How the New TV Series Veneno Is Reviving the Legacy of a Spanish Trans Icon

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Spanish actress Jedet has always been a fan of Cristina Ortiz. Also known as “La Veneno,” or “poison” in Spanish, Ortiz was a transgender woman who shot to fame in 1996 after a journalist interviewed her in Parque del Oeste in Madrid, where she was based as a sex worker. She later became an actress, singer and model, and the most visible trans person in Spanish pop culture at a time when life was incredibly difficult for the country’s LGBTQ community.

“There were no women who looked like her at that time. I was so starstruck when I saw her,” says Jedet, who is one of three transgender actresses who play Ortiz at different stages of her life in Veneno, a television series based on her life, out on HBO Max on Nov. 19. The show, which has already aired in Spain to great acclaim, has revived public interest in the late media personality’s life. The series has also drawn attention to the lived experiences of trans people at a moment that is, in many ways, different from the one in which Ortiz rose to fame. While discrimination and barriers persist, there are also indicators of real progress. On Oct. 30, Spain’s Ministry of Equality launched a public consultation on a “Trans Law,” a draft bill that proposes to remove some of the barriers to legal gender recognition for transgender people and includes measures guaranteeing equality for transgender people in other areas of life, including education, health care, and accesss to employment.

For the show’s creators, Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, Veneno is an homage to Ortiz, to ‘90s pop culture and to the stories they wish they had seen growing up as young gay men. “At the end of the day, it’s a universal story. It is a story about love, and lack of love,” says Calvo. “These types of stories are not only for LGBTQ people, they transcend to other people, because other people want to hear our stories too.”

How Veneno’s life inspired the series

Veneno is based on a 2016 book about Ortiz’s life, titled ¡Digo! Ni puta ni santa: Las memorias de La Veneno (I Say! Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of La Veneno), by transgender journalist Valeria Vegas, who recounted her own friendship with Ortiz in a combination of memoir and biography. Veneno blends both the realities and hardships of Ortiz’s life, from her childhood to her death, with the more fantastical embellishments she would add to her recollections of her past.

“I had a lot of friends that kept telling me, you remind me a lot of her,” says Jedet, who was going through her own transition at the time the series was filming, and plays Ortiz before and during her transition. As portrayed in the show, Ortiz grew up in the town of Adra in Andalucia, a region in southern Spain, and knew that she was a woman from a young age. The show depicts the bullying and attacks Ortiz suffered for expressing traditionally feminine traits while presenting as a male teenager, as well as her mother’s rejection of her.

Jedet as Cristina Ortiz in 'Veneno'Atresmedia/HBO Max

In the early 1990s when she was in her mid-twenties, Ortiz moved to Madrid and began her transition. For Jedet, playing this character during this specific time period in her life was simultaneously challenging and beautiful. “I could understand everything she was feeling because I was going through that at the same time,” she says. When Jedet was portraying Ortiz in her pre-transition identity, she wore a hairpiece and make-up to make her look more masculine. “Psychologically, it was so hard. But then I see [the series], and I’m so proud of the work I’ve done,” she says. In Madrid, the real Ortiz had worked in a hospital canteen serving food to patients; as portrayed on the show by Jedet, she was fired immediately when she started transitioning and was left with few employment options other than sex work.

It was in 1996 that Ortiz gained national fame, after a journalist named Faela Sainz interviewed her spontaneously in Madrid’s Parque del Oeste, where Ortiz and other transgender women spent much of their time as sex workers. Sainz was a reporter for the popular late night television show Esta Noche Cruzamos el Mississippi (Tonight We Cross the Mississippi). Following the interview in the park, Ortiz was invited to the set for a subsequent interview. Her appearance on the show, with her witty and bold sense of humor and striking glamour, proved popular with audiences, leading to her becoming a regular contributor. “She showed us you could be happy being yourself, and if your family rejected you, the problem was your family, not you,” says Ruben Lopez, spokesperson at the Madrid-based LGBT rights organization Arcopoli. Lopez is also the director of the Madrid Observatory against LGTBIphobia; last year, the Observatory registered 321 hate incidents against the LGBTI community in the city.

Now 41, Lopez remembers very clearly watching Ortiz on television as a teenager, during years he says were “very hurtful for LGBTI people.” Although a new criminal code in 1995 criminalized homophobic violence, Lopez calls the 1990s a “dark” era for the community. He points, in particular, to the 1991 murder of transgender woman Sonia Rescalvo in Barcelona, and the 1995 Arny Case, in which several male celebrities were wrongly accused and later acquitted of engaging in sexual activity with minors, and were publicly outed as gay. For Lopez, Ortiz’s visibility was so important at a time when there were few positive representations of LGBTQ people in public life. “She taught me that I could be happy in myself, and that was the strong message for me.”

Cristina Ortiz giving an interview about the book "I say! Not a Whore, Not a Saint: The Memories of La VenenoWikimedia Commons

The importance of trans representation and authenticity on TV

Just as Ortiz singlehandedly improved the visibility of trans people on television in ‘90s Spain, Veneno’s creators hope their series too will act as a mirror for members of the LGBTQ community to see themselves represented in popular culture. From the start, Calvo and Ambrossi (colloquially known as “Los Javis”) wanted transgender actors to play transgender characters, embarking on a three-month casting process to find actresses that could depict Ortiz at different stages of her life. “LGBTQ stories should be told by LGBTQ people, because they are our stories,” says Ambrossi, adding that the duo ensured there was at least one trans person working in every production department behind the camera.

