By Leo Lili Valdes
TransLash Media published this article on our website with the author’s permission, and in TransLash Zine Vol. 4: Migration Stories. To support Lissa Mendez, one of the trans women profiled, visit her GoFundMe.
This article historicizes the coronavirus pandemic experiences of two Latinx immigrant trans women by examining their oral histories within a broader social context. New Brunswick, New Jersey, is known as the “Health-Care City,” although the significant Latinx population faces barriers to accessing quality health care. The article looks at the emergence of a trans immigrant community in this urban setting, nurtured, in part, by Oaxacan immigrants who have left an important cultural imprint on the city. Borrowing Joe Trotter’s term, the article further suggests that trans immigrant women constitute a type of “industrial reserve” within a racialized workforce because anti-trans violence intensifies the disposability of their labor. The article explores how the pandemic exacerbated the ongoing social crises that shaped trans Latinx immigrant life in the city, particularly through an oral history with a COVID-19 survivor.
When Mercedes Martínez lay in bed, alone, fighting the wretched symptoms of COVID-19 merely blocks away from the renowned Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey, she began seeing “demons,” as she described her hallucinations:
Yo en las noches, yo de la fiebre tan alta que tenía, yo miraba demonios. Mi- raba cosas muy raras. Yo lloraba, yo lloraba, muy, muy fuerte . . . Yo pensé que me iba a morir.1 (During the nights, from the very high fever that I had, I began seeing demons. I saw very strange things. I cried, I cried, very, very hard . . . I thought I was going to die.)
Martínez is an undocumented Mexican trans woman living in New Brunswick, New Jersey.2 Her adopted home is known as the “Health-Care City,” home to five nationally recognized hospitals, global biotechnology, and internationally recognized medical research institutes.3 Martínez, however, cannot access any of these facilities without risking possible detention and deportation. Moreover, her expired Mexican documents do not reflect her chosen name but the masculine name her parents gave her at birth. Instead of going to the doctor in her own city, she travels to an LGBTQ clinic in Queens, New York, for her medical needs. But traveling to Queens proved impossible during the first wave of the pandemic when Martínez fell ill. In her small apartment she relied on homemade teas of cinnamon, mint, chamomile, and ginger, and food drop-offs from her friends to survive the disease.
Like most of the Mexican, Central American, and broader Latinx immigrant community in New Brunswick, Martínez lives in the shadow of the Health-Care City, only steps away from cutting-edge research and medical facilities but largely unable to access that care.4 This article shares their experiences using interviews from the Voces of a Pandemic project initiated by the Voces Oral History Center at the University of Texas at Austin in collaboration with the Latino New Jersey Oral History Proj- ect of Rutgers University.5 Centered on interviews with an undocumented Mexican trans woman, Mercedes Martínez, and a formerly undocumented Guatemalan trans woman, Lissa Méndez, this study examines how the coronavirus pandemic impacted trans immigrants in the city of New Brunswick.6
This essay is divided into three sections.
The first section sketches a portrait of New Brunswick, New Jersey, which I call a “Latino city” largely populated by “imperial migrants.”7 Census statistics show that as of 2015, a majority of residents were Latinx, mostly from Mexico.8 More significantly, calling New Brunswick a Latino city places it in conversation with scholars of postwar Latino urbanism who have examined how Latinx immigration has affected and, in some cases, reversed a decline in commercial, public, and social activity caused by the “urban crisis,” the transformation of postwar cities by white flight, racial violence, deindustrialization, and suburbanization.9
The second section narrows in on the social world of trans immigrants in New Brunswick through the lens of two low-income trans women.10 Although individual experiences are never entirely representative of a larger group, this article recognizes the value of individual voices, especially those who belong to a deeply stigmatized and marginalized population. Trans immigrants face the same economic and racial marginalization as their cis counterparts, in addition to suffering injustices at the hands of those peers. Anti-trans violence pervades US-based Latinx communities, fueled in part by the idea that the undocumented, immigrant, or Latinx community might be more acceptable to the nation-state if it displayed signs of “respectability,” heteronormativity, and traditional mainstream behaviors.11 Trans workers thus face a unique type of economic vulnerability shaped by race and gender nonconformity that intensifies the disposability of their labor, rendering them a type of “industrial reserve.”12 Nevertheless, trans immigrants forge their own methods of survival to create the kinds of living conditions that enable them to thrive.
The third section examines how the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated existing economic, social, and health crises among Latinx trans immigrants in New Brunswick. Trans individuals often rely on makeshift support networks to supplant an estranged biological family. The coronavirus pandemic exhausted these networks, temporarily halting the forms of mutual aid that kept trans immigrants connected. Moreover, for undocumented trans individuals, the fear of deportation and lack of health insurance often prevents them from accessing critical health care, a reality that was exacerbated as COVID-19 began to rapidly spread. Finally, during one of the worst pandemics in recent history, trans immigrants were cut off from gender-affirming care, which risked deepening the existing mental health crisis in the population and prevented them from accessing one of the most viable ways to minimize the violent retributive responses to visible gender nonconformity trans people often face.
Trans immigrants in New Brunswick value their privacy and safety.
Though often willing to share their experiences, they do not want to draw attention to themselves. Exact estimates of the size of the community would require a “long haul” research study.13 Furthermore, the term community may imply more stability among a group of people who may actually be quite mobile, forced to move between different cit- ies and towns in the United States and across international borders. Rather than drawing generalized conclusions about trans immigrants in New Brunswick, both my execution and my analysis of these oral histories urge scholars to consider the value of individual voices in their approach to studying the coronavirus pandemic. Oral histories with trans immigrants serve as a type of testimonio, or testimony, in which subjects become active social agents in the production of knowledge.14 The archiving of these stories on the Voces Oral History Center YouTube page invites researchers of the pandemic to consider the emotional impact of this historic event, incapable of being captured by statistics alone.
Moreover, trans people are traditionally examined through a focus on subjectivity, embodiment, and identity. I instead analyze them as racialized workers and individuals burdened by a unique set of material conditions whose explication is necessary to understanding how gender normativity, as reproduced in families, churches, the workplace, or the state, is a foundational category of being, that every day powerfully marks who lives and who dies.
New Brunswick, New Jersey: The Health-Care City in Crisis
Known as the “Health-Care City,” New Brunswick, New Jersey, is home to world- renowned hospitals and medical research institutions. However, the city’s residents live in segregated communities where socioeconomic status determines access to quality health care. Examining trans immigrants’ experiences reveals entrenched pat- terns of neglect and the social, economic, and health disparities in New Brunswick’s history. To examine the experiences of trans immigrant women in the “Latino city” of New Brunswick, this section provides a brief sketch of the broader racial and economic contours of the city’s political economy.
New Brunswick traces its origins to settler colonialism and racial slavery. White settlers displaced most of the Lenni Lenape by the early nineteenth century and the development of the region’s infrastructure and institutions relied on enslaved labor.15 Even after passing the Gradual Abolition Act in 1804, New Jersey continued to em- brace the growing national institution of slavery through the development of a mar- ket economy that strengthened ties between slave-produced goods in the South and merchants in the North.16 By 1850, white residents constituted 95.1 percent of the total population, alongside a small nominally free Black population.
The racial composition of New Brunswick remained the same for one hundred years until after World War II, when the second Great Migration of African Americans and also Puerto Rican migration in response to Operation Bootstrap brought thousands of newcomers to the area.17 Between 1950 and 1970, for example, the Black population in New Brunswick doubled.18 And Puerto Ricans began establishing churches as early as 1948, then community centers, softball teams, and in 1960, the Puerto Rican Social Family Club, which organized to challenge discrimination and racism in housing.19 White New Brunswick residents embarked on a mass exodus in response to Black and Brown incomers, losing half their population in fewer than fifty years.20
At the same time, the development of New Jersey’s extensive highway network spurred a complete transformation of the economy. Nestled halfway between Philadelphia and New York City, New Brunswick had served as a vibrant commercial center with a strong manufacturing sector for decades. The construction of highways, such as I-287 and Route 1, and the creation of large shopping malls, like Menlo Park Mall in 1959, facilitated suburbanization and drew business away from New Brunswick.21 Like other cities across the country, New Brunswick experienced a decline in its manufacturing and commercial sector that led to a reverse in the economic gains made by African Americans after World War II. In 1968, New Brunswick was profiled by the Kerner Commission for racial protests that powerfully reoriented the priorities of city politics to the needs of African Americans and Puerto Ricans, if only momentarily.22 Throughout the 1970s a staggering population loss and ongoing suburbanization plunged the city into a fiscal crisis.
