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‘Butterflies on the Scaffold’

How La Güinera made room for more gender

Lavende & red, part 105

Published Jul 16, 2007 1:32 AM

“Butterflies on the Scaffold” (“Mariposas en el andamio”), a 1996 documentary, offered a profoundly thoughtful and moving account of how Cuban women construction workers literally made room for cross-dressing performance art in the workers’ cafeterias in their neighborhood on the outskirts of Havana, called La Güinera. The film was directed by Margaret Gilpin and Luis Felipe Bernaza.

Gilpin reported that the preliminary cut had to be shown 11 times at the Havana Film Festival in December 1995 to accommodate the crowds. In April 1996, the film won the best documentary and the popularity award at the lesbian and gay film festival at Turin.

The word “butterfly” (“mariposa”) refers to male-bodied Cubans whose femininity is either a part or the whole of their gender expression.

“Butterflies on the Scaffold” came out at the same time that a contingent of gay transgender Cubans were asked to lead the massive May Day march in Havana that year. Two U.S. queer-focused activist delegations were invited to join them in the procession—one from Bay Area Queers for Cuba, the other from New York’s Center for Cuban Studies.

Cuban women—”the revolution within the revolution”—built La Güinera from the ground up.

For 10 to 15 years after the 1959 revolution, La Güinera remained undeveloped. The land was in the shadow of a meat factory, surrounded by bushes and insects.

Documentary footage explained, “Squatters came from the provinces and formed an association. They said, we’ll build your house today and mine tomorrow.”

Women made up 70 percent of the construction brigades.

A local family doctor said to the interviewer, with pride, that by the time of this 1995 documentary, the local infant mortality rate was so low that only two babies had died in the neighborhood clinic.

‘We saw the show and we liked it’

Marisela, a young woman of African descent on the construction staff, recalled that cross-dressing performance artists “had a show in a private house. They invited the girls from the [workers’] dining room. We went, we saw the group, the show, and we liked it.”

One drag artist spoke from his home, the site of performances. “We used sheets for fabric, no sequins, nothing. The dressing room was in the bedroom and we acted here. When the show moved to the backyard we used this as our dressing room. We had more room and air for us and for the public. The public brought their own chairs. Marisela even brought a sofa! In the short time we worked in my backyard this was the headquarters, the cradle of cross-dressing in Havana. Hundreds of drag queens came through here who never thought they would do this work.”

The local security chief, on camera with his young daughter, expressed a backward view: “Personally, I don’t think these things should increase. On the contrary, I think they should diminish. Children go there and see a person who is a man in normal life or who goes around as a man and later they see him dressed as a woman. That child will want to experiment and that’s not what I want to see.

“Also, they charged admission for the parties they gave at home.” In fact, noted one party participant, the funds at one event were collected for the troops of the territorial militia—for the defense of Cuba.

The security police chief called off the drag shows. But in a workers’ state, that’s not the end of the story.

Marisela explained, “After the police stopped the parties there was no place for them to perform. In solidarity I began to collect protest letters and petitions. The only option was Fifi. To bring them here so everyone could see them. I was convinced they were good.”

Marisela was referring to the lead organizer of La Güinera’s construction brigade effort—Josefina Bocourt Díaz, affectionately known as “Fifi.”

‘Fifi should be honored by us’

The woman whose co-workers and neighbors call her “Fifi” is a Cuban of African descent. As a child, before the revolution, she had to start work at the age of 9. She explained, “I was one of the 70,000 maids that Cuba had before 1959. I couldn’t enjoy much of my childhood. Now I’ve had the opportunity to work on the development of La Güinera and I feel like a new woman.”

She narrated how her consciousness about transgender/homosexuality changed qualitatively while in a position of social leadership.

Fifi remembered, “Marisela and the others came to see me. ‘We want them in the cabaret. If you haven’t seen them you can’t object.’

“At first I rebelled,” Fifi said, recalling her arguments: “I’m an older woman. I wasn’t accustomed to running around with this ‘class of people.’ I said, ‘No, keep them away. I don’t want to hear about people who run around with a double façade.’ ... I said, ‘No, please, I can’t be around you guys. I wouldn’t be doing my duty to society. I’m too old for this stuff. I’ve never been involved in these things.’”

