In this second installment of a new series of original scholarly writing engaging with the Visual AIDS Archive Project, Dani Stompor explores the legacy of the iconic Ms. Colombia. Conceived in 1994 in response to the loss of artists and their materials and documentation during the AIDS crisis, the Visual AIDS Archive Project contains 39 linear feet of materials pertaining to 566 unique artists. We remain committed to preserving artists' legacies as fully as we can, and welcome donations to our archival holdings on Ms. Colombia. Read more about our collecting policies here.

Into the Archive

Dani Stompor

I arrive at Visual AIDS on a sticky Wednesday morning. I’m scheduled to view the collected matter on Ms. Colombia, comprising one folder: Box 37, Folder 12. I’d been forewarned by several kind staff members of the “extremely limited” nature of their holdings on this particular artist. I peer inside. There is one object: a trifold brochure for the 2019–2020 exhibitions at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Art. There, on the cover, is the Lady of Jackson Heights, sporting a large bow, a ginger-tipped beard, a smattering of blush, and a gorgeous headpiece. It is pink, and netted with an assemblage of flowers, feathers, ornaments, a doll’s head, and a CD all hanging off of it. Atop rests a parrot, Rosita.

Ms. Colombia
Ms. Colombia’s folder at Visual AIDS. Photo credit: Dani Stompor

Peering into the brochure, I realize that Osvaldo Gomez (AKA Ms. Colombia AKA La Paisa AKA La Loca AKA the lady with the parrot) has nothing to do with any of the exhibitions being promoted. The cover photo, taken by Daniel Albanese near the end of Gomez’s life, is, in theory, just that: an unrelated cover photo. I know I should be dejected at what this absence of institutionally preserved materials means for our collective memory, or the difficulty it poses to my research. Looking at Ms. Colombia’s kind half-smile, however, I cannot help but feel delight in the odd disruption this small pamphlet brings to the archive. It suggests there is more to be discovered, examined, and shared about this artist that perhaps isn’t built to fit into a traditional archive.

When I tell people I’m researching Ms. Colombia, there’s often the bemused look, the silent wondering what beauty pageants have to do with queer ethnographic study or the borough of Queens. I ask them if they know La Paisa. Often, no. So instead, I begin to describe the fluorescent-colored beard, the gorgeous skirts, the parrot on the shoulder. For many Queens residents, a light of recognition enters their eyes. “Oh, I know him!” “So that’s their name…” “Everyone’s heard about the lady with the parrot.”

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La Paisa and Rosita the parrot at the 2013 Chinese New Year parade. Photo credit: Eric Truong

So it seems. This past August, the 4th annual Ms. Colombia Walk drew a dazzling array of beachgoers to Jacob Riis Beach, many in swimwear and costumes riffing on the artist’s iconic style. Ms. Colombia was a regular presence at Riis for decades, shaping the face of one of the few remaining queer spaces in the city. The 2022 Walk was made all the more timely by recent threats to the longstanding queer enclave of Riis Beach. Years of increased policing and surveillance menacing beachgoers’ autonomy were exacerbated by the announcement in May 2022 of plans to demolish the abandoned hospital complex that borders the beach. In addition to potential air and water quality concerns posed by the project, the demolition also threatens to impact the welcoming, come-as-you-are ethos of the People’s Beach. Walk organizer Carlos Villacres noted the event’s increased importance in an interview with The City: “it’s about creating the feeling we had when she was here, and Ms. Colombia didn’t need a permit to be herself.”1

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Neponsit Health Center (abandoned) at Riis Beach. Photo credit: David Shankbone

The radical act of this sort of embodied remembrance calls attention to the artist’s absence from many archives. Like the community of Riis itself, Ms. Colombia resists being forgotten through means beyond traditional memory institutions. How does one go about writing a history of someone recognized and adored by so many, yet known by remarkably few?

The Many Names of Osvaldo Gomez

This article, by its nature as a project of historical analysis and artistic assessment, runs into some immediate complications. Ms. Colombia is not really a subject to be experienced in the third person. Yet, we find ourselves confined to the temporal realities of:

-me, sitting at my computer typing this draft

-you, wherever you are, reading or otherwise experiencing this article

-Ms. Colombia, far afield from either of us

The scant mechanics of the English language necessitate my use of the third person to describe La Paisa, who when interviewed in 2010 said "They ask me: 'Excuse me, are you homo? Are you gay? Are your lesbian?' And I say: 'No, I am a human being from another planet.'"2 What name does an archive use to describe such an artist? What pronouns? Are these questions even relevant to the historicizing of Ms. Colombia?

