Bolivia in drag

18 Jul, 2011 | Amaru Villanueva Rance

Social issues

A portrait of the familia Galan.

“What questions do you usually get asked in interviews?” is the last question I ask David Aruquipa. This is perhaps the best place to begin.

‘I get asked a lot of rubbish. They ask me about discrimination and exclusion, ‘When did you first realise you were like this?’, the usual everyday stuff they think should happen to you. What they expect should happen to “diverse” [he quotes/unquotes with his middle and index fingers] people’. They tire me.’

We'll return to this later. First, let’s rewind back to the beginning of the recording, where one would normally begin. Question beggingly, the first thing I ask David Aruquipa, is “What is your name”?

‘Politically it is Danna Galán. It is an acquired name, a name which I have constructed and which carries with it symbolic and political meanings. In emotional terms, it has greater value than my given name, or the name which has been imposed on me. David Aruquipa has other times and spaces. I have learnt to coexist with this name. David Aruquipa has become ‘the professional’, ‘the father’. Legally, he has become a civil servant, continually accumulating titles and diplomas which certify his existence.’ 

David Aruquipa is one of many ‘Galán’. In Spanish, ‘Galán’ means something like ladies’ man or seducer, but for the purposes of this article let's just say it's a surname. I saw the Galán Family years ago during one of their ‘outings’, marching down La Paz’s main avenue on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Their presence was almost theatrical, curiously androgynous, kitsch, demonic, extraterrestrial and verging on the monstrous. A few metres behind them, a group of spectators of all ages, sizes and backgrounds followed like a school of fish, too scared to come any closer but irresistibly drawn in waves towards the light shining off the sequins of their dresses. At almost seven foot tall, five or six drag queens serenely rose above the masses, leading them gently like pied pipers. They halted and offered themselves for closer inspection. The crowds drew sheepishly near and slowly began talking and touching, asking questions and taking photographs. I can imagine a peaceful arrival of aliens to earth looking a bit like this. 

In their manifesto the Familia Galan explain:

"Las Galán is formed by sub-groups of ‘transformistas’, transvestites, drag queens, androgynes, theorist groupies and followers". To the outsider, they appear to be predominantly a group of gay men who occasionally dress up as seven-foot tall colossi covered in latex, flowers, feathers and whatnot. Their membership includes a white-haired female academic and a straight librarian. There have also been innumerable groupies in their ranks. As Danna Galán/David Aruquipa tells me

"The Galán Family is like a colony of mushrooms which grows everywhere, we don’t know how many of us there are. You can experience diversity within the Familia. I think disobedience and transgression are what connect us. Subversion in any situation, be it gender-related or even aesthetic". I am curious as to what they gain by associating and what they have set out to achieve. People say that the Familia Galan has strategic plans and objectives. "What do we want to achieve? We don’t want to achieve anything whatsoever. We just want to be in the places we care to be in. If anyone is lucky enough to meet us then sure, let’s meet". What makes them a family? Many will protest that their claim to family-hood is vacuous, given that they share neither blood nor a legal bond. I ask David Aruquipa about this:

"We have appropriated the term ‘Familia’ in order to give it a meaning. We are not a consanguineous family, but we are a diverse family where one can find conflicts, fights, love, incest and everything you can imagine. It is a different family, but a family which exists by virtue of a number of people deciding to come together". The Familia Galán’s political message moves beyond individual claims to sexual freedom and becomes seditious to the basic unit upon which society is traditionally conceived to be based: the family. The cultural revolution they are spearheading stems from their appropriation of this term. ‘We have seized language in order to give it subversive and contradictory meanings.’ 

I am invited over to lunch at Danna Galán’s house so I can talk to some other people in the Familia. Paris Galán, one of the founding members of the group (and perhaps a spiritual mother to many of them), tells me in passing how she paraded at a sexual diversity march with her cousin’s baby in her arms. As if to say, ‘even a baby is part of the tapestry of sexual diversity’. Granted, it is not an association one would usually make but it seems legitimate enough. Over lunch, the group bitch about other drag-queen groups and emphasise how distant they are from the mainstream plight of what are sometimes seen to be ‘sexual minorities’.

David explains:

‘Being gay or lesbian are pre-packaged concepts which no-one believes, but which one takes on because you have to fit in to the ‘being gay’ menu, being a ‘good gay’. The same applies to discrimination and exclusion. As a ‘good gay’ I have to be discriminated and excluded in order to exist. If you’re not like this ‘you’re so weird’, you are not a ‘good gay’.

The mainstream of GLBT (the first three letters standing for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual, more on the fourth one later...) discourse in Bolivia has tended to focus on the usual topics: discrimination, exclusion, rights and respect. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things, but The Galán Family make them sound so passé. This brings us back to where we started, where David reminded me of the clichéd media coverage of gay issues. This applies as much in Bolivia as it does in the UK. Groups which build their discourse and presence around sexual identity are rarely given spaces in the press or television unless there is a political ‘rights’ component to the story. These groups are seldom featured aesthetically and at face value. David seems to be telling me that The Galán Family won’t gain the spotlight they are after until they cease to be viewed through this lens.

