The Caracas drag scene is a refuge for the city’s outsiders

The Caracas drag scene is a refuge for the city’s outsiders
As violence and turmoil continue to beset the Venezuelan capital, the drag community has positioned itself at the forefront of a DIY fightback – one that refuses to stand by and watch the city crumble.

A version of this story appears in Huck 73: The Sanctuary Issue. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue. Get your copy of Huck 73 now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

Note from the writer:
Shortly before this issue went to press, I received news that Aron – the inspiration for this story – had died. We decided to keep his contribution to the larger piece, as well as the updates he provided just before his death, because Aron dedicated his life to drag. He exemplified the culture. He was a true force who became a legend for his community, and his dedication to his fellow queens went unparalleled. It was an honour to know him and it means a great deal to be able to share his world with you all. Rest in power, Queen Arona.” – Lexi

It’s 11pm at Club Cul*, a covert drag club hidden within a disused corporate building situated on the affluent east side of Caracas, Venezuela.

Located in the neighbourhood of Altamira – the city’s largest business district – the space is home to both a national bank and medical insurance provider during the day. But for the past few years, the remaining offices in the building have been empty. During working hours, security guards wander the largely vacant premises, eyes glazed over from the boredom. People do not visit; the elevator to the upper two floors no longer works.

But at night, Club Cul moves in – and the space transforms entirely. Step inside, through an unassuming beige door, and a blast of music hits you as bright neon lights dance along the walls. Through the crowd, the stage comes into view, lined with electric blue tassels and framed with two small TV screens.

The patrons – sporting shiny watches and spiked stiletto heels – take to their seats as the music fades and the room fills with anticipation. Then, as a lively salsa beat starts to play, the stage explodes with colour: four drag queens, wearing intricate headpieces that tickle the ceiling, whirl onto the platform. Backstage dancers follow, moving through the audience as feathers and glitter fly through the air. The crowd erupts. This is what they came to see.

It started with the death of revolutionary president Hugo Chávez and the election of his successor, Nicolás Maduro, whose narrow win – just 1.6 percentage points – proved a source of immediate tension in 2013. Almost simultaneously, the global oil market crashed, causing the country’s economy to unravel. Following years of subsequent turmoil, things came to a head last year when a failed coup – fronted by opposition figure Juan Guaidó, who declared himself the legitimate president – left Venezuela in a surreal political standstill.

All of this has turned Caracas into a hostile, repressive city where daily tasks can sometimes feel impossible. Yet in the midst of what has been a slow suffocation, nights like Club Cul’s provide temporary relief. In a country plagued with instability, chaos and violence, drag nights might seem like a luxury. But for many here, it’s not only an essential escape: it’s a fightback.

As the situation in Venezuela has deteriorated over the years, hyperinflation has rendered the local currency, the Venezuelan Bolívar, basically useless.

The US dollar – recently legalised by the government – has since overtaken the market. While wages remain low, goods are now selling at international prices: in previous years, citizens faced empty shelves, rations and price controls; now, it is not that stores are barren, but that prices are astronomical. For a country that was named South America’s richest at the beginning of the millennium, it’s been a devastating freefall.

In response, millions of Venezuelans have left the country, opting to seek stability elsewhere. For Caracas – a place historically known for its rumba; its life – the shift has been dramatic. The city has been gutted, drained of colour, with the celebration and self-expression that once defined it shelved. For those who remain, there are two choices: admit defeat, or try and make something happen for yourself.

Which is where drag comes in. In a state that has rarely offered protections for its LGBT community – who make up the vast majority of Venezuelan drag – the Caracas scene is used to fending for itself. During a time of increased militarisation and violence, places like Club Cul mark a safe space. Having spent decades at the forefront of the capital’s underground culture, its DIY ethos is needed now more than ever.

