‘It helped me find my own identity’: Omaha’s Latin drag scene fuses cultures, forms community

Her blond hair fell in wavy curls over brown smokey eyes as her heels clacked on stage. Underneath the lights she glittered in a rhinestone-covered, black-and-gold minidress. Then the music started. Trumpets shrieked over a punchy tuba. A female singer cried about a lost love.

Juan Valdovinos, who goes by Juanna v. Mii in drag, had performed better shows. But this one felt different. Juanna was mouthing Spanish lyrics Juan had grown up with. She was embodying a Mexican-American singer he idolized. 

For so long Valdovinos felt too queer for his Hispanic friends, and too Hispanic for his queer friends. On stage, those two sides collided.

“It helped me find my own identity,” Valdovinos said.

Valdovinos now runs Noche Latina, a regular drag show in Omaha that focuses on Latin music and culture, where he hopes others like him can fit in.

“That’s the goal with the show, especially for a lot of the Hispanic queer people out there,” Valdovinos said of Noche Latina, which is having a Cinco de Mayo show on Sunday at Flixx. “They can connect both sides and have a gay old time with Hispanic music.”

Eevee Treviño applies makeup before a Noche Latina drag performance at Flixx on July 7, 2023. Noche Latina is a regular drag event in Omaha that focuses on Latin music and culture. Its organizer Juan Valdovinos said his goal with the show is to create a space where queer and Hispanic people can find community and identity. Photo by Chris Bowling/Flatwater Free Press

The inspirations for Latin drag set it apart from other branches of the art form. The music might be mariachi, upbeat pop or raw ballads. At Noche Latina, performers have taken costume inspiration from rancheros, Mexican folk dancers and Aztec gods.

The history of Latin drag runs deep, said Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes, a University of Michigan professor who’s studied it. Mentions of female impersonators appear in newspapers from a century ago. Growing up in Puerto Rico, La Fountain-Stokes also remembers often seeing drag queens and transgender people on TV, in public or at the theater.

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Today there’s a variety of Latin drag – Puerto Rican drag is different from Mexican drag which is different from Central American drag – but they’re all connected.

“For us it’s really about culture,” he said. “It’s about language. It’s about emotion. And it’s about creating those connections with the audience.”

Alana Viviana walks the runway during a Noche Latina drag performance at Flixx on July 7, 2023. Noche Latina’s lead organizer Juan Valdovinos has a rule for his performers: of the three songs they’re given, two have to be in Spanish. Beyond that the genres vary. A performer might come dressed in a flowing gown to perform a heartbreaking ballad. Or they might choose something more skin-tight that matches a bass-heavy Latin pop song. Photo by Chris Bowling/Flatwater Free Press

Those cultural connections, and the music, drew Christina Brownlee to Latin drag. She relates to icons like Selena, a Mexican-American singer murdered in 1995. The stories are raw. When she performs it feels like she’s tapping into something beyond herself.

“If you feel the music, you can really transmit that,” she said.

She started performing in Orange County, California, where there’s a thriving scene of Latin drag queens, shows and competitions. When she moved to Omaha more than three years ago, she noticed the lack of a Latin drag culture.

Alej Bustillos Jr., a longtime Omaha performer who goes by Karma LiLoLa, said the city has Latin queens. Bustillos used to host shows where she drew on her roots in ballet folklorico, traditional Mexican dances she grew up learning at El Museo Latino in South Omaha. Latin queens have also won Miss Max, the title for Omaha’s top drag queen, and could compete in Miss Gay South Omaha before that pageant ended in 2016. But recently there haven’t been many shows dedicated exclusively to Latin drag.

Brownlee had confidence a consistent Latin show could work here. She started shopping the idea of a Latin drag brunch at different restaurants around town. She got a few rejections. A few people never returned her messages. Then she met Juan Magaña who owns Epoca Cantina in the Capitol District.

Christina Brownlee performs in drag as Selena. Photo provided by Christina Brownlee

By May 2021, Brownlee hosted the first Latin Divas Drag Brunch there. Now the show runs once a month seasonally from April to October for people 18 or older. It lasts from around 1:30 to 3 p.m. on either Friday, Saturday or Sunday and includes a cast of permanent and guest performers. They do Latin songs, or inject Latin flair to English-language numbers, as diners bite into tres leches pancakes or chilaquiles. The Latin Divas will also be performing this Saturday night at Epoca Cantina’s Cinco de Mayo celebration. 

“I’ve seen other drag branches and I’m telling you I haven’t seen them, the girls or the men, as excited as (Brownlee) makes them,” Magaña said.

