Meet Puerto Rico's Queer and Trans Change-Makers

Meet Puerto Rico's Queer and Trans Change-Makers

Story by Jhoni Jackson / Photography by Ana Paula Teixeira

Puerto Rico is perpetually in crisis, its people always in resistance. To varying degrees, the archipelago's state is a universal one, as systemic oppression — and pushback against it — exists all over. The detrimental effects of US colonialism and its own government's predilection for corruption combined, however, make for a uniquely unjust existence for its citizens — especially among those historically most marginalized.

Especially at risk is the transgender community: five trans people have been killed in Puerto Rico in the past five months. Two of those women, Serena Angelique and Layla, were shot dead late April, their bodies found inside a torched car. Before that, Penélope Díaz Ramírez was killed by an inmate after being placed in a men's prison (she was denied transfer to a women's facility, and also denied hormones). A 19-year-old trans man, Yampi, was shot dead the month prior. And in February, the tragic story of Alexa Neulisa — a trans woman without a home who, in the wake of viral false accusations against her for "peeping," was gunned down a day before her 28th birthday — made international news.

These killings account for half of Puerto Rico's LGBTQIA+ deaths — 10 total — in the past year-and-a-half.

Black LGBTQIA+ people living in Puerto Rico (this includes Dominicans and other immigrant groups), like everywhere else, bear the brunt of prejudice, inequality and violence. Racism is alive and well on the island, despite a myth many Puerto Ricans believe, which maintains that, because everyone (even white-passing people) can count African heritage, everybody's treated equally.

Add the COVID-19 pandemic, and we have another threat atop existing oppression and violence. Lockdown in Puerto Rico began mid-March and businesses are only now beginning to reopen, while public transport remains shut down. Many people are still out of work, unemployment claims are backlogged and federal stimulus checks are slow to trickle in.

Let's not dismiss the bleakness of work prospects before the pandemic, though. Unemployment in Puerto Rico has been high for years and statistically in the US, trans people are more likely to be unemployed than cisgender people. (Economic data corresponding specifically to LGBTQIA+ people in Puerto Rico is not available — another, but definitely related, problem.)

With so many battles to confront in Puerto Rico, queer and trans issues are often set aside, as if they'll be addressed at a later date. But all the oppressions are connected: Racism and gender-based violence, and even colonialism and the austerity measures, like cuts to retiree pensions and the University of Puerto Rico's budget.

The activists and artists highlighted, below, don't need data to know that queer and trans people in Puerto Rico are at risk — especially if they're Black. They live this reality themselves and they've taken on the responsibility of confronting the systemic problems that make it so. The work they do pushes for more equality and inclusivity in the island's LGBTQIA+ communities, and helps educate outside these communities, too. The rest of the island must join them.

Carla Jeanet Torres, 35

Carla Jeanet Torres

Nestled in a busy urban area of San Juan is El Hangar, a community space centered on a 25-foot-long airplane hangar and surrounded by trees bearing fruit, from bananas to guanabana to oranges and mangoes. Living on its grounds and a leader in its operations is Carla Jeanet Torres, originally from Morovis, a municipality just north of the island's central mountain range.

Jeanet Torres and company's space is wholly unique in Puerto Rico, and has became a landmark of the queer-led resistance movement. Every activity organized is another blow in breaking down the patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist system, and a step forward in the fortification of sustainable, ethical alternatives.

Bomba y Plena, markets for artists and agricultural vendors, poetry and prose readings, workshops and talks of all kinds, drag shows, performance art, live music and more happens here, on what only five years ago was an abandoned, trash-filled lot.

"It's really important to reclaim this space for our own freedom."

"We're a group of people who work together," Jeanet Torres says. "It's [DIY], so our resources are very limited. But it's really important to reclaim this space for our own freedom."

After Hurricane Maria in 2017, El Hangar became a place to collect supplies for those in need, and a much-needed gathering spot for community healing. During last summer's protests against then-governor Ricardo Rosselló, countless care packages for protestors were assembled there. When a 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked southern Puerto Rico last January, El Hangar is where many queer activists collected necessities and organized brigades to deliver supplies to those in need.

Jeanet Torres emphasizes that El Hangar is not a bar or a club, despite its once-a-month parties. "This is about having an accessible, safe space where people can come hang out, connect and [let loose]," Jeanet Torres says. "But it's not a business made from the necessities of the community. It's about making a space and making a movement and a project that responds to different facets of our community."

Alejandro Santiago Calderón, 30

Alejandro Santiago Calderón

Alejandro Santiago Calderón confidently says "todes" when referring to a group of people; it's the Spanish-language evolution of the traditional "todas" or "todos," both gendered ways of saying "all."

