It was the subject matter that first attracted me to Las Biuty Queens: a collection of fictionalized stories from the Latinx queer, trans, undocumented, immigrant community in New York City. But what stands out most in the collection is the finely balanced tension between precarity and joy. It’s rare, these days, for a short story collection to err on the side of the joyful; that alone renders the collection refreshing. Coupled with the additional layers of meaning and identity explored in these 13 short stories, it makes the book a superb read.
Las Biuty Queens is the debut short fiction collection from Iván Monalisa Ojeda, a performer and writer originally from Chile. He/she now lives in New York. The book appeared in Spanish in 2019; Hannah Kauders’ excellent English rendition features a thoughtful introduction by acclaimed film director Pedro Almodóvar.
These are slice-of-life pieces, vignettes imbued with drama and zest. Ojeda’s finely balanced characters are larger-than-life, exuberant, dramatic; yet there’s an authentic realism to them. One of the challenges of short story writing is the struggle to imbue characters with life in a scant few pages, but in Ojeda’s work, it’s the characters that drive the story. There’s nothing simple about these characters. Their effusive exteriority masks a complex array of backgrounds, feelings, tensions. It’s contradiction that drives complexity in a character, and Ojeda achieves both in ample measure.
Plots are subtle, language is sparse. An entire story is set at a funeral; another takes place en route to a wedding. Some stories grapple with more complex themes, chronicling the complexities of relationships among undocumented migrants; illness and mortality; prison. All narrated in the first-person, they’re drawn from Ojeda’s real-life experiences and manage both to compel the reader with their authenticity, while also leaving the reader astonished at the personalities and predicaments that emerge.
There’s a subtle tension in each of the stories that deftly conveys the precarity of their protagonists’ lives: sex workers navigating shifting patterns of policing; trans characters struggling to raise the funds to transition; undocumented migrants earning money to send home to their families. Drugs are pervasive: one story chronicles the panic induced by a bit of cheap, doctored marijuana, which leads to the hapless narrator’s temporary incarceration in a psychiatric ward. Another follows a sex worker who winds up in prison after forgetting to attend one of their many legal hearings and then has to grapple with the fear and loneliness of a few days in jail.
“In The Bote” is one of the many stand-out stories in the collection: what starts as a routine busting by an undercover cop gradually turns ominous when the narrator realizes they’re going to prison. Ojeda chronicles the minutiae of the experience: having to strip and surrender one’s identity (one’s individual identity as well as gender identity); the cold prison beds and unpleasant food; the bewilderment of trying to understand the social mores of this new environment. Ojeda writes with a sparse language that is all the more effective for its simplicity.
Yet despite the precarity, the danger, and the tragedy, the overarching quality of these stories is joy. Lost and alone in prison, the narrator of the aforementioned story is unwillingly paired with the sole other Chilean in the prison. This man turns out to be a godsend, responding with generosity and kindness that would be remarkable outside of prison, let alone in such a repressive environment. Here too Ojeda weaves a fine balance: the narrator is threatened and menaced by other prisoners for breaking enigmatic rules and prison mores, yet also saved by well-meaning fellow prisoners who bring the two Chileans together and intercede on their behalf. People and situations are complex, and Ojeda conveys complexity with a deft, effective touch.
There’s a camaraderie and community among the protagonists, too. The biuty queens compete with each other, accuse each other of stealing each other’s drugs, they gossip and snipe at each other. Yet ultimately they have each other’s backs, always coming through for those in need, always providing a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on.
One could almost burst at the vivacity and zest of these characters. Death and danger are constants: disappearances and funerals are a part of life. Yet even these grim realities provide the context in which solidarity and friendship are forged.
As Angie Xtravaganza, the mother of Xtravaganza House, said those murders were part of what it meant to be a transsexual woman in New York…It didn’t matter to anyone what happened to people like us. Jennifer didn’t have a family to stand up for her. No one was keeping an eye on the detectives to see how the investigation was going, asking if they’d found any suspects. La Fernando said it well: the police weren’t likely to investigate the death of yet another murdered loca. Even less so if she was a prostitute. Those were just the risks you ran. Only if another two or three strangled women just like Jennifer appeared would they begin to investigate, in case some psychopath was running loose.
And yet amid this darkness, an irrepressible zest for life:
It’s good I have my permanent residence, but I still have to watch out. Remember what happened to the Torres family – even people with papers can get deported. And that, my dear little mirror, is simply not my cup of tea. I have [beauty] crowns left to win. I want to have so many they don’t even fit in my casket. I hope I need a second coffin just for my crowns.
Ojeda also superbly conveys the ambiance of the New York City environment. Transit lines, nightscapes, parks, beaches, and high-rise apartments all come to life through the author’s skillful attention to setting. The book is in many ways a love letter both to New York City, as well as to the community of Latinx trans sex worker migrants whose lives it chronicles.
Las Biuty Queens is a superb collection. Its thematic content – the lives of this vibrant community – is central to the stories, and yet the stories can be appreciated for their style and effusive characterization alone. Put the two together, and Ojeda has produced a magnificent debut that’s both politically important, as well as simply beautiful to read.