Back in 2018, photographer Seth Caplan began to photograph friends and acquaintances who are queer nightlife creators. What emerged was a celebration of New York’s queer nightlife in all of its messy glory. This is the last installment in the series: for the full experience, check out the Queer Nightlife archives.
Who: Diana Chacon
What: DJ Undocubougie, co-founder of Arrebato, community organizer
What first brought you to New York City?
I was born in Lima, Peru. I migrated when I was 11 years old and have been living in Queens ever since. We lived in Corona first and then moved to Jackson Heights, where I live now with my dad. The neighborhood is a reminder of home because of its diversity. It’s healing to be in a community with so many other immigrants and undocumented folks who share a similar journey as I do, knowing we’re all away from home but find home in different spaces. You feel it when you walk down Roosevelt Avenue and see so many people finding different ways to thrive. The pandemic has really shown who the folks are that keep the city going. The people that live here are the essential workers that carried us through before, currently, and all the years to come. At the same time, while growing up, I felt a gap between my immigrant community and my queer identity, like part of me was missing here.
Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Back in Peru, I never really thought about it. I grew up in a culture that’s very homophobic, in a religion that only talks about heteronormativity. Queerness, let alone homosexuality, doesn’t exist in that culture. Coming to the United States, there are so many things that were and are a struggle. Here in high school, there were students who were more open and it was talked about. I went through a journey of internalized homophobia. I had to dismantle it in my own mind, and I still do. High school was a big turning point because it was when I started allowing myself to let those thoughts in. A lot of my friends were and are queer, and I thought I’d be the straight best friend. I was thankful that I had people in my life who helped me through my process, being patient with me about my own internal conflict, and finding myself. Part of me was angry that other people were out and proud, not understanding where that anger was coming from. I had people holding me in different ways, through words, affection, and patience. I feel very fortunate that I had that kind of community then. If you would’ve told me 10 years ago that I would be so open about my sexuality and my gender presentation now, I’d never have believed it.
What was an early experience at a gay or queer nighltife space that stands out to you?
I started going to The Woods at a young age. I would use my sister’s ID to sneak in. I heard they had a lesbian/queer femme night on Wednesdays called Misster Party and a close friend wanted to go. I remember wearing my queerest outfit, or what I thought would signal me as queer, which was black pants and a graphic t-shirt. I remember seeing everyone flourish there. I remember thinking, I hope I feel the way those folks seem to be feeling one day. And my perception was that they were feeling all of their identities fully, at once. That was often a struggle for me because I could be one thing in one space, but not another. I could be in a pro-immigrant space, but I felt like I had to hide my queerness, or the other way around. I was caught off guard that night by how much I wanted to stand next to the DJ and see her mix music. It was amazing to see a woman at the front of the room, a DJ who also organizes the party. And I didn’t know anything about DJing or who she, Amber Valentine, was yet.
I remember seeing everyone flourish there. I remember thinking, I hope I feel the way those folks seem to be feeling one day.
How did it feel to be in that room with so many other queer women?
I remember drinking more than I should have that night. I didn’t approach anybody, but I did go up to Amber at some point to tell her how amazing she was. Thinking about it the next day, I was like, how could I go up to someone doing their thing while I was so drunk? But thinking of that moment now as a DJ myself, I see it differently. I honor and welcome when people come up to me to share something sweet. People need to be reaffirmed in spaces like that, to know they’re being seen.
How did you start entering New York’s queer nightlife scenes when you got older and were going out more?
I would go out in Manhattan to Stonewall and Cubbyhole. It was great, but I also felt something was missing. I grew up very much in my community of immigrants, listening to music that my parents played all the time, music sets my heart on fire. I kept looking for parties that played cumbia, salsa, merengue, chicha , bachata, but every time I would go out, it was either people who didn’t look like me, or parties with a lot of white folks and women but without music I could dance to. I knew I needed all of those things to meet somehow in the same space. At some point, I felt like I didn’t want to go out anymore. In Jackson Heights, Roosevelt Avenue has a huge gay scene, but it’s mainly for men. And in Manhattan, it’s mostly white women and not with the music I look for. Now, there are so many spaces created by and for people of color, but that’s when I started thinking, where are all of the queer women of color? Instead of going out so much, I started doing my thing with friends and began community organizing. Those organically became the spaces where I started meeting queer people of color.
I felt like I had finally found the space that I so much needed, and that “all identities at once” feeling started to show up in different moments.
Being undocumented meant I didn’t have time to go out that much. Especially in college, I worked multiple jobs to afford school. Going out wasn’t accessible to me financially or timewise. I got involved in social justice work. I started being hungry for information and wanted to meet more undocumented people going through similar things. In that work, I started finding communities. When DACA finally happened, I was able to have access to a work permit and other opportunities that weren’t accessible before without a social security number.
