Iván Monalisa Ojeda is a playwright, author, and performer who was born in Southern Chile in the 1960s and has been making a name for himself/herself in queer spaces in New York City for over two decades. Ojeda went onto study theater at the University of Chile and in 1995, he/she came to New York City to participate in the New Dramatists program, a playwriting organization that offered him/her a month-long residency. From there, Ojeda settled in New York City making it her/his home base and became entrenched in the larger LGBTQ+ community.
Most recently, Ojeda has gained notoriety for his/her new book, Las Biuty Queens, which came out in June. Ojeda, who identifies as both female and male, uses masculine and feminine pronouns, is also known professionally as Monalisa, her/his larger performance persona. Monalisa was also the subject of the 2016 documentary, El Viaj e de Monalisa (The Journey of Monalisa).
Ojeda’s Las Biuty Queens is a collection of short stories chronicles the Latinx, transgender, undocumented experience in New York City through a cast of unforgettable characters. The book considers the role of immigration, drug use, sex work, and other day to day realities of Ojeda’s life. Observer recently spoke to Ojeda about her/his book, Pride month, her/his take on gender identity, the larger Latinx experience from her/his perspective, the current state of sex work today and other topics.
Observer: What do you think about the current conversations around decriminalizing sex work and some of the steps that have been taken in New York and in the United States to work towards this recently?
Iván Monalisa: I know a little that has been happening in the state of New York because before the pandemic I was participating in some meetings, marches and events of a group called Decrim New York. Decrim meaning decriminalize, decarcerate and destigmatize sex work and I think it’s a very important thing. I didn’t know how to help people when they went to prison, or dealt with the law, or any complaints you have with the system.
We want to remember this was before the pandemic, in 2019, when we went to Albany and we saw something that was very important for me. The establishment listened and worked with the communities they are talking about, with the community and the communities they’re putting laws on. We went with Lorena Borjas. I don’t know if you know who she was. She was a very important Latina community leader in the trans community, a political leader and trans elder who passed away because of the coronavirus. She was a warrior her whole life and went through a lot of things.
For example, if they saw in Roosevelt Avenue, let’s say from 95th Street to 105th Street after 12pm any transgender person or a very femme gay, you know, the police without proof, just because they suspect that because you were walking at this time of the night you were doing sex work. And this was a law (The “Walking While Trans Law” which was originally a New York State loitering law from 1976 that targeted prostitution, stayed on the books for years and resulted in harassment for the LBGTQ+ community due to to the overlap of whorephobia and transphobia in public policy. The law was repealed in February of this year.) that allowed a lot of discrimination and forced arrests and, it’s not just that the person is going to lose a couple of hours inside the prison.
It’s a lot of things, you know. Another thing is like the record. Some people you know have problems getting immigration papers because this record exists. You know, it’s something that I’ve been fortunate that there is more organizing now, like they get us out and they help you clean your record. But there’s a lot of girls who don’t know how the system works. The system, you know, scares them. It scares them because there is usually not a lot of Spanish speakers and, they come here, they crossed, I know girls that come from let’s say Colombia. You know, there are many girls that come from Colombia to the United States. I mean, it’s hard but fortunately this law, at the end of last year, no, I think this year, it was derogated. It doesn’t exist anymore.
How have larger discussions around gender and sexuality in the last few decades helped you inform your own sense of identity?
I mean, everybody can know because of the media because of the internet, you know? So, it’s very, I think one of the things that, for me, it’s very important to understand that these kinds of discussions, previously, came from the academy. From the university, from the professor of sexology or sexual studies, of sexuality you know, it’s always coming from the university’s institution, but lately this kind of discussion has been, from the trans committee.
I mean from the LGBT, but inside the LGBT, there is a big umbrella called transgender. And in the transgender world, there are the two-spirited one, like I define myself, then there is the transsexual, there is the non-conforming non binary… Now there are examples of transgender philosophers, he’s named Paul Preciado. The interesting thing about him is that he is a professor of philosophy in France.
It’s just not somebody who studies, it’s somebody who talks about it and is part of this community. So for me, this is very important. It’s like, if somebody’s going to talk about transgender, non binary or about all these things…I mean, we’re part of the gay community, but we are something absolutely different. That’s another thing, but it’s something like, society, like a regular society is knowing because it’s more, now people talk more because of the internet and have more knowledge, let’s just say it that way.
