Garza, trans Latina HIV advocate and drag house founder, dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Friday October 7, 2022
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Garza in her Wonder Woman costume, which she wore at both performances and when she was doing HIV outreach. Photo: Courtesy Pricilla Murray from "Garza"
Garza in her Wonder Woman costume, which she wore at both performances and when she was doing HIV outreach. Photo: Courtesy Pricilla Murray from "Garza"

Garza, a transgender Latina woman who was a recruiter for HIV studies and was the founder of the House of Garza, died September 27 at Kaiser Hospital in San Francisco with her mother, Dońa Antonia Suárez, and closest friends at her side. She was 60.

The cause of death was organ failure, her close friends Carlos Venturo and his husband, Joseph Copley, told the Bay Area Reporter. Garza had been hospitalized since August battling an infection that originated in her gallbladder, they said.

Garza went by different names over the years, as she herself said in "Garza," a 2010 documentary produced by Pricilla Murray. She was born José Carlos Asencios Suárez and later, after she transitioned, was known as María José Garza, Venturo and Copley said. Finally, she was mostly just known by one name, Garza.

"She navigated between her boy side and her girl side," Venturo said.

Garza emigrated from Peru to the U.S. In the documentary, she said that when she was 9 years old in Peru she was raped by a teacher. Later, she said that she was brutally attacked as she returned home from a show. Not feeling safe, Garza decided to leave the country. She came to the U.S. in 2002.

While in Peru, Garza trained as a ballet dancer at the National Ballet School of Peru. Venturo met Garza in 1991 at the Ballet Municipal de Lima, where Garza spent a large part of her career, he said.

In an email, Murray stated that she enjoyed working with Garza on the documentary.

"Her purity and sincerity in helping those in need drew me to Garza as a subject for a photo project," Murray stated. "We would meet every Monday from 3-6 p.m. Sometimes, we talked in our sessions; other times, I recorded or filmed her. The project evolved into three-year documentation that became a short multimedia documentary that has carried her message of love."

San Francisco resident and dance icon Carolyn Carvajal first met Garza when she was dancing 19th century waltzes as part of a dance gig at a party for the end of the old Academy of Sciences, she wrote in a text message to the B.A.R.

"Our soul connection was immediately felt. She moved into our home in 2011," Carvajal wrote, referring to her husband, Carlos, also a well-known dancer. "Over the next nine years we had many late night heart-to-heart talks revealing his/her depth of understanding and sensitivity and kindness.

"She really brought me up to date on gender issues," Carvajal added.

Carvajal noted that Garza "never missed an opportunity to dress up in glamorous gowns and high heels for gala events or parties at home."

Garza lived with the couple in the Haight neighborhood until "COVID rearranged all our lives," Carvajal stated.

Garza's mother, Dona Antonia Suárez, left, and Garza's longtime friend, Carlos Venturo, spoke about Garza during the Queerazon event at El Rio in the Mission on Friday, September 30. Photo: Christopher Robledo  

House of Garza
In San Francisco, Garza was the mother of the House of Garza, which was founded in 2008, its Facebook page stated. She was also Queen of the Knights of the House of Garza. The house raised funds for countless nonprofit organizations that were meaningful to the LGBTQIA2S+ community, Copley and Venturo said.

"She was the first drag mother to a lot of people," Venturo said. Events were mostly held at Cafe Flore "back in the day," he added, and funds were raised for Latinx community organizations such as AGUILAS: El Ambiente, Hermanos de Luna y Sol (Brothers of the Moon and Sun), El/La Para TransLatinas, as well as groups Dance Through Time, SF is Ready, and others.

Mat Rosswood, a founding member of the House of Garza, fondly recalled his friend. He was a knight and has honorary membership in the house, though he has not performed in many years. A former Bay Area resident, Rosswood now lives in New York state.

"Garza held weekly fundraisers and would invite a different charity every week to benefit," Rosswood said in a phone interview, adding that she also reached out to the community for raffle prizes.

He enjoyed his time in the house.

"The only time Britainya performed was for Garza," he said, referring to his drag persona.

"Garza was a person of incredible strength," Rosswood said, adding he was deeply saddened when he learned she was ill. "Her memory endures. She was a beacon of joy to anybody she touched."

Kippy Marks, a violinist and electronic dance music artist in San Francisco, was also in the House of Garza.

"The way she united so many loving people together was amazing," Marks wrote in an email. "Garza had a way about her that embraced a tremendous amount of love to everyone she encountered.

