The lip sync is nearly excruciating to watch: Valentina, the breakout star of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9, is up for elimination — and she’s hiding her mouth beneath a mask. Her opponent, Nina Bo’Nina Brown, is seemingly resigned to her fate, the usually captivating queen working her way through a lackluster performance. But a few seconds after Ariana Grande’s “Greedy,” begins to play, RuPaul asks the producers to stop the music. Valentina’s eyes are wide and desperate.
“This is a lip sync for your life — we need to see your lips. Take that thing off of your mouth,” RuPaul says.
Valentina, outrageously, declines. “I’d like to keep it on, please.”
RuPaul firmly reminds Valentina that the purpose of the lip sync is to see the performer’s lips. They stand off, and Valentina finally concedes. After she removes her mask, it becomes clear that the usually prepared and charming Valentina does not know the words to the song, a major disgrace in the world of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Her bombshell elimination goes down as one of the biggest upsets in the show’s history.
The show's first first-generation Mexican queen, who centered her immigrant identity and treated herself as nothing less than a superstar, had lost spectacularly in front of the world.
For many of us Latinx fans of the show, there was a sharp sense of loss at Valentina’s exit — her unapologetic Latinidad made her presence feel extra defiant and joyful in a political moment marked by grief and anxiety over DACA threats, ICE raids, the border wall, virulent racism, and anti-gay hatred targeting Latinxs, and especially Latinx queer people. The show's first first-generation Mexican queen, who centered her immigrant identity and treated herself as nothing less than a superstar, had lost spectacularly in front of the world.
But before her elimination, Valentina’s run revealed some ugly truths about the social world of RuPaul’s Drag Race — the abuse, anti-blackness, and anti-trans prejudice the fandom continues to struggle with; the illegibility, rarity, and threat of Latinx excellence on mainstream television; the tenuousness of racial and ethnic solidarity between queens of color and their fans; and the show’s double standard concerning who gets to define themselves as exceptional.
RuPaul’s Drag Race, often held up as an example of positive mainstream queer and racially diverse representation, has also inadvertently created an insider and outsider culture. Trans women, black queens, Asian queens, and big queens have all struggled with the show’s implicit bias, and Latin queens — specifically those with strong accents or those who speak English as a second language — are no exception.
RPDR’s otherwise groundbreaking inclusion of Puerto Rican queens, a nod to Latinx influence in drag ball culture, has not always been particularly sensitive. The so-called “Latin Queen edit” tends to show Boricua queens set to stereotypical salsa music at their loudest and most incomprehensible, opting for gags highlighting the language barrier, or moments when it becomes obvious that their cultural touch points don’t line up with the show’s American sensibilities. For example, Nina Flowers was eliminated from All Stars Season 1 for portraying La Lupe, which RuPaul warned would go over viewers’ heads. (Jinkx Monsoon, on the other hand, was praised for making a similarly risky choice with Little Edie.) Lineysha Sparx, one of the only Afro-Latinx queens to compete on the show, was similarly eliminated for portraying Celia Cruz in Season 5’s "Snatch Game."
While their performances were not necessarily up to par with the other queens, the issue of celebrity impersonation for Latinx queens highlights the conundrum they face when making their "Snatch Game" choices: Impersonate a Latinx star no one will recognize, or fail to capture an American star on the basis of language and culture? Kenya Michaels’ depiction of Beyoncé on Season 4’s "Snatch Game," while crude, is an example of this conundrum. Her heavily accented English and interpretation of humor led to her elimination, after which she was subjected to a hamfisted “English translation” by Charo in the Season 4 reunion.
Drag Race has also often failed to represent Latinx culture beyond stereotypes and caricature. Season 5’s telenovela challenge in Episode 9 proved to be more an exercise in acting out racist stereotypes than succeeding at capturing the camp and humor of telenovela drama. The episode’s runway added insult to injury, when contestant Detox emerged in a pink mariachi suit and emitted totally meaningless approximations of mariachi gritos.
