Reyna Ortiz excitedly describes her ideal space for transgender Latinx women as “a big beautiful kitchen, like Grandmother’s kitchen, with fresh produce and a table, very nurturing, very Mexicana, a place where everyone can come together and cook, and you’re more than welcome.”
Ortiz participated in a “Race Equity On the Table” panel for transgender Latinx women on May 16th at Monsiváis Cafe in Pilsen, part of Chicago Community Trust’s On the Table initiative that brought together more than 100,000 Chicagoans across the city to break bread and build community.
Ortiz’s co-panelists were Tania Córdova, an activist and member of the LGTBQ Immigrant Rights Coalition, and Ariann Manzanares, a sociology graduate and journalistic collaborator for transgender issues for panel sponsor El Beisman. The panel was moderated by Emmanuel García, who previously hosted Ortiz on his Vives Q series, which focuses on the queer and trans Latinx arts and activism communities.
Latinx transgender women face a lack of safe spaces in which to speak freely, even in the larger LGBT community; despite the significant contributions of trans women of color to the community, they remain one of the most at-risk demographics, in part because they are one of the least supported. White people are given preferential treatment even within the trans femme community itself.
“This community has been neglected terribly,” emphasizes Ortiz. “People have to acknowledge that they have abandoned us. They really didn’t think these girls were gonna survive. They thought we were gonna wither away into nothingingness. No, If you know a real trans woman of color you would know how dedicated we are and how strong we are.”
Sometimes, she says, the conversations that need to happen don’t even happen. The conversation is often so focused on survival – on sex work and surgery – that there isn’t always room for less urgent topics, like the effect of social perceptions and the complexities of having multiple intersecting identities that face oppression and marginalization. The spaces that are safe are few and far between. The best gatherings for trans women are when only trans women are present, when there is no risk of sharing with people who don’t understand. These gatherings often take place in someone’s home over a meal. “I love to cook, and a lot of the girls love to cook,” Ortiz says.
García made similar observations. “Cis allies are not aware of many conversations that the trans Latinx community has because those are not our spaces, and that’s the way the trans community wants it to be. That’s always been the case, the community is self-organizing, self-resilient, they’ve been left out of everything, even the lesbian and gay community.”
He adds, “Historically, resources and spaces have been white dominated,” neglecting to accommodate for things like language barriers. And when the community makes great strides with minimal resources, it is not acknowledged. “One of the oldest queer bars in Chicago, La Cueva, primarily employs trans Latinx women and you never hear about that. There is a lot of acceptance and work being done, and people don’t hear that part, just the machismo stereotypes.” The majority of the focus on Chicago’s LGBT community often seems to be on the affluent majority-white communities on the north side of the city. Add to that the specific problems Latinx LGBTQ people face due to racism – gentrification, immigration, workers’ rights, and health care access. “We should fight for the most vulnerable in order to make the biggest impact,” explained García.
The location of the panel, the Monsiváis Cafe, in the heart of Pilsen, was fittingly named for Mexican writer and activist Carlos Monsiváis, who fought for many vital human rights issues including gay rights and combatting AIDS.
Owner and chef Katie Schlick was happy to host the panel. “Everyone told their stories and opened up; it was very unifying. You want to host an event that unifies people.” She says that while she doesn’t think a business should take a political stance, “Of course I won’t support someone who discriminates,” adding, “Open the door and people can figure it out themselves. It’s not my place to judge you. We’re in such a vital stage not just in this community, but in this country. We need to open up.” She says when she was in high school, “people didn’t talk about [transgender people]. There were just assumptions.” Schlick sees the connection between sharing a meal and sharing ideas: “Dining and eating and open hand to mouth is one of the few open situations, besides lovemaking, where something is one-on-one.”
“The most important thing an ally can do is listen”, says Ortiz. “Acknowledge the problem that we are facing, the point we are trying to get across. Allies ask me, ‘What do you think I can do for the trans community?’ I stop them and say, “I have no idea. What do YOU think you can do? I don’t know what you’re capable of. Go back to yourself and think to yourself, what can I do?”