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500 Capp Street Becomes a Trans Sanctuary in Marcel Pardo Ariza’s ‘Orquídeas’

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Artist Marcel Pardo Ariza, a Latine trans masculine person in their 30s, stands before an open garage door. Parts of their installation of photography and archives are visible in the background.
Marcel Pardo Ariza's new show at 500 Capp Street includes an installation celebrating trans history and numerous community events.  (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

For their residency at the historic David Ireland House, artist Marcel Pardo Ariza decided to roll up the garage door of the ivory tower, and turn the conceptual art space into a sanctuary for the people of San Francisco’s Mission District.

The photographer, curator and installation artist spent the summer inviting trans organizers to 500 Capp Street. Over meals, guests like performer-activist Donna Personna and community advocate Billie Cooper shared stories of how trans people survived discriminatory laws and police harassment in the 1960s and ’70s, and took care of each other during the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s.

Pardo Ariza took heart in how over the decades, trans people have always come together in chosen families and underground networks of support — no matter how hostile the climate.

“I think it’s important for us — as our humanity is being questioned and attacked constantly — to think about, first, how have people in the past organized to combat this same rhetoric?” Pardo Ariza says. “Also to understand that if we all collectively support each other, that there’s going to be less of a sense of self-hate or isolation or fear, too.”

Now, Pardo Ariza isn’t just making art with that message. Their new exhibition Orquídeas, opening Oct. 19 at 500 Capp, sets out to create that sense of solidarity, community and celebration in real time. The goal is to make the gallery not just a hub for activism and organizing, but “a place to gather that’s for the soul,” the artist says.

Ephemera and photographs densely arranged on orange wall
Marcel Pardo Ariza and collaborator Julián Delgado Lopera collected photos, posters and pamphlets that document trans life throughout the 20th century for their installation, ‘Memoria Trans SF,’ at 500 Capp Street. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

That begins with the colorful, street-facing installation inside the David Ireland House’s garage, Memoria Trans SF, developed with writer Julián Delgado Lopera in collaboration with the nonprofit El/La Para Translatinas, whose clients shared stories and posed for photos on display in the space. For the installation, Pardo Ariza papered the garage’s walls with large-scale scans from trans history: the 1932 book Women in Men’s Guise; 1990s photos of drag queens and trans women at the city’s first Latinx gay club, Esta Noche; posters from Finocchio’s, a drag club that opened in 1929.

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The artifacts on display affirm that trans and gender-nonconforming people have always been here, even if mainstream society didn’t always acknowledge them. But because they’ve been pushed to the margins, source materials were hard to come by. “Trans history is so fragile because it has been written on napkins or in bathroom stalls,” says Pardo Ariza, who scoured the GLBT Historical Society and other collections for the installation.

After the exhibition opens with drag performances on The One and Only Rexy and Dulce de Leche on Oct. 19, 500 Capp will host a number of free events throughout October and November. Grace Towers and Mudd the Two Spirit will teach drag makeup workshops on Oct. 25 and Nov. 8. A number of private dinners, catered by trans chefs, are in the works.

Dec. 1 invites the public for a benefit to raise money for street-based sex workers — an occupation some trans people have turned to for survival because of job discrimination. And throughout the show’s run, Pardo Ariza and Delgado Lopera plan to set up scanners for trans elders to submit their photos, posters and ephemera to build on their archival work.

Six rows of small black-and-white negatives of people in a nightclub
A contact sheet of photos from a night out at Latinx gay club Esta Noche in 1995. (Courtesy of Rick Gerharter and Memoria Trans SF)

In the garage installation, Esta Noche, a long-running Latinx gay club that shuttered in 2014, is a recurring touchpoint. On the wall is a newspaper photo of Cuban-born San Francisco trans activist Adela Vasquez, whose drag night Las AtreDivas, which she started at Esta Noche in the ’80s, is the inspiration for an upcoming drag performance at 500 Capp on Nov. 17.

Vasquez’s story is just one of the many examples of how trans people have used art and culture in service of community healing. After being crowned Miss Gay Latina in 1992, she devoted herself to hospice care for AIDS patients and to safe sex education. Today, she runs an online trans support group called Fifty and Fabulous through San Francisco Community Health Center.

Vasquez says telling trans history is important as trans people face discrimination from all sides — not just from straight people, but from some lesbian, gay and bisexual people as well. “I think it’s important to let them know that we are human, that we have our issues and we take care of our issues, you know what I mean, better than many other communities,” she says.

Flyer with event info, black text on cream paper, photos of three storytellers at top of page
A 1997 flyer by Laylani Wong (photo by Freddie Niems) for Adela Vasquez, Tamara Ching and Connie Amarathithada’s live storytelling event promoting safe sex behavior. (Courtesy Adela Vazquez)

Pardo Ariza points out that trans rights have come a long way — decades ago, they say, openly trans artists weren’t necessarily exhibiting in major institutions or teaching at California College of the Arts, as Pardo Ariza is doing. But as anti-trans laws and rhetoric continue to put trans people at risk of discrimination and violence, there’s still a long way to go until we achieve true gender equality. In Pardo Ariza’s view, culture can help chart new paths towards collective liberation.

“Our joy or celebration is not always prioritized. And we’re put in a situation of precarity and scarcity mentality most of the time,” they say. “I like thinking about possibilities, a space in which we can dream up how it is that we want to live, how it is that we want to relate to one another. And that’s a sort of space that feels very generative and very abundant.”

‘Orquídeas’ opens at 500 Capp Street on Oct. 19, 2023 and will be on view through Feb. 17, 2024. Event schedule, information and tickets here

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