On February 14, 1950, Viviana Coketa came into the world on the day that celebrates love. Seventy years later, Houston’s LGBTQ community mourns the woman who personified that emotion throughout her entire life.
Coketa passed away from COVID-19 complications on August 6. Her loved ones remember her as a transgender trailblazer who immigrated to the U.S. from rural Guerrero, Mexico, on a mission to live her life authentically. Her close friend of 30 years and daughter, Diana Rodriguez, recalls the extraordinary legacy of the woman known to hundreds simply as “Viviana.”
“This is a tremendous loss to Houston’s trans community,” Rodriguez says. “Several of Viviana’s sisters, those of us who have known her for decades, [have worked] together to plan her funeral and remembrance celebration. We want to honor this lovely woman who was a mother to me and countless others.”
Coketa’s close friends and family have set up a GoFundMe to pay for her memorial expenses. On August 16, they will host two celebrations of her life, first at 3 p.m. at La Granja Disco Y Cantina, and then at 8 p.m. at Viviana’s Nite Club. Attendees should observe COVID-19 precautions by wearing masks, standing at least six feet apart, and washing their hands often.
“Viviana came to Houston in 1982,” Rodriguez says. “We were working girls, just like everyone else in the world. At that time, you couldn’t really live as a trans woman in Texas—it wasn’t accepted, and was often very dangerous.”
According to the latest survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, 30 percent of trans people have been homeless at some point in their lives, compared to 17 percent of the general population. Meanwhile, 48 percent of trans folks report being denied equal treatment, verbally harassed, and/or physically abused because of their gender identity. For trans people of color, the stakes are even higher.
Being trans in the ’80s was even more hazardous than it is now, Rodriguez recalls, noting that Coketa realized this more than anyone. “She always lived close to her workplace. She knew what was happening to other trans women. You couldn’t walk down the street without encountering some sort of harassment.”
After moving to Houston, Coketa began waiting tables at a local bar that she eventually bought from the owner. It was just the first of her many businesses. Subsequently, Coketa established herself on the local Latino club scene and eventually opened Guadalajara, the first Houston venue catering to the city’s Latina trans community. “Viviana gave us a place we could call our own, where we could be ourselves,” Rodriguez remembers.
As a business owner and community activist, Coketa assisted countless trans women through her significant acts of kindness. “I left the Valley and came to Houston in 1994 and met Viviana at Guadalajara,” Rodriguez recalls. “I needed a job, and even though I had never waited tables, she hired me. We became close, and she helped me turn my life around. She saved me, literally taking me off the street. I learned so many important things from her. There are no words to describe how beautifully generous she was to me and every person she met.”
“Viviana was known to create a welcoming and, more importantly, safe environment,” says Jorge Mora, owner of Houston’s La Granja Disco Y Cantina. “People would come to her clubs because they felt comfortable and secure. It didn’t matter who you were. Viviana treated everyone equally, always handling things graciously. Even when there was a problem, she spoke to customers in her characteristic gentle but commanding way—and she never had much trouble.”
“In the bar scene, patrons tend to go where the crowds are—and people always found Viviana,” Mora adds. “She owned several clubs in Houston, and wherever she landed, her sizable clientele followed.”
Mora credits Coketa’s influence for his own success. “I had followed her since the early ’90s. Wherever Viviana was, I was there. She was a role model and a tremendous influence on me. She was someone I wanted to emulate, and one of the reasons I decided to open my own club.”
Coketa’s most important legacy will no doubt be the many trans Houstonians who remember her generosity when they came to her in search of resources to help them transition. They would often have no idea how to navigate the societal, familial, and practical aspects of that process. “Viviana would give the girls hope, but would also help in very practical ways,” Rodriguez notes. “If you needed to buy brassieres or apparel, she would go shopping with you, just as a mother would for her own daughter. That way, you wouldn’t feel intimidated or threatened. She also helped many of the girls [who wanted to become] entertainers by hosting numerous shows. The young ones called her ‘grandmother,’ and those of us who grew up with her gave her enormous respect.”
Club owner Mora echoes the same sentiment. “Many in this community have been supported and helped by Viviana over the years. She has many dedicated friends who consider her part of their family. The girls loved her so much. She was on a pedestal; everyone looked up to her.”
Coketa often provided for individuals who simply needed basic necessities like food, medicine, and employment. Visitors to her establishments would often find Coketa cooking her authentic Mexican dishes to feed people. “She was an amazing cook,” Rodriguez says. “And if she knew someone needed help, Viviana would always say, ‘Let’s figure out a solution to this problem—a way to help this person.’ She was constantly buying groceries and medication for people who needed them. There was a period when I was very ill and out of work for several weeks, and Viviana nursed me back to health.”
After decades of managing clubs, employing people, entertaining customers, and serving as the doyenne of Houston’s trans community, Coketa decided to retire to Mexico in 2017. “She first came to Houston at a young age, and as a result, she was never able to spend much time with her sister, brother, and nephew in Mexico. This was something she had always wanted to do,” Rodriguez says. Unfortunately, that plan was upended by some financial issues, and Coketa was forced to sell all of her assets (including her popular Viviana’s Nite Club) and return to Texas.
“When she came back to Houston, she worked for me at La Granja,” Mora says. “She had retired, but was then forced to work again in her 70s. Having been a club owner who was now waitressing tables was difficult, but Coketa just persevered. She didn’t talk about her situation,” Mora said. “Her old customers found her again, returning as they always did. To do that kind of work at her age showed how strong she really was. I was so fortunate that she gave me excellent advice on how to run the business—what to do, who to work with, and, most importantly, how to treat customers.”
“She was an inspiration to everyone,” Rodriguez remembers. “Viviana was a loving mother, a successful businesswoman, and an incredible supporter to all of us. When she gave you advice, you listened—because it always came from her heart.
“Viviana said, ‘Live your life, no one else is going to live it for you. Live it well. A trans life is difficult. You must work hard and act right. If you’re going to be a woman, embrace all the femininity that comes with it. Always be a lady, and always be humble.’”