Larry LaFountain is a charismatic professor and author who teaches Spanish, Latino Studies and also courses about LGBTQ issues. In this episode, he talks about life growing up in Puerto Rico and his difficult first years as a college student in the U.S. He also reveals how he became a drag performer after an appearance on a cooking show in Chicago.
Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News. Beyond the Headlines. I’m Mike Wood. I’m in the Michigan News Studio here on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Our studio connects with major radio and TV networks around the world to put U of M faculty on the air. But today, we’re going beyond the headlines.
Larry La Fountain: It’s a strange experience to be a middle class Puerto Rican at Harvard whose parents are not wealthy.
Wood: Larry La Fontaine is an author, a playwright, and occasional bilingual drag performer and a professor of Spanish romance languages and literature at the University of Michigan. And he’s here with us now. Hi, Larry.
La Fountain: Oh, hi. Hi. Thanks for having me.
Wood: So you’re a professor of American culture; in particular, romance languages and literature. First of all, might be a silly question, "What are romance languages”’
La Fountain: Romance languages are spoken in countries that were part of the Roman Empire. So there are languages that have their origin in Latin, like French, Spanish, Portuguese, Galician, Romanian, they’re simply languages. So in the Department of Romance languages at the University of Michigan, we specialize in Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
Wood: I know you teach courses about Latin Americans and their influence on American culture. But I was surprised to find out that you teach some of your classes totally in Spanish. Why is that?
La Fountain: So if you’re a Spanish major, you have to take ten upper level classes in Spanish to be able to graduate.
Wood: You’re especially qualified. You are originally from Puerto Rico, right?
La Fountain: Yes, that’s right. I grew up speaking both languages. My father was from the United States and my mother is Puerto Rican. And they raised us bilingual at home. And by the time I got to kindergarten and elementary school, I went to a dual language school. So I received 12 years of instruction in English and 12 years of instruction in Spanish.
Wood: Wow. That’s interesting.
Wood: So, I know in the past you’ve taught courses and you’ve written books on gender and sexuality, lesbian, gay and queer studies. Do you think we’re at a time when some of these courses are maybe more important than ever with some of the differences or freedoms now that we have?
La Fountain: So, yes, so it’s-- it’s very important to be able to continue teaching these classes because they actually haven’t been taught for that long. Maybe for 20, 30 years now, which is nothing. If you think of the history of the University of Michigan, which is over 200 years old. And so it’s-- it’s still very recent. There’s still lots of people who just don’t know very much about queer issues, LGBT culture, LGBT literature and politics. These are still very complex social issues. There’s lots of debates. There’s still lots of discrimination. There’s lots of hostility. There’s violence against queer people, LGBT people. There’s lots of students who are trying to figure out who they are to understand themselves better or even just to understand other people around them.
La Fountain: So typically those classes are open to anybody. You just have to be open to learning, and to engaging in a class about a controversial, potentially controversial topic in a respectful manner.
Wood: You use the word queer. Is there a difference between queer and gay?
La Fountain: So-yes, and queer is a tricky word because for many people it is an offensive term. They are especially older people or people from different generations for whom the word queer was a slur or an insult. In the 1990s, activists and academics started thinking of queer as an alternative in activism, in scholarship to move away from from gay and lesbian as fixed identities and to be able to think more broadly in terms of society. So it has been embraced in many spaces as an acceptable term, but there are people for whom it’s still not a good word.
Wood: Huh. That’s interesting. So as a gay person, would somebody choose to identify-identify as queer, identify as gay?
La Fountain: Yes. For some people, there’s very strong differences. They see gay as something that has to do more with white, male, middle class identities than the United States in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. And queer can somehow signal a distance from that or just a different conceptualization.
Wood: Your whole career is based around literature and language, really, it seems like. Why are you so fascinated by that, were you as a kid-were you a bookworm and just couldn’t get enough of it or did it just happen?
La Fountain: That’s a really good question. We were raised to speak English and Spanish and my grandmother also spoke French and there was just a profound awareness. Well not only of different languages, but also that people from different places speak the same languages differently. So I’ve always just been fascinated. I studied French when I was in high school and in college. I spent a year living in Brazil. I learned Portuguese and I have taught beginning and intermediate Portuguese. I tried studying Latin and it didn’t go very well. I failed and the teacher said, Please don’t continue to study Latin. This is not for you.
