The Marfa debut of Koko Flan

Koko Flan performs in celebration of Pride Month in Marfa. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

MARFA – Benjamin Castro never thought he would be in his grandma’s bathroom putting on eyeshadow, but there he was standing in front of the mirror with his makeup spread across the counter, getting ready to perform in drag in Marfa.

“It’s, like, super crazy to me,” said Castro.

Castro knew he was different since he was seven years old. Growing up Hispanic and Southern Baptist in Marfa, he thought being gay was a curse. He would pray to wake up straight before he went to bed and would be upset when he didn’t. But on Saturday, June 29, Castro introduced his hometown to his drag persona, Koko Flan, named after the Mexican dessert.

“It’s one of those things. You either love flan or you hate flan. There’s no happy medium,” said Castro. “So I always say you love me. You hate me. I’m always going to be delicious, and I’m always going to be true to myself.”

At first, he was very nervous and felt uncomfortable, but hearing the crowd cheer for him as soon as he walked into the room helped calm his nerves.

“It was beautiful. I loved it so much,” said Castro.

Castro was 20 years old when he came out to his family. His friends already knew, but he wasn’t ready to tell his family or the town of Marfa just yet. While growing up in the church, Castro decided he was going to marry a woman and have children. Still, he would think about the moment of coming out to his family, and would even practice the conversation with a neighbor in his college dorm.

“It was going to happen. It was a matter of when,” said Castro.

It happened on November 13, 2009. He was on the phone with his mom who seemed very short with him. He didn’t understand what was going on, but she eventually told him that she ran into one of his longtime friends from Alpine. The same friend who ran into Castro dancing with his then-boyfriend at a gay bar in El Paso. His mom told him that this friend mentioned the encounter and then she asked him if he was gay.

“I was like yep, and that was it,” said Castro. “After that, I told my grandparents. I told my family. I told everyone. There were some people who were super supportive. Some people that weren’t supportive, but overall, my family has been amazingly supportive, especially my sister Lissa (Castro). She’s probably my biggest cheerleader as far as being very accepting of me and understanding.”

Ben Castro goes through his wigs to decide which one he will wear for his performance. He transformed into KoKo Flan in his grandma’s bathroom. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

He thought his grandfather, the late Benjamin Morales, would reject the news because of his ranching background, but Castro received the completely opposite reaction. Morales responded to his grandson’s news with an “ok.”

At first, it felt very intrusive to Castro that his friend told his mom before he did, but it allowed him to live the reality that he currently lives.“It was abrupt and not necessarily on my terms, but I think that if it were anywhere else, I would still probably be living like this double-sided life, for sure,” said Castro.

Castro dated a man who was a drag queen, and it fascinated him to watch his then-boyfriend transform into a completely different person in front of a full-length mirror using makeup.

“It was a completely different face, and I was amazed by that,” said Castro. “How in the world can powders and creams and things that come out of the box make a whole different person?”

That moment became the catalyst for pursuing a makeup career where he transformed people into monsters and zombies for films in Los Angeles and in Austin.

After the relationship ended, Castro decided to try drag himself. It took him awhile to tell his family about his drag persona, but eventually, he did tell his grandmother.

“Any time that we were going to discuss it, she would call it the Mona Lisa,” said Castro. “It was the best. I love my grandma so much. She’s like my best friend.”

KoKo Flan fixes her hair before she takes the stage at the Queeñata Summer Pride Party. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

He first started drag as Sasha, who made her debut in Marfa in 2016 for a birthday celebration of Eli Cordova, a transgender male who encouraged his friends to cross dress for the occasion.

“To celebrate somebody that I grew up with and who has gone through this amazing journey and found his true identity and is celebrating that, that’s amazing to me,” said Castro.

Castro was nervous for the town to meet Sasha, but the time felt right. He knew his sister was working and she hadn’t seen him in drag at that point. He did hesitate before he entered the Hotel Saint George, because he was concerned with how people would receive Sasha. He was ready for backlash, but overall, Sasha was well received.

“I was always so quick to make the joke about myself first and be like ‘Oh, I’m a linebacker in drag.’ This mammoth of a woman. By doing that, I beat people to the punch of even being able to say that,” said Castro. “That was my defense mechanism.”

He stopped the moment people told him Sasha was beautiful. His makeup philosophy is the more colors and amplification the better.

“My hair is about a foot taller than my head and my heels are about six inches. So I mean if I can twirl and backflip and handspring and split, by all means, I love just drag in general. It’s amazing to me,” said Castro.

Marfa Myths music festival included a drag show in 2018, but overall drag shows weren’t a common occurrence in Marfa until Chris Gonzales and Paul Chavarria moved to town. Gonzales, a Chinati Foundation intern, and Chavarria, a designer and artist, spearheaded the shows in Marfa with the first one on Halloween at the casita behind Cochineal. Gonzales wanted to perform in drag and Chavarria wanted to DJ. They asked Alexandra Gates, a co-owner of Cochineal, to use the space, and it all came together.

The crowd gives tips and cheers on the drag queens and king performances in the casita behind Cochineal. (Sarah M. Vasquez for The Big Bend Sentinel)

“It was as easy as getting their permission,” said Gonzales.

There was a second show in the spring. Gonzales asked Castro to perform in both shows, but Castro had scheduling conflicts.

“If you would have told me this would have happened when I was in high school, I’d be like you’re insane, but now that it’s here, it’s like how could it not be so amazing.” said Castro. “For a community to have artists like Chamberlain and Maria Zerres, I can only wonder why it took so long?”

He was excited for his hometown to see him as his true self. Castro came down from El Paso, where he lives, to perform that night with other El Paso and Marfa queens and a king. After Chavarria introduced her, Koko Flan walked out of the dressing room – which was the casita bathroom – in a fiery yellow wig and a ruffled black and white cape. While she performed to Jennifer Lopez’s tribute to Celia Cruz, one of her favorite people, she revealed a form fitting silver, yellow and red sparkly dress. Her wig was sliding, and she was focusing too much on her shoes so she eventually removed both and kept on performing. The crowd didn’t seem to mind.

“There’s always going to be those people who say they want the old Marfa, and in all honesty, I remember when Marfa was becoming a dilapidated town and when Dairy Queen was about to close. I don’t know what Marfa they’re talking about, but if it’s any better than this, I understand why they want it back. But I don’t think there’s a way it could have it better than this, because it’s amazing.”