Joaquin Lopez has lived a lot of different lives: Angeleno, activist, restaurateur, therapist. “Queer pop star in Frida Kahlo drag” is a new one, though.
“As a teenager who came out in 1989 in Aloha, gender roles were very rigid,” says Lopez, now a creative multihyphenate living in Portland. “It was either, ‘You’re a man or you’re not.’” So he quietly shut away the parts of him enchanted by “Vogue,” George Michael, and “the more tender aspects of [his] being.”
Universo, running this weekend at Milagro Theatre, is here to change that. Co-created with Lopez’s friend and collaborator Michael Cavazos, the “electro-pop emotion concert” works through Lopez’s long-held feelings of shame to arrive at something joyous, raucous, and… universal.
The promotional materials (styled by Cavazos and Project Runway alum Bryce Black) draw on icons like Kahlo, Grace Jones, and Tom of Finland. The music itself sits somewhere between current Latin pop trends (Maluma, Rosalía) and the thudding New Wave of Lopez’s youth (Depeche Mode, New Order). The themes are general (self-acceptance, finding your tribe) and specific—a recurring sun/moon motif nods directly to Latinx storytelling conventions, and the piece is threaded with the pain of coming of age at the peak of AIDS.
“Being Catholic, sex was horrible, and then on top of that, you’re gonna get AIDS when you have sex,” Lopez says. “Now I’m 43 years old, and at some point, I would love to enjoy sex. It would be nice.”
Pardon the sound of hammer on nail, but Universo is a coming out of sorts. Lopez is perhaps best known in Portland as a community activist with the Latino Network and the brains behind Voz Alta, a project he’s produced every year for a decade that synthesizes interviews with Latinx locals into music, poetry, and theater. Recently, he became a licensed therapist.
His work, in other words, has long been focused on the lives and stories of others. Universo, by contrast, is Joaquin on Joaquin: the young, openly gay Latino in Beaverton living in a self-constructed emotional prison.
“We all have that, ‘I wanna be on Oprah and tell my horrible story and have people feel sorry for me and it’ll feel good,’” Lopez says. “I felt I wasn’t being seen. It wasn’t until I realized that it wasn’t people not seeing me, it was me not seeing me, that I decided to do this.”
Lopez produced Universo as an album first, and when he finished it, he felt his demons had been properly exorcised. “I had a moment where I said, ‘I don’t need to do a show anymore, I experienced it. I felt the feelings.’” The day after he finished, local company Hand2Mouth emailed him and asked to produce his next show. “I was like, ‘Fuck, I already let go of this.’”
He accepted anyway, compelled by the opportunity a live show would offer to “tell the emotional landscape of my experience, not just the data of [my life].” He got Cavazos onboard, whom he met at a vigil for the Pulse massacre in 2016, and the pair got to work creating a visual language to complement the music. Aesthetic inspiration came from telenovelas and variety shows like Sonny & Cher.
“There’s this presentational aspect to it and this heightened sense of emotionality, it’s almost campy,” Lopez says. “But it’s very tender and genuine at the same time.”
The show goes up at Milagro—the longest-running Latino theater in the Pacific Northwest—this weekend. If all goes well, Lopez and Cavazos have plans to tour the production next summer during Pride season. They hope that the story, nonlinear and abstract as it may be, resonates beyond the communities it seeks to depict.
“I think that as queer Latinos in a city like Portland, our very specific experience is something new that people haven’t seen or heard,” Cavazos says. “And the beauty of it is that you’re going to connect to it because it’s so personal that you’re gonna realize you have such similar experience.”
8 p.m. Thu–Fri, 2 and 8 p.m. Sat, July 11–13, Milagro Theatre, $25