We may never find out exactly what happened prior to the discovery of La Veneno’s lifeless body. Was it suicide? An accident? Or… murder? Her death, at age 52, left in its wake many unanswered questions four years ago, just one month after the publication of her biography “¡Digo! Ni puta, ni santa. Las memorias de La Veneno” (Get it! Neither whore nor saint. The memoires of La Veneno), by journalist Valeria Vegas. Those who were avid fans of Spanish TV’s 90’s hit talk show, “Esta noche cruzamos el Mississippi” (Tonight we cross the Mississippi), hosted by Pepe Navarro, will never forget her appearances on the program. And the mark it left on the society of the 90s, poorly prepared to hear about sex changes and the LGTBI movement. Cristina Ortiz, a transgender prostitute who worked the Parque del Oeste district in Madrid; a TV talk-show entertaining thousands of viewers every night, but which, hiding behind its naturalness and self-confidence, concealed the true drama.
This is exactly what the Atresmedia series “Veneno” deals with as they begin to launch their third episode in September. The rise and fall of a legend: an icon of the night, of “transvestism”, as it was (contemptuously) referred to in the past, and of the fight for freedom; the struggle to be oneself. Getting the series off the ground was no bed of roses. Directors Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, better known as “Los Javis”, offered us the first episode of their discovery as if showcasing a goddess, someone willing to challenge our conceptions and speak openly about sex, men, and homosexuality. A fairground attraction for gossip shows and a symbol of freedom for those born into the wrong body. It is in this introductory episode where we witness the birth of a star. And then, only after the restrictions imposed by confinement had been lifted after the coronavirus forced them to suspend shooting on the series, did the astonishing second episode arrive.
Cristina Ortiz was born in Adra, Almeria, but not as Cristina. Born and raised as Joselito, a boy who soon became aware that he was destined to become someone else. He was attracted to men and enjoyed dressing up as a woman. It was actually his mother who really had the problem, being incapable to understand what her son was going through. The physical abuse he suffered at her hands is one of the toughest aspects of the episode as his mother beat him relentlessly. She hates him for being the way he is. She’s terrified by him and tries to force him to change… through beatings. She cannot even bring herself to console Joselito the day he arrives home, black and blue with bruises, after being set upon and beaten up by a gang of kids from the town. But Joselito, through thick and thin, and despite the prejudices of the time, is 100% resolute: he is the way he is and refuses to change. Luckily, he is accompanied throughout his transformation by two guardian angels: Gracia, who would become his second mother, and Manolito, his lifelong soul mate.
Canarian-born actress and TV presenter Isabel Torres deserves a special mention here also. Isabel is currently battling lung cancer and has spent confinement going from one hospital to another. In fact, it was in March when she made the announcement to her followers. She plays La Veneno in the final stage of her life, the period when she shares her life story with Valeria Vegas, who sets about writing her biography and is played beautifully in the series by 21-year-old transgender actress Lola Rodríguez. Isabel, who makes her acting debut in a stellar role in the series, has received widespread critical acclaim. She is also transsexual and an activist in the LGTBI movement. Hats off also to Francisca Arancil “Paca La Piraña”, who plays herself in the series and was best friends with La Veneno in real life. Transsexual and revelation actress in equal parts, she brings the touch of humor to this drama.
Although we might think it would have been more fitting to air this series in the 90s, thus explaining La Veneno’s story while she was still alive, not to mention the impact it would have had on her life in terms of box office revenue, it is in reality today when we most need to see it. We might like to believe that the LGTBI movement has fought all its battles and won as we forge headlong into the 21st century and that sex reassignment is now seen as a normal part of our society. Or even that homosexuality has already won the fight against misconstrued ideas and hatred … but, unfortunately, there is still a long road ahead to travel. You only have to watch the news to see that. Saturday, August 8, 2020: a 33-year-old man attacks a homosexual couple in Barcelona with an iron bar in what is the 116th homophobic aggression in Catalonia since January this year. Alas, the roar of “faggot”, by way of insult, still echoes on our streets.