This is not to say that the show hasn’t allowed queens of color to succeed. Nina Flowers, BeBe Zahara Benet, Jujubee, Tyra, Raja, Alexis Mateo, and Yara Sofia were top queens of color in the early days of the show, and more recent standouts such as Bob the Drag Queen, Kim Chi, Adore Delano, and Bianca Del Rio still earn its top honors. Performativity and irreverence around taboo subjects such as gender and sexuality are historically part of the fun and craft of drag, and make the show accessible to mainstream audiences. But cultural factors, such as the race, education, and class privilege of the contestants, as well as cultural legibility and erasure, are beginning to shape the show into a space that can be hostile to a certain type of racialized outsider — a space both Nina Bo’Nina Brown and Valentina found themselves in during Season 9.
Valentina, 26, raised as James Andrew Leyva in Bell, a 90% working-class Latinx city in Southeast Los Angeles, had only been performing professionally in drag for 10 months when she joined the show. She introduced herself to the world in a beatnik ensemble, and described her drag as “very dramatic, very theatrical, and always very Latina.”
A particular feeling of loss and mourning can define certain aspects of the first-generation immigrant condition — the more assimilated you become, the more the culture and language that created and shapes you slips away. To survive the daily lived effects of cultural alienation, a middle identity emerges, one too “American” to connect to the origin country and too “Other” to connect to “Americanness.”
So when Valentina stepped onto her first runway in a mariachi charro suit in front of guest judge Lady Gaga and said with a wink and smile, “I’m Valentina; I’m from East LA, and I’m repping Mariachi Plaza,” she was doing something much more radical than showing where she was from and what she was about. Her visibility in that moment as an unapologetically Mexican-American contender gave her audience a nationally televised moment to see Latinx culture represented as a thing of beauty, desire, and pride. But most stirringly, we saw her proudly represent East LA, the historically Latinx side of town, in a look that called back to Boyle Heights’ Mariachi Plaza — a neighborhood currently under siege in the fight against gentrification — on a show shot in and shaped by West Hollywood, home to wealthy and mostly white gay men.
From her first look representing her hometown to her Maria Felix tribute look in Episode 5, Valentina showed that she was unafraid to draw inspiration from deep cuts in vintage Latin-American culture. Valentina’s representation of vintage Latina icons from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s thrilled fans who clocked her references. Her dramatic clumped lashes paid homage to singer-actresses of the ’80s, like Verónica Castro and Lucía Méndez; her brushed curls recalled elegant Spanish balladeer Rocío Dúrcal; her morena glamor and big smile echoed telenovela actor and ex-Timbiriche pop group member Bibi Gaytán; her waist-length mane evoked famously long-haired singer Daniela Romo, all powerful divas the anglophone RuPaul's Drag Race fandom scarcely knows. For people raised watching Telemundo and Univision with our abuelas, or reading ¡Hola! or Vanidades, her looks were emotional moments of validation and visibility in a climate where queer Latin culture is erased and disappearing.
One of these moments occurred in Episode 5. Valentina brought icon Maria Felix to life on the faux-fur-themed runway. This look was all about elegance and drama, her hair brushed back to emphasize an extravagant serpent necklace, seemingly modeled after the Cartier necklace worn by Felix, the legendary Mexican Golden Age actress of the ’50s and ’60s. Felix’s mythic beauty is preceded only by her reputation as a fierce, enigmatic diva who had the audacity to turn down anything that did not meet her impossibly high standards, including Diego Rivera, Hollywood, and its smitten American (white) leading men.
But a fan-favorite look — Valentina’s wedding gown for the “White Party” challenge, a portrayal of a traditional Catholic Latina bride inspired by her mother’s wedding video, complete with the elaborate floral peinetas and the mantilla veil — spurred a moment of emotional recognition in Latinx fans. There was no spitfire here, no spicy Latina, no criminal or maid or uneducated immigrant as the butt of a language barrier joke. She emerged as a frontrunner performing a Latinidad other Latinxs could recognize.
