'Mala Mala' and the Exploration of Queerness
2015 is the year that ‘trans’ went mainstream and got us all talking about gender identity. From Caitlyn Jenner, to Andreja Pejic and Hari Nef, there are more trans figures and role models in our culture than ever before. Next in this influential array of trans movers and shakers comes Mala Mala, a critically acclaimed documentary that made waves at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Following the lives of 9 trans-identifying individuals in Puerto Rico, the documentary examines the diverse experiences of an eclectic range of trans figures, all of varied ages and ways of life. Through the chronicles of these spirited drag queens, empowered sex workers, and trailblazing social activists, the film epitomizes how there is no single notion of trans and no right way to be ‘queer’.
The project began several years ago when directors Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles stumbled upon a trans woman in Texas. Fascinated by her liberated and fluid sense of self, the two set off to none other than Puerto Rico where they met the 9 inspiring gender-bending Boricuas that star in the film. Despite being is a U.S territory, Puerto Rico often fails to get the political recognition it deserves, but Mala Mala makes it clear that we need to keep our eyes peeled on this dynamic Caribbean island and its extraordinary people. Milk Made’s Natasha Frid got to sit down with the duo behind the film and talk about gender binaries, queerness and Caitlyn Jenner’s impact on the trans community.
Why did you title the film ‘Mala Mala’?
Antonio Santini: It’s a mix of being in heat slash being fierce and brave. Literally it’s what a biological girl would say when she gets her period, "estoy mala". The LGBTQ community has re-appropriated the word and uses it in an empowering way to express the energy that excites them.
Dan Sickles: They scream that at each other too. It’s when they finally get dressed up and reveal it to all their friends and they go "mala, mala, mala." It’s a lot of things all at once.
How did this whole project come about? Do you have prior ties to PR?
AS: I grew up in Puerto Rico. I went to school with Jason, who is April in the film. April wasn’t a drag queen in high school. April performed as a straight boy but he was the only one that people saw as visibly showing feminine traits so he got a lot of attention for that. We were really impressed how he had navigated that and how he became a famous drag queen on the island. We thought that it was incredibly brave to just be like ‘screw this’ and ’I’m going to do my thing’ in that specific environment. That’s one of the reason’s he’s famous on the island. People are impressed by his lack of fear.
DS: We went to Puerto Rico because no one ever listens to Puerto Rico. Historically, anything Puerto Rico does it’s like shouting into outer space. No one hears it. A few years ago, they had a referendum and voted to become a state, but no one in the US knows that they’re related to us. That’s what drew us there. How can we make a place that is very invisible, more visible? Especially this community on that island. It’s a wormhole within a wormhole.
You mentioned in another interview that there was a parallel between being Puerto Rican and being trans, can you talk a bit about that?
DS: In both instances, there’s this clash of identities. One happens on this frequency of gender and the other seems to be happening on this frequency of culture in Puerto Rico, where you’re trying to figure out how to live an American lifestyle on a Caribbean island that wasn’t founded at the same time. It’s very much caught up in that discussion of what it is. The politics on the island are purely wrapped up in what’s happening in the United States. People vote along party lines that are reflective of how we should change the relationship to our mother nation and nothing else. It’s not really about how we can approve our infrastructure or the war on drugs, which also makes it the more remarkable that this bill [against LGBT discrimination] passes over the course of the film. This bill only exists in about 19 states right now, so they are ahead in terms of passing humane legislation for their own benefit. We’re always perceiving them as something other than that, as something other than complicated and diverse and beautiful — and forward thinking in some ways.
Why do you think it was so hard to find Paxx? Why are there so few trans men in Puerto Rico?
DS: In terms of the research we’ve done over the past few years, that seemed to be a pretty common thread. In any of the books that we’ve read, in any of the media that we’ve seen. I think a lot of it’s wrapped up in this concept of what it means to be a masculine, gendered body and what it means to inhabit that space which is kind of an antithesis of that vibrancy of somebody like Ivana flaunts. Her womanhood is to exude womanhood. Whereas, even the way that Paxx talks is to head almost in the opposite direction. They don’t wear it as publicly.
AS: There’s a neighborhood where we filmed a lot, Santurce, and you see that there’s a lot of trans women walking around, a lot of drag queens too. There’s no neighborhood like that for trans men — we couldn’t find that. When we were researching for the trans male community, we went to a LGBT center and their answer was "oh there was one once and he was homeless, but now he doesn’t live in Puerto Rico anymore". What we realized was that the word ‘trans man’ isn’t really used in Puerto Rico. A lot of the people that would identify as trans male if they had the vocabulary to define themselves are seen as butch lesbians. Paxx has the ability to explore these words because he’s really connected to the internet and he’s really interested in Google and Instagram and investigating. He has this hashtag #queersinthekitchen and through that he’s created these visual languages that are helping him define himself. And now he has 4 friends that identify as trans male or gender queer, but these aren’t the conversations or spaces that we were aware of before Paxx. This is something that he’s actively manifesting by participating and creating imagery.
