‘Pose’ Star MJ Rodriguez ‘Had to Teach Simply by Existing’

El Espace is a column dedicated to news and culture relevant to Latinx communities. Expect politics, arts, analysis, personal essays and more. ¿Lo mejor? It’ll be in Spanish and English, so you can forward it to your tía, your primo Lalo or anyone else (read: everyone).

In the world of “Pose,” the FX show that depicts the ascent of ballroom culture during the H.I.V./AIDS epidemic in late ’80s and early ’90s New York City, MJ Rodriguez is Blanca, the no-nonsense mother of the House of Evangelista who pushes her L.G.B.T.Q. children to surmount difficult but formative obstacles. The role is a full-circle moment for Rodriguez, who found her own chosen family when she was 14 and joined a ballroom house that became a haven for her as a queer teenager.

“I was always the kid who was very well aware of who I was,” Rodriguez said. But the ballroom community allowed her to grow into herself without people “policing me on how I acted or how I existed in the world.”

“Pose” made history when it announced its cast, which has the largest ensemble of trans actors ever to appear on a scripted television show as series regulars. The show’s creators — Ryan Murphy, Steven Canals, and Brad Falchuk — also recruited real-life legends to contribute to the show. These included the choreographer José Gutierrez-Xtravaganza, a ballroom luminary who was featured in the influential documentary “Paris Is Burning” and toured with Madonna after she released “Vogue.” Xtravaganza serves as a consultant on “Pose” and even appears in several episodes.

Rodriguez’s character arc has depicted many of the hardships of transgender people growing up in that era, most of which persist today, making the show feel profoundly relevant. In the first season, viewers learned that Blanca’s family had struggled to accept her after she decided to transition, a trauma that left her with scars still left to heal and that influences her tough-love approach. The second season of “Pose” unravels even more of Blanca’s journey — a major plotline involving a racist landlord evinces the long history of rental discrimination against trans women of color.

With the season finale of “Pose” approaching on Aug. 20, I sat down with Rodriguez to discuss the show, her personal growth and her views on queerness in Latinx communities. This article contains spoilers for season two of “Pose.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

I wanted to talk to you about how the ballroom community paved the way for your interest in acting and your personal journey. What do you think the ballroom community gave you?

Ballroom culture never really influenced my acting career. I always had that push from my mother and my father, and also just me being someone who loved it from birth. But the ballroom community did contribute to my dancing and to me being more comfortable in my body, moving and not being afraid to be judged. It helped me with my confidence as far as living in a world where — well, at that time — a lot of people weren’t as understanding or as accepting of people in the ballroom community, which was mainly made up of African-American gay men, Latino gay men and Latina and black trans women. And obviously African-American and Latina lesbians. If I hadn’t had that scene, I would never have been the person I am today.

In this last season, we really dive more into Blanca’s story. There’s the whole story line about how she was discriminated against by a white landlord named Frederica Norman for being a black Dominican trans woman. What do you think that story line tells us?

One, Patti LuPone, who plays Frederica, is extremely different from her character. Patti LuPone is an amazing actress. It’s kind of epic [laughs]. We’ve grown really close to each other.

But I think it’s great representation on FX’s end, because they’re showing what a lot of people of color, especially black people and, obviously, Latinx people, go through when it comes to not only their skin, but their cultural background. I’m glad that they showed that. It’s something that the world needs to see. As we all know, Blanca is multifaceted. She has five dimensions to her, versus one dimension. She’s a human. And I think that story line is just a representation of what goes on with people who are misinformed.

In the first season, there’s an episode in which Blanca has to reconnect with her conservative family. Among Latinos, we often have a difficult time accepting our L.G.B.T.Q. family members. What do you make of telling that story about the Latino community’s attitude toward queerness?

Not every parent gets a handbook when they’re raising their child. There were moments in my life where I had to teach simply by existing. That’s what Blanca did, as many Latina and black trans women do.

As far as the Latinx community, there is a lot we need to work on. There’s still a lot of aggression when it comes to men in the Latino community, because they don’t understand. Our exterior has evolved in ways that they never imagined, because they were raised in a different generation. We have to constantly teach them that the core of who we are is still the same and pass down that lesson to generations that come after us.

I feel like depicting trans experiences can be a lot of responsibility. What has it been like navigating that?

The responsibility has been quite easy. I’ve always led my life by simply existing and walking in my truth. I’ve made sure that I did a lot of work on me to know that I didn’t have to worry about anyone else’s thought process. Whether it be bigotry toward me or whether it be a derogatory slur toward me, I made sure that I worked hard on not worrying about those things.

And now that “Pose” has come into play, all I do is just live and tell the stories. “Pose” has put a lot of trans women of color on the map, and shown that we have much more to our lives than just the stigma. It shows that we have chapters to our lives. We’ve always known this about ourselves, but a lot of people haven’t. To be quite honest, I think it’s the people’s responsibility to really dive into our lives, the ones who don’t understand, who have probably never seen a trans woman. It’s their responsibility to learn and do the work. It’s also our responsibility to say, “Yes, that’s right,” or “No, let me help you with that.” It’s teamwork, not just one person doing it.

What has it been like working with so many legends from the ballroom scene?

It’s been an honor sitting in front of people who have paved the way for me. Hector Xtravaganza — God rest his soul — he was the one who cultivated a lot of things when it came to walking runway and fashion. Willi Ninja as well.

José Xtravaganza was the one who actually choreographed that whole dance sequence in the first episode of the second season. We all sat there and watched him. There were no words. There was just dancing and movement and vogue. It was beautiful. It was an homage to him, but not only was a light shed on him, he also became a beacon, a pillar for the people who have seen him in the years since.

These were people who were in Madonna’s “Vogue.” These were people who were choreographing for artists, and they’re actually getting their due being seen on a television show like “Pose.”

This year marks 50 years since the Stonewall uprising. Looking forward, what hopes do you have for the Latinx L.G.B.T.Q. community in the future? What would you like to see more of?

I would like to see more representation of Latinx L.G.B.T.Q. figures. There’s not enough. I feel like there’s a part of the industry that needs to shed a bit more light on us. Hopefully that’ll lead to a better understanding of us as human beings, and open minds up to actually focus on bigger things, like fixing this world that we’re living in.

Plácido Domingo, the opera star who helped found the Los Angeles Opera, is being investigated for allegations of sexual harassment.

In our Opinion pages, one woman writes about being assaulted by Jeffrey Epstein as a teenager.

Also in our Opinion pages, a Latina immigrant from Brazil reflects on the shooting in El Paso. “I read the suspect’s manifesto Sunday morning and, for the first time, I did not feel just like an immigrant,” she wrote. “I felt like a target.”

Watch this mini-documentary about Darlin, a Honduran immigrant trying to reunite with her family after being separated at the border.

“Unlike most reality shows, which rely on artificial constructs or manufactured theatrics,” with “90 Day Fiancé,” a reporter wrote, “the stakes here — marriage or potential deportation — are inherent and existentially huge.” She follows one couple’s love story and explores the show’s depiction of immigration. — Concepción de León


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