As I drove to meet Tencha la Jefa at her home on San Antonio’s West Side, Siri took me on an unanticipated ride through the neighborhood where I grew up. I drove past El Mercado H-E-B where my mom first trusted me to to run in by myself to grab an ingredient she was missing for dinner. Up next on the right was Danny the Barber’s shop, where I would wait in the queue for hours to get my hair cut while the old men from the barrio caught up on the week’s chisme. Siri even drove me by my old elementary school where I was first made to feel embarrassed for playing on the playground with the girls rather than on the soccer field with the boys.
The unexpected tour called up the same emotions I felt when I saw Tencha la Jefa perform for the first time. I was at a fundraiser at Jump-Start Performance Company, back when they called the Blue Star Arts Complex home. Tencha took the stage some time after intermission and brought the house down with a high-energy combination of comedy, dance and a color-guard rifle routine unlike anything I — and judging by the roar from the seats — or the audience had seen before.
Up to that moment, my experience with San Antonio drag had been all about beauty and poise. Even the comedic queens brought a level of polish to their look that was unlike Tencha. Tencha, on the other hand, matched the face and hair of an older tía who got up at 5 a.m. to make the tortillas with the body and dance style of a young prima who had just returned from a night of dancing at the clubs. Her wig was set with plastic rollers from the Dollar Store (a sight many Mexican kids in the barrio know well), and as she performed, parts of her wig would come off, causing the audience to erupt in laughter. Tencha would flash her signature smile, blacked-out teeth and all, grab the wayward handful of hair, put it right back in place and continue with her performance. She was familiar, unapologetically Mexican, and she reminded me of all the warm and comfortable places from my childhood. A performer who wasn’t afraid to make a fool of herself, Tencha was a queen after my own heart.
Her work ethic and dance style are a throwback to the pageant circuit, so it’s no surprise that Tencha got her start 20 years ago as a backup dancer and choreographer in the International Imperial Court System, a grassroots networks that hosts charity ball fundraisers. Back then, choreographers couldn’t just pull up a video on YouTube to learn a new dance. Tencha, who was working closely with the drag queens in the system, was challenged to try drag for a fundraiser produced by her then boyfriend.
“Back then I had a goatee. I didn’t know what I was going to do. It was just after Halloween when I went home and saw a picture of my sister, the one who just passed, and she was wearing rollers, had big boobs and a big butt,” Tencha said. “She went to work and won first place in the costume contest, so I thought, ‘Hey! I can do that! I can put on a mint mask so I don’t have to shave, and I’ll just paint my eyes!’ So I really got the idea from her.”
Tencha enlisted a very special part of the San Antonio Drag Herstory to paint her eyes for her first appearance as la Jefa. “The first person to paint me was Erica Andrews, because she lived across the street from me. I’d known Erica since we were kids in Laredo,” Tencha said. “I ended up doing a scene from Waiting to Exhale, and back then I didn’t know how to pad, so I literally just got a pillow and duct-taped it around me. By the time I was done it was down around my legs, so it was funny.”
Andrews, who passed away in 2013, was part of a generation of queens who were dedicated to their practice and who respected their foremothers. Tencha is a product of this last generation before the tectonic shifts caused by technology and social media. “Some people aren’t gonna like this, but the younger kids forget what hard work is; they think they’re gonna get famous if they make a YouTube channel,” Tencha said. “They keep forgetting that people got to where they are because of hard work. We didn’t have cell phones and Facebook invites. It was about socializing with the right people.”
By studying iconic drag performers like Tandi Andrews, Amanda Hall and Victoria West, Tencha has seen for herself what maximum creativity and discipline can do for a performer. “I’ll never forget dancing for Erica for the Miss Gay Texas USofA pageant at Rich’s in Houston,” Tencha recalled. “Back then it was about using props and telling a story. Erica won that title, and when we were backstage hugging each other, I told her that I was proud of her. That was my favorite moment with her. We were just us, two kids from Laredo — no one saw her like that, but I did.”
Tencha recalls a time when Andrews swore she would never do drag. “I remember when Eddie (Erica’s given name) was really into this one guy, and he said in that moment that he would never do drag,” Tencha said. “I asked her if she remembered ever saying that and she did. And then I told her: And here you are!”
Calling on beloved Mexican characters such as La India María and Doña Florinda from El Chavo del Ocho for inspiration, Tencha has brought her physical comedy and unique sense of humor to a new audience by becoming a Rey Lopez Entertainment Showgirl. “I feel lucky to be an RLE Showgirl because we get to meet all the RuPaul’s Drag Race girls and we bring in a totally different audience than the bar shows do,” Tencha said. “People watch it on TV, so we get a lot of straight people who are regulars, people who don’t usually go to the bars, and they get to see me!”
Tencha has set her sights on the Drag Race crown and the America’s Next Drag Superstar title. After two unsuccessful season auditions, Tencha has been working on a new glam look to help increase her chances when she auditions for season 10. Perhaps because she started later in life than many drag queens, Tencha has grown a thick skin and she has no time for those who underestimate her. “It’s gonna be hard because people see pretty girls, glamour girls and younger girls on the show, and in the beginning I think the girls aren’t going to get me,” Tencha said. “Once the challenges start I’m gonna be afraid, but I’m going to do my best and I think that I have the experience that I need to go to top three.”
The quiet child in a house filled with seven brothers and sisters, Tencha used to escape into musicals on TV. She didn’t come out of her shell until she joined the high-school color guard and marching band. Now far from the boy who grew up in the projects of Laredo, afraid to speak because he feared he was too poor and people wouldn’t like him, Tencha is a true boss, a recognizable local celebrity who has commanded some of the largest stages in Texas. “I love how some people come up to me and call me Tía Tencha, or say I remind them of a prima or an ex-wife. That’s what I like about my character, everyone kind of relates in a certain way and it really feels good,” Tencha said. “I love doing what I do because I get to see smiling faces. Everybody has bad days, but if I can get your mind away from it for four or five minutes and just see you smile and forget about everything else and see you relax, I did my job.”
In the next five to 10 years, Tencha hopes to travel the world with her boyfriend, visiting the amazing sites the RuPaul’s Drag Race girls get to see. And she hopes that her gay community in San Antonio and afar learns how to be happy for one another and stop tearing each other down. Her advice to up-and-coming drag performers is simple: “Don’t forget to be humble and don’t forget to be nice. You have to know how to play the game. If you want people to come to your shows, they have to like you. Just be happy for each other and help each other out. Just the other day they were making fun of a RuPaul girl who didn’t have lashes. We all forget lashes.”