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Transgender Latinas' fight to end discrimination

by Daniela Castro, Samantha Lee and Rheaa Rao

Like many immigrants, Aury Martinez, 43, left Mexico at the age of 23 in search of a better life. However, unlike many immigrants, Martinez is transgender. She came to the U.S. to escape poverty as well as Mexico’s extremely sexist culture, she said.
However, life in the U.S. was rife with hurdles too. As an undocumented immigrant, Martinez lacked access to many basicrights taken granted by citizens: healthcare, insurance, education, employment and workplace rights.
She was initially afraid to seek medical help for the transition process because she couldn’t afford it. But once she acquired the means to do so, she was unable to communicate with the doctors and nurses because she spoke very little English. Martinez felt discouraged to go into surgery when she realized that the doctors didn’t understand her ailment because of the language barrier.
The workplace was also rife with issues. In her first job at a butcher’s, Martinez attempted to hide her trans identity for fear of being “found out”. Though she didn’t transition till she came to the U.S., her boss back home noticed something different about her, she said.
“He then made me do more difficult labor: deliveries, carrying heavy boxes,” she said. “I was depressed, I cried, but I needed the job so I put up with the situation.”

 Martinez is one of the approximately 267,000 undocumented immigrants who identify as LGBT living in the U.S. today. According to the most recent National Transgender Discrimination Survey, transgender people of color – including African Americans and Latino/as—experience significantly more discrimination compared to the white transgender population.

28 percent of Latino/a transgender people live in poverty, earning less than $10,000 a year. This is more than twice the rate of poverty in the general transgender population rate, and more than five times the general Latino population rate. The figure soars for undocumented translatino/a immigrants: 43 percent of them report extremely low incomes.
Indeed, the numbers indicate that transgender Latino/as are more vulnerable to anti-trans bias, especially undocumented immigrants. The complex interplay of race, socioeconomic class, immigration status and language ability figure into the trenchant discrimination they face in their adopted country. When it comes to two vital aspects of daily life – healthcare and employment – combatting discrimination is even more urgent.

Navigating around an unsafe workplace

 As a transgender immigrant from Mexico, Joselyn Mendoza had a difficult time in the workplace. 17 years ago, when she first came to New York, Mendoza took up a job as a dishwasher.
“I experienced physical violence. I worked long hours for little pay,” she said. While she was going through her transition, a co-worker noticed and sexually harassed her by touching her chest.
 “He told the boss about my transition and two days later I was told to leave,” said Mendoza. Her experience is disproportionately common amongst the transgender Latina immigrant community.

54 percent report being harassed at workplace, while 38 percent indicate being sexually assaulted. While 26 percent of transgender Latino/as have lost their jobs due to bias, the number shoots up to 42 percent for immigrants.


Despite the dire numbers, members of the transgender Latino/a immigrant community are taking steps to improve their situation.
The Trans-Latina Workers’ Co-op is an all-transgender co-op in Queens that aims to empower transgender Latinas facing workplace discrimination.
“We found it very difficult to assist members of that community in finding jobs where they did not experience discrimination,” said Saduf Syal, director of Workforce Development at Make the Road New York, the organization helping to set up the cooperative.“We thought the worker co-op model would be a perfect fit.”
The co-op is collectively owned and managed by eight transgender Latinas, including Mendoza. They are enrolled in a yearlong cosmetology program – funded by a GoFundMe campaign – that ends this summer. Then, they will decide on the best way to market and provide their beautifying services to the community.
“As undocumented trans Latinas, we have no access of Medicaid or any such benefits. We have nothing,” said Mendoza. “I think this co-op is very important for us to survive in this country. I’ve had a great experience here, learnt a lot, without fear of discrimination from my colleagues.”
Mendoza hopes that the co-op, first of its kind in New York, will demonstrate to other members of the community that transgender Latinas are valuable and have a lot to offer.

Jumping through healthcare loops

  Like Aury Martinez, Ana Andrea Molina, 38, is also a transgender woman from Mexico who started transitioning in the U.S.
 “I was living prisoner in the body of a boy that my family wanted me to be,” she says of her life back in Mexico. Even after crossing the border to Texas, she still suffered from depression, trigged by the social pressures and violence of her past. Molina almost committed suicide twice. When those attempts failed, she took to heavy doses of drinking, she says. Over-drinking then led to two heart attacks, which she didn’t seek help for because she was terrified of further discrimination.

61% Transgender Latina immigrants are more likely to visit the emergency room than see a doctor"

data by the TransLatin@ Coalition's project TransVisble(2014)

But there are bright spots in the U.S. healthcare system. According to Molina, she has not felt discrimination from hospital staff. Community-based organizations have set up appointments with a translator so that she can express her problems in her native language. She is also paying it forward: Molina, who lives in Houston, Texas, started up Organización Latina de Trans en Texas, a group that fights for trans-Latina rights.
Martinez, who lives in New York, has also benefitted from community organizations – one helped her get Medicaid and offered translation services. Martinez now gets all medical services through Family Health Center in Harlem. She pays a nominal fee for hormones, but she also attends therapy for domestic violence victims, which is free.
Make the Road NY, a community organization in New York, has teamed up with the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, a legal aid group fighting for gender justice, to expand the medical rights of transgender immigrants.
“Transgender people need more specialized treatment, says Felix Gardon, healthcare advocate at Make the Road. “Right now Medicaid covers basic hormonal treatment but not a spectrum of surgeries that they really need.”
The rules are more ambiguous for undocumented transgender Latinas. Gardon says that they can access emergency healthcare, but require a certificate with a changed gender marker that is only obtained from the consulate of their home country.

However, with IDNYC, the new, free identification card for New Yorkers, obtaining healthcare has become easier for transgender immigrants – at least within New York City. An application for the card doesn’t require a gender marker or a fixed address, for example.


 In the past year, Mik Kindead from the Law Project has helped transgender Latinas apply for the card, which allows them to access non-emergency health services. While the perks apply only within the city, it’s a great starting point for the undocumented transgender community here.