I’m talking more about my experience than my academic knowledge, but when I was in Chile, I remembered that I read something very important that is the key to everything. It’s a book by Michel Foucault, the French philosopher. He wrote a wonderful book about The History of Sexuality. I remember the last work when I was in Chile and I was invited to come to the United States. And then I said, “let me stay” and I stayed until now. It’s because I did a work with the “Diary of A Hermaphrodite” that Michele Foucault published before he passed away.
So he was writing or was ready to start a book about transsexuality or about transgender. But he passed away. But I see, he was one of the ones in academia, in the establishment who started seeing sexuality from another point of view. Now in this moment, there are people from our community who are writing, who are thinking, who are, you know, people who are listening, who know somebody who did their research about that.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the difference between this book and your, and your other work?
It’s the same thing, it’s about people who try to survive with no papers in this country, drug problems, a beauty contest, and a lot of humor. People who died, people who don’t die, people who appear, people who disappear. I’m not trying to say this is everybody. It’s a lot of things that nobody has written before.
Because the only thing that maybe was like, was done by somebody from outside the community, but was very well done is Paris is Burning that now is a classic, you know. I don’t know why, but I saw Pose one time and I couldn’t see it because it was “oh this is based on the character of “Paris is Burning.” The one who’s supposed to be Pepper LaBeija lives in a beautiful house, Pepper LaBeija didn’t live in a house like that. They were family because guys and little kids who were teenagers who were expelled from their home because they were gay. Those people left from their poor families because they looked weird, so they didn’t get a job.
That was before, now it’s more politically correct. But some people see us as something wrong, or something weird or something funny. There are just a few people who see us as regular people. You know what I mean? And, maybe I am lucky because I have two-spirits, so I act like Ivan sometimes, sometimes like Monalisa.
But some other girls who are in transition, they look in transition. They look very androgynous. The point I’m trying to say is that there’s not a lot of the community, the same thing that I say before. In my story, like I say, it’s the same story, it’s the same character, it’s based on the things that I saw and that I’m Monalisa, as the character in the short story actually, the project that I’m working on now is a novel that is based on a girl that I knew who was murdered, she was found in a hotel in 1997.
When, you know, at this time, nobody talked about hate crime and things like that. Obviously, it’s a cold case and it’s always going to be a cold case because the body was cremated. So there is no way to investigate now. So that’s what I’ve been working on.
That makes a lot of sense. How are you shaping the conversation around gender and sexuality?
So the conversation around gender and identity is, you know, a thing that for me is really important because it’s something that has to be inside the LGBTQ community, and in the moment it was “LGB community” but you know, the gay community, saw us as the one that make the shows, that were in the parade. We were the drag queens, the entertainers, but we were more than that. So then we started to ask for our own place. Now we have like our own projects, like out of injustice, like Sylvia Rivera, you know, you know, a lot of people, for years, they never wanted to recognize that started Pride were two transvestites…We are part of the LGBTQ community but we are another thing. So, inside this trans community, there are different groups. It’s important that we are talking about the fact that it is not some sexologist or politician or medical or philosopher who is talking. We are talking about that. So that’s important.
What do you want people’s biggest takeaway from your book to be?
First of all, like I say, this is one of the few or not, I’m not going to say because it’s so pretentious because this book Las Biuty Queens is one of the few books that have been written by a person who belongs to my community. I didn’t go to the trans community to do research. I’m part of the trans community, you know. I don’t want to say, because that sounds so pretentious also, but let’s say it’s something, like I say all the time, my word is an honor for the tribe, the one who taught me how to survive in the city.
You know, here these people, this tribe, the transgender community of New York City, the ones who are transvestite, the ones who are sex workers gave me the knowledge that I never thought I was going to have in my life. So I have to honor that by telling their story. So there’s a lot of humor in the stories. It’s a lot of bad things in the story but that’s how life is. It’s New York that is not in the postcard. Not New York for the tourists or the one on TV. It’s the real New York… We’re a strong tribe. Overall, whatever that happens we have humor and we have a lot of solidarity between us.