Unearthing the histories and legacies of people we lost to AIDS sometimes means discovering and losing someone in the same moment. The celebration can quickly become a kind of grief that leaves you raging and fighting ghosts of a not-so-distant past that allowed such extraordinary losses to happen. This is how I would describe my discovery of the legend, Lady Catiria.
In the 1990s, it was not uncommon to hear stories about how someone, usually a young gay man or transgender woman living with AIDS, had moved away to different city to live out their last days away from their family. And if people weren't moving away altogether, they were bidding a quiet farewell from the ballroom scene, club nightlife, or from their social circles into isolation as their health began to deteriorate. This is how thick and suffocating the stigma around living with HIV was -- even in our communities. Many of the farewells were, sadly, unceremonious.
Perhaps this is why I was captivated by the story of Lady Catiria, the pageant queen who knew the power of a great farewell.
Catiria Reyes, widely known as Lady Catiria, was a Puerto Rican trans woman who born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico in 1959. Like many young queer and transgender boricuas, Lady Catiria grew up idolizing the beloved, campy but glamorous Puerto Rican entertainer Iris Chacón. Known as "La Bomba de Puerto" (the Puerto Rican Bombshell), Chacón's flamboyant, revealing outfits, coupled with elaborate and sleekly choreographed performances, made her a sensation across Latin America in the 1970s. Chacón's unapologetically sultry performance style became the template for a 19-year-old Lady Catiria when she began her performance career.
As Lady Catiria was sharpening her skills as a performer, lip-syncing and impersonating Iris Chacón in the Jackson Heights, Queens neighborhood, a queer nightclub on the other side of town was quickly becoming a mecca for Latinx, primarily Puerto Rican, LGBTQ people. Located in midtown Manhattan, La Escuelita (The Little School) provided a welcoming space for New York's growing Latinx queer community. La Escuelita was also one of the very few clubs where Latinx drag performers had an opportunity to shine and be celebrated. This environment would not only prove successful for the club, but it would make Lady Catiria.
By the mid-1980s, Lady Catiria was captivating audiences at La Escuelita. Much like her idol Iris Chacón, Lady Catiria's performances were part exhibition, part pageantry. It was this combination, along with her ability to dance and perform the hell out of a song, that struck a chord with the queer and transgender Latinx who saw her as their very own Iris Chacón. She was undoubtedly the queen of La Escuelita.
Lady Catiria entered the 1990s with her sights on competing and claiming a title on the national pageant circuit. It wasn't long before she was crowned Miss Continental Plus in 1993. Determined to compete and win the coveted pageant title of Miss Continental, Lady Catiria's preparation for this journey required both physical and financial sacrifices. Lady Catiria would lose 30 pounds and spend upwards of $20,000 to bring her vision of being crowned Miss Continental to fruition.
The 1995 Miss Continental competition happened during a particularly hopeless time during the HIV epidemic. There was a sense of hopelessness that any breakthrough in treatment was possible. AIDS had become the leading cause of death among Americans ages 25 to 44, and the only treatment on the market, AZT, was a not the miracle drug the world had hoped for. Essentially, AIDS was still considered an almost certain death sentence. This was the cultural understanding of AIDS in 1995 when Lady Catiria was diagnosed with HIV. Although devastated by the news, bidding farewell to her dream of competing in Miss Continental was not an option.
Lady Catiria would go on to compete and be crowned the 1995 Miss Continental. It was a historic win, as she was the first person to win both the Miss Continental Plus and Miss Continental pageant titles. The woman who dazzled audiences at La Escuelita was now traveling around the country and leaving audiences in complete awe with her performances. She even landed a cameo in the 1995 film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.
Although Lady Catiria was managing a rigorous schedule of appearances around the country during her reign as Miss Continental, she struggled with the societally imposed shame that many people living with HIV experience. She would courageously share her struggle as a trans woman living with HIV as part of her farewell performance at the 1996 Miss Continental Pageant.
Before she stepped out onto the stage, a recording of Lady Catiria speaking played for the audience:
"Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Before I give my last performance as Miss Continental USA, I'd like a bit of your time to give you all a bit of knowledge, because the key to life in general is education. Ignorance is weakness, and we should make no room for that in our lives."
Lady Catiria then appeared on stage to perform "It's Never Too Late" by Tramaine Hawkins in a black dress accented with a red AIDS ribbon in rhinestones as the collar. As the song played, she gave her prerecorded testimonial.
"I then thought I was dying of AIDS, but I now realize that I am not dying of AIDS. I am living with AIDS because you loved me."
On that night and on that stage, Lady Catiria solidified her place in queer and AIDS history. She used her platform, decades before it was a celebrated thing to do, not only to share her story but to defiantly declare that farewells can be rooted in love and vulnerability, not shame and stigma.
Over the next few years, Lady Catiria continued to perform, using her platform to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS. In February 1999, she received a moving farewell tribute from La Escuelita, the place she helped to make into a utopia for Latinx transgender and queer people. Lady Catiria was unable to attend the event due to health complications, but she was able to phone in and thank the community for making her their queen.
The telling of our history can sometimes confine people to one of two categories: those who made history and those who were a part of history. Often times, it is the former who are celebrated and amplified. It is because of this that we have to search for any kind of proof of all the Lady Catirias that existed and contributed to the culture we live and breathe now. Maybe Lady Catiria knew that her performance on that day in 1996 would serve as a special kind of prayer for those of us who have disclosed, or will disclose, our HIV status.
Unearthing the histories and legacies of people we lost to AIDS sometimes means discovering and losing someone in the same moment. But every time we speak their names and hold their bones up to the sky, we make a declaration to never allow these losses to go unremembered or without a ceremonious farewell.