Two trends transformed New Brunswick in the post-1960s period: a redevelopment plan created by private-public partnerships and Latin American—most significantly Mexican—immigration.23 The “revitalization” of New Brunswick began in 1968 fol- lowing civil unrest, stalled during the 1970s, ramped up in the 1980s, and continues to this day. The most prominent promoters of redevelopment have been private- public partnerships in the form of nonprofits like New Brunswick Tomorrow and DEVCO (New Brunswick Development Corporation). Although the organizations in charge of planning and carrying out urban redevelopment always included community members on their boards, criticisms emerged quickly and never abated. When redevelopment ramped up in the 1980s, Puerto Rican barrios had already nurtured several generations. Despite their protests, the construction of a large Hyatt Hotel in downtown New Brunswick in 1982 replaced the main Puerto Rican neighborhood and displaced the community.24
Mexican immigration intensified in its wake, eventually leading to an increase in the total population of the city and the reintroduction of commercial activity in abandoned downtown areas like French Street. These two main trends fomented competing visions of the city among residents who fought for access to public space in a geography shaped by economic and racial divisions. Today, one end of the city centers on Parque Oaxaca, a small public plaza that immigrants from the most prominent Latinx community in the city renamed. In recent history, the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca has emerged as a newly important sending state.25 Filled with small bodegas and Mexican restaurants, the area around Parque Oaxaca remains largely separate from the more upscale end of the city that is home to Rutgers University, the largest state employer in New Jersey and headquarters of Johnson & Johnson, a multinational pharmaceutical giant that grossed $100 billion in 2019 alone.26 This economic (and racial) segregation, and especially the inability of undocumented immigrants to access the rich resources available in their own city, virtually ensured extreme hardship during the COVID-19 crisis.
Since the pandemic began, media outlets have provided analyses of the dispro- portionate impact on Latinx communities across the United States. In New Jersey, where Latinx people make up 19 percent of the total population, they accounted for nearly 30 percent of COVID-19 patients.27 This does not take into account those who may not have sought or received health care, like many undocumented immigrants, or those who did not register a positive COVID-19 test. In neighboring New York City, officials reported that COVID-19 was killing Latinx people at 1.6 times the rate it was killing white non-Hispanics.28 In addition to suffering the physical consequences of the disease, Latinx immigrants account for a large segment of the essential workforce and of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic. With the largest concentration of undocumented immigrants in the country, the New Jersey–New York metropolitan area mirrors national trends.29
On March 16, 2020, New Jersey’s governor Phil Murphy signed Executive Order No. 104 directing all nonessential businesses to close and for residents to stay home. Without simultaneously offering economic aid, this created a dire situation for undocumented immigrants in New Brunswick unable to access public assistance. “A lot of people lost their jobs,” remembers Dr. Lilia Fernández, associate professor in the Latino and Caribbean Studies and History Departments at Rutgers University. Fernández lives in New Brunswick and participates in local advocacy and mutual aid efforts for the immigrant community. During her oral history interview with the Voces of a Pandemic project, Fernández recalled:
“I can’t stress enough just what kind of desperation . . . people were undergoing. A lot of people lost their jobs . . . or the companies or factories. . . were closed. You know, all of those people who worked as dishwashers, who worked as cooks in kitchens, housekeepers, house cleaners, nannies, everyone. The streets were empty. The shops were all closed . . . So, all of those people who used to work in these local operations were all of a sudden at home without a paycheck.30“
Only three other states, Illinois, New York, and California, issued stay-at-home orders in March 2020. When businesses shut down and individuals were forced to stay home, many people were left without enough money to meet their basic needs. Soon, local WhatsApp groups—an app popular outside of the United States and within immigrant communities in the United States—began sharing requests for food, clothing, and cash assistance.31 Because many immigrants in New Brunswick work in the service sector, construction, landscaping, or warehouses and were ineligible for stimulus checks or unemployment, the community as a whole began to suffer.
New Brunswick is located in Middlesex County, a region shaped by race, ethnic, and class inequality. In 2017, the median household income in New Brunswick was a little over $38,000. In the surrounding wealthy suburbs where many hospital and university employees live, the median income is upward of $200,000.32 More startling, the city had a poverty rate of 34.2 percent in 2018, triple the county’s rate of about 11.8 percent.33 According to residents, New Brunswick is “a city of sharp contrasts” divided by a “street with two faces.”34 Half of New Brunswick residents are of Latin American descent, and Mexicans alone account for more than a quarter of the city’s total population. Undocumented immigrants are more likely to live in the poorest areas of the city, like Mercedes Martínez, who resides in a census tract with a median income of$25,000.35
These stark statistics provide quantitative support for the ethnic and racial marginalization described by the community. Working-class Latinx residents routinely criticize official bodies, especially the board of education, for the way they treat the immigrant population. The words of María Juárez, a local activist leading a move-ment to stop the closure of a local public school, best illustrate the type of disrespect and abuse the Latinx immigrant community faces. Juárez, whose family comes from Oaxaca, has her three children enrolled in local public schools. When I asked her to explain the strained relationship between the immigrant community and city officials, she recalled a preschool registration event that left her in shock:
There was this mother who was very shy. She didn’t, you know, they asked her, “Hey, what’s your name?” And she like, [whispers] “Mi nombre es,” you know, whatever she said. And then the nurse grew frustrated. She told her, “Listen, tienes que hablar más rápido,” you know, “You have to talk a little bit louder because there’s a lot of people here and I don’t hear you.” And the lady . . . got all shy and put her head down. And she said, “OK,” and then she’s like, “How old is your child?” And then she didn’t hear her so she just slams the table! And she goes “Mira, te dije, “listen, I asked you to speak louder. I know that when you were giving birth, when you were making this child, you were screaming louder than what you’re doing right now! So, get it together!” When she said that to that lady, I was like, “Oh my God, this lady is about to get beat up, something’s going to happen. Because how dare she say something like that to a parent?” I was so . . . I could not believe it.36
Juárez was so frustrated with the public school system that she became a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the board of education. Similar to parents like Juárez who feel the school district mistreats parents and children, Mercedes Martínez feels that the city of New Brunswick neglects the transgender immigrant community. When I asked Martínez to comment on the relationship between the city and trans immigrants, she said:
Las chicas trans en el estado donde estoy, aquí en New Jersey, no hay apoyo. No hay apoyo para nosotras. Nos tienen olvidadas. Estamos sufriendo en este aspecto como chicas trans. Me siento abandonada. Me siento olvidada.37 (Trans women in the state where I live, here in New Jersey, there is no support. There is no support for us. We are forgotten. We are suffering in this respect as trans women. I feel abandoned. I feel forgotten.)
Martínez demonstrates how the trans immigrant community shares in feeling disregarded by the institutions that surround them. However, in addition to being disregarded by the broader New Brunswick community, trans immigrants also find themselves marginalized within the Latinx community itself, unable to count on community acceptance, protection, or support.
Martínez and other chicas trans (trans girls or women), like Lissa Méndez, face challenges as members of the immigrant community because of systemic transphobia. For example, Méndez works as a taxi driver and is well known in New Brunswick. For several years, she has lived openly as a woman, and her cisgender peers have witnessed her gender transition. She nonetheless described the erasure of her womanhood by her Latinx taxi clients, which suggests a reality shaped by not only a lack of respect but also a lack of safety:
Casi la mayoría de acá me conocen. Toda la comunidad Latina casi. Y el pueblo de New Brunswick me conocen. Yo, como que, me miraban . . . Siempre está esa discriminación Aún viéndome así, bonita, preciosa, así como una se-ñorita, siempre se dirigían hacia mi persona como un hombre.38 (Almost the majority of people here know me. The entire Latinx community, almost. The town of New Brunswick knows me. And I noticed how they looked at me . . . Discrimination always persists. Even though I look like this, beautiful, precious, like a young lady, they still refer to me as a man.)