DS: There’s always been this border between what makes a butch dyke and a trans man. There’s a lot of attack back and forth between what you are and what you aren’t. It’s representative of how marginalized communities historically do that, it’s like you’re not a part of us, you’re something else. It’s representative of that, and that particular segment of the community it seems.
AS: Also being a man in Puerto Rico is challenging in that you are told to aspire to be the manliest man possible, so if you’re going to transition you’re going against a tough world. And that world has guns, that world has a lot of mannerisms, and it has size. It has relationships to women and how they’re being treated— the way you raise a family. We grow up in a space that tells you a real man leaves his wife maybe, a real man has kids with other women. There are all these really complicated ways of defining being a man beyond just your appearance and having a penis. That courage that the trans females on the island have had to say ‘I’m gonna be a Latina woman’ and ‘I’m gonna be better than y’all’ — and in many ways Ivana has succeeded — I think maybe for some of the trans men they still haven’t gotten there. It’s a charged thing they’re coming up against.
This year has been super revolutionary for trans women with Caitlyn Jenner, Hari Nef and Andreja Pejic. How do you think that her publicized transition will impact the visibility of trans men and women in Puerto Rico?
DS: It definitely has impacted things. The fact that she’s on the cover of Vanity Fair, that sort of visibility is unparalleled. The interesting thing though is that when we talk about Caitlyn, a lot of people say "Oh wow this has never happened before, this is a phenomenon," but in the 50s Christine Jorgensen went to Denmark and came back a woman. And everyone was like “how did this happen? You’re an ex-G.I" and she was literally reported on more than anyone for the next few years, so we’ve been here before. We want to believe that this straight line of progress exists but it happens in waves. So now we’re aware of this thing, but then it always seems to recede a little bit. And then something else happens and it’s like ‘here we are again.’ It’s like we keep rediscovering Mars or something. But we’re really talking about how gender is fluid.
DS: All that being said— it’s a great thing, but it’s also difficult for other people to be in that visibility. I find myself a little nervous because of all this publicity. And now it’s a trend with all these trans models being signed, which doesn’t ever happen to somebody like Samantha, who’s in our film. My worry is that we’re going to start co-opting it and start producing what is this really really beautiful flexible identifier into something that’s essentialist — into something that people are using to argue, "we’re like you" instead of the opposite, no we’re all super different and that’s what makes us strong and really cool. I feel like we’ve seen that with the gay movement. The gay movement has become very caught up in pragmatic issues that ignore what it is we’re talking about.
AS: Is the conversation about shock value? Like "OMG look at how hot she looks", or are we going to talk about the human phenomenon of being queer? How many people are going to start seeing themselves as queer — not saying they have to change. Accepting yourself as queer doesn’t mean that you have to act more feminine, or change something about yourself. It can just be a more open minded way of perceiving yourself. It also allows you to access other communities. As opposed to being like, ‘well I can’t go to that club because I don’t use that word to identify myself, or I can’t hang out with these people, I can only hang out with people who use the exact same word to identify themselves.’ Queerness has this beautiful thing where Paxx and Dan can share a relationship and its not based on them being the exact same thing, or being a part of the same club. If anything it’s the differences that makes you friends. Dan was the one who really opened me up to what being queer meant. I didn’t understand it. I thought it was a little scary. I was like "oh that seems like something people don’t want to be" but actually it’s a possibility of being more open, so why not?
AS: People also ask us why Paxx is in the film. They say "Paxx is so different from anyone else, it’s almost like he doesn’t belong in the film" but actually, Paxx is the leader of everyone. Paxx is a chef, he was born in a female body, now he’s trans masculine, he dates a lesbian woman but he is also on Grindr, interested in gay men. He’s down for anything and It’s really encouraging. You can explore more. Ivana came up against a culture where she was like, "if I don’t exactly look like a Latin woman, than I’m going to fail. so I need to fit this mold and I can’t stray from it." I think Paxx is a model we can look up to to.
Do you think that having one very famous prominent trans icon can create another binary? Is Caitlyn Jenner going to become the notion of what it means to be trans?
DS: Those are the dangers and that’s something that we try to do with this film, to really complicate all of those ideas and keep them complicated. Again with Paxx, and all of those identifiers that we just spat out, when they rub up against each other in the same person, that’s ultimately what makes us interesting. Not the fact that they fit into a Stepford housewife mold, at least that’s what I think.