Magaña said the show packs his restaurant every month with a diverse crowd who come to see the performers. Brownlee cracks jokes about sexuality or immigration. The performers get the crowd dancing with thumping club beats. Everyone takes video when a dancer does a cartwheel or the splits.

As Brownlee’s drag brunch took off, demand for her to perform at restaurants, holiday parties and birthdays also increased. She has a quinceañera lined up for July in Lincoln. The soon-to-be 15-year-old is a big Selena fan. She’s also noticed more non-Latin queens around Omaha incorporating Latin music into their performances.

“That for me lets me know I’m doing the right thing,” she said, “that the staple that I’ve been wanting to create, the overall aesthetic that I wanted people to see, is working because it’s contagious.” 

Juan Valdovinos performing as drag persona Juanna v. Mii. Courtesy photo

Noche Latina is also tapping into that growing desire. The show, which happens at night and features a variety of performers, started as a monthly event in October 2022. Valdovinos took over the show in July 2023 after its original creator moved. Currently the show runs quarterly, giving Valdovinos time to raise and save money for better production and bigger performers, he said. The mission of building a space by and for queer Hispanic people in Omaha remains.

His performers range from first-timers who walk the stage nervously to seasoned pros who know how to strut and elicit crowd reaction. In the audience he sees a group of young, queer Hispanic people his age at every show. He also sees older generations, like his mom, who love hearing the music performed. Seeing that variety motivates Valdovinos – it means people are getting it.

“It’s a celebration of Hispanicness over a celebration of queerness,” he said. “It’s a celebration of being Hispanic and Latin.”

Gloria Hall waits for the start of Noche Latina in the drag performers’ dressing room below Flixx on July 7, 2023. The hours before a drag show are a flurry of hairspray, make up and costumes. At Noche Latina performers chat in a mix of Spanish and English as they put the finishing touches on their outfits before heading upstairs to the stage. Photo by Chris Bowling/Flatwater Free Press

Each show Valdovinos tries to raise money for good causes. The first recipient was Omaha ForUs, a nonprofit focused on supporting the LGBTQ+ community. This Sunday they’ll be raising funds for Bustillos, Valdovinos’ mentor, who was attacked last February and left paralyzed. At the time others in the drag community called the incident a hate crime. Bustillos said the person who attacked her was never identified, leaving only questions that, more than a year later, Bustillos has decided are better left unanswered.

What she does know is that drag queens and the LGBTQ+ community are facing more scrutiny as laws across the country target drag shows and transgender kids. Nebraska has passed a law regulating gender affirming care for minors. Two other bills, one that would have banned minors from attending drag shows and another that would have prevented transgender students from using school restrooms and locker rooms consistent with their gender identity, failed to become law. 

Being Hispanic only adds more fear, Bustillos said, as politicians propose harsher border security and penalties for undocumented immigrants.

To live as a queer Latin drag queen means confronting these realities.

“It suppresses individual identity. It creates fear,” Bustillos said. “So just by creating this message that Mexicans are menaces to society encourages people to assimilate. And assimilation is this erasure of culture and heritage. And that’s what I think is really at the crux of what Noche Latina dismantles in a way.”

Vanessa Nevarez, who often travels to Nebraska to perform drag and helped Brownlee start Latin Divas, feels that pressure in small town Iowa. She came out as transgender at 15. Going to the bathroom gave her anxiety and other kids would sometimes call her “it.” The pride parade she helps organize in Orange City, a town of 6,000 about an hour northeast of Sioux City, has also received pushback. 

A lot of queens who once lived around her have left for places where it might be easier to live as a queer person. But Nevarez has stayed, hosting Latin shows in Sioux City, Winona, Minnesota and at her parents’ Mexican restaurant in Sibley, Iowa, population 2,820. She also travels a lot, including to places like the Nebraska State Fair, where she performed with Latin queens from  York and Grand Island.

“My goal in the Midwest is to put myself out there and have that Latin representation,” Nevarez said.

Creating opportunities for representation is what keeps Valdovinos going. Noche Latina  doesn’t make much money. It’s tough  to compete with other weekend events a bar might want to host. But Valdovinos is making future plans, including trying to secure a venue for Noche Latina in South Omaha, the historic heart of Omaha’s immigrant community.

“That’s my big next step … So that it really is by South O for South O.”

By Chris Bowling

Chris Bowling is an investigative reporter for Flatwater Free Press. Prior to joining Flatwater Free Press Chris was an investigative reporter and editor for The Reader, Omaha's alternative monthly newspaper where he focused on issues like climate change, housing, health, criminal justice and social issues. A native of Cincinnati, Bowling graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2018.



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