The type of misgendering described by Méndez is typically understood as a benign “mistake” that is, at most, a hurtful inconvenience trans people tolerate as others learn to adjust their language. Studies have shown, however, that misgendering is directly correlated with negative mental health outcomes, including suicidal ideation.39 It also encourages discrimination in the workplace, which can lead to unemployment. Far from an inconvenience, misgendering functions as a dehumanizing force, strip- ping trans people of their autonomy, burdening them with a psychic toll of profound misrecognition, and exposing them to anti-trans physical violence.40 Misgendering can quite literally mark a trans person as a target for abuse or the scapegoat for social anxieties. At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, then, a compounded set of obstacles shaped trans Latinx immigrant lives as members of a group devalued by the city and sidelined within their own community.
Las Chicas Trans: The Social History of Trans Latinx Immigrants in New Brunswick
Since Transgender Day of Remembrance began in 1999, much attention has rightfully been drawn to the high rates of murder of trans women of color in the United States.41 Less attention has been afforded to the two countries with the highest re- corded anti-trans murders, Brazil and Mexico, or the way that anti-trans violence manifests in their diasporic communities.42 According to the Trans Murder Monitor- ing Project, 82 percent of all murders registered in 2020—the deadliest on record— occurred in Central and South America. In Brazil, there were 152 murders recorded, followed by Mexico with 57 and the United States with 44, where 7 occurred in Puerto Rico alone.43
In Europe, where the least number of anti-trans murders occurred, 50 percent were of migrants.44 The Trans Murder Monitoring Project suggests that “aggregated data indicates that Black and migrant trans women of color are more vulnerable and frequently targeted.”45 Lissa Méndez’s and Mercedes Martínez’s oral interviews color in a picture that these striking statistics can only sketch. This section uses their oral interviews to examine the social world of trans immigrants in New Brunswick, illustrating the conditions of economic and social discrimination in which they live. Trans immigrants lived on the margins of the broader Mexican and Latinx community prior to the pandemic, leaving them acutely vulnerable to the economic fallout. As more and more experienced income loss and economic insecurity, the methods they used to support and uplift one another quickly fell apart, although new formations have emerged in their wake.
Lissa Méndez was born in a small rural town in Guatemala in 1991 to members of the peasant working class. She experienced gendered violence from a young age as members of her family and her community physically punished her for embracing her girlhood. She recalled:
Nunca tuve una niñez como cualquier niño . . . fui discriminada . . . nunca jugué con niños porque siempre que deseaba jugar con niños me rechazaban, me hacían a un lado o me golpeaban . . . Hubo un tiempo que duré como seis meses de no salir de mi casa, no salía para ningún lado porque siempre me golpeaban . . . No podía defenderme porque pues, no era solo una persona, no era solo un joven. A veces eran más mayores que yo, pero no era solo uno, sino que eran un grupo de tres, cuatro o cinco y pues me sentía indefenso en ese momento. Entonces no lo podía actuar, no podía defenderme mismo del miedo, del miedo a ser golpeado, del miedo. Siempre había ese miedo en mí. Por eso mi refugié en mi casa siempre. No salía, me dedicaba más, me enfocaba en ayudar a los quehaceres de la casa para no salir.46
(I never had a normal childhood . . . I was discriminated against . . . I never played with boys because anytime I wanted to, they rejected me, they ignored me or beat me. There was a time that lasted about six months where I didn’t leave my house. I didn’t go anywhere because they always beat me . . . I couldn’t defend myself because it wasn’t just one person, it wasn’t just one youth. Sometimes they were older than me, but never just one, rather it was a group of three, four, or five and, well, I felt unprotected in that moment. So, I couldn’t act. I couldn’t defend myself out of fear, fear of being beaten, out of fear. I always felt that fear in me. That is why I sought refuge in my own house. I never left. I dedicated myself to helping with the chores around the house so I never had to leave.)
Although she sought refuge in her home, she did not always find it. Méndez grew up in an abusive household where her father beat her mother and her mother beat her. Neither could she count on her sister to protect her. Méndez recollected:
A veces me decían mis hermanas que se avergonzaban de mí. De hecho en el tiempo del abuso fue que le comenté a mi hermana de lo que pasó Yo le dije que no le dijera a mi mamá en ese momento porque mi mamá era una persona muy violenta pegaba muy fuerte y pues yo le tenía miedo, temor.Y pues ella se lo dijo y pues mi mamá lo que hizo fue pegarme, me pegó muy fuerte y de hecho hasta el otro día me dio fiebre.47
(Sometimes my sisters would tell me they were ashamed of me. In fact, during that time of abuse I told my sister about what was happening I told her not to tell my mom at that moment because my mom was a very violent person . . . She hit me really hard and, well, I was afraid of her, I was terrified of her. And, well, she told her, and what my mom did was hit me, she hit me so hard that … I had a fever until the next day.)
Descriptions of her home life help explain why Guatemala, along with Honduras and El Salvador, is one of the top three countries with the highest rates per capita of LGBTQ asylum seekers in the United States.48 None of these countries allow trans people to change their names or gender markers on their official documents, a practice that helps reduce harassment and the threat of violence, nor do they have civil nondiscrimination provisions in employment or housing.49 Institutions that are de- signed to nurture and protect individuals, such as the family, the church, and the state, often become the center of violence.
Thus, when Méndez’s sister declined an opportunity to migrate to the United States with a friend, Méndez asked her mother to send her instead. At sixteen, Méndez boarded a train in Chiapas, Mexico, traversing the rough terrain of the Sierra Madre for three months before arriving in the United States.50 Young, inexperienced, and with few resources at her disposal to plan ahead, she simply focused on fleeing:
Quería huir de los abusos, de los golpes, de la culpabilidad que sentía. Me sentía como sucio. Me sentía culpable en ese momento por lo que había pasado y pues viajé. Viajé por eso, más por eso.51 (I wanted to flee from the abuses, from the beatings, from the guilt that I felt. I felt dirty. I felt guilty at that moment for what happened and well, I left. I left for that reason, more than anything.)
After arriving in the United States, she moved in with her father in Missouri who had migrated a few years earlier. She attended high school, where she began learning English, and landed a job as a custodian at Target. The anti-trans violence that caused Méndez to flee Guatemala did not subside in the United States. In high school, North Americans and other Latin Americans bullied her. She moved to Trenton, New Jersey, in part to escape her situation in Missouri. She finally sought help in New Jersey from a social worker who connected her with immigration lawyers and guided Méndez through a successful asylum case:
Busqué ayuda porque . . . estaba sufriendo lo que era violencia doméstica y una vez yo busqué ayuda como para terapia o cosas así y se me acercó este trabajador social . . . y él me dice, “Te vamos a tratar de ayudar” . . . Fue bien duro el proceso. Créeme. Habían personas negativas que me decían . . . “¿Qué estás haciendo? Está es [una] perdida de tiempo” . . . A veces tenía que caminar en el frío, la nieve, una hora a esperar el bus, una hora allí para poder viajar a ver a mi abogado. Y yo lo hacía caminando y todo y gracias lo logré y me siento feliz porque siempre lo que me he propuesto, gracias a Dios, lo he logrado.52
(I sought help . . . because I was suffering from domestic violence and one time I sought help for therapy or something like that and a social worker approached me . . . and he says, “We’re going to try to help” . . . It was a really rough process. Believe me. There were negative people who told me . . . “What are you doing? This is a waste of time” . . . Sometimes I had to walk in the cold, the snow, for an hour to wait for a bus, an hour there to be able to go see my lawyer. And I did it, walking and everything, and thank God I accomplished it and I feel happy because everything that I’ve set my mind to, thank God, I’ve been able to achieve.)
The asylum process provided Méndez with permanent residency, affording her stability and safety unavailable to the country’s eleven million undocumented im- migrants. However, in a more abstract way, it also enacted a type of ontological and archival violence. As a “sexile,” the physical violence and distress Méndez withstood as a child for embracing her girlhood motivated her migration.53 The judge granted her asylum, however, on the assumption that she was a gay man persecuted for her sexuality, not on the basis of her gender or gender expression.54 As she explained:
Yo pienso que . . . las leyes y el juez y todo lo que es migración se basa en lo que es tu sexualidad. Porque si hablamos de sexualidad, yo pienso que en la comunidad LGBT, se encierra . . . en las letras LGBT . . . nosotros mismos lo que es gay, lesbiana, todos nos encerramos en ese mismo lenguaje. Y pues en ese momento . . . se puso ahí [en mis papeles] que era un chico gay, vamos a decir, porque en ese momento no tenía lo que era la información de lo que es ser trans y todo, pero con el tiempo yo fui buscando información . . . y me vine a dar cuenta de que yo, en verdad, era yo, o sea yo fui y era una persona trans.
