[dropcap]I[/dropcap]f you can pronounce Karen’s last name, you’ve earned your brownie points! Though I’ve known her for several years, Ms. Ruby still has problems. It’s Ahn-zoh-ah-tay-gee and its origins are Basque.
As a child, Karen, her two older brothers, and her mother shuffled to and from Argentina, Paraguay, and California, to escape her father’s violent temper. Karen eventually claimed Los Angeles her home. After earning a Bachelor of Theatre Arts from Loyola Marymount University, Karen worked with clients at Bienestar, a multilevel AIDS organization for the Latin community, where she realized that she could blend her art (playwright, performer, artist) with social activism! Karen describes herself as an “Artivist.”
In 2013, she premiered her one-woman show, ¡Ser! (“Be” in English). Featuring live music, the personal narrative explores Karen’s strained relationship with her two homes, Los Angeles and Buenos Aires, in addition to her queerness and love affair with soccer. For her performance, she received five L.A. Weekly nominations, winning two. She hopes to tour the show, with her first appearance booked in October at MACLA in San Jose, California. Today, she’s putting finishing touches on her documentary, Catholic School Daze and hopes to do a solo show about that as well.
Karen and I opt to have a “galpal” weekend and we retreat to Palm Springs. We plant our butts at the
newly revamped Triada, which had been vacant for twenty years. Under the Marriott umbrella, this Spanish Hacienda has nearly sixty ravishing units. Formerly known as The Spanish Inn, an iconic “in-the-day” place for notables, it was built in 1939 and eventually purchased by actor Alan Ladd’s widow in his memory. Elizabeth Taylor and Howard Hughes had permanent residences here.
When we check-in late Friday night, Lois on the front desk couldn’t have been more charming and accommodating (Jeffrey is also a gem.) Soft eclectic music plays throughout the lobby, sometimes reminiscent of a bygone era, tunes sung by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and even Gloria Gaynor. Our room is attractive homey and its appointments, like crown moldings and pin spot mood lighting, are punctuated by Joan Miro-esque paintings that give the space a posh touch.
After attending a DAP (Desert AIDS Project) fundraiser—they do such fabulous work there—the next day, in the late afternoon, we don our bathing suits and sit at the edge of the pool, where alluring Lana Turner and swim-gymnast Esther Williams once lounged. At once, we both kick our legs playfully splashing the water on each other.
Ruby Comer: That’s about all the energy I have left, girl, after our challenging hike today up Mt. Jacinto. You usually describe yourself as “gender queer.” Tell me about that.
Karen Anzoategui: I identify as both genders and my preferred gender pronoun is “they/them.”
As you know, I don’t believe in labels. It’s too limiting. I mean, look, God is genderless. [Her cell rings. She puts it on mute.] You know, Karen, it’s beguiling how you merge both passions—art and social work.
I want to share art as a tool in the process of transformation.
[I clap generously.] Honey, tell me about your work at Bienestar.
I worked with issues of discrimination and poverty. I worked in case management and housing placement for the homeless and was also an STD/HIV testing counselor. My clients were predominantly immigrants, transgender, long-term survivors, and newly diagnosed. I met HIV-positive immigrants and heard their stories of struggle, of being persecuted for being gay. [Karen looks off and ponders.] You know, at one point, I was in a West Hollywood testing site just outside of the clubs. That time period was filled with such interesting characters and situations.…
I’m sure it was. How long have you worked in this field and what are you currently doing?
I’ve worked for nine years with the HIV community in many capacities, including, as I just mentioned, case management, social work, and prevention. This experience has equipped me with skills to use art as a pathway to success, as a tool for education. I’m currently conducting workshops in life skills. I also teach art classes.
Tell me, have you lost anyone to this challenging disease?
I have lost both friends and clients. It was tough when my clients passed. The last one was transgender and she was strong, someone who spoke her mind. [She pauses.] At one point, I sat in her apartment as the smell of diarrhea was in the air. When I assured her that this [painful] situation was temporary, her soul surfaced in her eyes and she glared at me. I knew the end was near, even though she kept fighting until her body could not take it any longer.
Makes me heartsick. [I take a spoonful of Greek blueberry yogurt, which I ordered from room service, and put in my mouth. Gotta get my late afternoon protein fix.] Say, Karen, what made you choose public service?
When I focused on myself the world looked dismal. I felt pain and struggle. With friends and colleagues who were HIV positive, I felt a bond. When I shared my energy with the HIV community I learned and grew. I didn’t focus on what was going wrong in their lives, but instead focused on what was right for them. They were role models for me, living testaments of survival. Working in social services can try your triggers. I had to work through my own judgments and show compassion. As I heal myself, I become stronger and better able to help others.
Was there a catharsis?
The compassion I learned in social services deepened my understanding and acceptance of humanity and aided me as a writer. The work became part of a philosophy and I was able to use it as a tool of self-analysis and discovery.
My clients taught me to listen deeply. It was more than any other training I could receive in school. I learned to get out of my own way and listen to what is truly going on [within the client] other than what the client was telling me. I learned about myself by listening to others. They give me wisdom by sharing their stories. When you give, Ruby, you truly receive.
That’s what they tell me! [We laugh.] How did you learn about the epidemic?
It was when Magic Johnson publicly announced that he had AIDS. I became more aware while watching The Real World with Pedro Zamora, a Cuban living in San Francisco. I was raised partly by my Cuban godparents so I immediately related to Pedro. Through Pedro’s journey, HIV was humanized. I would watch how he would carry himself as he was degraded by others, misunderstood, and judged. I felt connected to his pain, though I couldn’t understand what it felt like to be infected. I connected with his desire to live.
Ah, yes. I remember Pedro well. What a hero. I know you’ve been active in fundraising….
Yes, I made a burlesque calendar in 2009 to benefit AIDS Healthcare Foundation. We would have burlesque shows in Hollywood with Rockabilly bands and I would host the stand up comedy. I actually got to perform for Dita Von Teese. [She smiles.] It was quite a special contribution to the community. I’ve also hosted other events.
What else triggered your activism?
Injustices were happening all around me. I had to bring about a change. I cannot go on with life wearing blinders. My parents’ tumultuous relationship was very difficult and was damaging but it also gave me a need to tell my own story.
And where does your story go from here?
I look forward to conducting workshops, contributing to youth in universities and high schools, to empower their journey towards self-expression and personal growth.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].