Aron**, who performs under the queen name ‘Arona’, knows this better than most. For the 49-year-old, leaving Caracas – his hometown – was never an option. “I have made a name for myself here,” he says matter-of-factly, standing in a doorway at Club Cul that connects the makeshift dressing room to an underground garage. “I would rather stay and teach the next group of kids how to make it, than leave and start from zero.”

Although he looks back on his start in drag with embarrassment – his debut on stage was a “complete disaster” – Aron has gone on to gain a reputation as one of Venezuela’s best queens. A towering figure in the Caracas scene (various younger performers cite him as their inspiration), he has remained at the forefront of drag’s DIY resistance in a city plagued with crisis, nurturing solidarity between its various different factions. The result is a network of support that performers can rely on when the state and society fail them.

“I’m just an old gay man dressing as a woman,” he says, his deep, raspy voice a stark contrast to his slight frame. Sat at the mirror where he does his makeup before every show, the curve and slouch of his back is prevalent – his body worn from years of working clubs. “I have no civil associations or rights group I can go to if something happens. There’s no social security.”

In his view, neither the government nor any prevalent opposition parties work to protect the LGBT community. He cites a fellow performer who recently had their leg amputated due to an aggressive case of diabetes. (Public health care in Venezuela today can often mean infection, while private care can result in thousands of dollars worth of debt.) In response, Aron helped launch a series of events, charging a higher entry fee and putting the profits towards his friend’s recovery.

In that sense, Aron sees the drag community as a group who will fight for those who cannot defend themselves – or that the government can no longer protect. It’s something they’ve always done – but today, it takes on even more significance.

“It’s a daily struggle. That’s why we have become a family. We have [our own] world within this world,” he says. “We try to take everything together. There are serious moments, there are moments of joy, there are moments of crying, there are moments of hate. There are moments of everything.”

Across town, Eduardo – aka ‘Amala Copa’, a 35-year- old drag queen – works all day at a minimum wage government job just to secure his monthly CLAP box: a state-subsidised package of eight food products given out to citizens. Due to recent administrative issues, many who aren’t in government jobs only receive their boxes sporadically – if at all.

In the kitchen of his one-bedroom apartment, Eduardo apologises for the mess as he sets to work on the dirty dishes. The water, he explains, has just started working for the first time this weekend. (Even in apartment complexes, water services are turned on for just a few hours a day.)

If Aron views the Caracas drag scene as a vessel for support, then Eduardo sees it as one for protest. A student of anthropology – he studied at the Central University of Venezuela – his initial interest in drag was both academic and political. In conversation, his passion is clear.

“Amala is a sister of her class, she is an equal of her class, a loyal exponent, a representative of the working class,” he says. “She is the worker, she is the one who accompanies you. When your hand is tired of raising your flag, she will say, ‘Here are my hands to raise your flag for you, here is Amala to support you.’ This woman is not your competition – she is an ally.”

As Amala – whom he describes as a Marxist, feminist, ‘anarcho punketa’ – Eduardo is hired to perform at local bars, where he spreads his message of class equality. For instance, Amala will often pause the ‘show’ to wipe down a table with a cloth or take a drink order, playing with the audience’s expectation of what a ‘queen’ should look like. A recent performance incorporated a dramatic reading of a queer Latinx poetry manifesto, as well as various different lip-syncs to Venezuelan punk songs from the ’80s. Uninterested in the conventional diva look, Eduardo hopes his act can uplift the working-class woman, paying homage to the ones who raised him.

In this sense, he is indicative of Caracas drag’s refusal to go quietly. But he’s also a shining example of its DIY ethos too. “It is not easy to live the Caracas of the night,” he says. “The Caracas without money, the Caracas without the possibility of getting around by your own means.”

As a result, makeup and costume sharing is a common occurrence within the community. Eduardo’s friends in the Caracas scene – “militant queers” – are integral in making his act possible. His wardrobe, in lieu of chiffon, satin and rhinestones, is often hand-made using recycled materials, or hand–me–downs donated to him. He shows off his favourite new piece: a dress sewn out of ties, recently donated by a friend.

