In transition

By Isabel Guzzardo

Mala Mala, directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles (90 mins)

Still from Mala Mala

Queen Bee Ho, one of the subjects of Mala Mala

In “Métele”, the main song on the soundtrack for the documentary Mala Mala, the duo Buscabulla compel the listener with a repeated, suggestive call to action: “Métele bellaco.” This expression from Puerto Rican slang can vary in meaning, depending on its context: it can mean “go hard,” “try your hardest,” or, its most literal definition, “engage in sexual acts.” In its imperative invitation to “give it your all,” the saying may be used to describe both the artistic efforts of the filmmakers, Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles, and the life experiences of the film’s subjects: transgender and transsexual individuals living in Puerto Rico, in perpetual movement so as to respond to the varied gazes cast upon them, in their private or public spheres.

The music video for “Métele”, also directed by Santini and Sickles, gives the viewer a good feel for Mala Mala’s subject matter as well as its “bellaco” aesthetics and style, as it displays transgender individuals not only on stage performing for an audience, but also dancing on a sidewalk in view of any passersby, and in a house, getting dressed and moving sensually for a close spectator. The film adopts the same approach to demonstrate how Puerto Rico’s trans community inhabits both public and domestic spaces, and from their stories we come to realise that the charge behind the gaze cast upon them can vary in each space, from admiration to admonishment.

The filmmakers’ gaze also varies, sometimes using a straightforward shot, in the style of a traditional talking-head documentary, and sometimes “le mete bellaco” by evoking desire: the camera slowly pans across the subjects’ bodies or closes up on glutes and high heels — as seen, for instance, in its multiple slow-motion montages of drag performances and the painstaking makeup and wardrobe preparation they entail. In turn, by creating this layered and multidimensional representation of the trans community, the film makes the viewer question the limited ways he or she may have gazed at this much-persecuted portion of society. To varying degrees, Mala Mala provokes empathy in the viewer by displaying how the trans community faces an array of struggles and has to “meterle bellaco” every day, merely to survive.

The film presents a distinctively twenty-first century vision of the transgender experience in Puerto Rico. But recognising the past efforts of this community on the island may help add context and expand the experience of watching the struggles of Mala Mala’s subjects. In the years following the Second World War, the increase in urbanisation and migration made queer individuals become more visible in Puerto Rico’s urban spaces, although they congregated mostly in secret. In this manner, gay culture in Puerto Rico developed alongside the discourse of modernisation, where the constant travel of Puerto Ricans to and from the United States was an influential element. Of course, they faced serious challenges throughout, such as pathologising discourses and Christian fundamentalism. Nevertheless, in the late 1960s there was a burgeoning, thriving queer culture, palpable in the bars and clubs of Viejo San Juan, and eventually in San Juan’s Condado, Río Piedras, and Santurce neighbourhoods as well.

From the 1990s onward, the true explosion of Puerto Rican queer discourses occurred: the queer community was finally visible and present within society. This was also the moment in which queer Puerto Ricans began to have a presence in academia (for example, in the emergence of the field of queer Puerto Rican studies) and representation in cultural production, most notably in literature, theatre, and film.

Mala Mala inserts itself into this tradition, but also introduces an innovation in its representative agenda: although much ground has been gained, it shows that homophobia and sexism still permeate the island, leaving little room for a deeper understanding of the manifold identities that populate the queer spectrum. The film makes clear the heteronormativity and sexism of Puerto Rico’s nationalist discourses.

The narrative follows nine transsexual or transgender individuals, each with vastly different opinions and experiences, forming a group that is far from homogenous. For instance, April, Queen Bee Ho, and Alberic are part of a drag house and perform on stage. Soraya, the oldest of the group, is somewhat critical of the type of gender performance that occurs in drag, declaring that “One thing is for you to feel you are a woman, another thing is for you to feel you are a beauty queen,” and explaining that she is not a transsexual, but someone who suffers from gender dysphoria. Sandy and Sophia, on the other hand, take hormones and have had medical procedures, but have not removed their penises. Sandy has not completed her transition because her penis is essential for her job as a sex worker, although she plans to go through surgery when she retires. Sophia, however, says, “If [society] wasn’t so black and white, I probably wouldn’t have had surgery.” She did it in order to fulfill her wish to “pass.”

Paxx, the only transman in the film, has a similar wish. He admits he has a recurring dream, where he is shirtless and “no one is looking at me twice, because they are not guessing what the fuck I am.” Since access to testosterone and surgery is extremely difficult or even impossible in Puerto Rico, he is satisfied with not following “a binary way of life.”

