The Secret of Chiqui Versace

In this special episode of Mosaic, our podcast on immigration, we introduce Chiqui Versace: a Rhode Island resident who came to the U.S. at 16, looking for work and hoping to support his family back in Colombia. He also came here to be his true self – to not have to hide anything about who he is. From the outside, Versace lived what appeared to be a normal life. For decades he was gainfully employed, paid taxes every year, and volunteered his time for charitable causes. But to stay here, to live the life he had always wanted to live, he had to carry a very big secret.
December 9, 2022

Episode Host(s)

Pearl Marvell

TRANSCRIPT: The Secret of Chiqui Versace

Have you ever had a secret so big that you had to keep it from even your closest friends? A secret you had to keep for so long that it became part of who you are? A secret so big it affected your whole identity?

This is a story about a person who made a decision when he was just 17 years old to live with that kind of a secret. It was a decision that would affect him for the rest of his life.

I’m Pearl Marvell, community producer for Mosaic, our series about immigrants and their stories. You normally don’t hear from me because I am the person behind the scenes. Those community essays you hear each week? Well, that’s me working with people from across Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. I help people tell their stories. But this one is a little different. I came across this person’s story earlier this year, and it just wasn’t going to fit into a short essay.

This episode is about the secret of Chiqui Versace. Chiqui came here looking for work, hoping to support his family back in Colombia. He also came here to be his true self – to not have to hide anything about who he is.

From the outside, he lived what seemed to be a normal life in the U.S. For decades, he was gainfully employed, paid taxes every year, and volunteered his time for charitable causes. But to stay here, to live the life he had always wanted to live, Chiqui had to carry a very big secret.

It is a normal Friday night for Chiqui. He is singing “No Llega el Olvido,” which roughly translates to “I can’t forget.” He is singing along with a mariachi band at El Marinero, a Mexican seafood restaurant in Warwick. It’s a warm summer evening, and though there’s an outdoor patio, everyone is sitting inside in the large dining area, enjoying the mariachi band.

Chiqui is a promoter by night, furniture salesman by day. He has over 39,000 followers on Instagram alone. This is part of the reason why he is hired as a promoter: to attract his followers to clubs and restaurants. The other reason is his natural ability to get a crowd going.

To enliven the scene at El Marinero, Chiqui decides it's time to have a singalong with the mariachi band.

Chiqui Versace is not his real name, but José Velasco Salcedo – Chiqui’s birth name – doesn’t really fit the persona. Most days, Chiqui wears makeup, at least eyeliner and mascara. At times, he likes to wear dresses and skirts. Chiqui is flamboyant and he has created a community that adores him for it.

Pearl Marvell: Oh my goodness.

Chiqui Versace: [Laughs]

Marvell: How many do you have here?

Versace: Fifty-five? Is that what it is?

Chiqui’s sunglass collection is impressive, and something he is very proud of. They are all neatly laid out and remain under lock and key when he isn’t showing them off.

Versace: These ones you see here? These ones are online for $1,500. This one is the Biggie, Notorious BIG the Rapper…

Marvell: Notorious B.I.G.?

Versace: Yeah, these are $1500 right now if you want to order them.

Marvell: Wow.

Versace: They don’t have them. They don’t make them anymore.

Marvell: Do you wear these, or do you just keep them in here?

Versace: [Laughs] I just keep them there. [Gestures] This one has to go in there because it is real Versace.

His apartment is tidy, with huge pictures on the walls, including a massive cut out of the Versace logo, which he got from a Versace store that was closing down. Statues of deities and orishas are everywhere. There are numerous pictures of Chiqui posing. Hanging on a wall in his bedroom is a large picture of him sprawled out on a couch, like the infamous “draw me like one of your French girls” scene in “Titanic.” There are also many photos and statues of his dog, Snow.

