Recently I was at a fundraiser with a room full of fabulous people, but one individual stood out from the rest. I had to go over and introduce myself and met the lovely and talented Hagudeza “Deza” Rullán-Fantauzzi. I learned that Deza, is an interdisciplinary artist who focuses on examining trans non-binary self-expression and identity through multiple art forms, such as film, dance, projection mapping, and sculptural installations. We chatted about their life and inspiration for their work.
I understand that you’re originally from [singing] “Puerto Rico, that lovely island, island of tropical breezes”.
[Laughing] Yes, I was born there and we lived in something that they call “El Caserio” which was a community surrounded by concrete. I have such fond memories even though it was a really poor neighborhood. There was crime and things like that, but all my memories are of playing outside, lots of trees and the whole community aspect of knowing all your neighbors.
I stayed at a friend’s house there and just remembered the richness of everything, being able to pull fresh oranges and mangoes off the tree for breakfast.
Yeah, it’s just amazing. I remember there was one time when we lost power, I don’t remember if it was a hurricane or what, but the local bakery was giving out free bread to everyone, so again, just that aspect of having a tight community that shared hardships is what I remember most.
Well, since you mentioned weather, Puerto Rico has certainly had its difficulties with weather and our climate. What was the worst that you endured, if any?
I was actually trying to do some research about that incident. Because I was so young, I wasn’t even sure if it was a hurricane, but I found one that seemed to fit the year that I remember it happening. We were without water for a while and I recall having to take pots and containers to fill with clean water that we had to share for cooking and bathing. I remember that vividly, though it definitely was not of the caliber of the storms that they’ve had devastate the island recently.
Tell me about the family.
My parents separated when I was very young, so early on my dad was not in the picture. We lived in my abuela’s house so it was my grandmom, my mom, my sister and my little brother, and then my, like, grandmom’s cousin’s son that she took in.
What’s either a family tradition or a fun memory?
Most of my memories are of my mom and my grandmom in the kitchen preparing things and me interrupting them and trying to join in. They both loved to cook and I was not allowed to touch anything, but I just enjoyed being able to get some alone time with them.
When did you start noticing that you had feelings contrary to the gender you were being perceived as?
I always go back to try and trace those feelings I had at a young age. A lot of my work as an artist is dedicated to that, and honestly, I can say that my first memory is at five years old and being reprimanded for putting my grandma’s heels on and trying to wear my sister’s clothes. I remember crying one Christmas because I really wanted one of the Bratz dolls and they got me a Bratz doll, but the boy doll. I was disappointed but eventually figured, okay, I guess this will have to do for now. [Laughing] I’ll take what I can work with!
And then make your own outfits for it!
Yes! Out of blankets!
I was the same but opposite, I hated getting dolls, I much preferred my brother’s hot wheels sets.
Yeah, I was… well actually, I was pretty shy when I was younger. I think it was because I was internalizing the dynamic of what was happening around me. There was a person in the neighborhood who was clearly and obviously queer and they were the only person like that that I’d ever seen. They dressed and acted differently than anyone else, but I also saw that people were very negative to them and spoke behind their back and things like that, which made me shut down and try to stay below everyone’s radar as much as possible.
I know that Puerto Rico is very Catholic, was religion a factor as well?
Oh for sure. It seemed like for so long, they’d call out things about me and say that I couldn’t be or act certain ways. Things that were not very comforting for a child to hear. My immediate family hopped around with religion and then settled on Pentecostal worship. That was really harsh, [laughing] especially when it comes to individuality and anything resembling queerness! So yeah, that was definitely a factor.
Do you remember the most blatant thing you heard?
Oh, there were so many times when I was prayed over, I remember being sent to the office and having someone directly ask me if I was gay. Asking what my deal was, and I would just cry because at that age you don’t know what’s going on. I kind of knew who I was and that someday I hoped to be able to just be myself, but it was a horrible situation. It was so much drama and looking back, I’m like why did they think that this was okay, to corner a child and interrogate them, [in a gravelly voice] “Who are you!?! Tell us now!” It was frightening!
How old were you?
Well, it happened throughout my life. When we were in Puerto Rico, it wasn’t as bad, but when we moved to Philly is when it became most blatant. I’d say it got bad from around ages 12 to 15. At 15 I started dancing and was able to use that as a gateway to get away from the church.
How did you get into it?
I actually started dancing in the church, in the Pentecostal church they had dance teams, that do liturgical type dancing, like praise dance, and somehow I managed to get involved and I was choreographing and dancing which was great, but it also put a spotlight on myself and that incited more commentary on my identity. We had a computer at home, an old desktop and one day I saw a ballet video on YouTube. I’d never seen anything like it and I fell in love. I started searching for ballet classes and found Philadelphia Dance Theater. I contacted them and was like, “Um, I just want to dance” and they said, “Okay, just come, we have a program where you can train for free.” And I was so excited that 15 year old me blurted out, “Thank you so much… I love you!” I still get teased about that.
Awww, that is so sweet. What was a highlight of your dance career?
