| Galveston’s LGBTQ community loses an icon
By Forest Riggs
Allow me to begin this writing with an apology. Penning a column every two weeks, I keep a list of things and people in the Galveston LGBTQ community that I want to feature, mention or highlight. As there is so much going on in our community, it is difficult to get around to some of the entries on my list. You know the old adage, “The pathway to hell is paved with good intentions.” Well, I guess it is. For a long time now I have planned to feature one of the community’s most colorful and beloved characters, Mayra Sanchez. Now it is too late to interview and share her story while living. So Mayra, I am sorry I missed it, Darling. Please forgive.
Galveston is chock-full of characters and, in the LGBTQ community, the drag queens and performers hold a very special place. Loved or despised, they are the Island stars. Like in any community, they range from the “once in a while dress-up” type to flamboyant men and women that grew up lip-synching with their mother’s blue hair brush to The Supremes, late at night in front of a mirror. (Hmm…make that Loretta Lynn or Marlene Dietrich and I will have spilled my own secret.)
For a little boy growing up in rural Mexico, and not in the best of circumstances, music and making people laugh became a life-long obsession and passion for one Azariel “Alex” Sanchez, AKA Mayra Sanchez. Early on, Mayra learned that by using his deep brown eyes, dimpled cheeks and often mingling them with a little self-deprecation, he could make people laugh and be entertained. As a small boy, he loved to bat his long lashes, cut his eyes and become the little coquette that would develop into the Mayra that all of Galveston (and visitors) knew and loved.
Mayra was a staple in the performing community and, over the many years, thrilled, shocked, enveloped, and sometimes pissed off the crowds. Mayra was known for her love of tequila and, after too many, letting loose the loudest screech of “Ayeeee!” one has ever heard. Mayra Sanchez, live on stage, toying with the audience at the edge of the curtain like a schoolgirl was something to see. Give her a number by the Mexican Goddess of song, Lola Beltran, and she would charm the house.
Mayra loved to sing “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” and she did so with all of her heart and soul. Practically in tears, she would exit the stage leaving the crowd stunned. “Please, no pictures, no pictures please…. I am a shy girl,” would often be her mantra as she entered or left a club. That painted smile, when performing, coupled with some missing teeth, made her even more charming.
She knew how to work the room. “Oh, is this a gay bar?” she would shyly exclaim and then screech at the top (or bottom) of her lungs.
Everyone agrees that there has never been anyone like Mayra Sanchez. The Island diva, Misty Valdez, when learning of the sad news, stated, “I lost a really close friend of many years. We performed together, we cooked, and we had a good run. I will miss her.”
Misty is not alone. An entire community will miss their Mayra. Sometimes sitting at a slot machine, inserting last month’s rent money, Mayra would laugh when asked if she was winning, “Baby, I always win!” Never one to turn down a drink or a shot, Mayra, in keeping with her vivacious, starlet personality, could be quite a handful.
Island favorite Antonio “The Contessa” Garcia was a close friend for many years. Tony loves to tell the story of Mayra and a night at Lafitte’s when some loud, straight patron told his girlfriend, “Watch, I’m gonna kick some sissy queer’s ass,” and with that, went after bartender, Jerome. Seeing the brute tussling Jerome into a corner, Mayra could take it no longer. Dressed in full drag, she grabbed the guy by the scruff of the neck, hauled him outside onto 25th Street and proceeded to give him a “Mexican Drag Queen Ass-kicking!” You go, Mayra!
Having cooked for many years onboard Merchant Marine ships, Mayra traveled the world and visited many ports. I imagine in some far off place there are still sailors that remember that “wild guy from Galveston, Texas.” He loved cooking and often used it to subsidize his income. Mayra’s tamales were famous on the Island. Everyone ordered them and loved to see the little “bag lady” walk into the bar with her smoking bags of goodies.
If you were lucky enough, you might entice her to cater or cook a meal for you and your guests. Just ask Islander couple Robert Zahn and Tim Dudley. On several occasions Mayra prepared Latin gastronomical delights for the guests at one of their many soirees.
Mayra was a hit no matter where she went. From high-brow to low-brow, she mingled in all circles.
Regardless of all the infighting and “he said, she said” in Galveston’s LGBTQ community — and there is a great deal of that — it’s an island, and the locals here are more than just queers and gay friendly folk living in a fabulous place. The LGBTQ community is family. They can fight, argue, gossip, love and sometimes hate, but when it comes to their own, don’t underestimate the power of knowing and loving each other. The bonds in this community are strong and God help the outsider who that comes along and crosses or hurts any member of the close-knot bunch. This community takes care of its own!
Several weeks ago, word spilled out and spread like a brushfire in August: “Have you heard, Mayra has brain cancer?” It was shocking news for everyone, just too much to fathom. Everyone had “just seen Mayra the other night and she seemed…well… just Mayra.”
The neuroblastoma was untreatable and in a few days, Mayra was holding court in a fine room at UTMB’s neurology unit. The nurses asked, “Who is the guy with so many visitors? They come all day and into the night.” She was a star!
In her room and sometimes tethered to the bed, she was still the little coquette, cracking jokes and making statements that would have made Mae West blush. With the demon of cancer working its dark magic, Mayra would smile and say, “Hi, baby. You wanna make tamales tomorrow? I’ll get the pork and see you at 2 p.m.” It was sad; Galveston’s Mayra was fading and fast. She would smile, look around the room at the assembled crowd and bat her eyes. “No paparazzi please.”
Our little rotund package of dynamite has gone to a new stage upon which to perform, and she will be sorely missed by her Island community that loved her so. Vaya con Dios, my friend. I hope the cameras were not too much as the angels carried you into Heaven. I feel sure you shocked them all with your line, “Is this a gay bar?”