Wood: So what was life like in Puerto Rico? Growing up? I mean, what were-- what did your folks do? Did you have siblings’ What was-- you know, paint the picture for us.
La Fountain: So I grew up in San Juan, which is the capital of Puerto Rico. I grew up in the 1970s and 80s. It was a very cosmopolitan place. There were people from many countries in Latin America. At the same time, because Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, there is a lot of exposure to American media or to American culture. So there’s-- there was always Puerto Rican television and American television, American movies, and on rare occasion, a Puerto Rican movie, lots of Mexican movies, because Mexico had a very strong film industry. So there’s a lot of awareness of moving between languages and cultures. So my dad had a variety of jobs. He worked in construction. He had an irrigation company. When I was in high school, he worked at a Pepsi Cola factory. My mother was a homemaker when I was growing up. But then as we transitioned to junior high, she started working at the school in exchange for our tuition. I grew up in upper middle class neighborhood called Miramar, which is right in the middle of San Juan. So very historic, very central neighborhood. I grew up, surrounded by people who were a lot wealthier than than we were.
Wood: Did you have siblings?
La Fountain: So I have one sister who works for ESPN.
Wood: What does she do?
La Fountain: She worked for many years on-- she was the anchor of ESPN Deportes in Mexico. She was also a sports anchor for Telemundo Channel 47 Seven in New York City. She’s worked for MLB (Major League Baseball). Not to be confused with MLB, the Modern Language Building at the University of Michigan. Now she works on the ESPN Deportes website.
Wood: Oh, that’s really cool. Really neat. Oh, so did you guys travel much as a child? I think when was the first time you came to the United States?
La Fountain: So we did not travel a lot when I was growing up because my parents did not have much money. My sister and I came to the United States for the first time when I was about 12 or 13. They put us on a plane by ourselves, and so they sent us to visit an aunt who lived in Houston, Texas. And the flight attendants were very kind to supervise our well-being as we made it somehow from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Houston with a connection somewhere. I have traveled a lot more since I graduated from high school, became a college student, and an adventurer, went to grad school and then became a professor.
Wood: Did you always think you would go to college?
La Fountain: So, yes. So that-that was very clear since we were small that that was a goal that our parents had. And I went to a college preparatory school where everybody went to college.
Wood: Did you think you would go to college in the United States or Puerto Rico?
La Fountain: That’s an interesting question. From the time I was a child, my parents told me I would go to college in the United States. But when I was in high school, I think I was a lot-- I was as excited about going to the University of Puerto Rico. That would have entailed living with my parents and commuting, which is what many people do.
La Fountain: And that just did not seem very attractive as a person who-- who. Well, I didn’t really understand that I was gay or let’s say I didn’t express myself as gay publicly. But I knew that it was just going to be very, very hard to be gay and to live with my parents in Puerto Rico at the time.
Wood: So what did you do for college?
La Fountain: I went to Harvard. Which was strange-- it’s a strange experience to be a middle class Puerto Rican at Harvard whose parents are not wealthy. It-- it is challenging, but I went to school there for two years. Then I did study abroad in Brazil. I took time off from college and stayed in Brazil. I went back and graduated.
Wood: Wow. So when you first stepped foot in Harvard Square in Cambridge, and all that with all the storied history of that place. What were you thinking-- were you thinking, "I’m over my head or wow, this is amazing, the whole world’s at my disposal or-"
La Fountain: So, I think all of the above. My first job at Harvard was cleaning bathrooms. So it was a very well-paying job. It’s-- well, it is a noble job, but it is it is strange when you’re a student cleaning the bathrooms of other students. I mean, that’s just a fact. Some, some students work through college, and especially when you go to a university where there is extremely wealthy people. So there was a rough period of transition. It was also strange being away from Puerto Rico and a place with cold weather and lots of snow.
Wood: Did you ever think about going back, just saying, "Forget this, I’m going back to Puerto Rico”’
La Fountain: But I moved to Brazil-- I moved to Brazil for a year and a half. By the end of my sophomore year, I really had enough of-- of the Ivy League and I thought, I really felt that I needed something different. And university in Latin America-- public universities in Latin America are a world apart. They are an epicenter of culture and politics. My first semester I had a month of school and three months of strikes which were repressed by the Brazilian police. So there was an education going on in the classroom, but there was also an education in life. And the reality of what it means to live in Latin America in a-- and to go to public university and what happens when students manifest themselves.