Getting a scholarship to Dance Theater, and the fact that they created a safe space for me there. That’s where I met my best friend. They called us “The Dynamic Duo.” She was great; we danced a lot of duets and there’s something magical about having that connection on stage with another person. A moment that only lives for that specific time and then is gone.
How has your career morphed into the multi-discipline artistry that you do now?
At 18 I was given my first contract. I’d only been dancing and training for a few years and was offered a contract from Festival Ballet Providence. It was a year that really helped build me as an artist. The director really believed in me and I got to choreograph my first piece, which was practically unheard of. To be 19 and doing choreography for a professional ballet company? Incredible. I was also starting to lead the dance programs at the church; telling stories was my passion. But then a few years before the pandemic, a few things happened that caught me off guard, [laughing] my house burned down, I lost my grandmom, and then I got hit by a car! Anything think you could think of to go wrong, went wrong!
Wow, that sounds like a country song.
Right? And honestly, I didn’t want to dance anymore, which was really sad but after my grandma died… she was the person who enabled me to dance and be creative. She used the little money she had to go to the check cashing place to buy me a Septa pass. It was too painful to dance after I lost her, [chuckling] and getting hit by a car was the perfect excuse to go into hiding and not do anything. Then the pandemic hit, just a lot of chaos going on in my personal life and in the world at large. I wanted to find new ways to share my art, and I was always into video and photography, so I started creating short dance films. I started teaching myself editing and projection mapping, and that grew into the more installation style work that I do now. Learning those skills made me feel hopeful in a time that felt hopeless.
What was the conversation like when you came out to your abuela and mother?
After I started dancing professionally, I started living my life and didn’t share it with my family. The day I told my family was the week I moved in with my partner. I was packing my things from my abuela’s house and even though I trusted her to accept me and love me, it was still scary. She was sitting on the stoop and I walked up and said, “Hi, my partner’s in the car, and we’re moving in together…” And she just said, “Okay”. She was never the type to show many emotions, so there wasn’t anger or joy, just “Okay.” I was like, “Hey, can you tell me you love me or something? Anything?” That was me in the family, always the emotional one! But she said, “Of course I love you” and that was that. My mother was harder, for sure, I didn’t do it in person, I sent her a long message. And it’s still a little rough, I don’t have the relationship I’d like with the family, but it’s a work in progress. And I’m still with the same partner, Alex.
One of your recent projects was an art installation that seemed to feature clothing as a theme. Can you tell me about it?
Yes, the project is called, “Don’t put that on, that’s not for you.” It has to do with me looking back to understand my relationship with gender and gender presentation. Back to me being scolded for putting on heels when I was 5. It reflects my experience and what a lot of queer people go through when it comes to expression and presentation. It explores how much weight these articles of clothing hold on the way we show up in this world and how people react to it. I used a lot of different mediums both physical and digital, using actual clothes and chicken wire and a glue to make the clothing stiff and rough to represent the rigidity of gender expression. I wanted to get across the notion of how we’re judged just by the way we show up.
Speaking of showing up, you definitely have a presence when you walk in a room. At the DVLF event, we were all like, “Wow, who is that?” What does that feel like for you? And how did you cultivate such fabulousness?
Oh wow, well I appreciate that. It’s kind of interesting because I’ve always been… [laughing] let’s just say when I walk in a room, I don’t always get attention that’s gratifying. But since I was a young age I’ve always received comments about my appearance, good and bad. It was more often just being me and someone yelling something at me. Just a few months ago I was on my way to work and wearing a tee shirt and someone started shouting slurs at me from their car. So it’s interesting to enter queer friendly spaces with people calling out, ‘you look amazing’, ‘You look fabulous!’ I’m still trying to get used to that. People tend to think that I’m this super confident person because I’m showing up so boldly, but it’s actually really scary when people are looking at you and giving you attention.
Okay, random questions. What superpower would you like to have?
Water bending, or flying, or both. Water fabulousness all around me would be amazing. Doing it while flying would be fierce!
What sign are you?
Capricorn. We’re known as being very goal oriented, but more in business than in the arts. I think it helps me focus and accomplish things.
What’s the farthest you’ve traveled?
Outside of Puerto Rico, I’ve traveled and lived in a lot of other places in the U.S. When I started out I danced in Providence, RI, and then Cincinnati, Ohio. I stayed in Austin, Texas for a little while, and Denver, Colorado, and there are a lot of places I just went to for auditions.
Cool! What are you binge watching?
“White Lotus” and “We’re Here” which is about 3 drag queens who visit people in middle-of-nowhere places in the U.S. and do makeovers for queer people there. They help them express their genuine selves in front of their families, and friends. It’s sometimes sad, but moving and heartwarming at the same time.
Do you play any instruments?
I used to play the viola.
What was your quarantine cocktail?
A cheap rosé.
What genre of music would I find in your playlist? And what’s your karaoke song?
Contemporary classical like Max Richter, and pop. As for karaoke, “Linger” by the Cranberries.
What do you do when you get nervous?
I have a little fidget toy, it’s like netting with a little ball inside. I like it because it’s discreet. I can play with my marbles and no-one knows!
A favorite saying?
This is excerpted from a longer quote but it’s something like, “Be so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.” That’s something that has carried me through as I’ve tried to stay true to myself.