(I think that . . . the law and the judge and everything about migration is based on your sexuality. Because if we talk about sexuality, I think that in the LGBT community, we are enclosed . . . in the letters LGBT . . . we, ourselves, gays, lesbians, we enclose ourselves in the same language. And well in that moment . . . it was written [on my papers] that I was a gay man, let’s say, because at that moment I didn’t have information about what it is to be trans and everything, but with time I looked for information . . . and I came to realize that, in reality, I was me, in other words, I was and was always a trans person.)55
Méndez is not alone in experiencing a postponed realization of her transness, for it is an experience that many trans people share and has contributed to how trans people articulate their social worlds.56 Her oral history powerfully contests official misrepresentation and offers a much fuller picture of how trans people navigate asylum cases and what Dean Spade calls “administrative violence.”57 Shortly after receiving asylum, Méndez obtained a driver’s license that eventually led her to New Brunswick, where she began working as a taxi driver. In New Brunswick, she met other trans women who introduced her to resources to continue her gender transition and became part of a larger trans Latinx community, including Mercedes Martínez.
Like Méndez, Martínez also fled as a teenager from Chiapas, Mexico, arriving in New Brunswick in the 1990s. New Brunswick’s trans immigrant community developed, in part, through its connection to the late Lorena Borjas, a Mexican transgender woman and activist who lived in Jackson Heights, Queens, from 1980 until her pass- ing from COVID-19 in March 2020. As a friend of Mercedes Martínez, Borjas helped connect her with transition-related resources in New York City and provided a model for the kind of support Martínez would offer the trans community in New Brunswick prior to the pandemic.58 For example:
Antes de la pandemia nosotras hacíamos eventos para ayudarnos como chicas trans. Hacíamos shows. Hacíamos bailes para recaudar fondos y tener fondos para que, supongamos una persona estuviera enferma, se la apoyaba. O si desgraciadamente una persona trans moría, podríamos tener los fondos para poder ayudar a la familia o trasladar al cuerpo para el país de origen. Porque en estos aspectos no hay apoyo de ninguna manera para nosotras. Entonces nosotras buscamos la manera de ayudarnos.59
(Before the pandemic, we organized events to help each other as trans women. We organized events. We organized dances to collect funds and to have funds to, let’s say someone was sick, we could support her. Or if, unfortunately, a trans person died, we could have the funds to help her family or send her body back to her home country. Because in this respect, there is no support, by any means, for us girls. So instead, we look for ways to support each other.)
Martínez and her friends organized shows open to the public, helping to form bonds between cis and trans immigrants. The broader immigrant community often admired and complimented Martínez for the way she portrayed Paulina Rubio, Thalía, Alejandra Guzmán, Diana Reyes, and other popular Latin American artists, something she enjoyed:
Yo me sentía muy feliz. Muy contenta. Me gustaba, y aparte, yo podía ayudar a otras personas hacerlas sentir feliz en ese momento, pasar un momento agradable y también porque me pagaban para hacerlo. Ayudaba económi- camente a las personas que lo necesitaban.60
(I felt really happy. Really pleased. I liked it and, besides, I could help other people . . . make them feel happy in that moment, have a good time and also, they paid me to give performances. So, I helped financially the people who needed it.)
Martínez participated actively as an entertainer but she also occupied a sort of mother role in the community. Although organizing was a team effort, when funds were collected at the end of the event, Martínez took charge of distribution. Each person contributed monies for drinks, food, and trinkets so they could sell items, charge for performances, and raise funds. In the two years leading up to the pandemic, they organized five successful events. A trusted member of the community, Martínez took care of event expenses, after which she distributed remaining funds to trans women in need. For example:
Un ejemplo. Si tú no tienes para tu comida pues te daban una despensa. Si tú no tienes para comprarte unos zapatos, pues te ayudamos uno con eso. Cositas pequeñas, pero siempre había algo, un detalle Cuando una chica estuvo . . . enferma de los riñones, la apoyamos con su renta, con su comida. Cuando otra persona desgraciadamente falleció pues la ayudamos con la familia. Son cosas que son dolorosas, pero pusimos nuestro granito de arena.61
(An example. If you don’t have enough for food, well, we give you some food. If you don’t have enough to buy shoes, well, we help you with that. They are small things, but it’s always something. A small detail. When a woman became sick from her kidneys, we helped her with rent, with food. When another person unfortunately died, we helped her family. These are very painful things, but we did our bit, we added our little grain of sand.)
As her story shows, trans women in New Brunswick found creative ways to thrive under difficult conditions. The creativity extends to the realm of health and hormones as well. When another Mexican trans woman, Diana Gonzales, lived in New Brunswick, for instance, she purchased hormones to facilitate her vision for her womanhood in the small tienditas, or bodegas, that pepper the streets of the Mexican side of the city.62
In nearby Newark, Jenesys Alicea, a Puerto Rican trans woman, began her hormone therapy through a network of “traveling trans clinics” organized by Ceyenne Doroshow, a Black Trinidadian trans movement leader based in New York City.63 Although trans immigrants display innovation and self-determination, they ultimately remain beholden to a city infrastructure largely neglectful of their needs.
Both Méndez and Martínez travel hours to have their basic health needs met despite being surrounded by resource-rich medical institutions capable of providing care. For Méndez, access to trans health care in the Health-Care City is either nonexistent or prohibitively expensive. She said:
New Jersey a mí no me ha apoyado nada. Te voy a decir por qué. Porque casi la mayoría de mi apoyo hacia mi sexualidad, lo que es medicina . . . psicológica- mente todo eso me ha apoyado lo que es Filadelfia . . . New Jersey es como más complicado . . . no hay muchos centros aquí . . . Las inyecciones inyectables en Pensilvania, en Filadelfia, varían mucho. Por ejemplo, allá te pueden salir como en 100 dólares y aquí me sale casi 300 dólares . . . La medicina en New Jersey es carísima.64
(New Jersey doesn’t support me at all. I’ll tell you why. Because the main support for my sexuality, what is medicine . . . psychologically, in every way I’m supported by Philadelphia . . . New Jersey is more complicated . . . there aren’t many centers here . . . In Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, injection prices vary a lot. For example, over there they can run you $100, whereas here they cost me almost $300 . . . Medicine in New Jersey is extremely expensive.)
Martínez argues similarly. Since becoming friends with Lorena Borjas, Martínez made use of the extensive network of LGBTQ clinics in New York City even though she has always resided in New Brunswick. Members of her biological family with whom she is close live in New Brunswick, and she has managed to find a good landlord and steady employment as a factory worker. Despite living in the city for more than twenty years, she typically travels two and a half hours to Queens to access medical care. She described her situation:
Aquí no hay lugares que apoyen a uno como chica trans en el estado de New Jersey. En New Brunswick no hay, no hay. Por lo mismo te digo me siento, nos sentimos olvidadas. Nos sentimos como que no nos cuenta y es algo muy triste. Por eso yo tengo que ir hasta Nueva York porque allá en Nueva York me dan todo el apoyo que necesito como chica trans.65
(In the state of New Jersey there are no places that support you as a trans woman. There are none, none in New Brunswick. This is why I tell you that I feel, that we feel forgotten. We feel like we don’t matter and it’s a really sad thing. That is why I have to go to New York because over there in New York, they give me all the support I need as a trans woman.)