But Marisela persisted. She said, “Fifi, I saw a show. Fifi, they should start at once here in the workers’ cafeteria.”

One drag performer said of Fifi, “She opened a cabaret in the workers’ cafeteria and brought us into it. She made us face the ‘herds’ of public we were afraid to face. She reassured us. She said, ‘Do it, face them, you’ll see. Nothing will happen.’”

Another performer added, “Fifi should be honored by us. She’ll always be close to our hearts for the wonderful way she treated us.”

‘A right to live as they wish’

This documentary was made during the “special period” in which Cuba had lost virtually all its trade when the USSR was overturned.

The U.S.-led economic blockade of Cuba also impacts on every aspect of life on the island: Performers use acetate because eyelash glue is not available. They create eyelashes out of horse hair or cut from carbon paper. Their nails are glued on with a shoe adhesive.

“Butterflies on the Scaffold” is packed with footage of indoor and outdoor drag performances in front of an audience of virtually all their co-workers and neighbors, family and friends. People of all ages attend the drag performances, arriving early for a good seat, or climbing onto a tree limb for a last-minute seat.

The performers take their bows to cheers and ovations.

A local congressional representative says, “[T]hey’re giving the people something that others who aren’t like them don’t give.”

A construction worker agreed. “They’re the people who are giving this neighborhood a new level, a new character. Sometimes there’s nothing to do and no place to go.”

The performers play many other important roles in their community. They include a cook in a cafeteria for mechanics, a dentist, a baker, a dressmaker, a soldier just returned from an internationalist mission in Angola, a carpenter, a nurse, a horse trainer, a professor of Spanish literature and a professor of military topography.

These worker-sponsored drag shows in turn have been a fulcrum to lift consciousness about cross-dressing and male-bodied femininity and same-sex love. The process of change is apparent.

One young girl child of a cross-dressing performer, unequivocal and eloquent, told the interviewer: “I love my father with my life. I don’t want anyone to be disrespectful to him. He’s what he is. He wants to be that way, and he’s a person, and people have the right to live as they wish.”

A parent said, “I never deceived my kids. I tried to help them adapt to how things were, to how I felt—I never disguised myself as a ‘man’—to know me as I am, to accept my friends. They need their own lives. My world is my world. But I don’t want them to be estranged from who their father is and the work he does.”

The pain in some families was palpable. One mother said when she found out her son was gay, “I felt real bad. Like all mothers, one wants the best for your children. We know he chose a difficult path ... but in reality, it’s not out of this world. ... [H]e’s my son and I would give my life for him.”

A young man who says he is gay but not ready to do cross-dress performance said, “I have a fabulous family. They know all about me. They’ve known about me for 10 years and I’m not 27. My family is exquisite. Up to now I haven’t had problems. At first it was rough but once they realized it was my path, they accepted it and my friends, with their virtues and defects.”

His father, working in the background, is asked, “What do you think of your son?”

The father answers, “No one’s better. I couldn’t ask for a better son. I’m grateful and proud he’s my son. He’s a good kid. He hasn’t got any problems. He’s A-1. Better than me and I’m his father.”

After those words tumble out, the father and son hug each other.

The local doctor summed up, “The transvestite phenomenon marks a new era with perspectives for the union of humanity in love and mutual respect between human beings.”

Fifi stressed, “I think this type of work should go on all over the country, because of the respect, pride and responsibility with which they work. If the nation accepts these cultural workers, these workers for the society, as we did here in La Güinera, we’ll be successful as a nation.”

Fifi concluded, “I think that our kids will grow up according to what we teach them. We have to explain the variety of life-styles in the world. They have to choose among them. If our kids get used to seeing men in drag, they’ll see it as normal. We’ll explain what a transvestite is and that child will choose a path to which their education leads and we’ll create ‘the new man.’ Besides the new man will be brought up completely without any taboos!”

Next: 1990s: More and more progress in Cuba

To find out more about Cuba, read parts 86-104 of Lavender & Red at workers.org.

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org