HBO Max’s “Veneno” is the Television Masterpiece Trans Icon Cristina La Veneno Deserves

There’s an essay I could write about the first trans woman I knowingly met. It wasn’t until six months into my transition so I sometimes forget she was the first. But she was. I didn’t particularly like her. She was older and her politics were awful and she seemed sad and that made me sad. My pull to her was equaled with a resistance to the idea that we could even be in the same category. She was everything I didn’t want to be. And yet I loved her. And yet I kept seeing her. And yet I tried to help her. And yet she helped me. It would be a good essay. This is not that essay.

Trans people — trans women especially — have had our stories taken and exploited and misrepresented and abused for decades and decades and decades. We were invited on shows as trashy as Maury and as classy as Oprah, both dehumanizing us in equal measure. And fiction was even worse. We were a joke or a horror, or, at best, a fascinating tragedy. I’m always cautious when choosing who I write about — whose stories I tell, how I tell them, when I tell them — but when it comes to other trans people I take no risks. We’ve all suffered enough.

Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo’s new limited series Veneno that finished airing last week on HBO Max is a dramatic sign of the shifting times. God, what an airless way of describing what is probably the best trans show I’ve ever been fortunate enough to watch. But, in a sense, it’s the only way to start, because the show isn’t just an amendment of past sins, but an aggressive rewrite that engages with the sinners. This is a show about journalism, about representation, and about exploitation. And it is also a show about family, about transcendence, and about self-actualization. It’s a show about how being queer, being trans, exists on another plane of reality — an uncanny magic world where our internal limits disappear and our external limits lessen with the help of one another.

Based on Valeria Vegas‘ book about Spanish icon Cristina La Veneno, Veneno is a complex, layered show that finds opportunity and expansive imagination in its flurry of stories. The show follows Valeria (Lola Rodríguez) throughout her own transition as she meets Cristina and writes and releases the book, all the while flashing back to show Cristina’s complicated — often tragic — life. Valeria’s story is not a mere framing device — it’s what makes the show so special.

Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, known as La Veneno, was a sex worker and singer and media personality who became one of the first trans women widely known in Spain. The talk shows she appeared on both exploited her and gave her a platform. Society praised her and continued to abuse her. Her life was fantastic and miserable all at once. Cristina herself is not an easy, inspirational character. She’s complicated and sometimes even cruel. But she’s amazing. Veneno doesn’t erase the many facets of her but instead tries to explain them. It’s what she deserves. It’s what she so rarely got before Valeria’s book and this very show.

Cristina is played by five different actors — two cis boys and three trans women, Jedet, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres. All three women are incredible and the choice to have Jedet play Cristina for so many years pre-transition is largely what makes those scenes work — and makes me wish they’d found trans girls for the earliest flashbacks. Cristina is a dynamite of a character and each of these women captures her intensity as well as her vulnerability. Their performances seamlessly flow into each other to craft this complete portrait.

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But the trans talent doesn’t stop there. The show also largely focuses on Cristina’s best friend Paca La Piraña who is played by herself in the present — a choice that reveals some of the show’s most meaningful layers — and in the past by Desirée Rodriguez. Álex Saint plays Sacha, a very hot queer trans woman who supports and makes out with Valeria, and Lara Martorell plays Fanny, one of Cristina’s rivals. I could name dozens more trans actors of various ages who pop up in small parts — all phenomenal.

And then there is Lola Rodríguez, the heart of the show. We meet Valeria pre-transition and watch her age ten years as she becomes herself. It’s a remarkable performance from Rodríguez and deserves as much praise as the flashier work of the Cristinas. In a show about how trans people are represented, and how we represent ourselves, her performance is at once a showcase of her own unique talents and proof that we should be trusted with the messiness of our transition stories.

The re-telling of Cristina’s life is done exceptionally well — finding a balance between showing the honest brutality while not dipping into further exploitation. But, for me, what makes the show so unique are the moments Valeria spends with Cristina and Paca and all the other trans women around them. It’s watching this cross-generational support among trans women that’s so important for us but so rarely portrayed on screen. When Valeria first arrives at Cristina’s apartment she’s not even out to her best friend. But Cristina sees her. We always see each other. And as difficult as Cristina can sometimes be, she allows Valeria to become herself. She allows it when as a child Valeria saw La Veneno on TV and she allows it decades later as her volatile trans mentor.

We see this same pattern in Cristina’s own story — a glimpse of a trans woman in Thailand, Paca inviting her to do drag, Cristina’s own mentor and her namesake welcoming her to West Park and sex work. People cannot become what they cannot imagine and we help each other imagine — even when we’re still struggling to imagine ourselves. But this imagination is so palpable, so electric that those who are not us want pieces of it — want pieces of us — and the results can be brutal.

This is a show made by two gay cis men — not two trans women — but they understood the weight of the story they were telling. They understood how often it was done wrong. They understood that even if they were inspired by Cristina’s confidence and queerness, they could not understand all of her experiences. They are remarkable writers and directors — watch their film Holy Camp! on Netflix to see more of their unique, kinetic style — and they have told Cristina’s story in a way that is at once intimate and has a needed level of remove. They were not vultures of Cristina’s story, but rather shepherds of Valeria’s. All of that makes me feel really hopeful.

There’s a moment in Veneno when Valeria is years into her transition and has a boyfriend and job offers and has distanced herself from Cristina. Valeria’s boyfriend’s mom says something transphobic and she’s shaken out of the fantasy. She’s reminded that assimilation can never be the answer. She will always have more in common with Cristina than with any cis woman. And that’s not something to be ashamed of — it’s something to celebrate. “We all have different stories. But still, deep down, we’re all the same,” Paca says. “At some point in our lives, we fought the same battles, had the same struggles for justice, the same surgeries and pains, the same dreams. When united we can do anything. Because in the end that’s our luck, the luck of having each other.”

A publisher may tell Valeria that Cristina is a “worn down character” and “harmful for the LGBT community” but there’s nobody I’d rather have representing me. Cristina and Paca and Valeria and the actors playing Cristina and Paca and Valeria and every single trans woman who lives and has ever lived feels close to me in a way I can never explain. Even when they’re fucking annoying or I hate them or they hate me, we’re still connected and I cherish that connection. Veneno understands that being a trans woman — with all its complication — is my life’s greatest gift. It’s not just a TV show — it’s a reminder of who we were, who we are, and who we might someday be. It’s a portrait of Cristina “La Veneno” Ortiz Rodríguez. It’s a portrait of us all.

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 137 articles for us.

6 Comments

  1. I feel like I will be thinking about this review for a long time.

    People cannot become what they cannot imagine and we help each other imagine — even when we’re still struggling to imagine ourselves. But this imagination is so palpable, so electric that those who are not us want pieces of it — want pieces of us — and the results can be brutal.

  2. I’m from Spain and I watched it a few months back when it aired in here. I was 16 when Cristina died and just figured out my sexuality, I remember the media talking about her but I didn’t really know who she was, and everyone in the community was conflicted about the image she gave to us. I feel ashamed saying that I didn’t truly know her story until I saw the show, but I think this is one of the reasons why the show is so important, not only it gives justice to La Veneno, it makes the young spanish people in the community know who she was, and how important she was for better or for worse.

  3. Great post! I also enjoyed watching the show. And I watched La Veneno in the 90’s and she was amazing. Before Cristina, there were several trans celebrities in Spain during the 80’s like Bibiana Andersen who has acted in some Pedro Almodóvar’s movies.

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