Martínez and Méndez live in a city that boasts about its outstanding institutions while failing to care for its most vulnerable residents at its own doorsteps. The lack of adequate local medical care for these women emerges not only from a disinvestment in undocumented communities but also from the nature of trans health care itself, which is characterized by economic inaccessibility, geographic dispersal, and rigorous gatekeeping mechanisms designed, in an ironic way, to prevent as many gender transitions as possible.66
Trans immigrants in New Brunswick face barriers to health while also being part of the essential workforce. In fact, undocumented transgender workers in New Jersey constitute an “industrial reserve,” an essential yet disposable racialized workforce relegated to the lowest-paying positions without benefits or paid leave.67 The numerous warehouses that exist in central New Jersey rely on undocumented transgender women and male migrant labor, although only trans women were interviewed for Voces of a Pandemic at the time of this writing.68 Attending to the variety of employment in trans immigrant life will help widen the range of spaces where the public sees trans women working, living, and striving, and hopefully challenge nefarious stereotypes that feed their criminalization. Of necessity, much of the public discourse surrounding trans women’s labor participation centers on sex work.69
Trans women are often profiled as sex workers when interacting with law enforcement or by the public at large.70 As the Mexican American trans activist Bamby Salcedo described, “There is a stigma attached to trans people—especially trans women of color—that basically everywhere we are and everywhere we go, we get criminalized. We are constantly assumed to be sex workers and drug addicts.”71
The reality is that trans women are not a homogenous group. Like any other population, they are diverse and labor in a wide variety of positions. In New Jersey, undocumented trans women toil at the behest of their employers who hold the ability to dismiss them without prior notice. At Parque Oaxaca, mostly male immigrant and migrant day laborers congregate to wait for daily job offers in construction, landscaping, and other informal jobs.72
Martínez prefers to wait for job offers over the phone, and she routinely accepts calls from labor agencies looking for workers to fill vacancies in local warehouses. Martínez lives “al día, al día,” day to day, completely dependent on the labor agencies to notify her when employment is available and on friends who carpool to the outskirts of the city. Although she was out of work at the time of our interview, previously she worked at a chocolate factory and a clothing factory.
Unlike Martínez, Lissa Méndez does not work in the industrial sector though her trans female roommate does. Still, Méndez concurred that most trans women in New Brunswick work in factories.73 She labors as a taxi driver, but her work history also paints a portrait of working-class trans mi- grant life steeped in the historical labor patterns of undocumented immigrants.74 In the past, Méndez worked as a roofer in construction. When she lived in Trenton, New Jersey, she worked in a factory that manufactured military defense, automotive, and aerospace products. When she lived in New York, she became certified to work as a nursing assistant.
These various experiences demonstrate the wide variety of working- class employment available to trans women and their important role in the economy. Trans immigrants share the burdens of the tenuous nature of their employment with their cis immigrant counterparts. However, transphobia compromises their sense of belonging in the community and as a result the strength and cohesiveness of the workforce overall.
For example, although Martínez is generally content with factory work, she has been subject to anti-trans discrimination and violence from her immigrant coworkers and supervisors. She described one warehouse where her supervisors prohibited her from using the women’s bathroom:
En una factoría que yo trabajé me discriminaban porque no me permitían entrar al baño de mujeres. El jefe no quería que entrara yo al baño de mujeres, porque como soy una chica trans quería que yo llevara al papel certificado que yo era ya una chica totalmente trans . . . Sufrí, sufrí mucho en este aspecto. Sufrí mucho, porque me sentía denigrada. Me sentía presencia triste por ser como soy y me sentía discriminada.
(I was discriminated against in a factory where I used to work because they didn’t permit me to use the women’s bathroom. The boss didn’t want me to go inside the women’s bathroom because, since I am a trans woman, he wanted me to bring him papers certifying that I was a wom- an who was totally trans. I suffered a lot in this respect. I suffered a lot because I felt denigrated. I felt a sad presence for being the way I am and I felt discriminated against.)
Leo Valdes: ¿También tenías miedo de entrar al baño de los hombres? (Did you also feel scared to go into the men’s bathroom?)
Mercedes Martínez: Claro, claro. Porque habían hombres que me decían co- sas. Habían hombres que no me miraban bien. Yo no me sentía bien allí, pero tenía que entrar porque yo tenía que hacer mis necesidades. No me quedaba otra opción Y necesitaba el trabajo también.75 (Of course, of course. Because there were men who sneered at me. There were men that looked at me badly. I didn’t feel good there, but I had to go in because I needed to do my business. I didn’t have any other option. And I needed the job as well.)
In the scenario described by Martínez, the undocumented trans worker has little recourse. Martínez could either brave the men’s bathroom, which would expose her to harassment or violence, or quit, an impossible choice.
Although Latinx people often shun trans immigrants, there exist important cultural elements that have nurtured the growth of the community in the small city of New Brunswick. Three nearby larger cities, New York, Newark, and Philadelphia, have large trans populations and institutional resources, and yet New Brunswick retains a vibrant trans immigrant community.
At least one member of the community, Gonzales, speculates that this is due to the large Oaxacan cultural influence on the city’s immigrant community. Oaxaca is home to sixteen indigenous groups of people, the largest of whom are the Zapotec and Mixtec.76 These indigenous groups “have a relationship with the Mexican state that differs from that of non-indigenous, or mestizo, migrants.”77 Likewise, “as indigenous peoples, they bring with them cultural and political resources for identity formation, political organizing, and community building that mestizo Mexicans do not share.”78
A cultural resource that seems to be prevalent in New Brunswick is an awareness of and even a positive association with gender-variant people through popular knowledge of muxes—a third gender category of people within the Zapotec culture.79 In general, muxes are valued members of their communities, although they may still face ostracism. They are known, in part, for undertaking the important responsibility of caring for their parents in their old age.80
Although the women interviewed for Voces of a Pandemic did not indicate having ties to indigenous communities, Gonzales suggested that popular knowledge of gender variance among people from Oaxaca and their significant influence on the broader immigrant community in New Brunswick may play a role in fostering some community acceptance for trans women, allowing a trans immigrant community to thrive. Thus, oral interviews with trans immigrant women from New Brunswick suggest the presence of cultural formations with avenues for inclusion and belonging in addition to or perhaps in spite of the persistent class, race, and trans antagonism that shapes the city. These latter elements, however, ultimately played a more significant role in shaping the impact and outcome of the coronavirus pandemic on trans Latinx immigrants.
The Impact of the Coronavirus Pandemic on the Trans Latinx Community of New Brunswick
When coronavirus began spreading in New Jersey in March 2020, Rutgers campuses quickly shut down as medical researchers and scientists began investigating ways to address the impending health crisis. Rutgers’ RUCDR Infinite Biologics, the world’s largest university-based biorepository, developed the first at-home saliva test for coronavirus to be authorized by the Food and Drug Administration in early May 2020.81 Rutgers Medical School was also selected as a site for a COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial in September 2020. In fact, Rutgers’ research and public health outreach efforts to combat COVID-19 were so numerous that the university created an exclusive COVID-19 center to serve as an institutional hub for both research and information dissemination.82
Although Rutgers mobilized hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to conduct research on the pandemic, virtually no institutional resources were directed toward New Brunswick’s immigrant and undocumented residents by the university or the city’s political establishment, reinforcing the perception of an entrenched pattern of neglect.
Because Martínez does not see a doctor in New Brunswick, when she began experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, seeking professional medical advice was out of the question.83 Martínez contracted COVID-19 during the first wave of the pandemic after visiting a friend in his home. Her harrowing account belies the trauma caused by the disease:
Yo fui a visitarlo y esa persona tenía los síntomas y fue al hospital y no me dijo que él tenía esos síntomas. Y yo fui a visitarlo entonces fue ahí cuando yo entré a su casa y entré a su habitación sentí un escalofrío en mi cuerpo, sentí muy feo algo diferente en mí. Y fue que ahí me contagié. Y desde ahí entonces empecé con eso . . . Yo estuve quince días tirada en una cama . . . como dos meses encerrada. No salí para nada.84
(I went to visit him and he had the symptoms and he went to the hospital and didn’t tell me he had the symptoms. I went to visit him and that’s when I entered his house and his room and I felt chills throughout my body, something really ugly and different came over me. And that’s when I caught it. And that’s when it all started. . . . I spent fifteen days sprawled on my bed . . . two months locked at home. I didn’t go out for anything.)
