‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Champions Diversity, Except When it Comes to its Puerto Rican Queens

If you watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, the fabulous reality TV competition that looks for “America’s next drag superstar,” you’re probably familiar with the various types of queens that have sashayed into the show’s bright pink workroom. You have your comedy queens, your fishy girls, your pageant queens, your big girls… But perhaps the unlikeliest drag queen category to emerge from the show is that of the “Puerto Rican queen,” which is quite a broad category. I mean, how can all Puerto Rican queens be lumped together like that? And yet, the show has really pushed one kind of queen from the island over its eight seasons.

This season’s Cynthia Lee Fontaine is a perfect example. Take her entrance in the premiere episode. Scored by some Latin drums, she arrived at the workroom wearing big hair, a big booty, and introduced herself with the charming, “How you doin’ mis amores?” before asking, “Do you want to see my kuku?” while pointing at her padded behind. When fellow Puerto Rican-born queen Naysha Lopez recognized her, we got to see the type of edit Cynthia would get by the show’s producers. In the on-camera interviews that are threaded through the show, Naysha tells us that, “You don’t really understand what she’s saying, but you don’t really care!” a feeling echoed the following week when Bob the Drag Queen would say the same almost word for word while praising her niceness during the behind the scenes companion show Untucked: “She’s genuine, and we all like Cynthia. She is funny — even though I don’t know what the fuck she’s saying half the time!”

“The show has really pushed one kind of queen from the island over its eight seasons.”

It’s a line all too familiar for Drag Race aficionados. From season two’s Jessica Wild to season four’s Kenya Michaels, many of the Anglo queens on the show have fallen on the tired notion that language barriers are both hilarious and endearing.

To be fair, at times it’s been undeniable. During season four’s famous “Snatch Game” episode, where queens are asked to impersonate a famous celebrity for a RuPaul-hosted version of the classic Match Game show, Kenya Michaels gave Ru what is probably the worst ever impersonation of Beyoncé to date — described by RuPaul as being uncomfortable to watch. Indeed, that challenge has been particularly hard for those queens whose English is delightfully Boricua (see: Yara Sofia’s bonkers version of “Amy Winehouse” in season 3) though others have tried to use it in their favor: season five’s Lineysha Sparx, for example, changed her mind last minute and rather than risk offering a poor impersonation of Michelle Obama, opted to impersonate Celia Cruz. Not that it helped her: judges and Ru alike seemed at a loss in making sense of this culturally specific riff and it led to Lineysha’s elimination that week.

“The obstacle that PR queens face when they go on Drag Race is their need to overcome the “kooky loca” persona that they exploit but that often defines them in front of judges and audiences.”

But the whole “none of us understand what they are saying!” reached peak levels this past week which saw Cynthia Lee sashay away (read: get eliminated) after performing poorly in a performance challenge where her off-kilter histrionics were a rather poor fit for the Empire-inspired scenes that RuPaul inexplicably asked her queens to stage: “I didn’t know what you were saying,” said judge Carson Kressley, “but I didn’t care!” It’s a tired line at this point in the game, not even laced with the type of delicious puns that make Ru’s reads be that much more effective (see: “Kenya, impersonating Beyonce is not your Destiny, child”). It as especially odd given that Kressley and others seemed to be finding fault with the performance and not really with her diction. There was plenty to find fault in Cynthia’s performance (as well as in some other queens who got scot-free) but her English really wasn’t it.

It speaks to the extra obstacle that PR queens face when they go on Drag Race in their need to overcome the “kooky loca” persona that the queens exploit but that often defines them in front of the judges and audiences alike. Drag Race has made a name for itself by promoting what might be the most diverse cast of characters in any reality TV competition but there’s always room for improvement. As Yara Sofia would say, “Echa echa echa pa’lante!”