Local filmmakers celebrate Pride Month with historical series

In celebration of Pride Month, local filmmakers have created a series called “Drag HERstories” to not only preview their upcoming LGBTQ documentary, but also to shine a light on an unspoken history of the Rio Grande Valley.

Co-directors Ronnie Garza and Gabriel Sanchez have been working on their documentary “Pansy Pachanga” for a little over two years. “Pansy Pachanga” covers about 50 years of LGBTQ history in the Valley.

“During that time, we’ve had the privilege to interview some really amazing people with incredible stories,” Sanchez said. “We’re editing the final cut of the film, it’s almost done, but in that process there’s so many other great stories that we’ve come across and we just wanted to start sharing them with people to get people a little excited for the final version of the movie.”

Garza filmed and edited the footage, while Sanchez researched the history and conducted the interviews for the documentary. Additionally, Charlie Vela, a music producer and co-director on Garza’s first documentary, “As I Walk Through the Valley,” also helped with interviews and editing.

Sanchez began the research during a workshop in 2014 to throw ideas around to prepare for Pride IN the Park, someone mentioned a presentation of the LGBTQ history in the Valley. Because nothing was done to document the history, Sanchez “took it upon (himself) to start interviewing people.”

“Initially, I didn’t think there would be much and I think that speaks to how little we grow up hearing about these stories or how little it’s been documented,” Sanchez said. “There’s this amazingly rich history of resilience, of activism and people who — by being visible and by taking risks — really laid the groundwork for future generations of queer and trans people in the Valley.”

First, Sanchez interviewed older people he knew, such as his gay uncle and someone involved with HIV and AIDS work in the Valley; in addition to asking those he interviewed for recommendations, Sanchez also searched through media like newspapers.

Garza and Vela approached Sanchez and sat down to discuss Sanchez’s work and understanding of the LGBTQ community at the time.

“We used that as sort of an outline on how to approach the documentary,” Sanchez said. “But I think in the process of filming the documentary we discovered so much more … so we were open to learning about more and we were able to flush out the history more.”

For June, which is Pride Month to commemorate the Stonewall riots (which occurred at the end of June 1969), Sanchez came up with the series “Drag HERstories” to highlight stories of people who helped shape the LGBTQ history in the Valley.
Johnny Ornelas aka JohnnyCat and Gabriel Sanchez at Johnny’s home. (Ronnie Garza | Special to The Monitor)

“‘HERstories’ is something that’s sometimes used in the queer community as a way of de-centering the maleness of the word ‘history,’” Sanchez explained regarding the series’ title. “For example, there’s the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York, sometimes people talk about trans herstory or drag herstory, so we just wanted to use that term.”

With two more entries left for the series, Garza said he plans to finish the documentary in the incoming months to be able to submit it for film festivals.

So far, the series has four shorts available to stream on Youtube and Facebook. The interviews include personal stories from Frank Mendez (Jacqui Fabiane), Mya Garcia (Mya More), Alyssa Cavazos (Takisha Mor’e) and Johnny Ornelas (JohnnyCat).

Activist and long-term AIDS survivor Frank Mendez, also known in drag as Jacqui Fabiane, fought for decades against HIV stigma and for visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in the Valley.

Mya Garcia, who is a Black transgender woman, tells the growth of a visible trans community in the Valley during the 1990s, as well as the struggles faced by trans teens at the time.

San Juan resident Alyssa Cavazos, a transgender woman, was one of the leading figures in the Valley’s drag scene from the ‘70s to the ‘90s. In drag, Cavazos is Takisha Mor’e. She was one of the first transgender people in the Valley to publicly discuss their transition in local media and was seen as a mentor and mother figure to many, including Jacqui Fabiane and Mya More.

Bringing their own Club Kid inspired style to the Valley and its LGBTQ nightlife in the early 2000s is Johnny Ornelas, known as JohnnyCat in drag, an androgynous performer who defied categorization. They speak of being branded as a “boy drag” performer, their role in helping grow the LGBTQ celebration “Splash” in South Padre Island, and their resistance from being put in a box when it comes to gender and performance.

Although Drag HERstories is related to drag, Garza said Pansy Pachanga also includes accounts of people who don’t do drag.

For example, another important figure in the documentary is Laurie Coffey.

Coffey was involved with the organization Valley Voice, a community response to HIV from the 80s and 90s that was responsible for the first Pride IN the Valley, and was involved with the Harlingen’s LGBT church: Mount Calvary Christian Church. Additionally, Coffey was also a drag king performer.

From left: Laurie Coffey, Charlie Vela, Gabriel Sanchez and Ronnie Garza at the McAllen Convention Center during Pride in the Park in 2018. This was the directors’ first day of filming Pansy Pachanga. (Elias Cantu | Special to The Monitor)

“Some of them could be movies all on their own, I feel, because the person just had so many interesting stories to tell,” Sanchez said.

Because the interviews run between one or two hours, according to Sanchez, the videos for the series were simplified enough to inform the community about important historical accounts from the interviewees, while not giving away too much from the documentary.

“When Gabriel wanted to do the series, we came to a compromise to do a fairly simplified version of what the movie is going to look like and not use too much B-roll and extra footage,” Garza said. “We’re almost done with the series, but I think it turned out really great.”

B-roll refers to extra footage that is intercut with the interviews to create a visual, along with music.

Through the different people they’ve interviewed, Sanchez said they collected and were able to create a huge archive of photos that showed the evolution of the LGBTQ community in the Valley over the course of the past several decades.

The directors said they received positive feedback from the community with the series. In addition to “Drag HERstories,” Garza said they put out three clips in last year’s Pride regarding HIV and AIDS in the Valley, the first drag show and the first gay bar, and on Valley Voice.

“Those times that we put out any material, I feel like the response has been super positive,” Garza said. “We’re excited to finish it up and let people see the full story because there’s a lot more to it.”

After they put out the first video of Drag HERstories on social media, Garza noted that people were reconnecting and said it was “interesting to see the community be able to come back together or have other points of contact through the stories we’re putting out.”

Although the directors are making the documentary for a general audience — to inform the community of the rich, vibrant and unique history in the Valley — Sanchez also discusses the importance of representation for LGBTQ members in the Valley.

“For queer and trans youth growing up in a place like the Valley, I think there’s so little representation and so little opportunity for people to see themselves in the stories they watch through media. It was really, really cool to hear from very young people,” Sanchez said. “Both when we showed them these HERstories through social media and also when we showed those clips at PRIDE, just how much of an impact it had on them to be able to see their own community’s history told and to know that there was a precedent for them, that they’re not the first or the only ones.”