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Old friends disrupt notions of gender in ‘The Journey of Monalisa’

The Chicago Latino Film Festival documentary follows the life of Iván Monalisa Ojeda, a transgender sex worker from Chile dealing with issues of immigration and drug addiction.

After relocating from Chile to New York, Iván Monalisa Ojeda took on a new identity, as chronicled in the documentary “The Journey of Monalisa.”
Mimbre Films

When Iván Monalisa Ojeda got to New York City, Monalisa was born. A natural poet, 53-year-old Ojeda describes the feeling of being two-spirit, or gender non-conforming, as something that could only happen once he’d been freed from the homophobia of Chile in the 1990s.

“Monalisa was born here,” Ojeda says in Spanish after filling out an intake form at Urban Justice Center in Manhattan, which will help him with resources and seeking citizenship. “That’s why sometimes I say that she has the right to stay here. Ivan can go, but Monalisa can’t. She’s from [New York].”

“The Journey of Monalisa” is Chilean filmmaker Nicole Costa’s feature documentary about Ojeda, who goes by “he” but sometimes by “she” when she feels more like Monalisa. The Chicago Latino Film Festival is presenting its Midwest premiere in virtual screenings through Sunday.


As friends who met at the University of Santiago in Chile, Costa and Ojeda went at least 17 years without seeing one another. The documentary started filming in 2012, when they reunited and reconnected as friends and began discussing projects they could work on together.

“I was 17 when we met,” Costa said in Spanish. “In that time he was Ivan and he identified as a gay man … people didn’t really talk about their sexuality back then.”

Over the next six years, Costa followed Ojeda’s journey of becoming Monalisa, who makes a living by doing sex work. She finds her fellow queens in New York, and together they participate in beauty pageants, lip-syncing Myriam Hernández’s “El hombre que yo amo” (“The Man That I Love”) and uplifting each other.

Monalisa also deals with an addiction to crystal meth, something that Costa says her friend deliberately wanted to include in the documentary. With the help of the Urban Justice Center, Ojeda changes his name to Iván Monalisa Ojeda, along with changing the gender identity on his ID to female. “I wish it could say other ... or both,” Ojeda tells Costa, who recorded the entire documentary by herself, give or take a few pieces from old VHS tapes.

Costa re-created a scene that Ojeda performed decades ago in Chile as a university student. In Chile, coming out of the closet is referred to as “letting your braids go loose,” so he walked the streets of Chile with a long braid made by fellow drama students. Ojeda, now based in Brooklyn, wears a long braid and walks the streets of New York in “The Journey of Monalisa.”

Monalisa walks through Times Square with a very long braid attached to her head, a nod to her first coming out in Chile.
Nicole Costa

Since the last scene of the movie, which was filmed in 2018, Ojeda has been waiting to receive residency in the United States. Getting a green card will allow for travel between the United States and Chile, where Ojeda hasn’t been back to visit in more than 20 years. In the meantime, Ojeda has stayed busy by working on her writing, following the release of her second book “Las Biuty Queens” through Astra House Publishing.