Wood: So did-- after Brazil. Did you - did you finish your degree because of the study abroad?
La Fountain: Yeah, I went back to Harvard. I graduated from Harvard. And I went to Columbia University in New York City to do a Ph.D. in Spanish.
Wood: So what was your original major when you went to Harvard as an undergrad?
La Fountain: It was Spanish. I had thought of studying medicine when I was in high school, but then I saw blood in the emergency room while I was volunteering and realized that-- that might not be a right career path. And I was also not doing very well in physics and calculus. So when I got to college, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to study. But I did well in this-- in the Latin American literature courses taught in Spanish. And I thought, you know what, this-- this seems fun. I want to do this.
Wood: That’s cool. What a-- what did you do after Columbia?
La Fountain: So I taught at the Ohio State University for one year. Then I taught at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, for four years. And I have been at the University of Michigan since 2003.
Wood: Wow. So what was your first impression of Ann Arbor? When-- was the first time you came here when you applied for this job?
La Fountain: It was in the middle of winter.
La Fountain: And there was a snowstorm. Everybody seemed very nice and it was very cold.
Wood: But you stayed nonetheless.
La Fountain: And I was offered the job. And I’m glad that I accepted and this is my 17th year here.
Wood: So who is Lola von Miramar?
[AUDIO OF LAFONTAINE AS LOLA VON MIRAMAR PLAYS]
La Fountain: Lola von Miramar is my drag name. So it’s the name that I use when I perform in drag. And I’ve been performing in drag since 2010 because of some Puerto Rican friends in Chicago. I’m writing a book on Puerto Rican drag and trans performance, and I write about an artist called Fausto Fernós, who’s Puerto Rican from Puerto Rico, went to school in Texas and in Chicago and decided to stay in Chicago, make his life there. So Fausto and his partner, Marc Felion, have a YouTube program called "Cooking with Drag Queens”. And they decided that it would be hilarious to dress me up and to have me appear cooking Puerto Rican food.
[AUDIO OF COOKING WITH DRAG QUEENS PLAYS]
La Fountain: So we did that. It’s pretty funny.
Wood: So you’d never performed in drag?
La Fountain: I had never performed in drag.
Wood: What did they say? Like, "Hey, Larry, we need somebody”.
La Fountain: They said, get a dress, get a wig and get yourself to Chicago. And I bought my first lace front wig, which cost about $100 dollars. That was like a big investment for a wig for me. And the rest is history.
Wood: There’s no turning back once you have a hundred-dollar wig, man. So-So you were on the show "Cooking with Drag Queens”. How many times-- have you been back?
La Fountain: Yeah, I’ve-- I’ve recorded about three or four episodes with them. How to make those tostones, which is fried green plantains, how to make coquito, which is a Christmas coconut rum punch, how to make arros con pollo, which is rice with chicken.
Wood: So what’s-explain drag for, so I’ve always been kind of curious. Is it is it all just-- all in fun? Is it a fantasy thing, and like an actual drag show? Is it silly? Is it sexual? Is it-- you know what is drag? What’s the appeal?
La Fountain: Drag is many things and it’s different things for different people. So for some people, drag is just being silly or having fun. For other people, it is a very profound manifestation or exploration of their identity in gay culture. Drag is-- is a main type of entertainment. For some people, drag is like a way to explore their identity, to decide if they are transgender or not. For other people drag is is undesirable, it’s terrible. So some people hate d rag queens.
Wood: Even in the gay community?
La Fountain: Yeah, actually in the gay community there is some stigma around drag queens because of the associations that all homosexuals are effeminate. So the response to that in the 1970s was that gay men say, "Well, now we all have to be masculine”. And if you’re a feminine homosexual, "You’re an embarrassment to our community and you’re what’s holding us back”. So there’s been lots of pushback, lots of resistance, lots of hatred directed towards drag queens, towards transgender people as well.
Wood: What’s your-- what does your-- your Puerto Rican mother think of Lola?
La Fountain: Oh, my mom thinks that Lola von Miramar is hilarious. She was very insistent that she wanted to see me perform live because I first performed online. We-- we recorded a program, it was shared on YouTube. Then some people started to invite me to perform. And my mother said, when are you going to come to Puerto Rico so that I can meet Lola von Miramar, and so that I can take all of my friends, and all of the ladies in the neighborhood can also go to see Lola von Miramar.