Versace: I would rather die before him because I think the pain would be…it’s a lot. I don’t know if you have had a dog that passed away. I don’t know the feeling…whoo. I don’t even know the feeling. I don’t want to know the feeling. He’s like a son, like a kid to me. So I got him seven years ago, and he was just a little ball like this [gestures], and that’s why I called him like that. And he has just been my companion. When I was incarcerated I just collapsed. It was my most important thing. I left him behind, it was just like…I used to cry for him every night, every night.

Chiqui is 49 years old. He came here from Colombia when he was 16 and has achieved success, even fame. He has friends, family and community. And maybe most importantly, he was able to come out as gay, and dress and be exactly who he wanted to be, without persecution.

Versace: [Gestures] This is the scenario right here, see the difference? I never did my eyebrows. This is 19. This is old here. Those ages right there that I was in, I didn’t do anything with my hair or do ponytails or my eyelashes. Then after that I just became myself and for the past ten years, I did even more. I do my blush and stuff like that. So it was tough.

It was tough because Chiqui didn’t always feel like he could really be himself.

Chiqui didn’t come out as gay until his mid ‘20s. Until then, he tried to blend in as a straight man. These days, however, his eyebrows are impeccably plucked, his nails are immaculate and often painted, and foundation, blush and mascara are a staple. He likes to match tight-fitting suit jackets with tight jeans. He likes a little sparkle on his shoes and jackets. And of course, he loves anything Versace.

Chiqui, like many immigrants who come to this country, saw the U.S. as an opportunity to work hard, provide for his family and to finally be himself.

Versace: It always was a dream. It's always a dream in our countries to come to USA, and be able to make a good living and help out our family in Colombia.

But this dream has come with a price. A big one. Chiqui is not an American citizen. He doesn’t have a green card.

In fact, until recently, José Velasco Salcedo, his real name, didn’t exist, at least not on North American documents. Chiqui came to the U.S. on a tourist visa in 1989 on a trip to Disney World.

Versace: I left my poor mom when I was 16 years old. [choked up] Let me continue. Because it's surreal. So I left, I came to the USA. And I came as it was a tour.

As you can tell, Chiqui adores his mother. He chokes up every time he speaks about her. He says that she is the one that wanted him to leave Colombia, which he suspects is in part because she knew that life would be difficult for him there as a gay man. Although homosexuality was decriminalized in 1981 in Colombia, during the 80s and 90s most gay people still felt the need to hide their sexuality in a country where machismo was deeply entrenched.

So, with his mother’s blessing, Chiqui left his hometown of Cali in Colombia. When he landed in Florida he experienced a huge culture shock.

Versace: I remember when I came and had my first McDonalds and I was like ‘My god, what is this?’

After he arrived in Florida, he met up with his brother who was already living in the U.S. in Queens, New York with his wife. He lived with them trying to adjust to his new home. A year later they moved to Rhode Island where Chiqui’s brother quickly found work. Chiqui, however, did not. He didn’t have papers, and with mounting pressure from back home to send money, they found an alternative option.

Versace: So that’s when the whole story starts. That’s when the problem starts.

Chiqui’s brother started working at an auto body shop in Pawtucket. He made some friends there and explained Chiqui’s situation.

Versace: And he mentioned to them that I needed to work but I didn't have a [social] security. So the gentlemen mentioned to him and his friends that they could help me by selling me a social security number.

Chiqui can’t remember the exact amount, but for between twenty five hundred and three thousand dollars, a Puerto Rican man sold him his U.S. documents.

Versace: I remember, they gave us a birth certificate, a very old certificate, and a social security card.

Chiqui says that he was sold these documents by the nephew of the man to whom the papers belonged. At that moment José Salcedo Velasco became who we are going to call for legal reasons, GN. Chiqui got a job, and was doing really well. He was well liked at work and he started to climb the corporate ladder. To everyone around him, he seemed to be a normal U.S. citizen.

Hiraldo: Yo creo que era un ciudadano americano, porque todo era así, muy legal. Todo, todo hay que pagarlo así y todo hay que hacer…Yo puedo decir que Chiqui fue súper honesto a la hora de los impuestos. Chiqui era el primero que estaba haciendo impuestos.