This series of stories brings the complexities tackled by Mala Mala into full relief. Each individual has a different perspective about what it means to be transgender or transsexual, and what terms are appropriate to refer to their way of life. This diversity is not limited to their visions of themselves, however. Each member of this heterogeneous group faces many different types of struggle: negative effects from black market hormone therapy, lack of access to hormones or surgery, or being seen solely as a sex symbol. Currently, it is quite challenging in Puerto Rico for a transgender person to acquire agency over their sexuality: access to hormones is difficult because there are few professionals with the required training to distribute them, and because medical plans rarely cover this treatment; sex change operations are not available on the island; and it is very difficult to change one’s sex in legal documents (for instance, the person must show evidence that he or she has undergone a sex change).

After hearing many of the devastating tales presented in the film, these expressions of pain reach their peak in a scene in which Sandy, who cannot get out of prostitution, is travelling the streets of Santurce with a sombre look. The lights of neon signs, police cars, and ambulances reflected on her face suggest her binding ties to the streets. The affect and power of the scene is undeniable.

Sandy and the other members of this community are not victimised by the film, however, or by themselves. Ivana, a public figure who often represents the trans community in the media, is shown handing out condoms at night to promote safe sex. She is also the founder of the Butterflies Trans Foundation, a civil rights group that, as we see in the film, fights for the adoption of a law to prohibit employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In one scene, some of the members are at a public hearing for the bill. At a certain point two priests explain that the practices of the LGBTTQ community go against divine creation, and that this bill makes homosexuality seem like a normal behaviour. This conservative and fundamentalist movement presents one of the main challenges for the queer community in Puerto Rico. Nonetheless, they organise a march to claim their rights, and two days later the law passes. Several of Mala Mala’s subjects participate in the march, the camera catching their euphoria through images of smiles, embraces, and celebration.

In spite of these emotive low and high points, Mala Mala does not present its argument about the travails of the transgender community in Puerto Rico in a straightforward manner. The film jumps between the different experiences of each transgender person seemingly at random, without forming any single, coherent message. One could argue that this chaotic form and lack of narrative arc fit the film’s subject matter: there is no simple, digestible, sanitised way to represent all these vast experiences. The march scene is where the film most successfully ties its diverse stories together, demonstrating that political battles do not require people to come together under one homogenous identity or experience. Nonetheless, Mala Mala lacks the feeling of urgency present in other documentaries. By opting for a less scattered and more delineated style, the film might have better persuaded its viewer of the imperative needs of this community.

Yet an interesting aspect of the film’s structure is the way it oscillates between seemingly candid moments and purposefully staged ones. On the one hand, the participants are always refreshingly honest about their thoughts, struggles, and experiences. On the other, moments which are clearly fabricated by the filmmakers offer the most iconic scenes: Ivana bathing naked in a waterfall, Alberic with a bright smile surrounded by bubbles in a bathtub, and Sophia (who had previously expressed her unease with her reflection) singing in front of a mirror with a dildo as her microphone. This play between honesty and fabrication in the film’s techniques makes the viewer reflect on the nature of identities themselves, and on the degree of “honesty” and “fabrication” they necessarily entail.

Another layer of complexity comes through the film’s general sense of migration and movement. Some of the participants are Puerto Ricans who travel to the US; one is an American immigrant on the island; and Ivana, as she herself explains, is Puerto Rican but “made in Ecuador” — the place where she underwent sex reassignment surgery. Likewise, in their interviews the participants often code-switch between English and Spanish. The filming moves between locations such as their own houses, the city streets, nightclubs, parks, and beaches. Many scenes even take place while the subjects are in motion, in cars or on bikes. One must also consider the central location of the film, Puerto Rico: a country whose diffuse political status of “free associated state” keeps it in permanent transition. All these elements reinforce this community’s transformative power: they change their bodies and appearance to best fit the way they are. As we watch the documentary, however, we realise that this practice is not limited to the trans community: all of us are always constructing our identities in different ways, in a constant state of transition.

Mala Mala is an amazing feat, capturing through beautiful, accomplished cinematography a number of incredibly resourceful subjects who, in the face of discrimination and abuse, continue to express their particular identities. From this diverse group, the infinite possibilities that exist outside binary constructs become evident. As Sophia says: “Life is empty and meaningless. But in that space what’s left is possibility.” I would add that, when society tries to shut down those possibilities, one simply has to “meterle bellaco.”


The Caribbean Review of Books, September 2016

Isabel Guzzardo was born in Puerto Rico. She completed her BA in English literature and gender studies at the University of Puerto Rico. She is currently undertaking an MA in English literature with a focus on the Anglophone Caribbean at UPR. Her main interests include gender and postcolonial studies. She has presented her scholarship on Caribbean literature and culture at international conferences in Puerto Rico, Ghana, and Brazil.