When nonbinary actor Vico Ortiz was offered the part of Sergeant Valencia, the most loyal soldier of S.O.Z.: Soldiers or Zombies’ chief antagonist, Colonel Murdoch, they had an idea about how to expand and enrich the role. “I was like, why can’t a nonbinary person exist in this job?” Ortiz recalls. In an Amazon Prime series that questions what it truly means to be human, Ortiz saw an opportunity to unpack that question.
“Whenever someone’s like, there’s a nonbinary character, the industry immediately says things like Oh, androgynous, white, thin, and whatever,” Ortiz says. “A nonbinary person isn’t necessarily androgynous and doesn’t need to act a certain way or behave a certain way, they just are. [Valencia’s] arc has nothing to do with their identity. They’re just simply the same way that every other character exists.”
Fortunately for Ortiz, the folks behind S.O.Z. were on board with this change to the character, which allowed the actor to infuse some of themself into the role. “I mean, obviously, I’m queer. So I was like, Let me just go ahead and sneak that in there somehow,” they say. If doing so in a sci-fi/horror setting seems a bit unexpected, Ortiz explains that it makes perfect sense. “I was listening to this podcast, and it was in Spanish, so I’m going to translate it in the best way possible. [It was about] how all activism is science fiction, because we’re manifesting, we’re presenting a world that doesn’t exist yet.”
While some activism might be science fiction, Ortiz realized they would need to confront the real-world issue of explaining who they are in a place where gender fluidity isn’t talked about nearly as often as in the circles they’re used to.
“I had just finished filming These Thems (a web series that centers nonbinary folks) and also Misdirection and doing the festival runs where I was around a lot of queer people 24/7. And then going from all of that to being in Mexico, in a small town in Durango, where that’s just not something that gets talked about. I was like, This is gonna be probably new for a lot of people,” Ortiz recalls. “And then I was like, Wait a minute, how do I translate who I am to everyone here? How do I articulate this? How do I do this in Spanish?”
As it turned out, there weren’t any issues for the genderfluid Ortiz, who said people in Mexico just defaulted to using the masculine pronouns. “They were like, This is just an effeminate sir. And I was like, You’re not wrong. It’s just interesting.”
In addition to their flourishing acting career in projects like Vida, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, and the upcoming Our Flag Means Death for HBO, Ortiz is also a drag king who performs under the name Vico Suave. Their drag career began as an accident when a friend convinced them to hop on stage during a show despite their having no idea what a drag king was. Ortiz recalls dressing like Ricky Martin and performing a reggae song — and the fact that what could have just been a fun night turned out to be life-changing. Vico Suave is influenced by Martin, Marc Antony, and Bad Bunny, which spurred the realization for Ortiz that they’re inspired by men who are comfortable with their femininity.
“Truly, it was like tapping into the power of my femininity through my masculinity,” they recall. Drag also affords them the opportunity to celebrate and connect with their culture. “I was using my Puerto Rican songs, my music, my dancing, so I was able to learn to connect with myself and who I am, but also my culture and who I am as a Puerto Rican. It’s truly me on a platter.”
This story is part of The Advocate’s 2021 Film and TV issue, which is out on newsstands October 5, 2021. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe — or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.