Martínez’s experiences fit the term “long-haulers,” coined to describe patients whose COVID-19 symptoms lasted weeks or months.85 While there is no explanation available for the occurrence of long-term symptoms at the time of this writing, researchers estimate that 10 percent of COVID-19 patients become long-haulers.86 Some suffer from preexisting conditions, like Lissa Méndez, who has asthma.87 Martínez did not have preexisting conditions, but like 50 percent of the long-haulers surveyed in a recent medical study, Martínez was never tested.88 Her symptoms persisted for months to the point that, when she returned to work, she kept taking medication to manage her pain every day. When I asked her about her recovery at the time of our interview, she said:
Mi cuerpo no lo siento igual. Pero ahora siento como que tengo dolor de cuerpo en la espalda. Mi cabeza me duele. Entonces son cosas que dejan secuelas.Quedan secuelas. No estoy 100 por ciento como antes.89 (My body doesn’t feel the same. Now I feel like I have pain in my body, in my back. My head hurts. These are things that leave grave side effects. There are side effects. I’m not 100 percent back to how I was before.)
Martínez suffered long-term physical and mental health consequences, which include the trauma of isolation, thinking she might die without anyone knowing, “me duermo y amanezco muerta,” having experienced confusing hallucinations as well as extreme stress from not knowing how she would be able to pay for her food, electricity, water, or rent.
As of September 2020, polls indicated that at least 72 percent of Latinx households faced serious financial problems during the pandemic.90 Even before this, 23 percent of Latinx households were identified by researchers as being food insecure.91 Lissa Méndez was among them. Shortly after arriving in the United States, she worked the night shift at a Target but did not earn enough to be able to afford both rent and food:
Yo me encargaba de limpiar la tienda, recoger la basura, las cajas, y no me al- canzaba el dinero. A veces y a veces está bien adentro de la tienda. Había una tienda de pizzería y ya que se encargaba de hacer pizzas pequeñas, personales y a veces las últimas que no se vendían las tiraban al basurero de la tienda.Pues a mi, a veces no me alcanzaba el dinero. Lo que yo hacía anoche era ir a recoger esas pizzas pequeñas y me las comía porque a veces no me alcanzaba para la comida.92
(I was charged with cleaning the store, picking up the garbage, the boxes, and I didn’t have enough money. Sometimes, all the way at the end of the store, there was a pizza shop that made small pizzas, personalized pizzas, and sometimes the last ones that wouldn’t sell were thrown in the store’s trash. Well, I didn’t have enough money. So, what I did at night was go pick up those small pizzas and eat them because sometimes I didn’t have enough for food.)
Although Méndez found more economic stability after moving to New Brunswick, it remained insubstantial. Like the fifty-four million Americans facing food insecurity during the pandemic, she found herself “corta de comida” (short on food).93 Likewise, when Martínez’s symptoms began to appear, her first thoughts revolved around housing and food:
Mi primer pensamiento fue, ¿Cómo voy a hacer yo para pagar mi renta? ¿Cómo voy a hacer yo para comprar mi comida? No, no tenía fuerzas de cocinar. No tenía fuerzas de, de hacer absolutamente nada. Yo no quería nada no quería que nadie hablara. Me aislé. Me aislé y lloré mucho. Lloré mucho. Y a las per- sonas a mis amistades más cercanas yo les completé lo que estaba pasando.Algo muy, muy traumático, la verdad.94
(My first thought was, How am I going to pay the rent? How am I going to buy my food? I didn’t have the strength to cook. I didn’t have the strength to do absolutely anything. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want anyone to talk to me. I isolated myself. I isolated myself and I cried a lot. I cried a lot. I did tell my closest friends what was happening. It was very traumatic, to be honest.)
When Martínez caught COVID-19 she was not working. The factory that employed her closed after Governor Murphy’s stay-at-home order. She had been out of work for one month before she got sick and for two months afterward until she recovered enough to search for a new job. At the time of our interview, Martínez had recently found employment in a cosmetics factory, where she worked alongside three other trans women. She spent eight hours on her feet each day assembling packages and was allotted one lunch break and two fifteen-minute breaks. Her feet fatigued easily, “se cansan mucho los pies,” and she began taking Tylenol each day to deal with the chronic pain. The eviction moratorium issued in mid-March gave Martínez temporary relief from the consequences of being unable to pay her rent. Still, even after she returned to work, she continued to worry about how she would put food on the table:
Antes [de la pandemia] yo sí tenía, tenía mi comida, pero ahora como que no. Ahora es como que, estoy, como empecé a trabajar otra vez, si tengo que volver a empezar de cero. A volver a comprar mis cosas. De tener despensa full ahí, pero ahorita no. Ahorita estoy sin mucha comida.95
(Before [the pandemic] I did have my food, but now I don’t. Now, it’s like, now that I returned to work, I have to begin again from scratch. To start buying my things again. To have the pantry full, but not right now. Now, I don’t have a lot of food.)
Martínez, in her words, was “not prepared” to be out of work for so long. She survived primarily with the help of her family and friends:
Pues con ayuda de mis amistades fueron recaudando para que pudiera yo jun- tar el dinero de la renta. Le pedí prestado a mis hermanos para que yo pudiera juntar el dinero de la renta. Y también, pues, este mi amiga me ayudó también. Me colaboró con un dinero para yo poder pagar los “biles”—la luz, el agua, la renta, mi celular que es muy indispensable en estos momentos.96
(Well, with the help of my friends, they gathered enough so that I could pay rent. I asked to borrow money from my brothers to pay rent. And well my girlfriend helped me as well. She helped me pay my bills. Light, water, rent, and my cell phone which is indispensable during these times.)
Martínez was fortunate that her brothers were able to assist her with her rent, since both she and her siblings send remittances to their parents in Chiapas, Mexico. Martínez’s parents are eighty-two and eighty-three years old and have no retirement income. They depend on their sons and daughters, and in particular, Martínez, since she has no children. After Martínez lost her income, her parents “suffered as well.”
In April 2020 the World Bank predicted a 20 percent drop in migrant remittances, leaving not only individual families like Martínez’s vulnerable but also entire governments in trouble, as remittances often account for a significant portion of a country’s gross domestic product.97 Martínez’s experiences make evident that trans undocumented immigrants are important and valuable members of their communities who contribute financially and socially to the well-being of others despite the enormous obstacles placed in their way.98 They also suggest, however, that trans immigrants occupy spaces of unique vulnerability in the United States that can have rebounding effects in their countries of origin during moments of crisis.
In addition to dealing with the physical consequences of the disease, trans people like Martínez also faced anxiety as a result of new restrictions on access to hormones during the pandemic. She lamented, “Me ha afectado mucho. Yo no he podido ir a mis hormonas” (It has affected me greatly. I haven’t been able to go to get my hormones).
Access to hormones can profoundly shape the direction of a trans person’s life and significantly contributes to mental well-being and economic security. Trans people already experience disproportionate mental health crises compared to the non-trans population. The National Transgender Survey found that 39 percent of respondents experienced psychological distress, compared to only 5 percent of the US population as a whole, and that 40 percent of respondents had attempted suicide compared to only 4.6 percent of the US population.
As Méndez’s childhood stories recount, anti-trans violence begins at a young age and follows most trans people, in one form or another, their entire lives. Hormone therapy can provide peace of mind for trans people, which has been directly linked to better mental health outcomes.99 Méndez alluded to the detrimental effects of the coronavirus through interruptions in her own transition:
En ese momento yo me encontraba en una situación de lo que es mi transición. Me encontraba muy mal, que estaba . . . viviendo los cambios y estaba aco- modándome a la depresión y entonces viene . . . me pega fuerte y como que fue duro, fue duro.100
(At that moment I found myself in a situation in terms of my transition. I was not doing very well, I was . . . living through the changes and accommodating myself to being depressed and so . . . it hit me really hard and it was really difficult, really difficult.)
Equally important, hormone therapy, or “living through the changes,” also helps trans people minimize public scrutiny of their bodies and reduce the threat of violence in a cis-heteronormative culture by allowing them to blend in to the general population.101 As Toby Beauchamp explains, “Surveillance of gender-nonconforming people centers . . . on the perceived deception underlying transgressive gender pre- sentation.”102 Gender nonconformity is viewed as dangerous, deceptive, and dishonest. Martínez described how the police view her and her friends, “ellos nos ven así como raros” (they look at us like we’re odd).103
Moreover, surveillance of trans bodies hinges on the degree and perceptibility of gender transgressiveness, whether through facial recognition technology, identity documents, or on the street. In a society that normalizes responding to gender nonconformity through murder, incarceration, deportation, or termination from employment, consistent hormone use can function as a social safety net, offsetting the high rates of unemployment and poverty among the population.
