“BUENAS NOCHES, BUENAS NOCHES, EVERYBODY!” Lady Quesa’Dilla welcomed her audience with outstretched arms as she strutted onto the stage for Brooklyn’s 2018 Bushwig Festival of Drag the weekend before last. The Chicana drag queen begins all of her performances with these five words. She has a bit of a “gimmick,” she tells me over Mexican food.
It’s appropriate that I got the chance to grab dinner with her, because Quesa, as she’s sometimes called, is known for “feeding the children.” If you’re sensing a food theme, that’s intentional. Lady Quesa’Dilla’s drag has been inspired by the important role that food plays in her culture and in her family. “There was this thing about food that brought us together. And in my family, and in Mexico, there’s this saying that says ‘donde comen dos, comen tres’ which means, ‘where two people eat, three can eat.’” There’s also the fact that her mother literally fed children as a cafeteria lady for 25 years.
Lady Quesa’Dilla’s early performances, like her mother, fed the children in a very literal way, as they involved her making guacamole and sharing it with the audience. Today, she more often feeds us with her wonderful storytelling. I’ve never seen a queen like Lady Quesa’Dilla before. Her drag style, which relies heavily on personal narrative, is entirely her own. It’s fresh and delightful and completely moving.
A typical Quesa performance starts with a greeting and an introduction–“Buenas noches, buenas noches, everybody! My name is Lady Quesa’Dilla and [insert witty one-liner here]”—that leads into a monologue. That’s Lady Quesa’Dilla with a hard double l sound.
“Because I like to make white people uncomfortable,” she laughs when I ask her where the pronunciation comes from. It’s a perfect response from the unapologetic drag queen, who grew up in El Paso on the Texas/Mexican border speaking Spanish as her first language. “My first name is Alejandro, but growing up in the border I was never called Alejandro, I was called Alex. And the reason for that was that my name was too long, meaning that it was too Mexican. So, it was one of those taking back my Latinidad, and you know just trying to be funny. I thought it was one of those like cultural ‘fuck you, it’s Quesa’Dilla’ to make white people uncomfortable. And nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than like having someone say quesadilla right. And they go ‘ugh,’ and I go, ‘say it, say it.’”
The name is perfectly Quesa: campy, comical, radical, and, like all of her performances, comes with a story. She’ll monologue about everything from childhood memories to queer theory. She’s a great MC, and she knows it, hitting all the right notes of humor, world building, and emotion in her performances. Take last year’s Bushwig, for example. It was her fifth time returning to the festival that she describes as “a huge family reunion.”
Bushwig is a weekend long celebration of drag performers of all styles started in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood. While queens fly in from across the US, the spotlight is on Brooklyn queens. When I ask Quesa about her community in Brooklyn, she lights up. “We as Brooklyn Queens, we’re at the vanguard. We’re queerness. We’re the future. We’re the future of drag …For the longest time no one took us seriously, and now everyone wants to be us.”
But it’s hard to get so many drag artists together in one place, especially in Brooklyn where drag is such a big part of the nightlife. Performers usually have gigs at a different club on the same night. To Quesa, the weekend is “magical” because it does bring everyone together.
Last Bushwig, Lady Quesa’Dilla took the opportunity of having the whole community in front of her to share a very personal story about her life. In an intimate monologue, Lady Quesa’Dilla revealed that she had recently been diagnosed as HIV positive, something she had been struggling through on her own until then. When I ask her about it, she’s honest and open. “I think of myself as this healer wanting to support people, but how can I be a support to anyone when I’m in so much pain or when I’m suffering so much. So, it was just like this huge relief. It was just this huge weight off my shoulders to be able to say that, to say it out loud, to say it in front of everyone…I knew I’m not the only one, like duh, obviously, but that’s just how I felt for so long.”
This feeling of being alone is one that plagues many minority communities. Under-representation is something that Lady Quesa’Dilla has struggled with throughout her life—“as a queer person of color, as a Chicano, as a Latinx person, as person living with HIV”—and that feeling is part of why she story tells so heavily in her performances. Storytelling is a way of letting others know they’re not alone and bringing to life voices that have flown under the radar for too long.
That’s why Lady Quesa’Dilla chooses to channel Latinx icons and queers of color in her drag. As an actor, Quesa would never get the leading roles in plays, be it because she was too brown or too queer or just not good enough at acting, she doesn’t know. But as a drag queen, she’s always the star. In her drag performances, queers of color and Latinx people and those struggling with HIV don’t get pushed to the side; they take center stage.
From the way she walks and talks to the clothes she wears, Lady Quesa’Dilla is a flamboyant, dramatic, and thoroughly Latina vision. At this year’s Bushwig, she was decked out in purple from head to toe complete with a curly beehive wig that added a good ten inches to her height and a fluffy tulle train behind her shimmering gown.
“Buenas noches, Buenas noches, everybody,” she started out familiarly. “My name is Lady Quesa’Dilla, and I am still positive.” She cackled heartily. It was an HIV joke. “I am such a staple of my community,” she continued proudly as she strutted up the stage, arms open to a cheering audience. “That they gave me ten minutes. Not even the Drag Race girls get ten minutes. So I’m gonna take 15.”
Every single one of Quesa’s 15 minutes, were just as lively and entertaining as these first few. As always, she spoke to the audience candidly explaining that after her last performance on the Bushwig stage, where she had come out as HIV positive, she “spiraled out of control.” The performer entered a dark place and lost her job at the youth advocacy agency where she had been working. A year later, here she was, back again “healthier, literally heavier, with a new job” and a vengeance.
This performance was quintessential Lady Quesa’Dilla. She was funny and charming and joyous; she read from a book by her friend and mentor, queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz; she lip-synched to Sylvester, a queer musician who lost his life to HIV/AIDS; and, of course, she fed the children. The true highlight of the performance came after her monologue, however, when Lady Quesa’Dilla, gave up the spotlight to share the stage with her newly minted house of JEM.
The house of JEM, named after José Esteban Muñoz is comprised of kids from the agency that Quesa had been working at before her diagnosis. She introduced them all individually, asking them to share their favorite Lady Quesa’Dilla moment as they took the stage. “I had broken their hearts when I got fired from the other agency,” Quesa notes. So, to be on the Bushwig stage with them a year later “was like a full circle moment.”
From giving young queer kids a major platform to showcase their artistry to volunteering her time for Make the Road Happen Lady Quesa’Dilla constantly tries to use her drag as a vehicle for social justice, change, and giving back. “As much as we’re hustling to get our paying gigs, we also have to give back to the community,” she emphasizes when I ask her about activism in drag. She describes her own artistic approach to fighting oppression as “not so much of a calling out than a calling in.”
She expands, “I feel that as drag queens our work is a mirror to society that says ‘this is how we’re fucked up to one another.’ And in my work it’s like ‘this is how we’re fucked up to one another,’ but it’s a moment of calling in. So, what is it that we’re gonna do to support one another. And ultimately that’s what I hope that people get at my drag show: that they leave being like, ‘oh that was a fierce costume; that was a fierce lip-synch; those were some fucked up eyebrows,’ but, you know, that people also leave thinking ‘oh I need to sign up and do something for my community.’”
I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the House of JEM and what Lady Quesa’Dilla will bring us next Bushwig. But for now, she’ll keep monologuing, cackling, and dazzling her way to our hearts. Catch her tomorrow night, Septemtember 21, at Secret Project Robot in Brooklyn.