‘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
“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
Documentary footage explained, “Squatters came from the provinces and
formed an association. They said, we’ll build your house today and mine
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
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
“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
Another performer added, “Fifi should be honored by us. She’ll
always be close to our hearts for the wonderful way she treated
‘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
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
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
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
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
His father, working in the background, is asked, “What do you think of
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
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
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
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