Cover photo courtesy of Kalandra Monarez
“You’re a girl. You’re going to be a girl one day. That’s what she told me.” Kalandra Monarez fondly reminisces on memories of Mercedes DeMarco. It’s a warm Saturday afternoon and Kalandra and I are video conferencing and talking about the mark Mercedes left in her life and on the El Paso drag scene. I met Kalandra when she worked at Touch Bar and she told me she was DeMarcos’ daughter. I immediately remembered Mercedes’ performances at the Old Plantation, also known as the OP, which used to be El Paso’s premier gay night club. I mention to Kalandra that the last time I saw Mercedes was in the winter of 2012 when she performed “Amor Eterno” at Club 101 in downtown El Paso. I did not know Mercedes personally, but always appreciated her performances, and I knew that when she died El Paso lost an amazing performer.
Kalandra sparks up when she speaks about Mercedes:
“She was always so positive. She had a dream of being Miss Texas, and I was always on that journey with her.“
The two met in June 2004 when Kalandra broke into the drag scene as a backup dancer and a bond was formed. Mercedes was Kalandra’s drag mother.
“A drag mother is someone who changes you, mentors you and that’s your chosen family. I was 17, didn’t have any real support from my family. She took me in and guided me. I was discovering myself and I was helped by Mercedes.”
Kalandra credits Mercedes with teaching her how to do her makeup, how to dress, and how to survive. “She spoiled me. That got taken away from me.”
Nikko Andrews was a young host and show director at the OP when he met her and the other “showgirls.” Mercedes was a Jefferson High School graduate, majored in music as a college student and was a professional cellist. She was a trendsetter within the El Paso drag scene and was multi-talented.
“She wasn’t your average showgirl,” commented Nikko. For Mercedes, drag was an art. She was a polished contestant and loved the competition. Nikko, who still produces drag shows, says he “never met anyone that worked so hard for her craft.”
Both Monarez and Andrews described Mercedes as a “big girl,” but she was determined to leave her mark in the drag circuit. Nikko chuckles, “she loved the idea of showing up and beating those skinny girls.”
Her mother constructed all her outfits.
“Mercedes didn’t trust anyone to make her costumes except her mom. Her gowns, everything was made by her mother.”
She perfected her signature make-up techniques (rumored to be stolen by other queens). There’s only one Mercedes says Kalandra.
“Everyone wanted her face.” She captivated her audience with her beautiful smile and platinum blonde hair.”
Both Nikko and Kalandra were part of her pageant journey. Nikko and Mercedes competed together in different divisions, Mercedes in female and Nikko in male. They won the title of Mr. and Mrs. Gay Houston the same year. A few other titles on Mercedes’ list of wins include Miss El Paso at Large, Miss OP, Miss Mining, Miss Sweetheart, and Miss Halloween. I asked Nikko how far he thought she could have gone in drag pageantry. He suggests Mercedes would have taken the title of Miss Continental and Miss Gay US of A at Large. “There was nothing that would stop her. She loved the competition.”
Dreams Cut Short
It’s been nearly seven years since Mercedes died in police custody. Kalandra tears up talking about the night it happened. “I went to see her perform that night and I knew something was off.” There was a commotion at an afterparty and Kalandra was asked to help comfort her and made her way to the scene. “She was in evening gown. They had tazers, and kept tazing her over and over.” According to Kalandra, Mercedes had recently suffered two strokes just months prior.
“We kept telling them to stop, but they wouldn’t. They (the police) would laugh about it. There were six policemen and not one stopped and they kept tazing her. We told them she had a weak heart, and they had her face down. She’s yelling, and there wasn’t anything we could do. Nobody tried to help her.” Few media outlets reported the incident and those that did mis-gendered her and led readers to believe she was up to no good. “I ignored everything because I knew it wasn’t true. I tell them all to f**k off. It’s hard to trust people.”
Making an Impact
Mercedes DeMarco was like everyone else and was still chasing her dreams. She had a spirit that can only come from a loving and supportive family and was said to be her mother’s pride and joy. Kalandra says Mercedes taught her many life lessons and still follows her advice on,
“how to strategize for everything when it comes to life, pageants, shows and friends. I learned how to exude beauty.”
Why does this matter seven years later? We know that transwomen of color are singled out by police, and are 3.7% likely to experience police violence. These are national statistics, and this happens in our border community. When I pitched the idea of writing about Mercedes, both Kalandra and Nikko had reservations and understandably so. I explained my desire to shine a light and tell a story about who she really was since plenty of allegations were made about her. Both agreed to do the interview to lift her voice because Mercedes was an important part of this community. As opposed to focusing on tragedy, I wanted to focus on the legacy she left behind. I asked Kalandra how this experience has affected her.
“I don’t hate anyone who was there that night. I’ve grown to speak my mind and to not hold back. It’s easier to get heard, and to live my life on my own terms.”
“she inspired many performers to work hard and follow their dreams. She was the plus-size diva of El Paso that put us on the pageantry map!”
One thing is for certain, Mercedes was a trailblazer in the El Paso community, and her story, along with so many others needed justice.
Author’s Note: If you’d like to support me in writing on the LGBTQI+ community, donations are kindly appreciated: Venmo @Jose-Montoya-12 and/or CashApp $josemontoya77
I am very grateful for this article–thank you! I became aware of the death of Mercedes shortly after it happened and was really troubled at what the author notes, the lack of media attention to her death or to who she was in El Paso and Texas. I made an open records request at the time for a police report and autopsy. The report said that Mercedes (who was identified by her legal name, a male name) was at a hotel on Mesa and Nevada streets very late at night and police were called because she (or “he”, as reported by police) had been acting erratically and someone called police because Mercedes was knocking persistently at the office door (at about 3 a.m.) and apparently someone at the hotel, possibly management, was afraid of her. The report said that Mercedes was agitated and appeared intoxicated on drugs, and that she had been this way before while experiencing police involvement–and now could not be subdued. The autopsy concluded that death was caused by cocaine intoxication, and that she had heart disease. But she was tased multiple times (in the back, per autopsy). In the recent lawsuit against the city and EPPD–brought by Emanuel Salas Sanchez– the judge in the suit noted that police had acted inappropriately with excessive use of force against Mercedes by tasing her; her death is included in the evidence of systemic police excessive use of force. The judge’s recent finding in the Salas Sanchez lawsuit suggests that the EPPD police were not trained to deal with people undergoing mental-health crisis–that the lack of training was due to decisions made by EPPD chief Greg Allen, and that the police lost patience with dealing with Mercedes, and that’s why they tased her. I think it’s extremely important to celebrate Mercedes’ inspiring, and also, while protesting her death, to be accurate about the circumstances. They have bearing on our understanding of what’s wrong with the EPPD.
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