Meet the Latin Diva Chopping Her Way Through Gender Norms
Soraya Sobreidad is the host of an amateur YouTube cooking show that blends healthy techniques with Latin cuisine. But it took a long, painful journey for Jaime Montalvo—Soraya's other self—to discover the diva that she has become today.
"Listen, honey. You work your meat. You work your meat. You marinate this. You gotta make love to this chicken," says Soraya Sobreidad from her Jackson Heights kitchen.
Her small brown eyes gaze into a flip cam as she kneads a bowl of raw chicken and spices. Sobreidad wears a clingy blue dress, red wig and patent leather t-straps as she whips together her non-fried chicken wings.
The Puerto Rican diva is the host of "Soraya Sobreidad's—snap snap—Fierce Cooking Show:" high-fiber, dairy-free, gluten-free Latin recipes and impromptu musical performances. In the last two years, Sobreidad's YouTube series was picked up by Manhattan Neighborhood Network television, she appeared on the Food Network's Chopped, and she won a $10,000 StartUp! grant from the Queens Economic Development board for her business plans including culinary school and cooking presentations at New York public libraries.
Soraya treats her food processor like her lover, and only she can touch it. "He's like my boyfriend. He's playful, he does what I want when I want it, and he doesn't talk back and is well behaved. I love him!" she squeaked.
On a sunny Sunday in the West Village, I met Soraya's other self. Jaime Montalvo, Jr. is a soft-spoken, 56-year-old former loan specialist who quit his job last fall to pursue his work as Soraya full time. He wears V-neck sweaters, tight jeans, and cheetah print socks. His eyebrows are carefully manicured above the gentle crows feet that line his eyes, and his sharp jaw line is emphasized by a thin trail of stubble along its edge. He's not very tall when he's not wearing heels.
As we walked down West 14th Street toward an organic shop that stocks his favorite vegetarian chicken sandwich, Jaime said cooking was simply part of his makeup. "All the great females in my family were cooks: cousins, sisters, grandmas…" Everyone cooked because everyone ate. "Some have alcoholism. My family were eaters." As a child, Jaime and his mother attended diet clubs together, but their weight rose and fell and the diets never stuck.
In the beginning, Soraya set out as a drag performer—an anomaly itself. Most queens start out in their 20s; Jaime broke in three decades late. According to a 2012 "State of Drag" survey in Next Magazine, queens his age represent only nine percent of the drag community. Combine an aversion to club performances with his protectiveness about Soraya's character, and it's clear Jaime hasn't had an easy time.
At a 2013 cooking cabaret during Puerto Rican Pride, Soraya strutted the stage in a backless fishnet dress—shimmying and shaking a sugar-free tembleque. As it set,she felt upstaged by the event's emcee, LaRitza DuMont. DuMont, whose resume includes performing with Madonna, is the "Goya Queen." With "whoo-pas!" and odes to the sodium-heavy seasoning known as adobo, DuMont was bigger, more popular, and louder than Sobreidad.
"It was like Jesus on stage with the Devil," said Jaime, remembering the set. As Soraya spoon-fed the lukewarm audience their dessert, Jaime sensed they might have preferred a catfight to the catwalk. DuMont had, after all, dressed as Wonder Woman in the Puerto Rican flag. Though he dubbed in a dance track to accompany the video of the disastrous tembleque performance, Jaime realized Soraya had to move beyond the clubs—even if it was through a video camera set up in her pink and zebra print kitchen.
Jaime was born to Puerto Rican immigrants in Brooklyn and lived there until he was 12, when the family moved to Long Island. There, as one of the only "brown kids" in school, he hid himself—his gayness, his Latin-ness, his second language. He was ridiculed by his teachers and classmates, but was still voted most creative in high school. After graduation, Jaime decided to study fashion, and though his family wasn't thrilled, he took out a loan and went anyway. At 19, he began his first relationship with a man eight years his senior, and was outed when an uncle who drove a cab saw the pair in Manhattan. His family didn't disown him, but a decade passed before they could broach the subject again. When they did, Jaime's mother became his greatest ally. She joined PFLAG. She met his boyfriends. They went to the opera together. "I was lucky," said Jaime. Eventually, he found a home in Jackson Heights, a hub for middle-class Latinos—"his people," he said.
But by 30, Jaime was five-foot-four and weighed more than 220 pounds. "Sugar was like my crack," he said, carefully walking on the outside of the curb to let me to pass through tight sidewalk ahead of him. We made our to Hudson River Park, once Jaime's stomping grounds. "If this were a Sunday in the 80s or 90s, it would be packed with people," he said, gesturing softly with an open palm. "There would be men in leather, and people vogueing in the street." Then, he had been too shy to experiment sexually, but most of his friends had multiple partners and used drugs. He was one of the only survivors among them.