English translation: I thought he was an American citizen because everything was very above board with him. Everything. Everything had to be paid properly. I can say that Chiqui was super honest during tax time. He was always the first one doing his taxes.

That is Maribel Hiraldo, a good friend of Chiqui’s. She is also from Colombia. She says that Chiqui was one of the first people that she met after arriving here in the U.S. At that time, Chiqui was working for Rent-A-Center, a rent-to-own electronics and furniture store.

Hiraldo: Él siempre llevaba con todos los premios. Era increíble. El llevaba todos los premios de Rent-a-Center.

English translation: He always got all the awards. It was incredible. He always got all the awards at Rent-A-Center.

Everything was going well for Chiqui. He was making good money, paying taxes, just living his life. But then one day he received an unusual letter.

Versace: I got a letter from the child support in Puerto Rico saying that they were going to start taking money out of my check. I said, ‘I don't have any child so obviously it's gotta be somebody else.’ So I stay quiet because I get scared. So I allow it to start. So they started taking child support for two kids.

The Puerto Rican child support office known as ASUME had tracked down Chiqui using the social security number he was using. Apparently, the man that had sold him his documents had two kids in Puerto Rico. ASUME, thinking that Chiqui was the real GN, had started to automatically take money out of his paycheck for two children. At one point they were taking as much as $150 a week. According to Chiqui, for ten years they deducted money from his checks. He never said anything because he felt that it was just the price he needed to pay for buying someone’s identity.

Historically, in Puerto Rico, you needed a birth certificate for just about everything: summer camp, school, church groups. As one government fact sheet put it in 2010, “many common official and unofficial transactions in Puerto Rico unnecessarily required the submission, retention, and storage of birth certificates.”

This led to many birth certificates being stolen and sold on the black market. At one point, 40% of passport fraud cases investigated by the U.S. government involved birth certificates of people born in Puerto Rico. It was so prevalent that in December 2009, the Puerto Rican government enacted a new law that required all Puerto Rican born individuals to renew their birth certificates. The government claimed that the new document would have enhanced security features, making it more fraud resistant.

And when this new requirement was announced, the real GN – the Puerto Rican one – showed up at Chiqui’s doorstep.

Versace: So he came to me. And then we sat down for like about two, three hours. My mom made empanadas, pastelitos, we drink coffee, we talked. And that's when he said to me that if I wanted to continue on…

It is not clear how the real GN found Chiqui, but it was probably easy enough through a quick Google search. Even today, when you Google GN’s name, all of Chiqui’s past addresses come up. GN told Chiqui that he would need to pay him in order to continue using his identity.

Versace: So that's when the type of extortion starts. Because now he demands that if I had any cash, I say I don't have a lot of cash. I'll give you what I have. And then I'll try to send you money wherever you are.

Chiqui says that, at this point, the real GN was flying back and forth from Puerto Rico and the mainland U.S. His son lived in Connecticut, so he would spend time there. Every month Chiqui would drive to Connecticut to give GN whatever money he could spare.

Versace: Five hundred, whatever I had, a thousand, two thousand, whatever he demanded.

He even demanded that Chiqui buy his son a car, which he did. Chiqui felt stuck. He couldn’t stop working. He liked his life here, and he needed to continue to support his mother back home. Giving up GN’s social security would mean losing his job. Going to the authorities would mean he would be jailed, deported or both.

So Chiqui continued giving GN what he wanted whenever he asked for it. GN eventually asked Chiqui to stop working so that he – the real GN – could go on Medicaid.

Chiqui says that he didn’t want to stop working, so he kept postponing doing anything. He also felt that, after decades of paying into the system, that money was rightfully his. According to Chiqui, GN had started to have health problems and would come to Rhode Island for healthcare appointments. On one of those visits in 2018, the real GN went to Rhode Island Hospital – the same hospital where Chiqui had received treatment many times, and where they had a picture of Chiqui on file under GN’s information.

