Seldom does a show come along that sticks to your ribs like an emotional molasses. Something that is heartbreaking and uplifting all at the same time, comical and conceptual, with characters that have spawned from real life. But they exist and when you experience storytelling in this raw form, it makes you appreciate the power of media and how it can entertain and educate all at once. Such is HBO Max’s new limited series Veneno, a show inspired by the real-life Spanish Trans icon Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez (La Veneno) (Poison). The series that seems plucked from the world of Pedro Almodovar had a two-episode premiere that punctuated Transgenger Awareness Week on November 19.
La Veneno skyrocketed to fame in 1996 after a late night journalist featured her in a segment about prostitution in the Parque del Oeste in Madrid. The world quickly became enamored with her unapologetic sensibility and her bold matter-of-fact attitude about life. Veneno soon became a beacon of counter culture that represented a stigmatized demographic, but remained sought after for her ability to command a room. Her openness about sex work and her choices afforded her a career as an actress, model, and a singer with hit singles like Veneno Pa’ Tu Piel and El Rap de La Veneno. Her success, however, did not come without a life of obstacles, including abuse, prison, and depression.
Veneno the series is an adaptation of the 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 retold about her friendship with Ortiz in a combination of memoir and biography. Vegas began to chronicle Ortiz’s life as she was illiterate. Vegas is portrayed by Lola Rodríguez in the series as well as the story weaves through her own transition while unearthing key moments in Ortiz’s life.
In 2016, just a month after the memoir was published, Ortiz suffered a traumatic head injury which led to her untimely death. Her death was considered accidental, but she had allegedly received death threats due to revealing details she had made about well-known figures in the book which leads many to believe that she, like so many other trans women, had been murdered.
Created by Javier Calvo and Javier Ambrossi, known by many as “Los Javis”, Veneno is groundbreaking in Spanish media featuring a cast of commanding trans actresses, three of which portray Cristina (La Veneno) phenomenally at three distinct stages of her life. Jedet, plays Ortiz at a young age during her transition; Daniela Santiago, portrays Ortiz at the height of her time in the limelight; and Isabel Torres, is Ortiz at a mature age, where she looks back on a life of hardship. Jedet underwent her own transition during the making of the series.
Veneno’s story introduces you to the injustice and ridicule she endured since early in her life, even being rejected by her own mother and being forced to flee her home at a young age. It is an echo in the memory of many in the queer community who have experienced hatred and abuse.
Veneno is a love letter to not only the trans community, but to the entire LGBTQ+ family, reminding us that we entrust in one another and we should serve as gatekeepers, while paying respect to those who have paved the uneasy way before us. Through the snippets of Ortiz’s life, viewers get a glimpse of the authenticity that was Cristina (La Veneno) and how her impact on the LGBTQ+ community has reached beyond Spanish culture. The sex-positive series is as hilarious as it is poetic and will leave you breathless as you witness the compassion of a fierce and aging trans elder who only wanted to be something in the world.
Veneno is streaming now on HBO Max with an eight-episode limited series. New installments are available every Thursday.