Grace of the Sea

Luis Gutierrez Sanchez has been living in a single-car garage in South L.A. for six years. With its flimsy wood walls and concrete floor, it feels like the kind of old shack where bootleg liquor is made. For Luis, this small, windowless room, with no kitchen or bathroom, has become home. The walls are decorated with pictures of celebrities that he cut out of magazines and pasted next to poems written in pink chalk. It’s his own magical world tucked away in Jefferson Park, a neighborhood just south of the 10 Freeway between Crenshaw and Normandie.

“My walls, oh my walls. I want to carry them with me.”

But now he has to move. Fearing city inspectors, his landlord has told him to get out. He has nowhere to go.

“My walls, oh my walls. I want to carry them with me,” Luis says. Most of his things are already in boxes: the family photos, his clothes, the toy horses that he and his niece painted with nail polish, and his beloved disco ball. There’s a lot more to pack, but it will have to wait. He has to work today.

Luis sells bacon-wrapped, pineapple-stuffed hot dogs on a street corner a few blocks away. He earns about $50 a day. It’s enough to cover $100 per month rent for the garage, but it’s barely enough for a new place. South L.A. has a median rent of $900 a month for a one-bedroom apartment — some of the lowest rent in the city, but out of reach for Luis.

Grace of the Sea

Luis, or “Grace of the Sea” as he likes to be called, sells candy and hotdogs on the street to earn a living.

His metal cart is already loaded up with produce. But before heading out, he transforms himself. He puts on a loose fitting pink sweater and ties a pink scarf around his head so it hangs down the right side of his face. He places a pink fedora on his head. He wears a dangly silver earring, dark pink lipstick and a pair of big round purple tinted sunglasses. He’s used to this transformation, having performed drag shows in the Mexico and in the United States. “When I look at myself I say ‘Luis, you are not Luis no more. Now you are Grace. Grecia del Mar. Grace of the Sea.’ So get ready,” he says.

“When I look at myself I say Luis, you are not Luis no more. Now you are Grace. Grecia del Mar. Grace of the Sea. So get ready.”

As one of 13 siblings, Luis came into this world in a packed house in Morelia, the capital of Michoacan, Mexico. In the 56 years since then, life hasn’t been easy. He’s lived in cheap hotels, an ice cream truck, and on the streets. He’s crossed the US-Mexico border with the help of a coyote and worked for little money in restaurant kitchens. He has a scar under his right eye where a stranger punched him on an L.A. bus for being gay. He’s taken drugs and turned tricks.

Yet when confronted with seemingly hopeless situations he has the uncanny ability to treat them as mere stage sets in a production starring the brave hero, Luis Jesus Gutierrez Sanchez, or for even more fun, Grecia del Mar. He is miraculously good at finding beauty in dark places.

Grace of the Sea

Luis loads up a shopping cart to move his stuff into his new room. This is the first time he’s ever lived in his own room.

At the end of the day when he gets home he takes off his hat and scarf, tilts his head to the side and removes the earring. The metamorphosis is immediate. Grace was full of life, light on her feet, singing and dancing in the street. But Luis looks tired and a little down. He has one week to find a place to live.

Lately, Luis has been dreaming about Cozumel, where he lived the best years of his life, had his own bar and performed in drag. It was in Cozumel where Luis felt most at home. There, he could be himself. “Maybe in a few months I’ll go. Maybe in a few weeks. By December at the most I will leave. It’s just that this is my country, my Mexico,” he says. “And right there in Cozumel they called me Grecia. Grecia Del Mar. Grace of the Sea.”

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