During college, I joined the LGBTQ leadership program and started feeling more comfortable in my own skin. It was also in college that I met my first love. That’s when things shifted for me. It was really wholesome and beautiful. She was in the immigrant movement too. I felt like I had finally found the space that I so much needed, and that “all identities at once” feeling started to show up in different moments. When I graduated college and started working full time, I began going out and meeting new folks. Parties started like Papi Juice, for queer folks of color, but were still mostly male-centric. Other collectives started too, but nothing in Queens, always in Brooklyn. I thought about what a space could look like of our own, in our own neighborhood.
I’m excited to hear about how these experiences brought you to creating the queer, Latin, and femme-centric collective in Queens, Arrebato, I’d love to hear more about how you started DJing though first.
Music has been the most consistent thing in my life. I had a music teacher in Peru who was a huge influence on me. He was Cuban and immigrated to Peru and passed away right before I came to the US. His death broke me. He left everybody so in love with music. He would teach us how to play guitar, el tambor, everything. Later on, I understood that he never really left my life because music has always been so present for me. I learned how to play this instrument and that instrument, and I wanted more. When I first started college, I was a dance major. That’s where I wanted to put my love for music. I wanted to be in it Being undocumented comes with a lot of limitations though, and part of pursuing dance is traveling, which I couldn’t do. During that time, instead of seeking an alternative, I chose to quit. It’s one regret that I have.
I found DJing though at the same time. I remember seeing Amber DJ, and how impactful that was, because the music industry is so cis-male dominated. I started finding DJs that happened to be undocumented brown and badass as hell too. Someone I knew back then was doing a fundraiser and asked if I wanted to play some music for it and I was like hell yeah, I’m down. I didn’t know what DJing really was yet, I was down to do it for free and was excited to play music. I downloaded a program and even asked for that week off so I could just concentrate on it. I didn’t know how to mix. It was just my computer and headphones. I showed up, hoping for the best, full of love and energy. The experience was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had. I remember thinking that night, I wanna feel this way all the time..
After that, I connected with a DJ Funky Caramelo, who’s part of the Cumbiatón Collective in LA. Cumbiaton is an undocumented led collective that throws amazing events every month. We met through my homie Mateo who knew Funky from organizing work. Funky reached out to me on Instagram and offered to teach me how to DJ over Zoom which was incredible; women supporting each other. From there, I bought a controller and practiced. I connected with DJ Tikka Masala, a New York based, queer, brown woman who is just a wholesome and beautiful person and was down to take me under her wing.
A couple of months after I met Tikka, I sat down with my best friend Mateo. We were just hanging out and chatting and I remember telling him, I don’t know why I keep waiting for a space to happen when I can create it myself. I was always hesitant to begin our own collective, but Cumbiatón is an example of how our own people are doing the thing, how being undocumented should not be seen as a step back but rather, la fuerza para continuar, something that’s pushing us forward. So Mateo and I were like, ok, let’s do it, let’s organize our own space.
We wanted to create events that feel like we’re migrating back home, listening to the music that we grew up with in our home countries, but in a safe space for queer people.
Mateo, who is a gorgeous trans organizer, is my oldest friend from high school. We’ve known each other for over 10 years and it’s been so beautiful to create this space with him. Right after our conversation, I started looking for an artist to make our logo and design and found Emulsify. We instantly connected and they ended up joining us to form what is now known as Arrebato. My objective for the collective was for it to be led by either formally or currently undocumented folks, and that continues to be the vision. We wanted to create events that feel like we’re migrating back home, listening to the music that we grew up with in our home countries, but in a safe space for queer people.
We posted about our first party online and people were so receptive to it. The first event was the night before Queens Pride, 2019, so it could be a pregame for the weekend, honoring Jackson Heights queerness. And maybe I’m biased, but Queens Pride is the best Pride. There were a million things to get done before the event and we were running out of time, we had around 6 vendors, 2 DJs, a photographer, folks working the door, and we had to sit down the staff of the bar to do an organizing 101 on how to respect pronouns and folks attending the space. The night of, I was so nervous that no one would show up. As soon as we opened the doors, people started coming in and it did not stop. The place was packed with queer women, femmes, and folks of color. It was literally seeing my dream place become a reality.
How did you come up with the name Arrebato?
That was Mateo. Arrebato is a moment where you just go for it. I don’t know how to totally explain it. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s a feeling. Arrebatarse is going with the moment and not overthinking it, letting loose, letting go, and coming back to yourself. We were like what’s the word for that? It’s arrebato. I was like, oh my God that’s it. Put it in a sentence. And Mateo was like, Where are you going tomorrow? I’m going to Arrebato. It just clicked. Not once have I doubted the name. We decided to search for a venue that didn’t necessarily align with the vision of the event, but was open to doing so and open to growth. That meant finding a bar that wasn’t a gay bar already. We believe in a culture shift, and we believe that our people, immigrant communities, have so much room for growth beyond the heteronormative. That means time and patience for those hard conversations and a change of perspectives. We believe in popular education, people coming into the space to grow and expand what they know.
