Scroll To Top

Meet the Queer Puerto Ricans Healing Through Voguing

Meet the Queer Puerto Ricans Healing Through Voguing

“That’s what ballroom is about, being yourself, even if it’s just for a few hours,” one participant said.

This article was originally published by Global Press Journal.

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Klaud Guzmán, a 30-year-old pansexual man, would like to be able to go to his job at a bank in makeup and high heels, but because of internal policy, he cannot. However, he arrives at Kweens Klub, in the Santurce neighborhood, wearing heels, leather clothing and a sparkling choker. White makeup bedecks his right eye. He has come to compete in voguing, a type of dance that he says has given his life meaning. “That’s what ballroom is about, being yourself, even if it’s just for a few hours,” says Klaud Guzmán, who, like others interviewed for this article, asked to be identified by the name he uses to affirm his gender identity.

On Ballroom Night, held on the last Thursday of every month, the music in the club reverberates in the chest. To warm up, some participants move their arms to the rhythm. Others model, moving from side to side and maintaining both poses and attitude.

Tonight’s judges are Sama, La Bella; Alberta Rivera; and Gaddx, three renowned figures in the local ballroom community. Klaud Guzmán sports a coat with a hood and long sleeves to cover his costume. There is an air of mystery about him, like that of a boxer on the cusp of entering the ring.

Klaud Guzmán is one of dozens of people in the LGBTQ+ community who come together on Tuesdays in the Santurce neighborhood to vogue. A group called Laboratoria Boricua de Vogue began open practices in July 2020. Three years later, the space has evolved into not only a competitive ballroom scene but also a resource to heal emotional wounds and strengthen the identities and self-esteem of a community of some 200 people. “People have told me they love the space, that they need it, that it helped them a great deal to let go,” says Edrimael Delgado, the founder of Laboratoria Boricua de Vogue.

Voguing originated between 1960 and 1980, in Harlem, New York. Black and Latino members of the LGBTQ+ community brought this dance to life by imitating the poses of models in Vogue magazine in time with music. Competitive events, known as ballrooms, were established as an oasis, away from the discrimination and deprivation the community faced.

LaBoriVogue, as Laboratoria Boricua de Vogue’s participants refer to it, began with approximately 10 people. Initially, they met at the Pride Pier, in Puerto Rico’s northern municipality of Cataño, to learn to vogue. “It was a personal desire. I wanted to vogue in a community and spread the knowledge to people who needed it,” says Delgado, who organized the first meeting.

He says that spaces like this did not exist in Puerto Rico, and it was this absence that gave birth to the idea. “I can’t practice it alone, and even less so ballroom, which comes from a context of being with people,” he says.

Ballroom event in Puerto RicoGabriela Meléndez Rivera

Voguing is one of the main categories in which people can participate in a ballroom. Others include Runway, in which participants model catwalk-style; Face, where the best facial expression wins; and Vogue Femme, which emphasizes feminized movements. Each category has a required skill set and, usually, further requirements for costume, makeup, presentation or special apparel.

In Puerto Rico, more than 68,000 people over the age of 18 identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, according to Department of Health data from 2019. Delgado says the ballroom community is not made up solely of dancers. Audience members and other supporters also play a role. In total, the LGBTQ+ ballroom ecosystem in Puerto Rico consists of over 200 people, Delgado says. “For such a small [region], it’s not a small scene.”

Miguel Vázquez, director of True Self Foundation, an organization that supports the LGBTQ+ community with grant funding, says that, although Puerto Rico is a conservative region, “the [LGBTQ+] community has kept itself going through community organizations.” He adds that such initiatives “represent safe spaces for solidarity, social mobility and support.”

Jo Correa, a 24-year-old transmasculine and nonbinary person, has been part of LaBoriVogue since the beginning. One of his specialties is Vogue Femme. Under magenta neon lights, Jo Correa traverses the dance floor in a crouch, moving his arms so swiftly one might think his wrists and elbows are made of elastic. The audience ignites at the sight of him. He is recognized as a tough competitor.

Jo Correa describes his family as “extremely conservative.” He recalls when his grandmother said that to be gay was a sin. “Ballroom, besides being a safe space, is the family that has never been present in my life before,” he says.

Brenda González, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of bePResent, which offers mental health services to LGBTQ+ people, has observed that emotional trauma exists in the relationships between LGBTQ+ patients and their families. “That can lead to a number of difficulties in mental health, such as depression, anxiety and difficulty accepting one’s own orientation,” she says.

“What I value most [about ballroom] is the community,” says Beibi Javi, a nonbinary trans person who also gives Vogue classes and won a prize at this evening’s Ballroom Night. Ballroom, Beibi Javi says, is a space “for personal growth and self-discovery.”

Klaud Guzmán says, “All my friendships outside of voguing are with cis-heteronormative people. Sometimes we clash precisely because of that: We don’t have the same experiences. I’ve always been the f*g of the group.” When he started to attend the practices, he spoke to no one. Then, little by little, he made friends. “I love them so much. They’ve given me wonderful advice, and when something happens to me, they’re the people who are there for me,” he says. He calls them his family.

“They are very necessary, these [ballroom] spaces. You’re creating connections and community, and that’s extremely important for your mental health because we’re social beings, and we look for that connection with other people,” says González, who treats loneliness in LGBTQ+ people. “Not feeling like we belong or feeling lonely” can cause depression, she says. A study of depression in members of Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ+ community found that 48.5% showed symptoms of depression.

“I have had depressive episodes,” Jo Correa says, “and the only thing that keeps me going is the thought that a ballroom is happening right now.”

Klaud Guzmán came to the practice space amid “an emotional and professional slump. Voguing saved me from depression and gave my life meaning,” he says. The competition involves more than dancing onstage. “I take pictures of myself, and I love what I see. I watch my videos and get excited,” he says. “Even if I don’t win the category, I do this because I love it.”

He steps back onto the stage. He has changed his costume and now wears white pants and a green shirt. For the first time, he has made it to a Vogue final. The judges don’t make him a winner this time. But while he is sad, this is not just about winning. When he vogues, he turns his dreams into reality: “I can be that designer the 12-year-old Klaud wanted to be, the model that the adolescent Klaud wanted to be. And I can be the dancer and be the actor I wanted to be.”

Related: Carmen Xtravaganza, Paris Is Burning Star and Ballroom Icon, Dies at 62

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

Gabriela Meléndez Rivera