"Because of Garza I was blessed to have met people that I consider my chosen family," Marks added. "The House of Garza is and will always be my true house."

Titles Garza earned included Ms. Gay Safe Latina (2004, 2005), Ms. Gay Latina (2003), Queen of Krewe de Kinque Mardi Gras Club, AIDS Housing Alliance/SF Miss Desperate Divas (2007), Ms. Esta Noche, Miss La Raza, as well as winning Dancing with the Drag Stars and other honors.

"All of these titles gave Garza great pride, and she continually used her growing platform to give back to the community by mentoring, fundraising, and supporting LGBTQIA2s+ causes and people," Copley and Venturo wrote in an email.

In 2018, Garza competed for the San Francisco Carnival title.

Before coming to the U.S., she began performing in drag at various gay clubs and bars around Lima, she told the B.A.R. at the time. Her drag name was a nickname she was given derived from garza blanca, the Spanish name for the great egret, an all-white heron with long legs found in Florida.

"I wasn't a swan but I was an egret," Garza explained in a phone interview at the time.

An avid lover of the performing arts and culture, "she could always be found (looking fabulous) at the opening night of the San Francisco Opera season, ODC/Dance Gala, the San Francisco Ballet, as well as celebrating the talents of performers at the Oasis, The Stud, Aunt Charlie's Lounge, Marlena's and more," Copley and Venturo wrote in an email. "The venue never mattered - wherever Garza stood, it was a performance venue...even her kitchen (if you were lucky enough to have her cooking)."

HIV work
Since 2005, Garza worked for the San Francisco Department of Public Health's Bridge HIV unit. She was a community events specialist who recruited people for vaccine studies and did other outreach, Copley and Venturo said.

Venturo said that Garza's personality made her a great recruiter. "She was so charismatic," he said.

Staff at Bridge HIV posted on Facebook and mourned Garza's passing.

"We are heartbroken to have lost our beloved Garza, a core member of the Bridge HIV team for 17 years, who embodied the heart and soul of who we at Bridge HIV aspire to be," the statement read. "Garza joined the Community Programs team at Bridge in September of 2005, quickly learning about all of the HIV prevention studies we conduct. She was hired as a recruiter, but became so much more - she was a true liaison to many communities with whom we work."

Additionally, Garza did community outreach and education about HIV prevention, and later COVID prevention according to the statement. She was a peer health navigator for transgender women, providing counseling and linkage to many different types of services, the agency stated.

"Garza elevated how we support our communities with programs such as Hot and Healthy, a monthly drag production that raised funds for Bay Area HIV/LGBTQ/trans organizations," the post stated.

She often wore her Wonder Woman costume, which attracted attention and interest in the health department's studies and HIV prevention, the agency noted.

"Everyone seemed to want to talk and take selfies with Garza, who was selfless with her time and energy," the post stated. "Garza was a talented dancer and teacher, leading us to dance through Pride parade formations, ever patient as we strived to learn her dance routines to make her proud."

In addition to her HIV work, Venturo and Copley said that Garza was a beloved teacher of Movement for Parkinson's disease in the John Argue Method, a comprehensive exercise program designed to help people improve flexibility, balance, gait, and communication, according to a book Argue wrote on the topic.

Garza was born in Paramonga, Peru on July 7, 1962 to Suárez and the late Máximo Asencios.

In addition to her mother, Garza is survived by her siblings Jesús Renato, María del Carmen, Juan Manuel, and Magaly.

In addition to Copley and Venturo, Garza's chosen family included Nevér Navarro, and indeed, countless communities are also in mourning, Copley and Venturo stated.

Funeral services, a celebration of life, and interment will take place at the convenience of the family, Venturo and Copley said. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence are supporting the planning of events, and the Transgender District leadership is in conversation about a mural commemorating Garza's contributions to the community, Copley and Venturo said.

Arrangements are being handled by the San Francisco Columbarium. In the meantime, Copley and Venturo said that Garza's family will be in attendance at a fundraiser being produced by Krewe de Kinque at the Midnight Sun, 4067 18th Street, Saturday, October 15, from 4 to 7 p.m.

Updated, 10/25/22: A Catholic funeral Mass will be held Saturday, October 29, at 11 a.m. at Mission Dolores Basilica, 3321 16th Street, in San Francisco.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to a GoFundMe that Copley and Venturo have set up to help with memorial and other expenses. To donate, click here.

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