In following a drag queen throughout her day, photographer Rosemarie Lion discovered it's not all glamour. In fact, an unlikely and by all means unpretty character have given one performer not only success but a hold on a niche market.
"A transvestite show for the whole family," announces a poster displayed at the Mexican film theater in downtown San Jose.
The dark room is suddenly a glittering Las Vegas. Long legs in net stockings move across stage. Gigantic plumes careful not to touch each other. Gloria Trevi, Lola Beltran, and other famous Mexican stars sing their greatest hits. Their gowns sparkling in the spotlight.
Sudden cut. The audience laughs. A clumsy Mexican peasant woman stumbles onto the stage. They all recognize her. It is the campesina La India Maria -- the funny comedian notorious in the Mexican world through TV and films. Dragging a big shopping bag with her, La India Maria tells the audience the misfortunes of her peasant life -- like how she must keep insurance and emissions check on her transportation ... a donkey. As she dances, the layers of her skirts lift up, exposing big, red hearts adorned to her underwear.
Behind the façade of La India Maria is Salvador Aceves Perez, or simply "Chava." With his characterization of La India Maria he stands out from the other transvestites who prefer to imitate only glittering figures. But the 31-year-old Mexican is the comedian of the show.
"I like to entertain people," he said. "As La India Maria, I don't have too much competition. Others want to imitate only beautiful artists. La India Maria is not beautiful, but simple and ignorant."
It is exactly the ignorant and blatant character of La India Maria that makes people laugh. But watching her act is more than just another opportunity to crack up, for the Latinos living in the United States, La India Maria brings home Mexican culture, traditions, and prejudice.
Chava was inspired to portray La India Maria after watching a video of the original actress, Maria Elena Velasco. A sort of Sambo for Mexican culture, La India Maria -- or The Indian Maria -- outsmarts rich mestizos with her antics but also portrays Indians as simple-minded and fearful people.
Chava grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, as the only boy among four sisters. He remembers well how his older sister used to dress him as a girl and how for one Halloween he masqueraded as a woman witch only to have rocks thrown at him. It was at the age of nine he began to copy the distinctive voice of La India Maria.
After watching his first transvestite show, he was overheard doing his La India Maria impression. The performers asked Chava to join their troupe which he did for a few days. Chava reveled in the taste of the performance life and realized then that is where he belonged. Used to working in factories and being laughed at for his interests and lifestyle, he embarked on a performance career that would not only pay him more but accept him for who he was ... or who he pretended to be.
Chavas imitation of La India Maria finally brought him to San Jose in 1991 after a local transvestite group offered him a contract. Chava began to develop other characters for himself as well. In fact, Chava has eight personalities. During one performance he may appear as La India Maria, Chelo Silva, and Juan Gabriel. American singer Dionne Warwick also makes the list.
While Chavas night life is colorful and energetic, his day time existence seems quiet and inconspicuous. Even when his gowns stay in the closet, the feminine aura around him remains. In his apartment there are posters of Marilyn Monroe, a lingering smell of perfume, stuffed animals, and pinkish figurines.