Versace: So he went to Rhode Island Rhode Island Hospital for some checkups and that, but that's when everything exploded. Because when you go to a hospital, I had to have surgeries before my picture shows. So they open it up and my file came out. And they asked him who was that?

According to Chiqui, government agents later questioned the real GN. He said that he had no idea who could have his identity. That it must have been stolen. According to Chiqui, this was around Nov. 1, 2018. This is what Chiqui later told government agents.

Versace: “After they left he called me from, he sent me a text from some unknown number that he bought and told me – it's on the record because they do have it also – he goes, ‘You need to call me right away and you know who this is.’ I saw the number was from Connecticut because I kind of like knew it was him. So I call him and he goes, ‘they're looking for you. You need to run, disappear, hide, die, whatever you have to do because they're looking for you now.’”

After his call with GN, Chiqui called a friend, Joseph Molina Flynn, who is now his immigration attorney. Flynn told Chiqui to keep living his life. If ICE or another government agency came looking for him, they would figure it out then – because there was really nothing that they could do legally in the interim.

Versace: So the day comes, I woke up on May 6. May 6, Cinco de Mayo, after, right after the Cinco de Mayo. Good thing that I didn't drink that much that day [laughs]. There is like 20 detectives outside the house. So that was just the worst day of my life.

Chiqui was arrested on May 6, 2019. Agencies involved in the case included Homeland Security, Department of Labor, the Social Security Administration and a couple others. This was a serious situation for Chiqui, but for the first time in 30 years, Chiqui was able to stop pretending to be someone else.

Chiqui: And I cried and I cried and I cry because I have to hide my, my name, my own person for 30 years under somebody else's name. I wasn't able to be Jose Velasco Salcedo even when they, when they arrest me, it was the first time that I was able to use my name, so it's a relief. It's a relief now that I can be Jose Velasco. I don't have to be the other person anymore.

Chiqui went to jail for 30 days. This is where he meets Kevin Fitzgerald, the assistant federal public defender in Providence. Kevin quickly became intrigued with Chiqui’s story. He says that he never had a client quite like him.

Fitzgerald: Yeah, from the get go, in talking to him and learning more about how he ended up here, was just a really compelling and different story. It really took him out of the mainstream. Just his personality and his attitude, how he's, you know, his friends, his family, and everything has just been…he's just not my regular client.

Chiqui finally got his day in court on May 17, 2022. It had taken three years just to get a date – partly because of COVID-19, but also because of the investigation into the real GN. A group of friends and family came to support Chiqui, including his brother and sister-in-law, who own a local restaurant. He was dressed in a gray suit jacket with a black shirt underneath. His hair was slicked back and he wore no visible makeup that day. I’m not sure why, but it was the first time I realized that Chiqui could be facing some serious jail time. Years, in fact. I couldn’t bring any recording equipment into the courthouse, but I was able to be there with him. As we waited outside to be called into the courtroom, Chiqui said that he wasn’t nervous, but I could tell that he was. I was nervous for him.

The day before, Kevin had sent a memorandum to the court. It was titled “United States of America versus José Velasco Salcedo.” The first paragraph said: “Jose Velasco comes before this Court for sentencing having pled guilty to

violations for the use of another’s identity. The unique circumstance for Mr. Velasco is that he really has a claim to 3 different identities. The first, and most pedestrian, is Jose Velasco Salcedo. The second, which encompasses a curious tale and is the root of the charges here; G.N. The third identity, Chiqui Versace, represents his true personhood and how he is seen in the community. Telling the story will not take long, but at the

end the Court should conclude that a non-incarceration sentence is appropriate.”

The judge had a lot of questions. “What happened to the real G.N?” “Why wasn’t he prosecuted?” He seemed puzzled by the case.

Despite the U.S. Attorney’s Office recommending jail time, Chiqui received none. In the judge’s final remarks to Chiqui, he said that it would be punishment enough that Chiqui would never be able to obtain U.S. citizenship.

