Growing up in Puerto Rico, she had learned that being queer meant she had to like men, “but I never wanted to be around them,” she says laughing. She began writing for pleasure while pursuing a double major in journalism and theater at the University of Puerto Rico. “I wasn’t dating and really didn’t like sports,” she explained, so she found solace and unexpected joy in the works of Beckett and Ionesco.
This in turn led to an interest in modern theater, including works like “An Octoroon” by her future Hunter professor Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. One of her mentors, the Puerto Rican playwright and performer Sylvia Bofill, suggested she should write her own plays.
Upon moving to New York City for grad school in 2017, Vélez Meléndez found that gay and transgender people were everywhere. “There were trans girls on the subway, lesbian couples holding hands in the street, everything felt like a possibility,” she said. Soon, she added, she found a safe space among fellow theater-makers and new friends who allowed her to experiment with her gender expression in ways that would have seemed forbidden in Puerto Rico. Once she sat down to write, her sister had begun transitioning, and Vélez Meléndez wanted to include a trans character as a homage.
Originally, it wasn’t Lolita who was trans but the receptionist character. Lolita is inspired by the real-life Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón, who, in 1954, led an attack in the U.S. Capitol, which resulted in the wounding of several members of Congress. Writing scenes in which Lolita talks to the receptionist about decolonization made the playwright feel horrible.
“It’s the TERF-iest I’ve ever been with myself,” she explained, using an acronym for “trans exclusionary radical feminists,” a term used to describe feminists who are transphobic. “Here I was telling this trans character they have to decolonize themselves when they had done it years ago.”
Dissatisfied with the draft she presented at Hunter, Vélez Meléndez said she was shocked by the encouragement she received from her classmates and professor. Jacobs-Jenkins then introduced her to the director David Mendizábal, overseeing the Soho Rep production, who helped the play take a turn by asking, “what if it was Lolita who was trans instead?”