house of xtravaganza is new york's most fabulous family
The iconic, queer, all-Latinx ballroom house reunited to perform at the Aperture Gala in NYC, alongside disco diva Kathy Sledge.
Photo by Sean Zanni
Few things are as quintessentially 80s as New York’s underground ballroom scene. The queer, POC-led subculture was then popularized in song by none other than Madonna almost a decade later, though it quickly became one of the most apparent examples of cultural appropriation. It featured Jose and Luis Xtravaganza, members of House of Xtravaganza, one of the original houses that made a name for themselves. While the community often hung out mostly on the piers of Manhattan’s West Side and frequented downtown discos and nightclubs like Paradise Garage, when acclaimed voguer Hector Valle founded the all-Latinx group in 1982, future members of the community felt they finally had a home. Decades have passed, but House of Xtravaganza is still very much a family today and last night’s 2018 Aperture Gala served as a reunion of sorts.
“It was really getting this overwhelming response of positivity and love that drew me to Xtravaganza,” Angie Xtravaganza, who joined the house in 2009, told Aperture Magazine. “It’s one thing to have that from your biological family, but they have to love you. These are random people who have no claim to you; they don’t have to love you and don’t have to care about you, but they take the time to love you and take care of you and appreciate you.”
Jose Xtravaganza, a “one time Madonna choreographer and current father of the house,” recounts walking into Danni Xtravaganza’s apartment to see nine or ten sleeping bags on the floor, as the parents and elders often housed their children when needed. Everyone looked out for each other and protected each other when necessary. The community was chronicled during their youth in Jennie Livingston’s seminal 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, the more recent Walk! tracks the voguing scene from the late 80s to today, and Joseph Cassar’s debut novel The House of Impossible Beauties was directly inspired by the Xtravaganzas.
There’s a renewed interest in the queer ball culture of the late 80s, especially evidenced by Ryan Murphy’s tv series Pose, which made history by casting five transgender lead actors. For that reason, and a few others, Pose is maybe the most important show on TV right now. Over time, their fierce bond began to separate them from other houses, making the voguing group the perfect performers to close out the Aperture Gala, “celebrating photography’s role in expanding our vision of family.” They joined Kathy Sledge on stage, dancing to disco classics like “Good Times,” “He’s The Greatest Dancer,” and of course, “We Are Family.”
Family bonds were also prevalent among the Aperture Gala honorees, with the mother daughter arts philanthropist duo that is Agnes and Catherine Gund. Carrie Mae Weems gave a moving performance to recognize the work of another duo – mother and son – in Dr. Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas, whose collective work exploring the intersections of race, identity, and image-making, has expanded the understanding of representations of African American family life within photography history.
Photographer Catherine Opie was honored for her work documenting different American communities, like San Francisco’s lesbian leather scene, all the while creating a visual record of LGBTQ families – through photos of her own family and that of others. Opie stressed the importance of chosen families, like the tight-knit community of artists who’ve supported her through the years. “Our chosen families allow us to grown as people,” she said.