On the basis of her performance as a contestant, Valentina was second only to Chicago’s indomitable Shea Couleé, having never landed in the bottom two — until of course, the night she was eliminated.
RuPaul has said that the show is successful and accessible to all because it is more than a reality competition: It’s about the tenacity of the human spirit. The show’s success has garnered the host two Emmy awards. Queens reveal vulnerable details about themselves and their personal struggles, from abuse to drug addiction to living with HIV, and watching them emerge triumphant from the pain of the past is not only great television, it’s an inspiration to millions of fans coping with their own struggles.
Often, RuPaul diagnoses the queens’ issues as their “inner saboteur,” a voice of self-doubt that prevents them from reaching their full potential. This idea stems from RuPaul’s own brand of new-age spirituality mixed with a pro-capitalist-bootstraps message, which he talks about at length on his podcast What’s the Tee? By trying to help the queens transcend that which holds them back, however, he can sometimes end up discounting the daily realities of systemic oppression, mental illness, and trauma. While a queen overcoming a confidence issue makes for great television, deeper, more serious battles with long-term mental health issues don’t always translate well to the screen.
While a queen overcoming a confidence issue makes for great television, deeper, more serious battles with long-term mental health issues don’t always translate well to the screen.
This all came to a head in Season 9. While Nina Bo’Nina Brown openly grappled with paranoia and depression, much to contestants’ frustration, Valentina seemed unflappable, immune to other contestants’ criticisms and mind games, exhibiting the kind of mental strength, even delusion, that RuPaul seems to champion as the mindset necessary for success. Focused, confident, and positive, she garnered the judges’ consistent praise, creating tension between herself and the other contestants. As we watched the competition and its social pressures slowly get to Nina, one kind of outsider, we could not see it get to another — Valentina.
But there were clues that it had. In Episode 2, Valentina earnestly reveals to Aja that she prays to a Virgen de Guadalupe candle, calling the indigenous Mexican virgin figure her drag mother. The response in the room is chilly — we see several queens’ baffled reaction, and then the episode cuts to white alpha queen Trinity Taylor’s commentary, “You crazy, bitch! That is some crazy shit.” Cue the Latin Queen edit: “kooky” mariachi-style music played over the interaction, highlighting the very early moment in the season that Valentina is inscribed as Other by her peers for her cultural practices, in the very same episode in which she is picked last for the cheerleading team group challenge.
As the season progressed, the jealousy toward Valentina seemed to intensify. When Valentina is compared to Linda Evangelista by the judges, Aja’s apparent jealousy gets the best of her when she “aggressively compliments” Valentina (a takedown now made famous in meme culture) on Untucked, the behind-the-scenes show filmed between the main runway challenge and the final judgment of the night. Valentina does not retaliate, but rather continues to focus on her own performance and do her best — a choice that will later be criticized as cold by her fellow contestants.
In Valentina's final episode, the infamous “Your Pilot’s on Fire,” we see Valentina and Nina, the show’s outcasts, get paired by default after the other contestants quickly pick their teams for the television pilot challenge and ice them out. As a result, they both seem quiet and down throughout the pilot planning. Valentina’s usual preparation and perfectionism are nowhere to be found, as she goes along with Nina’s suggestions and trusts that everything will be okay. Viewers on social media reduced her behavior to laziness, but there’s a chance something else might have been up.
The two eke out a disastrous pilot, and can’t even watch their footage when it’s played for the judges on the runway. Valentina pulls together a beautiful Lupe Vélez–inspired matador look for the club kid couture runway theme, and while it succeeds in originality as a high-fashion piece, it fails to find a cultural touch point with the judges, who prefer to see more literal interpretations of the ’90s NYC subculture. It is here that we see the Latin queen double standard count against Valentina: While she is required to be extra-fluent in the show’s American pop culture references, the show and its viewers do not have to be accepting or even aware of hers.