While working, I occasionally wear a nametag with a space for pronouns to be written in pen– unyielding, unchanging ink. Yet fixity or stability of pronouns, sexuality, or gender is always a culturally-specific imagining. Attempting to historicize La Loca lays bare the logic systems of grouping, categorization, and cataloging of stratas of identity that underpin English— and with what ease Gomez dances in and around these hard borders. During an interview from 2010, the artist recalls being stopped from entering a parade: “they said no gay people allowed. I said, I am a lesbian for today!”3

Always at the heart of the figure of Ms. Colombia is an urge toward joy, toward life, and toward smiling in particular.

You might note that these same processes of categorization are foundational to the practice of archiving. An individual's archive is one manner in which American historians tend to establish the 'value' of an individual’s legacy. By choosing which materials to retain, an archive sets the terms for how a subject deemed “worthy” enough will be remembered.4 Such hierarchical thinking, often dictated by a scarcity of time and resources, is difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle from colonial projects of nation-making and exceptionalism.

I am an archivist by training, so it perhaps rings odd for me to call into question the root of my discipline. Ms. Colombia’s archival status encourages a reconsideration of the role of archives in collective memory preservation. Vagaries, confusions, and at times outright contradictions abound in La Loca’s biography, and must be embraced as we look to historicize or archive an imagined past. What follows is a brief, at times possibly untrue history, of Ms. Colombia and the neighborhood of Jackson Heights, blossoming around one another.

La Loca in the Garden City

In 1988, Jackson Heights was a powder keg waiting to explode. The neighborhood first emerged along the path of the Interborough Rapid Transit Flushing Line (now the 7 train). Planned as a garden-city style oasis that would lure residents from the hustle of Manhattan, by the 1920s Jackson Heights provided a haven for vaudeville and theatrical performers. Though it started as a segregated, WASP-only neighborhood, Jackson Heights is now among the most ethnically and linguistically diverse communities in the world. A convergence of postwar migration, white flight, and the repeal of immigration quotas via the Immigration Act of 1965 facilitated rapid demographic transformation. What we would now term queer communities flourished in Jackson Heights during the twentieth century as initial “waves” of predominantly white queers incapable of suburbanizing in the postwar era met and commingled with emerging queer populations from all across the globe, particularly Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, and other Latin American countries.

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Osvaldo Gomez at the 2009 West Indian American Parade. Photo credit: Kim Rossi

La Paisa moved to New York in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s), and attended York College (which the artist called “NYU”), receiving a degree in engineering. In another telling of the story, Gomez received a degree in bilingual education, and later a master’s in literature and philosophy from the same institution. By the late 1980s, the artist was living in Queens, either in or near Jackson Heights. In 1988, Ms. Colombia tested positive for HIV (or perhaps was diagnosed with AIDS, depending on the telling) and released any plans for the future. La Loca began calling around to various city agencies asking what was happening that day and began attending events in increasingly extravagant, elaborately hand-crafted outfits. “This is my strategy to stay alive,” Gomez said in a 2015 interview, “happiness is the best way. And that’s why I’m still alive, you understand? Because the other way… forget it.”5

By the time of Ms. Colombia’s diagnosis, Jackson Heights and the nearby neighborhoods of Elmhurst, Woodside, and Sunnyside played host to a bevy of local parades and festivals. The artist was often found in attendance alongside the bird Rosita and a small dog named Cariño. In Gomez’s words, the art of Ms. Colombia came as acts of “[interpreting] the world… the cosmos… I interpret the universe.”6 If there was nothing going on in town that day, the artist was often found on 37th Avenue, helping sell fruit or otherwise greeting residents. Having built up a local reputation, it was only natural for La Paisa to attend the borough’s first-ever Pride Parade.

The artist is all over the photos of the inaugural parade, bringing delight and smiles to the communal “coming out” of Queens. Always at the heart of the figure of Ms. Colombia is an urge toward joy, toward life, and toward smiling in particular. “I am an artist because I design smiles on the faces of other human beings,” noted Gomez.7 Disruption became a process of delight– of creating joy in the mixing and blurring of gender, of sexuality, and of past and present. Many of Ms. Colombia’s outfits started from more traditional bases, such as the Colombian pollera skirt, that was then interpolated with all sorts of objects accumulated over time. In this mixing of times, places, and peoples, Gomez invited onlookers in to share in the joy of the current moment.