As detailed in this year’s documentary Disclosure, instances of cisgender men playing transgender women, such as Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl and Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers’ Club, have been criticized for perpetuating harmful tropes about the transgender community that can have real-life consequences. “I’m so f-cking tired of seeing male actors play trans women with a wig. That’s not fair, because people end up thinking that we are that. We’re not that. We are women,” says Jedet. For their portrayals of Ortiz, Jedet and fellow actresses Daniela Santiago and Isabel Torres were jointly awarded the Ondas Award, a prestigious Spanish television award, for best female actors last month.

Jedet, Daniela Santiago and Isabel Torres as Cristina Ortiz at different phases of her life in 'Veneno'Atresmedia/HBO Max

As well as marking an important step in trans representation, the series includes many elements of Ortiz’s life and recounts both the real triumphs and challenges she faced as a trans person. Paca La Pirana, a close friend of Ortiz, plays herself in the series, and trans actress Lola Rodriguez plays journalist Vegas, who meets an older Ortiz and embarks on writing the book about her life with her. The series also features real photographs and footage of Ortiz; “we wanted to have fun with that and to share it with the viewers,” says Ambrossi.

How the show has sparked renewed interest in her legacy—in Spain and elsewhere

While she was much loved in the 1990s, Ortiz had a complicated life, spending more than three years in a male prison over the course of the 2000s, where she suffered abuse. “All her life was an example of hate crimes, and discriminations, and she always tried to get over it and smile. That’s why I think it’s very powerful for us, especially for LGBTI people over 30. We have lived some, or all, of those issues,” says Lopez. “Many of us accepted them—she didn’t. She fought until the end.” Ortiz reappeared on television starting in 2006, as portrayed in the series, but the world had moved on in many ways, and she was ridiculed rather than celebrated in the way she had been in the 1990s.

Shortly after her biography was published in 2016, she passed away suddenly; a postmortem confirmed that she died of an accidental fall at her home in Madrid. Since her death, activists like Lopez and his colleagues have been lobbying for greater recognition of her legacy. In 2019, a plaque dedicated to her memory was installed in Parque del Oeste; three weeks later, it was removed from its spot in an unsolved robbery. After Veneno finished airing in Spain earlier this month, Madrid’s City Council called Lopez to tell him they would be replacing the stolen plaque as soon as possible, and on the anniversary of Ortiz’s death on Nov. 9 this year, Lopez and other activists held a spontaneous memorial event there attracting around 200 people, significantly more than the number who attended the plaque’s installation last year. “With the TV series, where her life and her problems and her discriminations are shown, the response has been incredible,” Lopez says, adding that he plans to use clips of the series when leading training sessions about LGBTQ issues in schools and workplaces.

It’s not only viewers who have responded positively to the series; the Spanish government has too. “The Veneno series has managed to bring stories of lives of tremendous difficulty, loaded with pain, stigma and marginalization into the living rooms of millions of households,” Boti G. Rodrigo, director of Sexual Diversity and LGBTI Rights at the Ministry of Equality tells TIME via email. “It has succeeded in awakening empathy and making clear the need and the urgency of delivering justice for these people, and of guaranteeing that trans people never have to go through such situations again.”

Concurrently with the show’s release, new policies focused on the rights of trans people have been under consideration in Spain, as a public consultation on the proposed “Trans Law” ended on Nov. 18. Currently, transgender people in Spain can legally change their gender if they meet certain criteria, including being certified by a doctor or clinical psychologist, and having two years of medical treatment to alter physical characteristics to match their gender identity. In 2017, the Parliamentary Socialist Group introduced a bill that proposed to introduce a process of self-determination across the country, de-pathologizing the current system and removing the requirements for medical diagnosis and treatments. Last year, the World Health Organization declassified being transgender as a “mental disorder,” and LGBTQ activists have celebrated these proposals from the Spanish government as a significant step forward for transgender rights. The ministry says it has received “an avalanche of contributions” in support of the proposals during the public consultation.

The reaction to the series, both at a societal and state level in Spain, is overwhelming for its creators and stars to absorb, especially as Veneno is about to reach an international audience. Warner Bros. Theatrical Spain released the first three episodes as one longer film before they were released on the Atresmedia platform (where the eight-episode series originally aired), and the film took the top spot at the Spanish box office on Sept. 17. Jedet, Calvo and Ambrossi say that the responses from strangers and across generations show how much this series has touched viewers, and hopefully will lead to greater respect for trans people. “That’s what our job can do, is create empathy,” says Calvo. For Jedet, the experience of portraying her heroine has almost felt like fate. “I just did it as a fan of hers. I played her character saying this is for you, I love you, thank you for guiding me in my life,” she says. And what does she think the legacy of Ortiz is today? “Be who you are, no matter what, and no matter who you piss off.”

—With reporting by Ciara Nugent

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