Reigned the most-streamed artist of 2020 and making waves for his latest musical appearance on Saturday Night Live, Bad Bunny has truly navigated what it means to be an international superstar during unprecedented times. However, it would be naive to say that music was his only stride to superstardom. Bad Bunny’s whimsical gender non-conforming aesthetic in a genre typically associated with uber-masculinity and outdated machismo standards made this Puerto Rican native a household name. Living within the Latin Trap genre and the Latinx communities that have and still isolates queerness altogether, Benito Antonio Martínez Ocasio, better known as Bad Bunny, takes pride in dressing in long skirts and floral suits while also painting his nails as a form of self-expression and art beyond gender norms. Yet, this is not the first time a Puerto Rican star has disrupted pop culture while simultaneously making a name for himself. Long before our generation eagerly awaited the drop of another infamous Bad Bunny music video, our grandparents and parents binged Walter Mercado, Latin America’s television psychic turned international phenomenon and his daily horoscope predictions that reached over 120 million views at their peak.
For five decades, Mercado's astrological syndication, marked by his trademark of spreading mucho mucho amor, became a religion for viewers all over the world as they tuned into his daily 15 -minute segment on Univision's evening news program Primer Impacto. A generational influence, to say the least, Mercado's use of horoscopes, but more so his appearance, made him an unworldly experience for the traditional and religious Latin American household from the 1960s to the early 2000s. It was his shimmering capes, fluffed blonde hair, and an extravagant array of jewelry that broke boundaries of masculinity at a time when the World Health Organization had just removed homosexuality off its list of known mental health illnesses and when almost half of Latin America criminalized homosexuality. “The people want to know is Walter straight, homosexual, metrosexual, bisexual — I don’t care,” he told journalist Jorge Ramos months before his death in 2019. “Here I am. I am who I am; that’s it.” His flamboyant persona and otherness in a heteronomative culture made him an icon to many within the LGBTQ+ community, although he never advertently discussed his sexuality. Now, Benito is living out the unconventional expressions of his masculinity and even honoring the late astrologer as he did in his recent album El Ultimo Tour, sampling Mercado’s iconic sign-off in one of his tracks.
As progressive as it is for two Latinx stars to break through outdated gender rules at a mainstream level, a lot more could be said of where their eccentric personas came about. In the midst of the success and accolades of two white Latinx men, the baton of queerness was lost. Grounded in the unsung stories and an underground culture, the pioneers of queerness, showmanship, and sexual liberation were Black and brown. Just as Mercado was making strides as a telenovela star turned psychic legend during the late decades of the 20th century, Latin American showgirls and vedettes, and Black and brown queer kids of the New York City ballroom scene were uprooting the dichotomous ideologies of sex and gender. At the forefront of spirit fingers, feathered costumes, and sexual expression, showgirls and vedettes, both originating in Europe during the 1800s, were garnishing their dancing, singing, and acting abilities with sex appeal in film and on stages. Unorthodox for women in the ‘60s and ‘70s to be legally employed, let alone glamourized over the autonomy of their bodies, Afro-Latinx and Latinx showgirls established the fundamental elements of pop star performances: dramatic costume changes, elaborate dance numbers, and sensual use of props — elements still used by household names like Super Bowl halftime performers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.
From the groundbreaking showgirls of color, Lola Falana, arguably known as the "Queen of Las Vegas," is an Afro-Cuban singer and dancer that became one of the most famous showgirls in the U.S. during the ‘70s. Her soulful voice, sequin ensembles, and effortless dancing landed her interviews with legends like Johnny Carson and a Tony nomination for Best Actress in a Musical in 1975 for her performance in Doctor Jazz. Yet unlike her white counterparts in the entertainment industry, including showgirl crown jewel Marilyn Monroe, her success and that of other Black and brown showgirls was and still remains scarcely documented. It took the radical curators of Ficheraz, a digital archive that lives primarily on Instagram, to highlight the profound legacy of vintage showgirls from Latin America, Caribbean, diaspora, and more, which includes Falana, Sasha Montenegro, Zulma Faiad, among others.
And while Afro-Latinx and Latinx showgirls and vedettes were making strides for sexual autonomy on the mainstage, Black and brown members of the LGBTQ+ community were serving and styling drag on the underground stages of the NYC ballroom scene. In an effort to fully emerge themselves into the ‘what ifs’ of gender fluidity, Black and brown queer members of this unsung community competed for congregational praise and sparkly trophies to dish out the realest attempt at transforming themselves from girl-next-door realness to butch queens. The birthplace of voguing, “throwing shade,” and houses, ballroom culture celebrates the performativity of absolutely any gender expression that goes beyond cross-dressing for a lot of the participates. Noted by the legendary founding mothers of the modern Harlem balls, Angie Xtravaganza, Dorian Corey, and Avis Pendavis, this was a space that made it possible for outcasted members of the LGBTQ+ community to showcase their talents and “glamour bravado” made up of DIY garments and dreams. Talents that would lead two members of the House of Xtravaganza, José and Luis, to join Madonna as backup dancers on the Blond Ambition tour in 1990, and countless other family members to exhibit their alter egos and artistic brilliance to the world until this very day.
Although this collective story of success for Black and brown members of the LGBTQ+ community — mostly Black trans women — is constantly evolving and accredited through shows like FX’s Pose and VH1’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, the violence against and the tragic deaths of members of these communities, with 43% of all global deaths of transgender people being within South America alone, remains a staggering human rights problem. The same society that these individuals have historically and continuously influenced is the same society that not only discredits them — but also kills them.
"Grounded in the unsung stories and an underground culture, the pioneers of queerness, showmanship, and sexual liberation were Black and brown."
While Walter Mercado and Bad Bunny have been praised for pushing global audiences to think outside of broken binaries, we cannot fail to acknowledge that their proximity to whiteness and ambiguous sexuality has pageanted only a spoonful of the rich and diverse plate Black and brown queerness and sexual liberation has to offer. Their strides as artists in an international landscape are noteworthy, but the lives and stories of Latin American showgirls and vedettes, and Black and brown performers of the ballroom scene, is the real groundbreaking work. The fabulous capes, intricate nails, and glittered bralettes from some of the most famous — and mostly white — performers wouldn’t be possible without them.