After a lot of searching, we found El Tucanazo, which unfortunately is now closed because of the pandemic, after walking for hours, talking to managers, trying to find a space that was open to it. I spoke to Ruben, who was the manager at the time, and shared our vision and he was down to try it out. Mateo created a pamphlet for the staff explaining different concepts and approaches to respecting and honoring queer communities, and it was in Spanish too.
We all know undocumented folks are always the ones to hold it down.
At our first event, the servers were super happy, and they wanted to dance too. At one event, while we were having such a good time, the police came in out of nowhere. Now, we know this is a reality because brown and Black communities in Jackson Heights have always been over-policed. It was a wild moment. It was the Vice Unit, known for searching for sex workers. They were aggressive towards Mateo. They kicked him outside. One of the police officers was even wearing a Trump lanyard. Everything happened so quickly. The police abused their power. But that night was also so beautiful because of the way everyone showed up. Everyone started recording the police, and no one left the party that night. I remember thinking, how do you control a situation like this? The security guard let them in, which was another thing we had to address afterward with the owner, about what taking care of each other looks like without relying on the police or having to comply with them. Overall, it was a big growth opportunity, one I wish hadn’t happened, but that showed how our community literally shows up for one another. People used their bodies to defend Mateo. Undocumented people were trying to talk to the police when it should have been citizens. But we all know undocumented folks are always the ones to hold it down. It opened all the complexities of our space. When we came back inside, we stood in a circle and had a community check-in. It reaffirmed how Arrebato is so unique and special
Arrebato is a moment where you just go for it. I don’t know how to totally explain it. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s a feeling.
What was the pandemic like for you? Did you participate in the transition to digital nightlife spaces through DJing and with Arrebato?
I worked a lot. I got a puppy. I moved in with the person who was my partner during that time. It was a really exciting time for both of us because we got to choose our apartment. Eventually, we ended up realizing that what was best for both of us was to go our own ways but it was really wholesome to be able to do that full circle together. We started dating before the pandemic, we went away together right before lockdown, and when we got back, we started quarantining and then decided to take that step in our relationship. Even though it has ended, I am forever grateful for her and the ways she held me through it all. We’re now good friends.
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As a DJ, I didn’t do that many online sets or parties. I could’ve gone live a couple more times but I was working three jobs at one point. There was definitely pressure on artists and DJs to keep the party going, but for me, it felt really heavy. With Arrebato, we held a couple of digital events though that were really beautiful. We got to collaborate with Cumbiatón in Los Angeles and brought people together from across the country.
When all of the Black Lives Matter protests were happening, we already had scheduled a virtual Arrebato. It was supposed to be our one-year anniversary. We started asking ourselves, what does it look like for us as a Latine and brown collective, to show up for Black communities right now? We met and decided it was best not to hold the event, but to still pay all of our artists. I recorded a DJ set to post online and asked for donations to pass along to organizations supporting Black and trans folks.
When did you start doing in-person events again once things started opening up?
My first gig was at the Brooklyn Museum. My friend Lauren, who goes by DJ Chiquita, works at the museum and has DJed with us at Arrebato. She asked if I wanted to do a set for their First Saturday’s program. The date was the night before our first Arrebato back together and I asked if I could bring two other queer female-identified DJs from Cumbiatón. She said yes so we all got to DJ that event together. The next night in Astoria, we threw Arrebato in collaboration with Cumbiatón. We did it outside at Katch and so many people came out. We were so nervous, wondering at that time if the vaccines work, if everyone could stay safe. We had reduced capacity and people of course weren’t able to get tickets. But with all of that, it came together. I was anxious about what that new chapter in the pandemic would look like, but one thing I’ve learned is to ask for help more often. Working with Mateo and M [Emulsify], has been really transformative.
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And what about this past summer, how have things been for you?
I went to Jacob Riis beach a lot. M throws a big dyke brunch right before the Dyke March for Manhattan Pride. Everyone looks forward to it. That’s where I invited my ex-partner for the first time three years ago. We got together right after that. The brunch is always iconic. Then I went to Riis on Pride Sunday. It was the first time I spent New York Pride at the beach and it was beautiful. I used to think that I had to go to Manhattan and find the best bar and the best party, but being at the beach with my friends was probably the best Pride I’ve had. Besides Queens Pride of course which is still the best. I also went to some YAS Mama parties, which my homie runs, and they’re having a Selena tribute party in April that I am blessed I have been invited to DJ at.
What are your hopes and goals, for yourself and in general, in New York’s queer nightlife?
My hope is that we need more spaces to open. Every space is unique to its own community, but we need more spaces that are led by people like us. We are always waiting for collectives to throw an event but we don’t have a permanent space. There isn’t a particular bar that’s for femme-centered communities of Black and brown folks in queer immigrant communities. One of my long-term goals is to make a permanent space, to make Arrebato into a bar. I’ve worked in the food industry my entire life, and I’ve had the intention to open one. The goal is that it will become a bar and coffee shop led by undocumented people, in Jackson Heights. I’m looking forward to making it a reality.♦