‘I don’t believe in exclusion and discrimination as concepts in themselves. By giving meaning to concepts such as these you are bringing them into life and adding strength to their existence. I believe that discrimination and exclusion are preconceived concepts, just as much as identities are.’ Perhaps it is this ideology which has caused The Galán to grow distant from a great part of the GLBTTT (the sophisticated TTT standing for Transsexual, Transvestite and Transgender) community. Over lunch, The Galán tell me (with perverse satisfaction) how they are seen by many of these groups as being frivolous, vain and ridiculous. The Galán Family have subverted the liberal boundaries of the (by now ‘traditional’ and mainstream) GLBTTT community. This has led the media to decreasingly equate The Galán with spokespersons for the gay or tranny community. David remembers: ‘After an incident, when someone threw a Molotov bomb at a gay rights parade -of which we weren’t part-, we were asked ‘what position do you have in relation to the gay community these days?’ They no longer asked us ‘how did you feel’, they asked us to comment on what had happened to them. People have realised that the Galán Family advocate a stronger discourse, from above.’ The Galán seem to tower above it all, both literally and metaphorically. They have come to inhabit more sophisticated spaces by becoming involved in cultural movements and abandoning ethical issues in favour of aesthetic frivolity and subversion. What do the Galán believe in, if anything at all? According to David: ‘We have a basic and simple discourse. We are everywhere and our politics stem from aesthetics and culture. […] It is a movement which has revolutionised and politicised sexuality and aesthetics in Bolivia. It has not done so by assuming a Trans identity within a gay or tranny ghetto.’

such a group would seem improbable in a country like Bolivia, usually associated with llamas, bowler hats, archaeological ruins and cocaine. Indeed, it is one of the poorest countries in the Latin American region and a large proportion of its population is indigenous or of indigenous descent. Understanding Bolivian society, and how it could give rise to the Galán Family requires an explanation which is more complex and subtle. Institutions in Bolivia would seem to be stacked against diversity. The oppressive influence of the Catholic Church in Bolivia has been ubiquitous since the Spanish invasion in the sixteenth century. In the twentieth century, the country was ruled by a series of violent military regimes which ended in the early 80s. On the other hand, Bolivia is all about diversity. The country’s territory extends from the frozen peaks of the Andes to the tropical heat of the Amazon. In evolutionary and demographic terms, this has given rise to a land where people look and sound very different across these regions. The deep historical roots of these differences have in turn given rise to myriad cultures, societies and nations.

Local folklore is flamboyant, rich and varied. Carnivals and festivals are among the few events where the country comes together to celebrate its diversity. These festivities take place both in urban and rural regions. Dressing up, dancing and getting really drunk have become an important part of Bolivian heritage in the twenty first century. Indeed, in a country where wearing flamboyant costumes for social events is part of everyday life, it is unsurprising that the Galán have blended so seamlessly into the urban landscape. It seems almost inevitable for a group such as the Galán to exist in a country which more than anything else can be characterised by its wealth of diversity. Like The Galán, Bolivians don’t share a common denominator and instead associate by virtue of a common history and territory. In their manifesto they declare:
We are not a UNITED group.
We have many DIFFERENCES.
We don’t aspire to THE SAME things.
We don’t seek UNITY.
The Familia Galán became prominent local celebrities a few years ago and were able to saturate the media with their mere presence. Initially they only appeared at sexual rights events and GLBTTT beauty pageants but they quickly grew bored of this circuit. All they had to do was walk out on to the streets of La Paz to attract the attention of most of the newspapers and television channels. They have even been asked to pose next to former Bolivian President Carlos Mesa.

Their activity is expansionary and relentless. They work by occupying urban and rural landscapes and claiming them as their own. Politically, their presence and imagery speak volumes and often consists of a trivialisation of Bolivian and Latin American iconography. As David explains: ‘We have taken claim over ‘politically correct’ spaces, over quotidian spaces. What makes the Galán Family different from other Trans groups around the world is our political presence, which has been subversive […] we have intermixed with ordinary people in order to provoke and subvert from the inside.’

The acts of posing next to pictures of Che Guevara; a Potosina beggar woman; ancient ruins; the Houses of Parliament; a Cathedral. These are all outdated icons of a country which can no longer be seen in terms of a socialist revolution, facile conceptions of poverty, an archaeological place of interest, a de jure government or a religious institution. The presence of the Familia Galán is enough to desecrate and defile any iconic platitude. In England, what they do would pass as conceptual art. This is not an accusation or a condemnation. For many, like me, this is a necessary and welcome process. Aesthetics trends in Bolivia need to move beyond the worn images in which they are rooted in order to discover new identities for the twenty first century. Many people (mainly earnest lefties, do-gooder tourists and local entrepreneurs) would disagree. There is money to be had from selling traditional Bolivian iconography to the world but people don’t realise that a great part of this Bolivian ‘reality’ is artificially being preserved in the name of commerce and tourism.

In short, the Galán Family are attempting to high-jack Bolivian heritage. La Paz would not be La Paz if it didn’t have the Galán Family. The Galán Family have become part of the urban landscape. We have started a project titled ‘We Are Heritage’. And they have indeed become heritage, or at least a familiar part of the local scenery. Understanding their cult status and historical significance, I feel privileged to be talking to these individuals.

Over lunch with the Galán, I start to wonder whether I could also be part of La Familia. Dressed in a white shirt, black pinstripe trousers and patent leather shoes, I feel I might stand a chance. After all, I could claim the formality of my attire is part of this world’s diversity, and that I am subverting by working from the ‘inside’. During the interview, David Aruquipa mentions

‘Do you want to be part of the Galán family? You can be, if you want to, any time you want.’

I am told by K-os Galán that I would need another name if I wanted to be part of The Family. I am informed ‘ISIS Galán’ has been taken, a testament to their reproductive success. Amidst an ocean of confused gendered pronouns, I begin to feel self-conscious about writing an article on sexual diversity when I consider myself to be pretty boringly mainstream. Maybe there’s no room for me here. Maybe everyone is just passing by. It’s spelt out clearly in their manifesto:

We’re not a home, we’re a brothel.


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