When asked if he plans on staying in Venezuela, Eduardo’s response is mixed. “Right now, I am working on getting all of my documentation papers in order [to be able to travel],” he says. “But while I am here in Caracas, I am going to be doing things for the art of drag. I am going to be giving opportunities to the queer community – and the larger public – to know that there are other ways of doing it.”

This kind of commitment to DIY thinking is present throughout the community – particularly in its younger members. While this was a feature of the scene before things in Venezuela began to intensify, the crisis has heightened the need for performers to take matters into their own hands.

Take Daniel, a bubbly and energetic 19-year-old who performs as ‘Miranda Kambell’. Despite being a relative new face at Club Cul, Daniel recently secured an honourable mention at Drag Gala, an annual event where the entire Venezuelan drag community comes together to compete.

Daniel, who was born and raised in Caracas, fell into drag towards the end of high school through his love of fashion. His queen name serves as both a homage to Miranda Priestly – Meryl Streep’s all-powerful magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada – and Naomi Campbell. “One of my biggest idols is Meryl Streep,” he says, full of excitement. “When I saw her in The Devil Wears Prada, I said to my friend, ‘I have to be Miranda!’”

Although he speaks frankly about the struggles that come with life as a performer in modern Venezuela, a wig, for instance, can cost up to the equivalent of two months pay – he’s proud of the drag scene’s reluctance to crumble. At Drag Gala, he wore a costume he stitched together himself. “I had been trying to make a costume for weeks,” he says, warmly recalling the night. “I even asked a friend of mine for $10, but he didn’t have any to spare. I thought I was going to have to drop out. So the day before, I ripped up my curtains and put a look together from there. I was so rushed and stressed… I couldn’t believe it when they called my name!”

Fellow performer Walcot, who takes to the stage with his given name, recognises these kinds of challenges. The Caracas local has been performing for the past year with a style he has titled “monster drag”, an androgynous, fantastical aesthetic that trades traditional wigs and fillers for platinum thongs and floor-length, multi- coloured braids that he whips around during his act.

The 20-year-old does what Venezuelans call “matar tigres” – a phrase that refers to holding down multiple side jobs to make due. Alongside working nights at Club Cul as a performer, Walcot juggles his time as a makeup artist and professional braider. “With drag, I comb my own hair, I put on my own makeup; when it comes to a wardrobe I assemble it all myself,” he explains.

The expenses that come with performing are made even more difficult given the situation in Venezuela. But for Walcot, the struggle is a necessary part of the fightback. It would be easy to give up – but he believes the drag is part of something much larger than itself. “This is the escape people need right now… to go out and laugh, see a show,” he says, “If it’s for twenty minutes or two minutes, at least we all get to leave our problems for a while.”

Daniel agrees. “Every day one door closes and another one opens. It is super difficult. But we all have to keep fighting. It’s the only way we can all get out of this. Working and fighting.”

Back at Club Cul, the night is winding down. While patrons make their way home at around 3am, performers who can’t catch a ride head down to the dressing room to wait until dawn. Managers lock the main doors, but laughter still trickles out of the building and into the street.

In the dressing room, performers remove their makeup as the group passes around a large plastic bottle of liquor, gossiping about the night’s events. Some take to making makeshift beds out of sofas and large heel-shaped chairs; others just laugh and drink to pass the time.

Despite the fact they’re sequestered in a small space, the mood is upbeat: everyone is enjoying themselves as if the outside world didn’t exist. The hours whirl by, until, at around 6:30am, people eventually start to say goodbye, heading off in pairs to the nearest subway station under the blanket of morning. As they walk out of the dark, damp dressing room, a sliver of sunlight creeps through into the building’s lobby.

“I consider drag my flag of freedom,” says Aron. “Although all of this might seem like a character, it’s an extension of me … it’s the only way I can feel free. That is why I continue to fight. Because I feel that if I decay, I fall to everything else.”

The name of the club has been changed for privacy

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