By the 90s, Jaime had abandoned fashion, opened a record store, and delved successfully into DJ-ing under the name Junito Perez—a "butched up" version of himself who mixed "disco drag" tracks, spent a lot of time at the clubs, and smoked a pack and a half a day. For one particular track, "The Devil Made Me Buy This Dress," Jaime wove a Flip Wilson drag sketch through samples from Paris Is Burning. It was a hit. Junito (which was also Jaime's childhood nickname) was popular. He represented the masculinity Jaime desired but felt he couldn't achieve because of his weight. Indeed, Jaime couldn't feel much of anything—femininity, masculinity, happiness—let alone sexual arousal.
"I said to myself, 'Wait a minute wait a minute. I'm not a drug addict, I'm not an alcoholic, and yet this freaking Snickers bar rules my life,'" said Jaime. "I spent my 20s in alleyways of Chinese restaurants and parking lots of fast food joints. I should have been having fun, having boyfriends, having sex, but I was making love to a bucket of fried chicken." Finally, in his mid-thirties, Jaime dropped drinking, sugar and 90 pounds by giving his recipes a mostly vegan makeover. He mentions he still has "a little bit of red meat from time to time…" But don't worry, "it's nobody you know."
Soraya emerged the night Jaime quit smoking. Her birth was transcendent: a warm, feminine energy like an "angel" came to him. Jaime named her for a beloved disco song and quickly understood her advocacy for health and sobriety (hence Sobreidad). "There's a sacredness about Soraya," Jaime said.
Soraya's strengths come from the women who inspire Jaime: His "glamorous" cousin Iris who looked like Diana Ross and spoon-fed him in the kitchen when he was seven. Geraldine Jones, Flip Wilson's drag personality—a fixation of his teenage years. Jaime's sisters. And his mother, too.
Though he initially fought the desire to embody Soraya, Jaime began to understand her vocation when his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's and her health began to deteriorate. As she faded, Soraya grew.
By the time his mother died in August 2013, Jaime was stressed with chest pains and headaches, but Soraya had successfully pitched her way into an episode of Chopped. On the day of the taping, Soraya dove into the basket of appetizer ingredients: a chicken cutlet, ginger marmalade, dry paprika peppers, and fresh dill, which she would fold into a Soraya-style relleno de papa. She ran through the kitchen toward its gleaming pots and pans, and immediately regretted her choice to forego a bra. Soraya was used to 99-cent cookware and struggled comically under the weight of the professional skillet. "They got their show!" said Jaime, grinning and recalling the bounce of his breasty pectorals. "They were jiggling! Jiggling all over the place!"
Brushing modesty aside, she substituted a myriad of spices for adobo, and chicken for the dish's traditional pork or beef filling. She boiled and cooled potatoes, mashed them, rolled them, filled them and browned them on the stove. The rellenos hit their plates with 30 seconds left on the clock.
"It didn't end up looking as pretty as Soraya did at the time," said Jaime. But he was glad Soraya could translate her cooking show to the resulting dish: shekept the potato skin for fiber, creamed the potatoes with coconut milk, and used lean protein. Though she was cut after the first round, the judges encouraged her goal to attend the Institute of Culinary Education and become a certified chef.
Jaime has always been aware that Soraya pushes the boundaries of what gender embodiment has historically been, but he is only now beginning to understand the real role Soraya plays in his life. Recently, he participated in a series of workshops for multi-gendered individuals. "I hate labels," he said afterward, "but I'm definitely gender-fluid—and maybe even two-spirited. When I'm Soraya, I'm a woman. But I like both, and I don't really take one more than the other."
Raised in a household where male and female roles were clearly and traditionally defined, the characters of Soraya and Junito allow Jaime to negotiate both gender roles while anchoring himself between them as Jaime
Though his mother never knew her, Soraya is, in many ways, Jaime's tribute to her. Indeed, when Soraya showed up, Jaime became a better version of the man he wanted to be. Her purpose supports both the women who traditionally prepare food in Hispanic households and a nationwide movement for healthier living. Her YouTube channel is a cookbook for a younger generation of Hispanics who want to cook traditional foods without compromising health. Her cashew-based sour cream and gluten-free pasteles para la Navidad are health foods that actually taste good.
"I want to cook and to feed people," Jaime said. Though her goal was initially to have her own show of the Food Network, Soraya's fantasies have become local: to own her own restaurant—somewhere jazzy and warm—in Jackson Heights to help serve his community that doesn't always have access to healthy foods. The entrepreneur would have a block of knives instead of a single six-inch blade, and she'd have a spot to test recipes and let people relax and enjoy themselves. In the interim, she'll work through the summer at food fairs, volunteer at City Harvest, and continue to work with financial planners to further her goals. And, of course, her low-budget videos will suffice to share her mission.
"Soraya is the cooking. She's dairy-free, sugar-free pumpkin pudding!" said Jaime, laughing "And you know, I've found that the more success I find with Soraya, the bigger the heels get."