While Valentina is required to be extra-fluent in the show’s American pop culture references, the show and its viewers do not have to be accepting or even aware of hers.
After the critiques, Valentina was despondent backstage on Untucked. The Valentina who coached Farrah before her lip sync to be “that bitch” a few episodes ago was gone, replaced by a blank stare. Previously on Untucked, Valentina often took on the role of mediator and empath, coaching others to bring their best in the lip sync, and advocated for others when they could not do it themselves, such as when she stood up for Nina Bo’Nina Brown in Untucked’s Episode 5. In return, no queens reciprocated Valentina’s care in the tender moments before her lip sync, except for Nina. Minutes before the final judgment, Valentina and Nina shared the iPod to review the song they’d have to perform, and Valentina stared at her hands in what I perceive as susto or ataque de nervios — a state of shock, isolation, and humiliation — ungenerously recharacterized by Shea Couleé in the reunion as Valentina “straight chillin’” instead of memorizing the words. (Fans have speculated that Valentina wrote her goodbye note to Kimora Blac on her copy of the lyrics, or that the songs were switched at the last minute for promotional reasons, giving the contestants very little time to memorize the song. Neither theory has been confirmed.)
The lip sync was nearly nightmarish in its unfolding: Fans watched the usually flawless and self-assured Valentina implode into a black hole of unpredictable failure and despair.
The “sashay away” send-off to the departing queen is often a generous celebration of what she brought to the competition. Instead, after RuPaul announced Nina as the default winner, she showed her disappointment: “Valentina. I thought you had the stuff to go all the way.”
Valentina’s tears into the closest set of curtains behind the stage on the Untucked episode revealed a tenderness about her that struck a chord with fans. In voiceover she said, through tears, “I’m so humiliated tonight — I want to be here so bad and I don’t want to go.”
Valentina’s charm, polish, beauty, and talent were supposed to take her all the way. She was given a winner's edit before her elimination, which caused fans to connect with and invest in her. Frontrunners with those qualities don’t usually sashay away on the first lip sync — they fight for their spot and put on an amazing show doing it. At the very least, RuPaul will give the first-time-on-the-bottom queen a second chance. What on earth could possibly have happened?
Latinx queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz theorized in his article “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down” that the minority affect is always partially illegible in white contexts, especially in popular media. American notions of bootstraps industriousness, therapy, and self-help cannot produce a “well-adjusted” minority subject because they address a default, white experience, and the lived experience of people of color, specifically queer Latinxs, is constructed from a different set of cultural and racial experiences with different social rules. For minorities, especially those separated by language, well-being is relational and social. There is not necessarily an “inner saboteur”— the saboteur is, instead, white supremacy and its ways of looking at the racialized body and its “failure” to produce in a capitalist system. Modern psychological apparatuses cannot adequately diagnose or treat minority depression or anxiety because treatment is based on a default subject as the white subject.
Valentina’s first-generation immigrant “smile through it” attitude could not save her from reliving the alienation of the Latinx experience on the show. Her previous dedication, hard work, and excellence would not save her from being called “lazy” after her elimination, or protect her from fan jokes about how she was “deported” from the show “in an ICE van.” And so Valentina could not bear to fail inside the dream everyone was watching.
I refer to Muñoz because RuPaul’s Drag Race has deployed some of his ideas of a “queer utopia” through aesthetics and performance. Drag Race dares to show bodies embodying resistance, while humanizing and making visible the daily lived experiences of queer people of color, one of the most marginalized groups in the US. While flawed, the show has created and shown what spaces of care, community, and reparative narratives can look like. It opens up space within pop culture, and thus the more intimate spaces of home, for fans to more rigorously contend with issues of gender, sexuality, trauma, race, and class.
This was particularly true in Season 9 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, a season of long overdue firsts. The show migrated to VH1, widening its ever-growing audience. This season also saw Peppermint, the first out trans woman to compete and ascend to top finishing status, nearly earn the crown. This is also the first season since the Pulse shooting of 2016, filmed only a short two months after the tragedy, and the first to air since Trump’s inauguration.
