and reconstruct not only our infrastructures but our relationships. To value what's truly important. I've been blessed to pass this event with my mom, dad, two of my best friends and our 6 cats & 3 dogs and are all safe. Sending lots of love and hope to everyone around the world. Los amo. Stay united. Stay strong. ?———————-</a></p> <p style=” color:#c9c8cd; font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px; margin-bottom:0; margin-top:8px; overflow:hidden; padding:8px 0 7px; text-align:center; text-overflow:ellipsis; white-space:nowrap;”>A post shared by Jason Carrión (@aprilcarrion) on <time style=” font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;” datetime=”2017-09-23T23:47:15+00:00″>Sep 23, 2017 at 4:47pm PDT</time></p></div></blockquote> <script async defer src=”//platform.instagram.com/en_US/embeds.js”></script>
“We saw pictures of April online, of them just kind of… going through the island and looking at the devastation… it’s crazy how you can…within a week it was one hurricane and we were okay, and then the island was giving aid to surrounding islands that were in a worse situation than Puerto Rico was,” Lopez says. “It was cool to see your friends taking part in that. Then a week later you have Maria and now we’re the ones in devastation and now people are coming to their aid. It was pretty mind-boggling how that just happened.”
With the United Queens/Reinas Unidas benefit, the queens hope to bring awareness to the devastation that continues to impact the island, as well as join forces to help those affected. “In this difficult time…all I want is the best, all I want is the best for my island,” says LaQueer. “Realistically, if 100 [more] families can eat, I can sleep at night.”