I bought my first pair of high heels last October, a few days before Halloween. I was determined to dress up as Selena Quintanilla in her iconic jean jacket and bustier stage outfit. I had repurposed an old pair of skinny jeans into high-waisted “booty” shorts, was borrowing a friend’s oversized black bra, and was on the hunt for the perfect pair of shoes. After hours of searching through various clearance racks, and fighting off a teenage girl at the local Charlotte Russe for the last pair of black pumps (she grabbed them when I wasn’t looking), I stumbled into Aldo’s on Newbury Street.
Time for the routine.
I walked around the store and feigned interest in the men’s merchandise. I picked up a few gaudy metallic necklaces, read the price tags on a pair leather loafers, and eyed some shoe polish, slowly edging my way closer to the women’s sales rack. That’s when I saw them: a pair of black suede pumps. I grabbed the shoes, sat down, and eagerly slid into them.
A few dirty stares.
As a genderqueer-identified Latin@, this wasn’t my first time wearing women’s clothing, and it certainly wasn’t the last.
As a child, I would wear my mother’s high heels. I liked the pronounced clack they made against our marble floors. They made me feel powerful, like she was.
My mother was born in rural México, the second oldest of 13. She had an abusive father and a mother who worked multiple jobs to support the family. Abuela built the home my mother lived in. She made a cabin out of spare wooden parts, and furnished the home with leftover materials from her job as a seamstress. She made dresses at a local boutique for a living, beautiful dresses that were sold at up
to ten times her weekly earnings. She was allowed to keep any leftover fabrics. So despite living in extreme poverty, my mother and her siblings were always impeccably dressed: satin blouses, white skirts, and black botitas.
My mother illegally crossed the Tijuana/California border at the age of 18. She met my father, who was a mechanic at the time, and they settled down in a small barrio in Los Ángeles, California, where they raised four children on minimum-wage salaries. My mother was undocumented when she arrived in the United States. She worked as a seamstress at the local sweatshop, like my grandmother did in México. But she quickly became a city advocate for women’s and family rights, and eventually served in public office as an elected official.
Like my grandmother, my mother used to make some of the family’s clothing. She made every one of my Halloween costumes, and even altered my jeans when I grew out of them. New clothes were always a luxury growing up. But she was always impeccably dressed. I remember her favorite white suite; it was always perfectly pressed. I remember her coming home from a long day at the office, strutting down the street. Her full-figured body created perfect waves of white beneath the suit. It clung to her, hugging her muscular thighs and soft belly. Her dark brown hair bounced lightly with each step, heels clacking against the pavement. Her lips were polished to a perfect, shiny red, and her skin buffed by the sun to a flawless brown.
The sound of the metal gate when she unhinged it.
I remember running to the front door whenever I heard that metallic creak—and her shoes. The heavy clack. Proud. I remember stumbling into her arms, losing myself in folds of white waves. She would give me a single kiss on the forehead, a red one that left its stamp of approval. I would try to pry myself from her arms whenever I saw her lips purse into that familiar red blossom. I would feign embarrassment and mumble impatiently in broken Spanish. But she would hold me even tighter, and I let her.
I used to wear her shoes when nobody was in the house. Size 10 black pumps (yes, we wear the same shoe size). Hand on hip and gripping her leather purse, I used to imitate her walk as best as I could. Heel. Toe. Heel. Toe. Remembering to exaggerate the swing of my hips just a bit with each step.
Leaving home for Harvard was difficult. I felt uprooted from my family, my culture, and especially my mother. I was taken from my barrio and transplanted to a place where Latinos only made up eight percent of the student body, where people casually spent $20 on a single meal—a luxury I didn’t have as an incoming freshman. “Culture shock” couldn’t even begin to express how I felt.
I felt interrogated by my peers when I arrived to campus:
No, I have never been to Europe.
No, my parents did not attend Harvard, and neither has anyone else in my extended family.
Yes, I am fully aware that I speak English very well.
My peers condescendingly described my personality as “entertaining.” It reminded them of the “ghetto” Latino folks on television. My accent was, at best, amusing (I didn’t even fucking know that I had an accent), and people introduced me as their gay Mexican friend. I felt like a cultural accessory, like someone you eagerly introduce to others to validate your progressive values.
Maneuvering my romantic life proved to be just as difficult. A few Harvard boys told me they only dated masculine men, or blonds, or boys with blue eyes. I didn’t have any luck online either: “Masc4Masc”. “No fats, femmes, or Mexicans. Not racist, just a preference.” This unfortunately meant that me and my limp wrist had to find fun somewhere else.
I began seeing a therapist at the end of freshman year. I had developed anxiety while at Harvard, and was trying to work through some self-esteem issues. My therapist, a clever woman with salt and pepper hair and glasses that hug the tip of her nose, recommended that I reconnect with my family, particularly my mother.
So I started calling home more often. After keeping my frustrations to myself, I finally vented to my mother. I told her that I was tired of Harvard. That I was tired of feeling perpetually exhausted, of having to pencil in close friends for lunch. Tired of getting seven hours of sleep, and still feeling like I hadn’t slept in days. Tired of having to validate myself to my peers, of feeling like I was accommodating for my race and class identity. I was tired of living in a place that didn’t want me.
My mother told me that she understood what I was going through. That she had a similar experience when she first arrived in the United States—a sense of discomfort and disbelonging. Like the country itself didn’t want her, and was doing everything possible to prevent her from being happy. But my mother refused to throw in the towel.
So instead she put on her best pair of heels and flyest power suit, and rocked the shit out of this country.
I decided against dressing up as Selena that Halloween, not because of any wardrobe malfunctions, but because I didn’t want to present my cross-dress as costume. When I first slid into those black pumps at Aldo, everything just felt right. Like something in my body clicked. My shoulders went back, my back flexed, my hip sensually fell to the left, and I felt powerful, como la más perra. I picked up a matching pair of gold hoop earrings from the accessories rack (circa East Los Ángeles 1995), and posed in the mirror. Oddly enough, I looked like my mother.
More dirty stares.
I developed an alter ego to help me get through my Harvard experience, someone that emulated my mother’s strength. She (yes, she) is everything that my mother is. Sassy, sexy, intelligent, and powerful. She walks around in sky-high heels and chic business wear. She uses wit and humor to diffuse uncomfortable situations. Intelligent sass is her first line of defense, and a stern look her second.
I cross-dress in an attempt to cope with the class and racial tensions I feel at Harvard, to reconnect with the class and cultural values I was raised with. I recently showed my mother pictures of myself in drag. She was silent. The edges of her mouth curled into a grin and she gave me a kiss on the forehead. Her red stamp of approval.
So I cross dress to pay homage to my mother, and to the long line of immigrant Latinas who built this country through blood, sweat, and chic powerwear.