Not every Spanish speaker, or even every Puerto Rican queer or trans person, accepts "todes." But Santiago Calderón realizes how significant an effect a change like this can make.

A devoted social worker and longtime LGBTQIA+ activist, Santiago Calderón was, until recently, eyeing a seat in Puerto Rico's House of Representatives. One of few openly gay political hopefuls in Puerto Rico's history, the 30-year-old would have been the first-ever to run on an independent ticket. Unfortunately, he didn't reach the number of endorsements required to qualify to run (which points to structural issues in the political system, but that's another topic altogether).

Now Santiago Calderón's political focus is pushing other candidates to confirm support for LGBTQIA+ issues. "My compromise has no expiration date," he says. "I'll work until I physically can't do it anymore. This isn't about how much I can achieve, but what we can achieve as people."

"This isn't about how much I can achieve, but what we can achieve as people."

Puerto Rico's current party in power is the Partido Nuevo Progresista, or New Progressive Party, and they are anything but forward-thinking. Historically socially conservative, PNPs are typically also pro-corporations and pro-privatization, and have little regard for the separation of church and state. A comparison to the US Republican party isn't an exact match, but it's fair to say the two share many ideals, including the ones that favor the wealthy and keep the poor in poverty.

Referring to the party, which is generally anti-LGBTQIA+, Santiago Calderón jokes, "I always say I'm PNP: Pato, Negro y Pobre — Gay, Black and Poor."

Despite growing up in government housing, Santiago Calderón acknowledges what privileges he does possess; his University education and gender, for example, grant him access others are not afforded. He also understands how how Puerto Rico's LGBTQIA+ community — like so many others around the world — often fails its Black, trans and nonbinary members.

Santiago Calderón carries his ethics everywhere, from volunteering to participating in discussions on various media platforms, to speaking out against racism, transphobia and other rampant societal problems on his own channels. He may not make change from inside the government just yet, but he's still moving Puerto Rico forward.

María José, 27, of House of Grace

(Top to Bottom) Coqueta Daniel, María José and Teresa Karolina

Ideated originally as a voguing meet-up with Puerto Rico new wave ballroom pioneer Edrimael Delgado, María José is now the sole House of Grace matriarch. The 27-year-old poet, photographer, and performer is holding open the literal door of her own apartment to LGBTQIA+ Puerto Ricans seeking community and safety in exploring their gender, identity and race.

"I don't want to be autocratic or have a hierarchy," María José says. "I don't think there is one. I think I extend a lot of compassion to everyone in the house. I do feel I have natural leadership skills, like communication and organization, but I don't do it alone — not at all. And I don't put myself above anybody else. It's the opposite: I try to empower everyone else."

Recognizing the implied power of her role as house mother, María José says regularly checking her own privileges to ensure house-wide parity is paramount. The number fluctuates, but there's currently about 12 femmes in the house, mostly trans and nonbinary folks, all of them Black or POC.

"[Everyone is] in the process of learning how best to use their powers principally in service of liberation and empowerment for Black transfeminine people and, consequently, all of us," she says.

Together they resist, dream and create, and those efforts not only nurture members of the House, but also encourage a more ethical LGBTQIA+ community in general. "This is how society should work: if you start by protecting the most vulnerable people, in the end, everyone's protected."

María José is known as someone who speaks up in LGBTQIA+ communities of Puerto Rico and New York, where she lived for seven years before returning to the island in 2018. She took the mic at San Juan's 2019 Pride festival to denounce a host's misgendering of onstage performers, stood strong last summer during the #RickyRenuncia protests with a speech recognizing trans rights as human rights and, more recently, climbed atop a table during a panel on transfeminism at San Juan's Contemporary Art Museum to decry its organizers' lack of inclusion of Black trans femmes.

"If you start by protecting the most vulnerable people, in the end, everyone's protected."

"In these moments, the work that I do, what I really want it do is benefit my entire family," she says. "And even though I'm the one with the mic, really, I do it to construct community."

And so, though nightlife is an undeniable foundation of queer culture in Puerto Rico, just like anywhere else, conquering balls is not a principal ambition for House of Grace. Full of creatives and performers, their occasional participation in Puerto Rico's queer scene is not uncommon, but meeting the basic needs of house members is top priority.

"We have people without homes, without food, without access to healthcare," María José says. "And the tea is that a lot people in the LGBTQIA+ community perpetuate anti-Blackness and transmisogyny, so there's a big need to have a safe space, where victims can speak and be heard."

For T. Karolina Grace, 20, joining the house was her first experience feeling "loved by people" — a stark contrast to her upbringing, she explains. "Every day there is more love, regardless of the situation."

Once basic necessities are secured, María José hopes House of Grace can actively engage in a collective creative practice by producing artistic and educational content, and participating in workshops, specifically for coping with trauma and safely navigating sex work. And when possible, they extend help beyond the group.

"Defend people publicly, not just in private," María José says. "If you want to be an ally to poor people, to Black people, to trans people, put it in practice. Just saying we're transfeminist is not enough."

Betún, 32, and Moré, 36

Betún and Moré

Named as a play on Spanish-language Caribbean identity in the colonial context, EspicyNipples is a multifaceted project. It's radically honest podcasts, documentation of and participation in queer panels and discussions, community events and homemade, natural healing products made specifically for queer bodies in resistance. All of this is a form of change-making protest, according to its co-founders Betún and Moré.

"We realized the left wasn't a space for us," Moré says. "We were tired of fighting for space, fighting for what we believe in about gender, about what we need to work on; some of these spaces are very violent. We got tired of fighting to be visible and heard, to be part of the decision-making, and we decided to make a space where we could be free. Instead of fighting against their violence, we can work to create an organized, transfeminist culture with the people who really want to do it, who want to live it right now."

During multiple relief brigades organized by EspicyNipples to bring aid to southern Puerto Rico's low-income towns most blighted by January's 6.4 magnitude earthquake, Moré and Betún wore Espicy Nipples T-shirts, designed in collaboration with friends. This was an intentional choice to make their transfeminist ethics conspicuous (one reads "Trans Rican," for example), and volunteers they'd rallied together were also encouraged to be as visibly queer as they felt comfortable.

"We got tired of fighting to be visible and heard, to be part of the decision-making, and we decided to make a space where we could be free."

Rather than tone down their identities, the pair saw making who they are evident as a signal to other queers — some potentially closeted — who might want to make connections. As a result, LGBTQIA+ people of all ages approached them and the rest of the group. "This older man came up to me," Betún says. "He quietly tells me, 'I'm from the community, too. We'll talk later.'"

The work remains nonstop for EspicyNipples, lately focused on intersections of race and gender identity and sexual orientation, how queer and trans folks are affected by the pandemic, and what tools and resources are available to them on the island. Tracking and raising awareness of gender-based violence and hate crimes against the LGBTQIA+ community is part of EspicyNipples' agenda too, as well as collaborating with other groups to spread island-wide information about the systemic roots of all these oppressions.

"If we don't work on it now, then when?" Moré says. "It's urgent, because they're killing us."

Karina Torres Rosado, 40, and her team at Trans Tanamá

Karina Torres Rosado

Limited by bureaucracy, as a nonprofit org often can be, Trans Tanamá manages to be extremely pliable with its resources. Which is why Activist Karina Torres Rosado's role as the program's Case Manager is critical: Through more than a decade of activism, the 40-year-old has cultivated the kind of connections that obliterate many a red-tape obstacle.

Adhering to certain rules and meeting specific goals — its primary population to service with HIV testing includes trans and nonbinary people aged 18 through 29 through 41 of Puerto Rico's 78 municipalities — is paramount. But Rosado and her team — HIV Testing Providers Soraya Ferri, 28, and Eliot Emil Cruz, 37, and Team Leader Alexander Milán Santiago Cordero, 25 — fulfill those requirements in a way that makes Trans Tanamá's reach even wider. By setting up at drag shows, community events and LGBTQIA+ hangouts around the island, the team has reached people who maybe wouldn't have stepped into Trans Tanamá's San Juan office, either because of inaccessibility or because they didn't know it existed.

"We create a space for folks to just chill, get their tests done and chat."

Sex worker outreach is a major part of their work, too. "They already know us," Rosada says. "We've earned their trust as a team."

Clients who don't have transportation to the offices or appointments are often chauffeured by Trans Tanamá's own reps. "There are a lot of pueblos outside the metro area that need this kind of help," Rosado says.

So many trans and nonbinary people in Puerto Rico — from as young as 15 to elders over 60 — have been helped by Trans Tanamá, not only with HIV testing, but in name change procedures, transition processes, applying for government aid or simply a free, hot meal. Its office is also a refuge: "We create a space for folks to just chill, get their tests done and chat," Ferri says.

Edrimael Delgado, 24

Edrimael Delgado

No doubt there's been voguing throughout Puerto Rico's LGBTQIA+ nightlife history, but the island's current ballroom scene is actually a pretty new one. Edrimael Delgado began organizing classes and balls only two years ago.