Drag Race dares to humanize and make visible the daily lived experiences of queer people of color, one of the most marginalized groups in the US.
But if Season 9 was a season of firsts, it was also a season of missed opportunities. Shea Couleé embodied Black Excellence by winning four challenges, a feat accomplished only by two past winners, Sharon Needles and Alaska Thunderfuck. Peppermint dazzled with some of the most inspired lip syncs in the history of the show. Yet both lost to white drag queen Sasha Velour in the lip sync battle royale finale on June 23. In a polarized political climate, many fans were hungry for a marginalized queen to sweep the competition. Instead, Sasha Velour, a white NYC avant garde queen, emerged victorious. While Velour is a widely beloved queen with wit and heart and some successful looks, she ascended to victory with what I thought were rather safe interpretations of “punk,” “edgy,” and “artsy” drag we’ve seen repackaged by “different” and “smart” white queens season after season.
A few weeks after we saw her sashay away, Season 9’s reunion episode saw Valentina reframed by the other queens as the season’s secret villain. It was filmed after the finale, but aired the week before, and tensions were high; Valentina, attempting to be gracious and fun, was put on trial by the other contestants, who seemed to want to reveal who Valentina “really was” to adoring fans.
They came for her several times — for not learning the words to the song, for being focused on herself, for being overconfident, and distant with other queens. Sasha revealed at the reunion that Valentina’s charm was frustrating to the queens because she was “not really making an attempt to really get to know” them early in the show, although she would try later. But her self-separatism could be read as culturally indicated — Latinxs and Mexican-Americans are often pushed so far into the margins that touch points with other groups are separated not just by culture, but by language and class. (For example, Farrah Moan has to explain to Valentina why the Kardashians are famous before the musical challenge.)
It would seem Valentina could not win with the queens — if she wasn’t being criticized for her ambition and focus, she was criticized for not working hard enough to learn a song with a “seven-word chorus.” Valentina’s attempts to answer Ru’s questions or defend herself from the queens’ onslaught of criticisms were read as overly aggressive. Her major failing, however, was in her duty to her sisters and fellow contestants as a friend: Why hadn’t she denounced her fans’ social media abuse of the other contestants?
These fans’ abuses were significant — complicating what was, on the show, jealousy and tension between contestants and elevating that tension to the level of international stan wars, with very real, newly famous people at the center of it. Peppermint, Nina Bo’Nina Brown, and Alexis Michelle received the brunt of fans’ abuse on Twitter and Instagram. Peppermint endured anti-trans slurs, while Shea and Nina Bo’Nina Brown clapped back at racist comments and tweets from Valentina fans. Alexis Michelle suffered fat-shaming and anti-Semitic bullying, the worst of it being calls for her to kill herself. Some of Valentina’s fans, in defending her, had done more to tarnish her image and that of Latinx visibility in the media than they had done to uplift it.
As her excuse for not defending the other queens, Valentina offered a weak response, saying, “I’m really bad with social media; I kind of love to just go about my daily life,” to which top-four Shea Couleé responded, “Girl, you can say you’re not on social media. ... Whether you were reading the comments verbatim or not, you knew what was going on,” even going so far as to mock Valentina’s voice: “‘Shea, I just want to say, if anyone comes for Nina, I told her that I will stand up for her. I will address my fans, and I will make it all right.’” Valentina’s attempts to keep her image clean on social media would inevitably taint it in the reunion’s aftermath, despite the fact that some proof has since surfaced that Valentina did address her fans’ hateful behavior before the show began on Trinity’s Instagram story as early as March (though not on her own social media accounts, meaning much of Valentina’s fanbase likely missed the message).
Her attempts to remedy the situation after the reunion have spectacularly backfired. In one, she asked fans to bombard the girls with red rose emojis on Instagram to show them that they are not “hateful.” This attempt to make amends did more harm than good, as emoji bombing is largely considered to be a kind of social media terrorism, the likes of which Taylor Swift and Rachel Roy have been victims of with the snake and bee emojis, respectively.
