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NAME: Catalina Velasquez
HERITAGE: Born in Cali, Colombia
HOMETOWN: Medellín, Colombia. In the U.S., home is Miami, Florida. Currently lives in Washington, D.C.
OCCUPATION/TITLE: Social justice advocate
Catalina Velasquez is the director of Young People For (YP4), a progressive leadership development program of People For the American Way Foundation, an organization that conducts research, legal, education, and advocacy for a wide variety of liberal causes. She also founded the firm, Consult Catalina, to work on the intersections between immigration status, sexual orientation, gender and ethnic background. She has been involved with the development, advocacy and communications departments at Casa Ruby and the TransWomen of Color Collective; served as an appointed commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Latino Affairs; and was a policy analyst with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. Catalina also serves on the advisory council of United We Dream’s Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I always thought I would pursue a legal career. I wanted to learn how to navigate a system that was so difficult and foreign for my family.
I entered the U.S. at the age of 14, my parents came to this country seeking asylum, escaping civil war in Colombia. There had been a kidnapping attempt and a shooting, there were all sorts of violent situations that led to my family’s decision to migrate.
"It is a process to live unapologetically and there are all sorts of safety concerns...It’s a very unwelcoming world for trans people."
It was difficult coming here and trying to understand a whole new culture and legal system. But it was more than just that: I’m more than an immigrant. As a transgender and queer person, I always saw people on the news speaking poorly and mythically about my complex and nuanced identities. I felt I needed to pursue law or something in politics in order to make a difference.
How did you succeed in making your sexual orientation and gender identity an accepted part of your life at such a young age and within the confines of a traditional Latin American family structure?
With regard to my sexuality, I had a lot of conversations with my mom, who was always worried about why I had a strong attraction to masculine beings when she had the expectation of me being attracted to feminine ones. Those conversations started when I was 11 and they were difficult conversations.
In terms of gender, I started outwardly expressing my gender later on in life. It is a process to live unapologetically and there are all sorts of safety concerns. But at an early age, because my mom was so worried about me, we explored conversations with psychologists to the point that I suppressed my sexuality until the age of 18. I said “We have tried going to psychologists, we’ve tried pretending that it doesn’t exist and now I’m going to start living more authentically.”
Identifying as a trans Colombiana – that took more time.
It’s a very unwelcoming world for trans people. The average life expectancy for a trans woman is 34 years of age and this is because people who defy gender norms are systematically persecuted.
Due to societal bias, being a trans person increases your chances of being discriminated in housing, healthcare and many other areas of everyday life. And once you are displaced and sidelined by society, you’re likelier to engage in survival economies and tactics that could lead to increased rates of incarceration, violence and even death. Trans people are so suffocated and oppressed by society that over 50 percent of the trans community has attempted suicide by the age of 18.
You were the first undocumented, transgender person to attend Georgetown University, what was that journey like?
I graduated from high school in Katy, Texas and there I was: an openly queer, undocumented immigrant who had an acceptance at top-tier colleges but didn’t qualify for federal loans, aid, or grants. This was before DACA in 2012, so it was a very ground-breaking moment to be accepted at Georgetown (a private university) and to start pioneering this path for others. Today we have over 10 undocumented people at Georgetown, now it’s a legacy and to put it into context: every year 65,000 undocumented students graduate from U.S. high school. Back then we had to deal with the fear of disclosing our status just to further our education.
It was really very tough, though – my first semester at Georgetown my family was detained for three months and deported right after. In that situation, one of the hardest things to do is to feel safe enough to ask for help.
People asked me, “How could you be a Georgetown student and be hungry?” But that happened and it wasn’t until my really close mentor and professor at Georgetown made me feel safe enough and develop the confidence I needed to verbalize my life situation and go talk to the financial aid office in order to fill in the gaps.
"We don’t want to simply be tolerated, we want to be accepted – that is a huge nuance."
Georgetown has a lot of conscientious faculty who are thoughtful and socially aware and didn’t hesitate to check in and figure out how to leverage resources to enable me to get access to housing, food and the right to breathe. I found a strong community and family at Georgetown, it was thanks to the support of the university and the administration that I was not only able to attend but also graduate with really good standing with a degree in Foreign Service in International Law, Norms, & Institutions. I didn’t become a lawyer but I did get the legal training I wanted as well as the necessary preparation in gender and immigration matters to navigate the complicated advocacy and policy world of Washington, DC.
You’ve worked for the rights of LGBTQ people, and been instrumental on immigration issues such as the passage of a campaign to provide undocumented immigrants in the District of Columbia with driver’s licenses. Now you’ll be developing young leaders, what will you work to achieve?
I see YP4 as one of the premier places in terms of developing young people with the necessary skills to be effective advocates in the current fights for civil rights. My vision is one of global justice, a unified front that defines solidarities across movements and puts us in a space where we are showing up for one another so that victories and policy initiatives do not just enable us to survive, but to thrive in society. We don’t want to simply be tolerated, we want to be accepted – that is a huge nuance. So we’re working on expanding our curriculum to empower our youth with the necessary skills and tools to go on and make long-lasting change that serves them, positively impacting their families and communities as well.
What does success look like?
My vision is to craft a world that we are proud to live in – to breath, unapologetically, to celebrate our truths, our nationalities, our genders, or diversity in its wholeness. We have to come together to build each other up because there’s so much we can accomplish but we have to do it collectively. If we can create a world that serves and embraces and celebrates all of us, then everyone will have access to opportunities that are oftentimes not equally distributed. That can come about if we create the space for having these conversations, it’s the safe and brave spaces that provide the environment for people to really grow and learn and understand and take away a lot of the discomfort associated with some of these topics. Although, I don’t see discomfort as a bad thing – it can be an opportunity for all of us to learn and grow together.
Any words of wisdom for others also walking a new or different path?
I often tell people that the most valuable thing to learn is how to love yourself for who you are. Across all genders, races, sexualities, immigration statuses, abilities, ages, class, and ethnicities, it’s important to feel valuable and lovable and reflect that back into the world. If I could tell a younger version of me one thing it would be to take a healthy path in embracing who you are – it takes a lot of the trauma and difficulty out of life. It takes a lot of self-esteem and confidence to thrive in this society and those are things that we do not get taught in a formal education setting.
Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda