Walking confidently on stage, Cecilia Gentili steps out into the limelight while an excited crowd begins clapping for her. Her fair skin, heels, red dress and gold earrings make her figure radiate in the bright lights. Her smile permeates through the room and hints at her positive outlook on life.
“Welcome everyone, to the third annual CRIS Awards!” she said with a huge grin. “Bienvenidos!”
On a warmer than average night in early November, the Translatina Network, a transgender advocacy and education group, honors community efforts made within the transgender Latina community across the United States. An auditorium inside the LGBT Center in Lower Manhattan is full as Gentili enthusiastically emcees the event and embraces the honorees as they are recognized.
But behind Gentili’s beautiful smile are memories of pain and hardship. She was born and raised in a place nothing like New York City -- the small city of Gálvez, Argentina, five hours from Buenos Aires and in the middle of the country’s dairy region.
Gentili herself is a much different person than the child of Gálvez. She was assigned male at birth and came out as gay at 12. She would later identify as transgender at 18.
“Life there was difficult,” Gentili, 43, said. “I always behaved in a very queer way. Since I was 6 years old, I felt like something wasn’t right in how society saw me. For years I thought I was crazy.”
Gentili, now a transgender health coordinator in Lower Manhattan, faced verbal and physical abuse while growing up. Having feminine characteristics and mannerisms made her an outcast in her community.
“In a small town that is very binary and heteronormative, somebody that was assigned male at birth and not acting masculine enough was very different for them,” she said. “I was living in a society that really wasn’t ready for someone like me.”
Gentili’s Italian and Argentinian Indian family had a difficult time understanding her identity, and she said her appearance and feminine traits embarrassed them. Not only was it challenging for Gentili to enjoy her life and be comfortable in her own shoes, but gaining the acceptance of her family was nearly impossible.
“The way I dressed wasn’t very well received,” Gentili said. “My mother was kind of open-minded, but my father was in absolute denial. I could go out with full make-up, and he wouldn’t react.”
Gentili said her mother attempted to emphasize how much she loved her but hated the way she behaved. With her father, their relationship didn’t improve. Her brother also had a difficulty accepting her.
“My brother Claudio was a bit older than me. People would talk about me and have horrible conversations with him, and they didn’t realize I was his brother. He was very ashamed of being a sibling to someone like me.”
The daily routine for Gentili consisted of being verbally and physically attacked on the streets, with some of the abuse coming from the local authorities. During the late 80s and early 90s, when she lived in Argentina, Gentili said transgender women were especially vulnerable to police harassment, because it was illegal to wear clothing of the opposite sex.
“One of the laws there prohibited misleading or being someone that you’re not,” Gentili said. “That was a crime, and the police could just arrest you on the street.”
In addition to the harassment Gentili received from her community, someone who she believed genuinely cared for her sexually abused her as a child. She said the abuse started when she was 6 years old and lasted until she was 10.
“He was a neighbor,” she said. “While he was doing horrible things, I saw it as validation and as somebody who saw me as the girl who I was.”
Gentili left her small hometown for Rosario, a larger city in Argentina, to attend college. It was there that she began to identify as transgender.At 26, however, she decided to move to the U.S. in search of a better life as an openly trans woman.
“I decided to move to Miami to live with my friend,” said Gentili. “It took me months to save up, and once I bought my ticket, I took a plane to the U.S. with only $35 in my pocket. The cab ride alone from the airport was $25.”
With no legal status, Gentili said finding a job was nearly impossible.
“I couldn’t get a hair license, because in order to go to school, you need some sort of I.D., and I didn’t have one, and without a license for hair, I couldn’t do what I was doing in Argentina," she explained. “I realized that it was a big possibility that I was going to be doing sex work.”
Just two weeks after arriving in the U.S., Gentili was arrested for prostitution.
“When I was put in jail in Miami, I was placed with the male population,” she said. “Looking back on it is really hard, and I remember telling myself that I was definitely going back to Argentina when I could.”
Gentili said a judge took her passport away, and when it was finally returned, her three-month window to stay legally in the U.S. had already passed. She decided to remain in the country without legal status.
Her next years in the U.S., however, would not be easy ones. She would find herself battling addiction, engaged in sex work and spending more time in prison. She even faced a deportation order.
Gentili is one of thousands of transgender Latina women who -- faced with grueling hardships in their native countries -- flee to the United States for a better life. However, upon arriving in the U.S., they find life here is not without its hardships.
“Many of us come to the United States thinking that our quality of life is going to be better, but unfortunately we come to face another reality,” said Bamby Salcedo, president of the TransLatina Coalition, an advocacy group for trans Latina immigrants in the United States.
Salcedo is a transgender Latina immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico. Like Gentili, she knows first-hand the struggles many transgender immigrants experience.
“I moved to the United States for the same reasons many trans people come to this country,” Salcedo said. “Running away from violence, facing persecution in my country, poverty and family rejection.”
Being the second oldest of her siblings, Salcedo’s family initially had customary plans for her, but she knew that if she fulfilled those obligations she wasn’t being true to herself.
“I was supposed to be the man of the house and fill the traditional roles and expectations,” said Salcedo. “But I knew at a very early age that I was different, but I just didn’t know how to conceptualize it. So my refuge was to turn to drugs.”
The expectations were set for Salcedo before she was even born. Once her father left to live and find work in the United States, she was expected to take on the regular roles of a male in a Latino family.
“When I was born, I was the first boy, and I was given my father’s name,” she said. “I was supposed to work. I was expected to be responsible and provide for the family. When my dad left, I think my mom thought I was going to save her from her misery.”
Salcedo was living two different lives while growing up in Mexico. She began using drugs by the time she was 8 and was arrested at 12.
“I had my street friends who I played the role of tough guy with, but I also had my gay friends,” Salcedo said. “The very first time I dressed up was when I was 12 years old. Of course I couldn’t be myself because of my family, and because of where I lived.”
Seeking out a better life, Salcedo would later seek refuge in California, where her father resided. However, life in the U.S. was more difficult than she had hoped. Salcedo said some of her worst memories while living in the U.S. were in deportation detainment facilities.
“I had already submitted an application for asylum. I was changing my name in the process and was already an active figure in the community when the Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrived at my house,” she said, while describing a 2005 incident.
Salcedo said she was later mistreated and sexually harassed while in a deportation detainment facility.
“They separated me [from other detainees] on the bus but put me in a room with about 50 to 70 men while waiting for the processing,” she explained. “There, men were sexually harassing me, touching me and doing all kinds of stuff.”
When she alerted a guard, Salcedo said she was met with humiliation instead of help. "He told me ‘Oh, we don’t separate people like you ... I still remember those exact words."
In 2014, Salcedo co-authored a study, titled TransVisible: Transgender Latina Immigrants in U.S. Society, which explored the issues transgender Latina immigrants face in the U.S. as well as the issues they faced in their native countries.
Of the 101 women surveyed, 84 percent stated "running away from violence" was a factor in their decision to leave their native country. Despite the hardships many of them have faced since arriving in the United States, 99 percent stated they had better opportunities in the U.S. than in their home country and 88 percent wished to make the U.S. their permanent residence.
Activist groups say Latin America has the highest occurrence of transgender violence globally. Between 2008 and 2014, 1,356 transgender people were killed in Latin America, according to Transgender Europe. This number accounts for nearly 80 of the trans people killed worldwide during this time period. And the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Trans People found the current lifespan of a transgender woman living in Latin America is only 35 years.
In Gentili's native Argentina, for example, three transgender women were killed in the span of a month in late 2015. One of the murdered women was prominent LGBT activist Diana Sacayan, the first trans woman to be fully recognized by Argentina's government, when in 2012 President Cristina Kirchner gave her a national identity card with her gender listed as female.
Ironically, Argentina has been one of the more progressive Latin American countries when it comes to LGBT rights. In 2010, it became the first country in Latin America to recognize same-sex marriage, and the country also has relatively progressive transgender policies.
“I don’t think the situation for the trans community is getting better in Latin America, it’s just getting more attention,” said Karla Padrón, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at Bowdoin College. Padrón co-authored the Transvisible study with Bamby Salcedo while a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
“We assume that if there is progression with laws, a more tolerant society happens, but there is usually backlash and fear,” Padrón added. “Social movements do not translate to better conditions for trans people. Legal advancements do not equal better conditions, because transphobia is embedded in their culture and therefore transphobic violence is normalized.”
Padrón said there is very little documentation of transgender violence in Latin America. She believes this is needed to bring more awareness to the issue.
“Until violence against trans women is being documented, there is no way to prove that things are actually getting better.”
Javier Corrales, an Amherst College professor who specializes in LGBT issues in Latin America, believes violence against trans women is mostly a result of the masculine-dominated culture.
“There is a certain degree of misogyny in Latin America, and the female gender is viewed as lower than men. So if a man said he wants to become a woman, that’s not good,” Corrales said.
Corrales said the animosity and fear toward transgender people creates a hostile environment that ultimately leads them to want to flee elsewhere.
“The trans community faces a terrible labor market,” Corrales said. “Not being able to obtain a job leads to unemployment and living on the streets and to working in the sex industry among other things.”
Despite facing adversity in their native countries and in their new homeland, Cecilia Gentili and Bamby Salcedo have both made better lives for themselves in the U.S.
More than a decade ago, when Gentili began working on her recovery from drug addiction, she also started working on her immigration status. In 2011, she received asylum, and for the past several years she has been working for LGBT nonprofits.
Salcedo, who is currently president of the TransLatina Coalition, and Gentili said they are both committed to helping advance the rights of transgender people in the U.S. and Latin America.
“We’re going to stand up and we’re going to demand action,” Salcedo said. “We live in a society that continues to marginalize us. We continue to live in a society that tells us that we’re not worth it. But they are wrong. We are worth it, we are unique, we are powerful, and we have so much to bring to our society. We just need our society to understand that our uniqueness is going to make the difference in our society.”