t’s 10am on a Wednesday morning. The intoxicating aroma of oil paint fills the room. Before me a painter works on a vibrant portrait of two local drag queens, dressed to the nines.
El Paso native, Frank Valdez, paints the 24th portrait for his Big River: San Antonio exhibit, featured at this year’s Luminaria. It showcases portraits of 37 random San Antonians that he found around the city.
“Big River: San Antonio is a way to see all of San Antonio at a glance,” explains Valdez, “All of these people- with all their virtues and all of their mistakes, together- make up a better portrait of the city than any one work could do.” Valdez seeks to capture the essence of San Antonio through the portraits of it’s people.
During the portrait session, Valdez and his subjects, Jaéda Secura and Colombia Redd of House Secura, discuss the drag queen experience and San Antonio’s unique drag culture.
The drag world, as public as it is, is a mystery to the outsiders. Attending a drag show is merely getting a glimpse. The opportunity to talk with Secura and Redd for over two hours indulges my own curiosity. The two touch on everything from contour kits to drag community dynamics.
“Everyone wants to know about drag,” says Secura, “there are so many rules, secrets, and tricks of the trade that make up the drag culture. When people first come into contact with a queen, they have oodles and oodles of silly questions. It’s nothing new.”
Secura and Redd agree that an underlying problem is that drag queens are often objectified. Many people use them as photo props, and could care less about getting to know the person underneath it all. Others approach Secura and Redd in the club with a childlike curiosity, but hardly ever ask the questions that matter. Valdez takes the opportunity to ask these questions during his sessions.
“What do you wish people knew about drag?” Valdez asks.
“Just because I’m a drag queen, it does not mean that I want to be a woman. I don’t want to be fetishized. I’m not your fantasy. I am a person,” Secura says.
“Not all queens are feminine in their day to day lives,” adds Redd, “nor does it mean that they are transgender or in transition.”
Eyes opened to the complexities of drag culture, and even more fascinated than ever, I now realize what Valdez is trying to accomplish with his project. His 37 subjects range from members of a biker gang to a yoga instructor. Each one is different, and each one has a story to tell. Getting to know his subjects, has given him a better understanding of San Antonio’s unique and diverse community. Valdez encourages people to take the time and do the same.
“I hope people will take a second to talk to each other. I know we’re all busy, we’ve got lives, things to do. But we’re also part of a community. There’s a guy behind the counter at the gas station we always go to.
There’s a woman who pours us coffee in the morning. These people we see everyday are a part of our lives and we are a part of theirs. Just stop and say “Hello. How are you doing? My name is…” It’s worth it, I promise,” Valdez says.
Luminaria is a free contemporary arts festival held in Hemisfair Park. You can see Big River: San Antonio at Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico on Friday, November 10th from 7pm-12am.