Fuera de serio

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Ms. Colombia and Cariño at the 2005 Mermaid Parade. Photo credit: Genial 23

I’m back in the Visual AIDS reading room. “I wish there was more,” the person helping me says. I blurt: “It’s what I expected.” I realize, despite my archival training and my curious impulses, I am not disappointed. Disappointment is the wrong word. My interest is sharpened by Visual AIDS’ collection. I am made hungrier for Ms. Colombia’s infectious joy.

Those around Gomez were touched, transformed in some way by the encounter, if only for a moment. These memories cannot be archived, but their power lingers in the small pieces that remain. Collections like Ms. Colombia’s are animated by memory. They hold the potential to form what Sabiescu calls living archives, which both facilitate and perform a “social transmission of memory, which supports building community and identity.”8 The archive’s role in preserving specific artifacts can be strengthened by leaning into a community’s fundamentally transmissive, ever-fleeting nature.

Assessing an artist like La Paisa calls us toward interrogating practices of history-making, as well as expanding what the relationship between archives and embodied moments of connection might look like.

Community is what exists in between people– in small, intangible, at times contradictory points of encounter. I noted before my concern at the process of trying to categorize Ms. Colombia. At the same time, without some sort of “naming” of the artist— some way of defining through the collection's metadata, such as a descriptive note— the materials are impossible for future users to locate. Efforts to diffuse this hierarchical descriptive process through community-sourced practices, such as the internationally-regarded Homosaurus or by encouraging user input, can help mitigate the dangers that come with categorizing the queer. Assessing an artist like La Paisa calls us toward interrogating practices of history-making, as well as expanding what the relationship between archives and embodied moments of connection might look like.

I cannot imagine what Gomez would feel about being a part of any archive, including Visual AIDS. I do know that the legacy of Ms. Colombia, La Paisa, Osvlado Gomez, lives all across Queens. It is in Elmhurst, where the artist lived and wafted through the lives of neighbors and friends for many years. It is also in Jackson Heights, where Ms. Colombia brought color and light to queer environments in the midst of transformation. It is also on Riis, where a memorial to the artist remains at the time of this writing. The monument’s future, however, is in considerable doubt due to demolition work already underway. It is vital that we have these safe havens which hold the sort of echoes that don’t fit easily into a folder or an archival box.

I have clung fast to the little fragments institutions like Visual AIDS are capable of holding on to. One small brochure cover has the potential to start new journeys of research and discovery for future users. At the same time, what Gomez envisioned was an art practice that embraced the strange, the outrageous, the “fuera de serio, fuera de normal.” Historical and critical analysis must similarly bend convention when looking at such artists, delving beyond our comfort with fixity. We must look to the dynamic spaces artists like Gomez lived and created in and merge institutional knowledges, such as those found within repositories, with embodied knowledges of those touched– whether they know it or not– by the act of creation.

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Ms. Colombia Memorial at Jacob Riis Beach. Photo credit: Dani Stompor

1. Iezzi, Annie. “Queer Riis Beachgoers Celebrate Community as Demolition of Nearby Hospital Looms.”The City (New York, NY), August 29, 2022.

2. Heller, Nicolas. Ms. Colombia. No Your City. April 13, 2015. Video, 4 min.

3. PachangaTijeras. La Paisa Documentary. December 20, 2010. Video, 7 min.

4. Taylor, Marvin. “‘I’ll Be Your Mirror, Reflect What You Are’: Postmodern Documentation and the Downtown New York Scene from 1975 to the Present,” RBM A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring 2002): 32-51.

5. Lopez, Alexandra. La Vida Loca aka “The Miss Colombia Project.” May 18, 2010. Video, 8 min.

6. Lopez.

7. Lopez.

8. Sabiescu, Amalia G. “Living Archives and The Social Transmission of Memory.” The Museum Journal, vol 63, no. 4 (October 2020): 497-510.

About The Author

Dani Stompor is an archivist and historical researcher studying the history of queer social organizing in Queens, the history of HIV/AIDS in the outer boroughs, and stories of migration and transit. They are an archival fellow at the Special Collections and Archives at Queens College, CUNY, where they are also a masters candidate in the departments of History and Library Science. Dani is currently working to preserve the journals of the Gender, Love, and Sexuality Alliance (GLASA). You can contact them at dstompor@outlook.com

Miss Colombia

Ms. Colombia