He would also have to pay restitution back to the state – $40,867, to be exact. That was later amended to less than $4,000, which Chiqui has nearly paid off.

Versace: All I ask is just an opportunity to get a number to pay taxes. Going back to Colombia is just throwing me into the gutter to die. There are still a lot of things going on there. Uh, being gay is not an easy thing. They still, they still, you are a target for abuse, to getting killed, any other type of things to going back to Colombia. I told them I would rather just kill myself.

Chiqui cannot apply for any type of status here in the U.S. due to his run-in with the law. For now, all he can do is hope that ICE doesn’t come for him and deport him back to Colombia. If deportation proceedings were initiated his immigration attorney, Joseph, would step in.

Joseph says that if it can be proven that Chiqui’s life would be at risk if he was deported, then he could potentially stay and obtain a work visa. But there is always the possibility that he won’t be granted this type of status and will be deported. Chiqui has decided to wait and see.

Joseph Molina Flynn: I had several conversations with him about whether he thought the risk was worth it or not, and he ended up deciding on, that perhaps living undocumented wasn’t so bad if the alternative was to voluntarily submit himself to deportation proceedings that he could either win or lose.

I asked Joseph if he knew of other undocumented individuals who had bought someone’s identity and ended up being extorted.

Flynn: More than you would think, unfortunately. What doesn't happen all the time, is that people get charged, right. And so, you know, I know a lot of, or not a lot, but I know enough people that are still in these extortionate relationships, but they're kind of damned if they do and damned if they don't.

He also said that, because the pathway to U.S. citizenship is so convoluted and difficult, some individuals feel like they have no other choice but to buy papers. Most of the time there is no pathway for individuals already in the U.S. illegally, so purchasing a U.S. ID is one of the only ways to reduce the risk of being deported by ICE.

I scheduled an interview with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, but they canceled. I asked to reschedule and then received this email response: “As these types of cases may be the subject of ongoing investigation and prosecution, we are going to withhold discussing them at this time.”

To my knowledge and everyone else’s that I had spoken to, Chiqui’s case was closed. So I emailed back: is this because you are now looking to prosecute the real GN? The email response was: “It is the policy of this office and the Department to neither confirm or deny whether we are or are not investigating a matter.”

Like millions of immigrants living in this country, Chiqui came here to work, pay taxes, support his family and to be himself. Now, every day Chiqui lives with the possibility that he will be sent back to Colombia. A country that he doesn’t even really know. A place where he would have to hide a large part of who he is. Although his future here is uncertain, at least for now he is free. Free to be Chiqui Versace.

This has been a special episode of Mosaic, a podcast about immigration and identity in New England. Mosaic is brought to you by The Public’s Radio. A big thank you to Chiqui Versace for sharing his story. Our music is from Hola Hola and Rem’s Tunes. This episode was produced and hosted by me, Pearl Marvell. It was edited by Mareva Lindo. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio.

Thank you for listening.


Chiqui Versace at his desk in Central Falls.

Chiqui Versace

It’s always a dream in our countries to come to the USA,” he said, “and to be able to make a good living and help out our family in Colombia.”
—Chiqui Versace

“I remember, they gave us a birth certificate,” Versace said. “A very old certificate, and a social security card.”
—Chiqui Versace

That day arrived on May 6, 2019 – the day after Cinco de Mayo. “Good thing that I didn’t drink that much that day,” Versace joked. Though he can laugh about it now, he described it as “the worst day of my life.”

“I cried and I cried and I cry,” Versace said. “When they arrest me, it was the first time that I was able to use my name, so it’s a relief – it’s a relief now that I can be Jose Velasco. I don’t have to be the other person anymore.”

“All I ask is just an opportunity to get a number to pay taxes,” Versace said. “Going back to Colombia is just throwing me into the gutter to die.” Despite advances in legal protections, many in the LGBTQIA+ community still experience persecution in Colombia. “I told them I would rather just kill myself,” he said.  


Keep up to date with everything Mosaic

Follow Mosaic on Instagram