Valentina’s hands-off approach to her fans’ bullying while trying to maintain a positive, rise-above-it social media presence revealed her shortcomings. She owned not knowing the lip-sync song, and allowed the queens to scoff and critique her. One thing, however, she was immovable on: She was a superstar. And like a superstar, she seemed to consider much of the criticism to be beneath her. She may have been so bound to her own expectations of perfection that she was careless in how she responded to the other queens’ critiques, particularly Shea and Farrah Moan’s. When pressed on her silence regarding the social media bullying, Valentina finally had to admit that she was human and trying to process her own elimination, and overwhelmed by the complicating factor social media posed in that emotional process. The queens were generous to Valentina’s moment of vulnerability, but hackles again went up when Valentina’s mask went back on. While she had arrived at the reunion to redeem her errors and again turn on the charm, her fellow contestants would continue to chip away at the facade, even in the moments after she’d received the Miss Congeniality award.
Valentina has since provided context for some of what she was going through during the lip sync, saying in a post-elimination interview with Vulture on May 19, “I was in a daze. I had a real cloud of negativity hanging over me. I was trying to present myself as strong, but inside I was just torn. … When the day came, I couldn’t snap out of it. What I really needed at the time was a friend, just one person who knew me and loved me. But I didn’t have that. I couldn’t channel my strength. … I wish I could go back and slap myself and say, ‘This is the time to prove yourself, girl! You’re a drag queen! Wake up!’ Not knowing the song, I felt like I’d already lost. If I’d just ran with it and done my best to shalabalaba tuna my way through it, maybe things would have been different. All I can do now is accept what happened and move forward with my career.”
Part of fans’ frustration with Valentina is that learning the song was a maddeningly easy thing to do, and was required not only for the show but for the integrity of her craft. She had every resource available to her, and inconceivably did not do the work when she had proved herself to be otherwise exceptional.
Or, at least, she considered herself to be exceptional — a radical act in a world that denies Latinx people the space to see themselves that way, which was another part of the problem. While many queens have compared themselves to celebrity divas in the past and insisted they were superstars waiting to be discovered, Valentina’s audacity to define herself as such was read as arrogant and egotistical. Social media is still buzzing with post-show drama attempting to expose her “true nature” and unsettle her fan-favorite status. The consistently nonconfrontational Valentina found herself hemmed in by two possible narratives, both of which she refused: that of the true villain of Season 9 (which upon rewatching seems, to me, unlikely — at least from what we’ve seen after edits, she never engaged in Phi-Phi-esque sabotage or disrespect), or the undeserving teacher’s pet who failed to be vulnerable in the ways fan favorites in the RPDR universe are expected to be.
Valentina, when asked by RuPaul in the reunion why she thought her fans reacted so viciously toward the other girls, said, “My following is very underrepresented in the media. I represent something similar to what Selena represented in the ’90s — Chicano, Mexican, first-generation, talented — so they’re overprotective of that, and they’ll fight anybody.” She has since been criticized for her arrogance in comparing herself to the legendary Selena, but I don’t see it quite that way — rather, Valentina was commenting on the scarcity and rarity of Mexican-American and Latinx-centered representation in the media.
Animosity toward Valentina, not just from her peers, but from RPDR alumni and fans, can be attributed to the fact that veterans and insiders tend to look askance at contestants without club experience who gain entry into the show for other talents. The massive popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race has commodified and, some say, even straight-washed drag (as evidenced by its move to VH1), creating an expanded drag community with little or no connection to the history or traditions of the art form. As RuPaul has said of younger queens on the show such as Violet Chachki, some queens learn their craft on the internet, or through media and television. Valentina admitting that she’d only been doing drag professionally for 10 months, and having no drag mother or roots in a scene, seemed to count against her more than it ever has for other queens, who come from comedy, theater, makeup, and costume backgrounds, or do drag as an avocation. Still, it must be said that club experience develops lip sync and performance talent, and could have prepared Valentina for her “last chance to impress” Ru and saved her from her maddening rookie mistake.
