Bella Sin discovered burlesque the first time she skipped class at Lincoln High School.
“I went to the library — I’m so bad. That’s where I found A Pictorial of Burlesque,” she confesses. It was from 1956. "I pretty much read the whole book. I struggled, but I read it, and I was super-enamored with that whole idea of it.”
After her mom married an American, Bella Sin left her home in Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico and moved to Denver in 1999. She learned conversational English from singing Nina Simone songs — notoriously belting out “Mississippi Goddamn” as a six-year-old — but still struggled to fit into her new home. During her teenage goth phase, listening to Marilyn Manson instead of Corrido, Bella says she was too güera to fit in with the other Mexicans, but as an immigrant, she stuck out among the white kids.
“I understood the opportunity that this had for us, but explaining it to people, it’s like you’re happy but you’re scared, but you’re excited, but you’re terrified," she says. "It’s also a very lonely process.”
Through burlesque, Bella discovered a stage on which to find herself — even if she wasn’t technically legally allowed. With a fake ID, she started taking classes from the glittorious Vivienne VaVoom at seventeen; her neighbors, who performed as drag queens, also took her under their wing.
“They used to take me up and say, 'We’re going to teach you about prom,'” Bella recalls. “They were like, 'This is how you do your makeup, and this is what you do about clothing.' And they were Latinas and African-American drag queens, and I loved spending time with them. It was so inspirational to me. They gave me this space where I could explore, and they’d teach me about walking and personality and stage presence.”
At eighteen years old, Bella Sin officially debuted performing to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” at the old Onyx Theater.
When Bella moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 2003, she says she felt marginalized for the first time in her life.
“If I had a dollar for every time I heard ‘Sweetie, where’s your boss?’ and ‘We don’t let Mexicans work in here,’ or ‘Oh, you’re one of the good ones...,’” Bella says. “[The stereotypes] started being so toxic that I didn’t want to be defined as who I was and by my background and my heritage.”
She'll never forget a friend who turned the negativity on its head, she recalls. “They’re like, 'You don’t have to take apologies from anybody. You are Mexican, you are Latina, you are an immigrant, and those are the wonderful things that shape you and make you.'
“That really honestly woke me up to be proud and happy, and I started combating the nonsense,” she says.
Over the past decade, Bella has built a place of her own in the Cleveland burlesque scene, producing, performing, revitalizing history and collecting awards along the way. Since Donald Trump was elected president on a promise to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, she promised to perform exclusively to music by Latino composers — a decision that not only inspired her to revisit the Vicente Fernandez songs of her youth, but also to embrace the whole Spanish oeuvre.
Bella's short list begins with classics like ’60's pop singer Eydie Gormé and mariachi band Los Panchos, and includes ’90's alt-rock bands Café Tacvba and Jaguares; Chingon, which was featured on the Kill Bill soundtrack; Puerto Rican rapper Daddy Yankee; pop singer Camila Cabello; divas Ana Gabriel and Rocio Durcal; Juárez hero Juan Gabriel; "and Selena and anything Selena covers."
“That’s how the Hispanic Burlesque Showcase came about. I was tired of not having representation of my own, with my own to do shows,” says Bella, who produced the first showcase in May 2017. In the wake of the first showcase's success, Bella Sin put out a call to all Latino, Hispanic, Mexican, Latinx and Afro Latino performers to take the show on the road.
The Hispanic Burlesque Showcase hits the Clocktower Cabaret tonight, Thursday, October 4, and will include acts from Panama City's own Amber Lush, Seattle-based Kiki Mustang, Colorado transplant Dee Dee D’Luxe, and Thornton-based Carmen Ghia.
Although this is the first time she will be introduced on stage as a Chicana, Carmen Ghia says she often sews her heritage into her costumes with dingle balls and fringe. Celebrating her love of the ’80s, she will be performing “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” by Tommy James, and Van Halen’s “Little Guitars.” As with any show, Carmen says, “I’m excited, nervous and ready."
The "act is dedicated to the land of my Mayan ancestors, El Salvador," Dee Dee D'Luxe says. "The song I'll be dancing to is 'Serevina,' by Chingon. It's a beautiful song, sensual and powerful, and one I've been dying to perform in the right setting."
Kiki Mustang, a first-generation daughter of Cuban and Argentinean immigrants, is bringing an original spoken-word poem, “Brown Lip Liner Pencil,” and a dirty bump-and-grind choreographed to “Abusadora,” by Wisin and Yandel, inspired by tragedy. In 2016, when 49 club-goers were shot and killed at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Kiki Mustang remembers thinking, “That's my M.O. if I was someone in Orlando, that’s where I would have been that night.”
“I’ve always seen a connection between traditional and classic bump-and-grind in burlesque,” Kiki says. “I always felt like I do that, but on the dance floor to reggaetón songs, and so I picked this reggaetón song and married it to traditional bump-and-grind moves. ... The song itself is about a woman in a nightclub who’s killing it on the dance floor and just having so much fun, and it’s really hot.”
While the show is meant to be a celebration of Latin culture and bodies, “it’s highlighting something that is a touchy subject in America," she adds. "But Latinos and people of Hispanic origin are American, and we are all over the country. It shouldn’t be thought of as very nuanced. It should be held...every year.”
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Amanda Pampuro cut her teeth reporting for the Mariana’s Variety and is now the Denver correspondent for Courthouse News. When she’s not freelancing or writing fiction, she enjoys making slightly-burnt baked goods.