Indeed, trans Latinx workers report unemployment more than three times the rate of the population as a whole (21 percent versus 5 percent), and trans workers of all ethnic and racial groups are nearly four times more likely than the general population to have a household income of under $10,000 (15 percent versus 4 percent).104 Being unable to access hormones or having transitions interrupted during the pandemic contributed an additional and unique layer of hardship not only through affecting a deeply personal sense of self but also by jeopardizing the ability to move through public settings safely, avoid discrimination or encounters with the police, and stay employed. These effects could have been mitigated if local health-care institutions served the immigrant trans community that surrounds them.
Access to hormone therapy alone does not prevent anti-trans violence or discrimination. After Méndez became a permanent resident, she obtained an identification card with her name and female gender marker. In contrast, Martínez’s undocument- ed status makes that all but impossible. As a result, every time she uses her iden- tification card, whether to get a vaccine or to apply for public assistance, she risks exposure, discrimination, and misgendering in addition to the threat of deportation. Churches, which comprise the most numerous and popular form of nonprofit public aid in New Brunswick, often discriminate against trans people through the enforcement of onerous requirements reflective of cis-heteronormative values.
As Martínez described her experience:
En las organizaciones que ayudan piden muchos requisitos en cuestión de identidad, en cuestión de que, porque tu dices que eres trans, no te quieren apoyar . . . Organizaciones como supongamos las funciones de ayuda de igle- sias. Porque hay iglesias que no nos aceptan cuando uno le dice, soy una chica trans—yo siempre he hablado con la verdad. Yo siempre he dicho lo que yo soy. Yo no tengo que esconder. ¿Por qué? Porque yo, mi nombre es Mercedes. Entonces, y sí, mi nombre es diferente [de lo que indica mi ID].105
(The organizations that offer help have many identity requirements, like when you say you are trans, they don’t want to help you. Organizations with fundraiser events for example. Because there are churches that don’t accept us when you tell them, I am a trans woman—I have always spoken the truth. I have always said what I am. I have nothing to hide. Why? Because I, my name is Mercedes. So, yes, my name is different [than what shows on my ID].)
Fortunately, during the pandemic Martínez managed to obtain aid from two local organizations that do not discriminate against trans people. Mil Sonrisas (which means “one thousand smiles”) is a local grassroots collective that distributed food and clothing donations to residents during the coronavirus pandemic and to Central Americans after Hurricane Eta in November 2020. Martínez also received a small cash grant from New Brunswick Mutual Aid, a group formed by María Juárez, Dr. Lilia Fernández, Miguel Romero-Trejos, and another local activist who collected and distributed $23,000 to the local community.
When they called Martínez to follow up on her application and determine her eligibility, they discovered that she had listed herself by her masculine legal name but also gave her feminine chosen name as an alternative. Group members subsequently recognized and decided to respect her transness, identifying and addressing her only by her chosen name.106
Although Méndez also applied to New Brunswick Mutual Aid after her work as a taxi driver dramatically declined, she did not qualify. So many people from New Brunswick applied for funds that the group quickly decided to limit their criteria to single mothers, undocumented individuals, victims of COVID-19, and the elderly. They disqualified those who received public assistance and eventually those who did not live within city limits.107 The elaborate criteria the group developed indicated the level of need as well as the concentration of hypervulnerable immigrants in New Brunswick.
Instead of mutual aid, Méndez found support from a romantic partner who worked in construction. At the time of our interview, she felt confident about her relationship and his ability to support her financially. Weeks after, when we reconnected on the phone, the relationship had turned physically abusive, and she was actively searching for other forms of help. The prevalence of intimate partner violence against trans people is well documented.108
Because trans people are often cut off from a central support system—the family—they often have to create a patchwork of friends, lovers, ex-lovers, and, if able, professionals to survive crises or simply navigate life’s challenges. When compared to the legal and emotional ties that often bind biological family members, trans people’s support networks are characterized by instability, vulnerability, and uncertainty.109 Although Méndez lives free from the fear of deportation, she bears the burden of economic pain shared by Martínez and faces the uphill battle of building the stability necessary to rise out of a state of constant survival.
Conducting interviews with Latinx immigrants living through the global coronavirus pandemic resulted in an important archive that future researchers will use to examine the crisis. Rarer still are the interviews with undocumented and low-income trans Latinx immigrant women, who do not often appear in official records. Elevating trans Latinx immigrant voices in scholarship on race and inequality promises to produce new knowledge that challenges the representation of trans people in broader society and contests understandings of history that erase their presence.
These oral histories also encourage scholars to examine the nature of place or geography, class, and race in producing variability among trans populations. In New Brunswick, New Jersey, despite trans women’s contributions in labor, entertainment, and international economies, most live in the shadow of a city unwilling to prioritize them. Their ingenuity in surviving poverty, however, self-determination in the face of hostility and neglect, and ability to blossom into autonomous individuals with chosen names and realized selves, demonstrate resilience and a will to go on that we may all draw strength from.
Thank you to Mercedes Martínez, Lissa Méndez, and all the other individuals interviewed for sharing their stories. Thank you to Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez and Lilia Fernández for inviting me to work on the oral history project and for reading and editing drafts of this article. Thanks as well to the anonymous reviewers for providing instructive feedback. Thank you to Joseph Kaplan for pointing out the Healthcare City, and for all our generative conversations. Special thanks to my mother, Carmen Arenas, for always editing my translations and raising me bilingual in the first place. My utmost gratitude to my advisers Lilia Fernández and Donna Murch for their unwavering support and for modeling the kind of scholar I wish to become.
- Mercedes Martínez, interview in the author’s possession. Mercedes Martínez is a pseudo- nym to protect her identity.
- This article defines trans and transgender as someone who does not live as, or identify with, the gender they were assigned at birth. Cis and cisgender describe someone who does identify with the gender they were assigned at birth. For an analysis of terminology, see Susan Stryker, Paisley Currah, and Lisa Jean Moore, “Introduction: Trans-, Trans, or Transgender?,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 36, nos. 3–4 (2008): 11–22.
- “We Are the Healthcare City,” New Brunswick City Market, 2021.
- My use of the ethno-racial term Latinx/e reflects both an approach to Latinx studies that centers the perspectives of Black Latinx and indigenous individuals, whose experiences have often been sidelined in scholarship or media, and one that understands the term’s emergence as the articulation of a coalitional politics. Latinx includes Black people and exists alongside indigenous critiques of mestizaje. In the context of New Brunswick, Latinx/e reflects a pan- national group of mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants and children of immigrants, mostly from Mexico, shaped by and spatially lumped together through shared social conditions relating to language, immigration, class, ethnicity, and race. Although race statistics on the Hispanic / Latinx demographic are inadequate, I reprint the 2014–2018 American Community Survey Five- Year estimates here to give more context on New Brunswick’s demographics: Black / African American non-Hispanic at 13.67 percent and white non-Hispanic at 24.74 percent. The total Hispanic population was listed as 50.1 percent. The Hispanic breakdown by race included 8.82 percent as some other race alone and Hispanic, 39.51 percent as white Hispanic, .89 percent identified as Black Hispanic, .12 percent as Asian Hispanic, .77 percent as two or more races and Hispanic, .0 percent as American Indian / Alaskan Native and Hispanic, and .0 percent as Na- tive Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander and Hispanic. (These percentages do not add up to 100 because they are of the total population not within the Hispanic population itself). Providing examples of individual voices not captured by statistics broadens this picture. For example, Lissa Méndez described her race as morena, and Miguel Romero-Trejos, also interviewed for the Latino New Jersey Oral History Project and cited in this article, described embracing the term Indian in adulthood after kids used the word to taunt him in his youth. He does not belong to an indigenous community.
