“I Am the Queen,” a documentary by Josue Pellot and Henrique Cirne Lima, chronicles the journey of young transgender Latinas as they prepare for the Cacique Pageant, a transgender pageant organized by VIDA/SIDA in Chicago’s own Humboldt Park. Throughout the film, Chicagoans will quickly recognize the classic scenes from Paseo Boricua, such as the Puerto Rican flag draping over Paseo Boricua and bomba dancers twirling their skirts at AfriCaribe.
The engaging and upbeat documentary begins with the beauty pageant contestants making their grand entrance as audience members, including supportive family members, cheer them on. Then it spotlights the origin of the pageant, which began as a way to create a space for a community that is the most marginalized in society.
At the beginning of the film, the teens shyly but candidly recount their experiences coming out as transgender to their families. As the film progresses, the teens quickly become comfortable with the spotlight as they discuss their prospects of winning the pageant, their relationships with their families, their aspirations for the future, their dating trials, and their relationships with each other.
Julissa, a 20-year-old transgender woman, shares that she wanted hormones since she was 13. While her mother Lisa responded angrily at first and refused to speak to her daughter, Lisa realized if Julissa didn’t get the support she needed at home, she would “find it in the streets, and that’s the worst.” Lisa went on to accept her daughter, accompany her to her doctor appointments, and began calling her “Julissa” instead of “Johnathan.” Her only concern now is her daughter’s safety as violence against transgender women is rampant.
The beauty pageant, Julissa shares, helped her come into her own and release “Julissa.” While not all is a fairy tale for this beauty pageant contestant (some family members blame her mom for her gender identification), her overall close relationship with her family is both refreshing but a tragic reminder that it’s an exception to the rule.
Jolizza, 19, a self-identified transsexual woman, was kicked out of her house when she told her mother she was transsexual. According to Jolizza, her mother, who’s a lesbian, was accepting of having a gay child but not a transsexual one. Jolizza struggles to finish Pedro Albizu Campos High School while working a part-time job and living on her own. Her sister is a tireless supporter, and Jolizza details her connections with “adopted” family members, people in the community who support her as a biological family should. The film only gives a brief glimpse of Jolizza’s family at the end, leaving viewers with the desire to get to know them and Jolizza’s adopted family better.
In one moment that epitomizes Jolizza’s personality, she gives the filmmakers a tour of her high school and points out the bathrooms, prompting the filmmaker to ask, “So you use the girls’ bathroom?”
“Nobody says anything?””
“No.They can’t. Or else I’ll fight them,” Jolizza declares.
While her self-confidence, charm, and tough persona make her Jolizza, in one vulnerable moment she admits that the difficulty of being transsexual in a less than accepting world brings her to tears every night.
The film also profiles Bianca, a transgender teen struggling with a family who doesn’t accept her. When the filmmakers ask where she “lives,” she responds that she “stays” with friends. Her instability in life is apparent in the documentary as she makes a rocky journey towards the day of the pageant. The pageant itself struggles with instability as half of the contestants drop out, leaving only four to compete at the end, including Allan, a self-identified gay male who dresses in drag for the pageant.
The film is full of funny moments that can only be created by teen girls being teen girls. It explores what growing up and becoming independent means for a young adult who is transgender. Both Julissa and Jolizza are beginning adulthood as they settle into their own apartments and make plans for college, and the film details the origins of how the young women chose their new names.
Another bright spot in the film is pageant coordinator and emcee Ginger Valdez, a dynamic and stunning woman who came out as a transgender woman at 14 in Puerto Rico during a time when it wasn’t legal. She shares how she used to be physically attacked by police for being transgender, and she also humorously recalls the foam padding transgender women used in her day, while transgender women today have better access to surgery. Her stories give insight into the contrasts between being transgender today and forty years ago. The film documents Ginger preparing for one of her performances, including letting viewers in on a few beauty secrets. When she slips on a dazzling purple dress, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t wish they had her body.
The film also interviews 2007 pageant winner Jade, a transgender women active in her community, who describes the struggles of transgender women, the importance of visibility and spreading awareness, and her commitment to breaking stereotypes.
The film culminates in the pageant, the big day jitters, the preparation and stress. By the end of the film, you feel so connected with the characters that while you’re ecstatic for the winner, it breaks your heart for those who came in runner ups.
I am the Queen
US/Chicago, 2010, 82 min.
Director: Henrique Cirne Lima, Josue Pellot
Thursday, April 14, 2011, 8:00pm at Instituto Cervantes
Address: 31 W. Ohio St., Chicago, IL