Remembering Ms. Colombia


“I’m an artist because I design smiles on the faces of human beings,” Ms. Colombia said in a 2010 documentary. The entertainer known for dyeing his beard, wearing flashy dresses and often seen with his colorful dog and parrot in tow, designed smiles on the faces of thousands upon thousands of people in his 64 years of life. But last week, those smiles turned to sadness after it was reported that the beloved larger-than-life character’s life had come to an end.

Whether in any parade in the city, Rockaway’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, or creating his own parade everywhere he went, especially around the beach in Rockaway and Riis Park, it was hard not to notice Ms. Colombia, also known as Jose Oswaldo Gomez, Oswaldo Gomez, La Paisa, La Loca, The Queen of Queens, Lady Gaga’s grandma, or whatever he chose to call himself or people chose to call him. Ms. Colombia was a person of many names and many outfits, but never a label. When asked about pronouns, Ms. Colombia remained indifferent, saying, “My mother wanted a girl, my father wanted a boy, I gave them both.” When questioned about his sexuality, he said, “People ask are you homo? Are you gay? Are you lesbian? No, I’m a human being from another planet.” A label could never be placed on Ms. Colombia as his/her main mission in life was simply, to live freely, and to bring others happiness, which he did, daily.

Some may have tried to label Ms. Colombia as “crazy,” but his reason for putting on the dresses each day made perfect sense. Gomez was born in Medellin, Colombia, hence the title, Ms. Colombia, but in 1977, he came to the land of the free for well, freedom. Oswaldo Gomez was an intelligent person. While in Colombia, he was trying to become a lawyer, but as violence erupted in his country over drug crimes, he “decided to come into the United States for my own freedom,” he said in an interview. While living in Queens, he went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree from York College and graduated summa cum laude, leading him to receive a scholarship to New York University in Spain, where he received a master’s degree and also graduated summa cum laude. Gomez was on his way to pursuing a PhD when he received news that changed his life forever. In 1988, he was diagnosed with AIDS.

“Ms. Colombia came about because the doctor advised me that I only had one year to live,” Gomez said in a 2013 documentary. “You have to live day by day because you don’t have tomorrow. This is my strategy to stay alive. Happiness is the best way, and that’s why I’m still alive.”

As a way to cope with the diagnosis and being told his days were numbered, aside from taking up to 20 medications a day, Gomez chose to live out his days by being himself and bringing smiles to those around him. Ms. Colombia quickly became an icon across New York City, especially in Queens, and even Rockaway. Each day, the Jackson Heights resident would call 311 to find out what events were taking place that day, whether it be a parade or festival, and he’d put on one of his extravagant outfits and go to work—putting smiles on the faces of those everywhere he went. Ms. Colombia was a highlight of Pride Parades, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade and even the Rockaway St. Paddy’s Day Parade. And when there were no events going on—Ms. Colombia would become a one-woman show, dancing with street artists in Central Park, or twirling on Rockaway Beach in response to a lifeguard whistle. Ms. Colombia was rarely spotted without his dog, a poodle named Cariño, and an African Grey Parrot named Rosita, both of which were often dyed as colorful as Ms. Colombia’s beard. When Ms. Colombia was stopped to take photos, he’d often hand a person the poodle to hold, and put the parrot on top of their head, while he himself would pose. Those thousands of photos are now happy memories.

On Wednesday, October 3, a naked body was found on the shoreline in Riis Park, near Beach 149th Street at around 3:30 a.m. The body was later identified as Oswaldo Gomez, the beloved Ms. Colombia. No foul play was expected and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is conducting an autopsy to determine an exact cause of death.

In recent years, New York started to see less Ms. Colombia and more Oswaldo Gomez. The last few years had been particularly rough for Ms. Colombia. Every year, he would spend some time in his home country, but a 2012 trip was particularly hard, as it was a trip to bring his father’s ashes back home after his death. Ms. Colombia still made occasional appearances, even returning in full drag in the summer of 2013, giving those in Rockaway a much-needed smile after being devastated by Sandy. Seeing Ms. Colombia again was a sign that things would be returning to normal. However, for Ms. Colombia, more personal tragedy hit in May 2014, when his beloved poodle, Cariño died at 17 years old. Following the death of his dog, Ms. Colombia’s visits became sporadic, and the colored hair and dazzling dresses became a thing of the past. Gomez was seen so infrequently or not easily recognized as a man, that rumors started to swirl that he had died years ago. An obituary floating around for another Oswaldo Gomez that had died further pushed the rumor.

However in recent months, Gomez was spotted frequently, dressed as a man, still walking around Beach 116th Street and taking strolls on the beach with a new dog, a terrier named Coco. Gomez was spotted on Beach 116th as recently as the Friday before he was found dead. “Every morning I get java at Last Stop,” said local Jerry Rea. “I walked in and he was sitting there. I shook his hand and said, ‘Where have you been? You’re so tan.’ He smiled and said he was in Colombia. I took a photo with him and I paid for his breakfast.”

Gomez’s seemingly sudden death in a place that he loved came as a shock to the community. On Sunday, October 7, a group gathered at Bay 1 in Riis Park to hold a vigil for the person that meant so much to so many. The gathering included some Rockaway residents, some from his hometown of Jackson Heights, those from the LGBTQ community, and Gomez’s sister, Eddy, who had the dog, Coco with her.

Ms. Colombia had a huge impact on everyone who met her, including those in Rockaway, and according to Paddy Tubz, Rockaway meant a huge deal to her as well. “The first Thanksgiving after Sandy, the city powers that be, gave hundreds of Rockaway residents tickets to the grand stands to watch the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade,” Tubz said. “After all of the clowns, balloons, floats, celebrities and Santa Claus, there was Ms. Colombia, and her infamous move, the twirl, shouting Happy Thanksgiving, love to you all! We shouted at her back, 'ROCKAWAY LOVES YOU!' She waved to us and shouted back, ‘I LOVE ROCKAWAY!’”