- The Voces of a Pandemic project is an ongoing oral history project led by Maggie Rivas- Rodriguez at the University of Texas at Austin involving a consortium of universities conducting oral histories with Latinx people about their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The oral histories are available to the public, including those used in this article, and can be found on the Voces Oral History Center’s YouTube page. The Latino New Jersey Oral History Project is also an ongoing oral history initiative led by Lilia Fernández at Rutgers University. Oral histories conducted through this project are archived at Rutgers Oral History Archive (ROHA). Several are available to the public through ROHA’s website or through emailing RO- HA’s director Shaun Illingworth.
- Mercedes Martínez is a pseudonym. Lissa Méndez and all other names are not pseudonyms.
- I find Llana Barber’s term imperial migrants useful in highlighting how Latinx immigrants and migrants often flee political and economic conditions that the United States helps create. Llana Barber, Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945–2000 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 15. For a historical examination of the urban crisis, see Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).
- American Community Survey data lists the Hispanic population of New Brunswick as 55.8 percent in 2015. Mexicans alone accounted for 28.44 percent of the total population. The second two largest Hispanic groups among the total population were Central American (9.5 percent) and Dominican (9.36 percent). All census data was obtained through Social Explorer.
- Although some scholars, such as Sandoval-Strausz, have argued that Latinx immigration “solved” the “urban crisis,” I do not make that claim. New Brunswick experienced an increase in Latinx population in the post-1970s period, but the problems of the “urban crisis” remained despite public-private initiatives. See A. K. Sandoval-Strausz, Barrio America: How Latino Im- migrants Saved the American City (New York: Basic Books, 2019).
- My use of social follows the methods developed by social historians who examine the everyday life experiences and material conditions of nonelite people over an extended period of time and who spearheaded the use of oral histories to derive new insight into traditional narratives. Exemplary social histories include Tera Hunter, To ’Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997); Annelise Orleck, Storming Caesar’s Palace: How Black Mothers Fought Their Own War on Poverty (Boston: Beacon Press, 2005).
- Indeed, as Eithne Luibhéid explains, immigration control measures along the border have historically reproduced social hierarchies, including those of gender and sexuality, thus incentivizing immigrant communities to self-police gender expression. Before the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, those deemed “undesirable” or likely to become a public charge, including gender and sexually transgressive people, were denied entry at the border. Under the McCarran-Walter Act, homosexual, queer, and trans exclusion became subsumed into the provision that barred entry by “psychopathic personalities.” See Eithne Luibhéid, Entry Denied: Controlling Sexuality at the Border (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002).
- I find the term industrial reserve useful in exploring how race, ethnicity, and the coercive nature of gender nonconformity shape the tenuous nature of the trans immigrant working class. See Joe Trotter, Black Milwaukee: The Making of an Industrial Proletariat, 1915–45 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1985), 148.
- Linda Shopes, “Commentary: Sharing Authority,” Oral History Review 30, no. 1 (Winter– Spring 2003): 105–108.
- In populations that are semiliterate, that have inherited rich oral traditions, or that are often left out of the official record, testimonios are a political imperative. Horacio Roque Ramírez became one of the first oral historians to pay attention to trans Latinx people. My own methods follow his call for “a shared queer authority.” See Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio Roque Ramírez, Bodies of Evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), especially chap. 10.
- On the colonial origins of New Brunswick, the role of Rutgers University in the institution of slavery, and the experiences of African Americans and Native Americans, see Deborah Gray White and Marisa J. Fuentes, Scarlet and Black: Slavery and Dispossession in Rutgers History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2016).
- New Jersey abolished slavery in 1804. However, as Christy Clark-Pujara has noted, the economies of Northern states after the American Revolution relied on slave-produced goods and on commercial relationships with Southern slaveholders, both of which were central to the development of the northeast. See Christy Clark-Pujara, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island (New York: New York University Press, 2016). For scholarship on the growth of slavery after the founding of the United States, see Adam Rothman, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
- Operation Bootstrap was a development policy implemented in Puerto Rico after World War II to industrialize the island. The scarcity of jobs that ensued resulted in a mass migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland United States. For a history of Puerto Ricans in the United States, see Lorrin Thomas, Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Carmen Teresa Whalen, From Puerto Rico to Philadelphia: Puerto Rican Workers and Postwar Economies (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
- Hispanics differentiated by ethnicity and race were not counted until 1980. Prior, the census counted people of Spanish origins. For a history of the social movements that led to a rethinking of the racialization of Hispanic people in the United States and thus the emergence of Hispanic on the 1980 census, see Ian F. Haney López, Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003). For a history of the shifting demographics of the region, see David Listokin and Dorothea Berkhout, New Brunswick, New Jersey: The Decline and Revitalization of Urban America (New Brunswick, NJ: Rut- gers University Press, 2016).
- Otílio Colon, “A Brief History of the Hispanic Community in New Brunswick, 1948–1980: A Tercentennial Project,” Special Collections, Alexander Library, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.
- Several scholars from various disciplines have employed “Brown” in their analysis. My usage of “Brown” is most informed by a historical perspective that emphasizes how struggles with criminalization, police brutality, and housing discrimination, among other factors, shaped how groups understood their disposability and disregard in the United States. See Edward Escobar, Race, Police, and the Making of a Political Identity: Mexican Americans and the Los Angeles Police Department, 1900–1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Lilia Fernández, Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). For definitions that emphasize affect, see José Esteban Muñoz, “Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position,” Signs 31, no. 3 (2006): 67–79. For an interdisciplinary analysis of Brown and trans together, see Francisco Galarte, Brown Trans Figurations: Rethinking Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Chicanx/ Latinx Studies (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2021).
- Leah Ripley Hunt, “Spatial and Procedural Justice in Urban Planning: A Case Study of the Lincoln Annex School Redevelopment” (honors thesis submitted to the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University), May 2020, 29.
- The 1967 New Brunswick protests were led by African American youth who protested racism in city pools and the public school system. Puerto Rican youth were also active, al- though their involvement is currently less documented. For an account of the protests, see Chris Rasmussen, “A Web of Tension: The 1967 Protests in New Brunswick, New Jersey,” Journal of Urban History 40, no. 1 (2014): 137–157. See also Otto Kerner and Tom Wicker, Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
- For an overview of Mexican immigration, see Douglas S. Massey, Jorge Durand, and Nolan J. Malone, Beyond Smoke and Mirrors: Mexican Immigration in an Era of Economic Integration (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 2002). For a history of redevelopment in New Brunswick, see Eric Schkrutz, “Urban Development in the City of the Traveler: The Story of New Brunswick and Why It May Never Resolve Its Identity Crisis,” New Brunswick Free Public Library Archive, 2011.
- In 1980, Puerto Ricans comprised only 8 percent of the city’s population but 67 percent of all Latines. Martin Perez, “A Latino History of New Brunswick,” Latino New Jersey Oral History Project.
- For a recent history of Oaxaca, see Lynn Stephens, We Are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013). For information on the Oaxacan community in New Brunswick, see Rutgers University Center for Latin American Studies, Transnational New Brunswick = New Brunswick transnacional: A Project in Engaged Anthropology = Un proyecto de antropología comprometida (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University, Center for Latin American Studies, 2010).
- Jason Hackworth explains how urban renewal in the 1980s and 1990s began demolishing public housing and low-income neighborhoods to attract commercial businesses to the downtown area that had relocated in the 1960s and 1970s. See Jason Hackworth, “State Devolution, Urban Regimes, and the Production of Geographic Scale: The Case of New Brunswick, New Jersey,” Urban Geography 21, no. 5 (May 2013) https://doi.org/10.2747/0272-3618.104.22.1680.
- Maanvi Sing and Mario Koran, “‘The Virus Doesn’t Discriminate but Governments Do’: Latinos Disproportionately Hit by Coronavirus,” The Guardian, April 18, 2020.
- Lissandra Villa, “’We’re Ignored Completely,’ Amid the Pandemic, Undocumented Immigrants Are Essential but Exposed,” Time, April 17, 2020.
For a full list of the 109 sources, please see the original article: US Latina & Latino Oral History Journal, Vol. 5, 2021 © 2021 by the University of Texas Press | Published by the University of Texas Press on behalf of the Center for Mexican American Studies and the Latino Research Initiative DOI: 10.7560/OHJ503
Leo Valdes is a PhD student in the History Department at Rutgers University. They study twentieth-century Black American and Latinx diasporic history based in the United States and centered on trans and gender-variant people’s politics and resistance.
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