In a June interview in The Playlist, RuPaul saw Valentina’s excruciating lip sync as her having “hit the wall.” She says of the young star, “In her audition I was so charmed by her, and I could tell she was smart, she was very talented, and she’s a quick study. But in her challenge, she got lazy with Nina Bo’Nina and they didn’t do the work ... and she hit a wall. … I really did think she was going to go all the way, because she’s smart and very, very talented. But this is where it’s important for our girls to have gone through the club system and the showgirl system.”
All of this, however, has little bearing in a drag world designed for the televised stage, with millions of fans interacting online about the show and its stars. The queens, rather than engaging with the art of drag on a local level, are thrown into the public sphere as celebrities and spokespeople very early in their career, and some come equipped to handle that level of celebrity better than others.
Valentina’s status as Season 9 fan favorite, along with her controversial elimination, has cast her into the public eye as a hot commodity. Since her exit, she has had no trouble booking a stage, and selling out shows and appearances across the country and abroad. On the day the finale aired, Vogue released a video tutorial titled, “How Valentina From RuPaul’s Drag Race Becomes Fabulous,” a redemptive résumé line after the previous week’s reunion.
Her YouTube catalog of club performances has also exploded. Valentina’s premature elimination stoked her fans’ adoration, generating numerous magazine profiles, interviews, videos, and recap analyses. She even landed a featured interview on Latin-American giant Telemundo after her elimination, whose journalists described her as “el orgullo Latino,” or the pride of the Latinx people. Many fans are already calling for her casting in Rupaul’s Drag Race All Stars Season 3, a privilege many contestants don’t have after the show, even after triumphant final lip-sync performances. She's also since publicly made up with other queens from Season 9, like Aja. While Valentina’s post-show career has weathered a few bumps and she has proved she has a lot still left to learn, her youth, work ethic, charm, and focus give her plenty of runway to take off again. Although her elimination will forever go down as a not only gag-worthy but also symbolic moment in the history of Drag Race, it also provides room for strength and redemption — a story fans can look forward to seeing once Valentina grows into her craft.
Because, despite her missteps, she still has a fanbase that’s rooting for her, flaws and all. And that’s largely because she is a rare and proud reminder that Latinx culture exists and thrives, despite the powers that would erase us. Her drag is a performance of emotional memory, a radical embrace of femme, queer Latinidad in one of the most terrifying political moments for femmes, queer people, and Latinxs. She unabashedly summons our mothers into queer spaces in celebration of Latinx culture, refusing to assimilate her work to the relentless onslaught of high-turnover pop trends, focused on holding on to what is timeless and constantly in danger of being forgotten or erased. She does her drag for us: Latinx immigrants, first-generation outcasts, workers in the margins, brown and queer targets, people caught between identities. All our lives we’ve heard “You can have it all if you just work hard for it.” But hard work and a smile can never prepare us for cultural alienation, illegibility, racism, loneliness, burnout. As immigrants, we know what it feels like for the dream to shatter — how close we always are to losing it all. If we can’t love ourselves, who else will? ●
This essay is part of a series of stories about stans and superfans.
Kimora Blac's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal was born in the Rio Grande Valley borderlands to formerly undocumented Mexican immigrants. She is the author of the collection Beast Meridian (Noemi Press, Akrilica Series, 2017), winner of the John A. Robertson Award for Best First Book of Poetry from the Texas Institute of Letters, and featured as a best-of book at The Los Angeles Times, NBC News, BOMB, Literary Hub, Bustle, and Entropy. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The Boston Review, The Academy of American Poets, BuzzFeed, Epiphany, PBS Newshour and elsewhere. She is a CantoMundo Fellow, and is currently pursuing her doctorate in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she is raising her son with the help of a loyal dog.
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