Catalyst Spotlight: Drag me to Life – with Cindy Nero

Sun Park Phoenix

Also known as the enchanting Cindy Nero, Xitlali Celesté (formerly known as Sebastian Olayo) is a nonbinary queer Mexican-American drag performer, writer and teaching artist, living and loving in Chicago, Illinois. Xitlali is impassioned and empowered by exploring themes of politics, gender fluidity and accessibility through her  art. 

Xitlali gets right to the root: “The drag community, as great as it is, is often inaccessible to a lot of people”. She further explains: “In Chicago, drag is very concentrated on the North side and doesn’t feel as accessible to people on the South or West side”. Perhaps, however, this is where the digital age has some benefits.

While acknowledging the inaccessibility of drag, Xitlali also recognizes that drag, like a lot of other artist communities, has had to adapt to the digital world – especially for those that still had to make a living during COVID lockdowns. “We’re at a time where drag is becoming more accessible, which is great because it’s given a lot of queer artists a platform and a voice. But at the same time, since it’s also being ran through the “drag race” machine, and other other conglomerates for entertainment”.

Within her many intersections, including queerness and activism, Xitlali reminds us that “The body is political, the self is political, art is political, drag is political. For people like us, we can’t run away from the political, it’s in our lives”. This is the driving force behind her ethos as an artist-educator, Sebastian says “The biggest things I address in my work are youth empowerment, queer rage, anti-capitalism, mutual aid and world building. [And the] reclamation of voice and reclamation of body”. 

Voice of Purpose’s connection to Xitlali is a special one, as she was apart of a 6 month artist-educator container that provided mentorship and support in the creation and development of unique programs for participants across different age groups and artistic mediums. This container is called the Catalyst Incubator, and is connected to our Engaging Artists in Digital Learning Environments (EADLE) research initiative that strives to support artist educators in recognizing and deepening their passion and impact, while also navigating the complexities of the online world. This research project is a partnership initiative led by Voice of Purpose, Art Starts and several transformative arts organizations across Canada and the US, funded by Canada Council for the Arts 

Starting February 11, 2023, Xitlali will be facilitating an 8 week program, Drag Me to Life, supported by Free Street Theatre, that is for people who are interested in exploring drag, people who’ve never done drag or people who are interested in introducing drag into their artistry. 

Xitlali explains that “In the drag community, there’s like the drag mother/drag father, your drag parent who’s teaching you makeup, teaching you how to make outfits; hair, performance, getting you bookings, all of that”. This is essentially the type of connection and support that Xitlali  is hoping to offer to her participants. 

When asked about her dreams for the program, Xitlali’s response is confident and caring: “My hope is to have these artists leave my program finally connecting with their body after spending so long not being in their body. Hopefully through the channeling of a different persona, can help them reconnect”. The beauty is that drag isn’t only about the performance and the artistry, it’s also about the self-connection, honesty, vulnerability and community-building. “Whether or not they pursue drag outside of the space, [I hope] they at least embody the elements of value that we’ve learned, so they can channel that into their everyday life”. 

Interested in joining? Check out our post about the program, and email to enroll.

Slide through to read about Xitlali’s upcoming program, and for the opportunity to donate toward the growth of the program. As Xitlali points out, drag has become commodified and popularized and has felt far removed from its political and communal roots. As such, Xitlali will need community support and is crowdfunding to secure materials and resources. Click here to donate and share.