BY ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Last Friday, the streets of Jackson Heights were packed with people of all colors, religions and sexualities, gathered to celebrate the life of Ms. Colombia — a person everyone knew and loved; a person who embraced every day of life.
Ms. Colombia, 64, was born Oswaldo Gómez in Colombia, and immigrated to Queens in the 1990s to escape drug wars and violence in his native country.
“I decided to come to the United States for my own freedom, because by the time I left my country, nobody can dress like this — they’d kill you,” Ms. Colombia said in an interview with No Your City in 2015. “I like to be free. Free and honest from God.”
Ms. Colombia would wear bright-colored fluffy dresses, colorful tutus and tights, a colored long beard and a handmade hat with flowers of all colors topped with a live pigeon and parrot. Completing his outfit was his companion, his all-white pup, that too was known for the colorful hair dye on its ears, tail and paws.
While many categorized Ms. Colombia as transgender, he never labeled himself. He never cared which pronoun people used or how they referred to him.
“They ask me, ‘Are you homo?’ ‘Are you gay?’ ‘Are you lesbian?’ I say no, I am a human being from another planet,” Ms. Colombia said.
Gómez became Ms. Colombia more than 20 years ago, when he was informed by his doctor that he had AIDS and only had one year to live.
From that moment on, Ms. Colombia decided to live every day as if it were his last, never looking at the past but instead only looking forward. He attributed his survival for more than two decades with the deadly disease to his happiness.
On Oct. 4, Ms. Colombia was found dead at Jacob Riis Park, his favorite place, according to friends, which accounted for his nickname of the Queen of Riis Park. According to police, at approximately 3:30 a.m. his body was found in the water near Beach 149th Street. Police believe there was no foul play and that the beloved Ms. Colombia drowned.
While medical examiners are still investigating, members of the Queens community are not mourning the death of Ms. Colombia. Rather, they are reflecting on his life and celebrating the emblematic individual that he was.
“Ms. Colombia, aka Oswaldo Gómez, was an iconic figure in the LGBT community and beyond,” said Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights). “She was beloved by all who saw her in the streets, at parades and in the neighborhood wearing her colorful outfits and a bird on her shoulder. Her cheerfulness and ability to bring a smile to the faces of all who met her will be missed by all New Yorkers. I remember marching with Ms. Colombia at the first Queens Pride Parade and at other parades across the city, including the India Day Parade and the Chinese New Year Parade, among others. While life did not always treat Ms. Colombia with all the respect she was due, New Yorkers will remember Ms. Colombia as a hero to everyone. May Ms. Colombia rest in peace.”
Andrés Duque, blogger of Blabbeando and co-founder of the former Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association, recounted his first encounter with Ms. Colombia, whom Duque nicknamed “La Paisa” because he immigrated from the Paisa region of Colombia. Ms. Colombia marched with the Colombian Lesbian and Gay Association in both the Queens and Manhattan pride parades in 1996, and eventually became a member.
“During that point of time, it wasn’t kind of normal like it is today to see people dress the way La Paisa did,” said Duque. “The way he portrayed himself elicited a lot of different reactions. Some people embraced him, while others looked at him in disgust. But for me, I thought he was this amazing figure that was here to be himself.”
One of Duque’s fondest memories of “La Paisa” was in the early 2000s, when Duque, who at the time led a coalition of gay Latino organizations, decided to walk in the city’s annual Puerto Rican Day Parade with other members of the LGBTQ community, including La Paisa.
“I remember we wanted to make sure that it was a very visible contingent,” said Duque. “I remember how intimidating it was walking into that huge crowd, because I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction we’d get. We were huddled on 5th Avenue. A lot of people applauded us, but some yelled homophobic names and started throwing water bottles at us. I could never forget how La Paisa just threw himself at the crowds with his big smile. People would should homophobic things at him but he would just laugh and joke and didn’t let anything get to him. He was so forceful in terms of knowing we’re going to get negative reactions, but to him it didn’t matter. He was like, ‘We’re here and we’re going to face you.’”
Duque, who learned of Ms. Colombia’s death on Twitter, said that approximately three years ago, rumors had surfaced on social media that Ms. Colombia had passed away. Duque said it wasn’t until last month, when he bumped into La Paisa at the Roosevelt Avenue subway station, that he learned the rumors weren’t true. He began spreading the word that Ms. Colombia was still alive.
While Ms. Colombia was known for his colorful clothes, beard and conspicuous presence in the community, Duque said when he encountered Ms. Colombia at the subway station, he was dressed in a masculine manner — wearing shorts and a blazer with no colored hair. Duque said he looked a bit frail but “seemed fine.”
In recent years, Ms. Colombia seemed to have “retired from his character,” Duque added. He wasn’t present at any parades and was rarely seen in the community.
“He created this character that sustained him in his life,” said Duque. “He was this figure that everyone knew. You could never miss him walking down the street. He would stop people in the streets and would make over a thousand jokes a minute. People loved it. Some of his jokes were raunchy and some milder, but people reacted to it and loved him for it. He became a known presence in the neighborhood that was embraced.”
Duque, a member of the LGBTQ community and immigrant from Colombia, said he identified with “Ms. Colombia” and his life story.
“I think that in general, people who saw him on the street truly knew who he was or how he was,” said Duque. “All they knew was the character. He was a character then and he’s a character now. He was an amazing person that will be missed not just by the Queens LGBTQ community, but all over the world.”
Last Friday, Dromm gathered in front of the Jackson Heights Post Office with members of Make the Road New York, the Caribbean Equality Project, Generation Q, GMHC, elected officials and over a hundred local residents for a memorial vigil for Ms. Colombia. Dromm reflected on his very first encounter with Ms. Colombia, at the Queens LGBTQ Pride Parade more than 20 years before.
“Ms. Colombia’s colorful outfits, flamboyancy and great sense of fun always brought a smile to everyone’s face,” said Dromm. “She was unafraid to be out and proud about who she was. May her life serve as a reminder to all of us to live our truths, and may she rest in peace.”
Reach Ariel Hernandez at email@example.com or @reporter_ariel.