Wood: That’s so cool. Is drag something that’s popular in Puerto Rico or is it just about the same as here or-
La Fountain: So drag is extremely popular in Puerto Rico as a type of entertainment? It’s even-- historically it’s been even more visible than here. Right now in the United States. Drag lives a moment of enormous visibility with people like RuPaul and RuPaul’s Drag Race. But that’s unusual. Drag used to be quite marginal until more recently. Well, drag was very popular in the 1920s. These things are cyclical. In the 1920s, everybody-- it was all about going to see female impersonators and male impersonators. Vaudeville people thought it was hilarious. Then something happened in the 1930s and 40s. People become a lot more conservative. So I grew up with drag on television in Puerto Rico.
Wood: Oh really?
La Fountain: It was understood. My-- my interest in writing about artists who perform in drag is recognizing their artistry, their-- their work, their careers, their contributions and seeing how drag varies profoundly. Some people do anti-racist work in drag. Some people really want to challenge "What does it mean to be human?”. Other people are bilingual. So Lola von Miramar speaks English and she speaks Spanish. She loves poetry. She’s always talking about Julia de Burgos and other leading poets. And she loves to talk about food.
Wood: That’s awesome. Did Lola’s character develop like the first time you did it? You know, you just all of a sudden, like, "Okay, I’m doing this, my buddies say, hey, we’re doing a show, just grab a wig and stuff”’ As you’ve done it each time, does it kind of like all of a sudden, this Lola thing? You can’t-- you kinda all of a sudden, that’s not Larry anymore?
La Fountain: So. Oh, Lola, is clearly not Larry. Larry is very outgoing, but Lola is even more outgoing. She-- she’s also very silly. Well, you just get to do things differently when you’re wearing a wig and lots of theatrical makeup and four pounds of silicone breasts and wearing high heels and jewelry in a dress. Lola has a huge purse. She always has some type of poetry book in there. Ah Lola, I mean, people just react differently when they see Lola than when they see Larry, I mean, she is a high society Puerto Rican lady, who loves poetry and cooking.
[AUDIO OF VON MIRAMAR]
La Fountain: And that was her schtick. It was really about being funny and cultural and bilingual and sort of making a statement by-- by bringing this character to life.
Wood: And I’ve watched some of the episodes and you find yourself, or myself just looking at Lola like that’s not Larry anymore, you know?
La Fountain: It’s not. It’s Lola, it’s a character.
Wood: It is really, really interesting. As someone who started out as a kid in Puerto Rico, wasn’t sure where you were going to go to college, what you’re going to do, and now you’re a professor at the University of Michigan with a very successful career, authored books and everything-- do you have any advice you’d give to like a young person starting out that’s just looking at all the choices, trying to figure out, "What do I do”’ Any advice?
La Fountain: Well, my advice would be to follow your heart and to do what seems right and to not give up on your dream and to try to figure out how to make it work. And to talk to other people, to talk to as many people as possible and to explore different possibilities, not to dismiss things before you try them out. Be open to new opportunities and to unexpected twists and turns.
Wood: Well, Larry, thanks a lot for sharing your story this is really fun-I really appreciate it!
La Fountain: You’re welcome, thank you so much Mike.
Wood: Next time, I want to have Lola come here, too.
La Fountain: Wow. That would be quite something to have Lola on air.
Wood: Thanks a lot. I appreciate it.
La Fountain: Thanks so much, bye.
Wood: You can follow Larry on Twitter at @larrylafountain. I’d like to thank the whole staff at Michigan News for their support of this podcast, including student audio engineer Anna Gelfius, who was at the mixing board for this episode, Nicole Smith and Hans Anderson help with digital strategy and marketing. And we couldn’t do it without the support of news director Laura Lessnau and associate news director Bernie DeGroat. And a special thanks goes out to Fausto and Marc from feastoffun.com for sharing clips of Lola von Miramar from their show Cooking with Drag Queens. Thanks for listening. And remember, if you like our stories, don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. If you’re listening on Apple podcasts or i-Tunes, please leave a rating or a review. We’d love to hear what you think. Thanks for listening. I’m Mike Wood. I’ll see you, beyond the headlines.