The community generously overlaps the alternative drag scene, yet it's its own thing. Delgado stresses that, with all due respect, what he's cultivating now is not a replica or an imitation of NYC ballroom culture, past or present. His is an idiosyncratic interpretation.

"I think [Puerto Rico's current ballroom culture] establishes a dialogue with Black communities that started the ballroom scene," he says. "I'm wanting to bring the same concept: Like, this is my culture, it's a Latinx and Black culture, and we can do vogue from this [perspective]."

Categories like Jíbaro Realness, a nod to the age-old descriptor for rural Puerto Ricans, and the winter holiday one-off Pascua (Poinsettia) Realness, feel signature to the island's current queer landscape.

When Delgado organizes a ball, he avoids gendered categories and uses inclusive language to ensure "everyone feels invited" to participate. "There are people [at some balls who] I've never seen. Like, who is that person? They get on the runway," he says. "I don't know you, but I don't need to know you — I'm so glad you're here!"

"A ballroom that has merengue? To me, that's fantastic."

Delgado and the DJs he works with are intentional in their music choices, too. "I've tried to make it so you can dance to really intense house, but also a merengue," Delgado says. "I want to put those two in conversation even more. A ballroom that has merengue? To me, that's fantastic."

Studying first visual mediums, Delgado's study of dance began at around 18 years old. He spent two years at San Juan Ballet, then joined the contemporary group Andanza, and for the past four years has worked within Piso Proyecto, an experimental, collaborative platform. He's studied folkloric and Cuban modern dance, too.

He's slowed down organizing a bit as he finishes up a bachelor's degree of his own design — Urban Studies and Performance — at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan, but plans to return post-pandemic.

A ball to celebrate his graduation may be in order, he says, "But the principal reason is the dance, the art of doing and performing your identity." That queer and trans people in Puerto Rico have this outlet is what matters most. "That's so important to me," he says. "That's the center."

Villano Antillano, 24

Villano Antillano

When a famous Puerto Rican trapero launched homophobic missives in a diss track two years ago, rapper Villano Antillano clapped back. He was mostly unknown then, but "Pato Hasta la Muerte," or "F*g Until Death" — a play on the original artist's motto, Real Until Death — rapidly went viral, especially in Latinx LGBTQIA+ circles.

The music Villano had been making before this was different: "It wasn't necessarily rap," he says. "But at some point, it just started spewing out of me."

While there's several notable queer artists in Puerto Rico, there are but a slim few on the island making music under the umbrella genre of urbano, which includes trap and rap — the styles Villano now works with. Like so many genres, misogyny and homophobia runs rampant in its lyrics and artist personas. But that doesn't mean a damn thing to Villano Antillano, who knows that activism is inherent in his art.

"That's the beauty of making trap as a queer artist, as a maricón," he says. "I feel I'm the first person that could do it — and Kevin Fret, when he was alive — in a fearless way. How many people had to die for us to get here? I've got a song about sucking dick and giving ass, and who gives a fuck? People listen to it. I think that's very political."

"I've got a song about sucking dick and giving ass, and who gives a fuck? People listen to it. I think that's very political."

He actively avoids playing gigs that might lead to uncomfortable situations, be it because of macho artists or majorly cishet crowds. But on the occasions he has performed in these environments, he says audiences seem to like his sound, his rhythms: "If they don't listen too closely to what I'm saying," he laughs.

An urbano-focused production house recently reached out to support Villano Antillano He's now regularly sharing space with people generally unfamiliar with queer people and culture, but most have been welcoming. With the producer in question, Villano says they "have a working relationship that's more like a friendship."

Despite the well-known LGTBQIA+ advocacy of pioneering reggaetónera Ivy Queen, the moves Bad Bunny has made to encourage queer inclusion, and the ever-growing number of feminist and LGBTQIA+ artists in urbano hailing from around the world, it's still an uphill battle for Villano Antillano.

"I know there are artists that aren't going to give me a break because they don't want to be or they're afraid of being associated with a maricón," he says. "It's a little frustrating, because I know I have to work three times as hard to get where I want."

Editor's Note: This is by no means a comprehensive list of Puerto Rico's trans, nonbinary and queer activists. The University of Puerto Rico's campus in Mayagüez has, through its gender studies program, created a much-needed support and resource network for LGBTQIA+ people on the island's west coast. There are also queer folks carrying the sustainable agricultural movement, more queer and trans-centric nonprofits and DIY collectives than listed here exist, and more artists organizing festivals to highlight the work of non-cishet folks. In times of protest in Puerto Rico, LGBTQIA+ folks always stand firm on the frontlines, pushing for a better quality of life for these communities in Puerto Rico.

Photography: Ana Paula Teixeira