Eliel Herrera: the Latinx Queen of Downtown who is unapologetically authentic.
In Madison’s vibrant drag scene, one performer stands out as an inspiration to the Latinx and LGBT community. Eliel Herrera commands the attention of their audience, and they drive it toward highlighting Latinx culture through showcasing a variety of Latinx music, dance and food at their performances.
“I don’t want to be neither a woman nor a man,” Eliel said. “My name is the name of an angel, and I want to be like God, God doesn’t have a sex, God is just a perfect being worshiped by many. That’s who I am.”
Growing up in the toasty state of Zulia, Venezuela, Eliel was born to a religious family of evangelical pastors. While they have fond memories of their childhood, Eliel’s family judged them incessantly for the way they presented themselves.
“My papi wants me to be in a church in a formal suit. I’m sorry for you, papi, mi amor,” Eliel said, wearing bedazzled two-inch heeled boots and a denim trench coat.
Throughout their years in school, Eliel dealt with a lot of bullying from peers and fellow family members for being a bit overweight and acting effeminate. “How was I going to come out of the closet? What would the family, the neighbors say?” Eliel said. “In school in Venezuela, being gay is like the 70s, they would violently assault me.”
One teacher went as far as to spread false rumors about Eliel, saying they were touching other children inappropriately, simply because they stood out.
Much to the disapproval of the family, Eliel could never fully suppress who they were. They were born to be nothing but the boldest performer. “Sometimes I would get up on my desk and sing opera, which was not normal for the teachers,” they said.
It was nearly impossible for a devoted Christian family like Eliel’s to understand why they were so different from the other kids, so they saw psychologists through the ages of 8 to 14. “I spent as much time in school as I did in hospitals,” Eliel said.
Eventually, Eliel learned that in order to survive in this rigid community, they had to keep their head down and avoid drawing too much attention to themselves. These years took a blow to their self-esteem at the time. “Because of these situations, was I always confident 100%? No,” Eliel said.
Through all the prejudice and bigotry they faced, Eliel found comfort in their passions. “In my country, my best friend was the mirror,” Eliel said. “I shut myself in my room and I started to dance, and from that moment on, I saw myself on a stage.” They also found strength in studying artists who inspired them, like Cuba’s queen of soul, La Lupe.
Looking back at the past, Eliel has no regrets. They believe everything happens for a reason, and through all the hardship and judgment they faced, they are stronger for it. “The tree that gets the most rocks thrown at it is the one that produces the most fruit,” they said.
Once school was over, things started to look up. Eliel became more active – running, swimming and regularly going to the gym. Using the internet and their Samsung cellphone, they found modeling gigs and began building a portfolio. Due to rising political tensions in Venezuela, Eliel was unable to finish their degree at the Dr. Rafael Belloso Chacín University in social communications they started, so they sought opportunities abroad.
Eliel arrived in the United States the day they turned 20 years old in 2018, for their brother’s wedding in Madison, and never looked back.
They found less than glamorous work in Madison scrubbing toilets and in bustling restaurants. Through their cleaning job, Eliel met their “Mexican mother” Alejandra, who would look after them and provide moral support through tough times – bringing balloons and tortas to their house for their birthday.
According to Eliel, Alejandra is an older, traditional woman, but open minded, who doesn’t judge others or discriminate against friends based on appearances. “She defends the craziness of every human being, because everyone is free to be whatever they wish,” Eliel said.
At their restaurant job they met several of their now-best friends, including Mario Rosales from Honduras, and they started inviting them to go out.
One night they found themselves in the first gay bar they had ever been to, Woof’s, off the capitol square. That night was the turning point in Eliel’s identity. “Me, with a divine beauty and such beautiful men, I finally said no, I’m going to live on with strength. I’m young, you only live once and no one is going to live my life for me. So I came out of the closet, querido.” they said.
Following this experience, the old, sassy Eliel returned, but for their brother, who is ten years older and had never witnessed them in their boundless feminine state, was unsettled. “He asked me, ‘What’s up with you? Why are you acting that way? Don’t you like women?’ and I said, ‘No,’” Eliel said. Eliel’s brother didn’t speak to them for several years after that.
While it may have been liberating, living in the states wasn’t easy. As the baby of the family, they had never lived apart from their support system, away from their family and their mom, who they were always close with. They also had to figure out proper documentation for living in the U.S. which was a huge stressor and required countless hours, lawyers and a huge wad of legal fees.
Learning English was another major obstacle, as Eliel had minimal exposure to the language and any classes they attended would be too basic. It wasn’t until they went out on the streets with friends from all corners of the world that their English was able to progress.
Eliel also endured racism and homophobia in Madison, mainly from white students attending the university. At times they would walk into a campus bar and instantly receive dirty looks, or snide comments, but at this point, they had already developed the thickest of skins. Instead of cowering away, they would dish it right back to them.
On the day of the annual Mifflin Block party, Eliel strutted through the street in high heels, a crop top and mini shorts, towering over 6 feet. Students gaped, smirked and laughed as Eliel passed by, but one bothered male student felt he needed to go the extra mile.
He went straight up to Eliel and said “F*** you,” then berated them for having a penis. Without missing a beat, Eliel responded saying “F*** you. It’s bigger than yours.”
Despite all the hatred they have been a target of, Eliel doesn’t blame people for their prejudice, but believe it’s a product of their familial circumstances. They say it’s the cycle of parents teaching their kids customs and values that can fuel hate against others or promote acceptance.
Through all the challenges they experienced, Eliel shone through by doing what they loved most – performing. On the weekends, they sang and danced at the Memorial Union and competed in dance battles around the downtown area. They started gaining recognition throughout State Street. Their friends in the LGBT community then began inviting them to perform at various events.
Once they got into drag, they performed all over the city and they soared to the top. By featuring everything from flamenco, reggaeton, Selena, 90s Spanish pop and traditional Venezuelan music and dance in their shows, Eliel became the first Latinx to win a Miss Five Newcomer title at Club Five in 2022.
At first, it was hard for their family to grasp their career path as a drag queen. For them, who held conservative mindsets, it was an extremely eccentric profession. But with time and after many intense conversations, they all learned to support Eliel, even if they don’t support their career. At the very least, now Eliel, their brother and father are on speaking terms and their mom and their sister, who have moved to Wisconsin, will often come to their shows.
To the parents of children who stand out from the crowd, Eliel says the only thing they need to worry about is that their child does well in school and that they teach them good, solid values.
“In the end, a son is a son and you have to love him,” Eliel said.
Currently, Eliel has three jobs – they are the manager of a restaurant, they work at the Arepas food truck during the farmers market on Saturdays and they perform full-time. In the limited free time they have, they can be found enjoying nightlife, hanging out with friends, singing and dancing to their bedroom mirror, watching animal documentaries and seeing their family.
They have built a community among Madison’s Latinx community. They have recruited other aspiring Latinx drag queens to be their backup dancers in their performances and invited Latinx drag queens from the Milwaukee and Chicago area to perform in shows with them. They choose venues that feature foods from all over Latin America. They have built relationships with various businesses with Latinx influence, such as Señor Machetes, Los Remedios, Club Five, Voodoo, Sotto and Robinia Courtyard.
“The latinos love me because I’m one of those people that doesn’t have an ego nor did I come to fight. Here, we unite, we create a team and we work together with the entire community,” Eliel said. “With the Americans and the anglo saxons, too.”
Regarding advice for adolescents that feel ostracized by their family or community, Eliel says to “stop paying any mind to what others say, because if you’re confident in yourself, what others say won’t matter. Each person should live their life how they want.”
“The other thing is to read a ton, to learn. If you don’t know something, don’t open your mouth. First investigate and ask questions before you judge,” Eliel said. “It’s like when you see a beautiful woman walking about and others are saying she’s a whore, but they’ve never talked to her. It’s better to have knowledge of someone before criticizing them.”
In their future, Eliel hopes to end up in Hollywood, dedicated to producing art such as drag, music, singing or acting. “I don’t want to be the queen of Madison or the queen of Wisconsin. I want to be the queen of the world,” they said.
“I feel like I was in a dinosaur era, and now I’m in the future. How I would have loved to have the mindset I have now when I was in Venezuela, but everything happens for a reason,” Eliel said.
Eliel has several shows and events coming up. Follow them on their socials to stay updated on their performances and whereabouts. Their Instagram is @elieldhp, their Facebook @Eliel Herrera and their Youtube @elielherrera8939.
For resources supporting the LGBT community in the area, visit OutReach LGBTQ+ Community Center at www.outreachmadisonlgbt.org or call 608-255-8582.
Photos courtesy of Eliel Herrera and IMDb.