GLAAD contributor Joanna Cifredo is a transgender human rights activist from Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Cifredo is the Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Transgender Wellness Center and the organizer of La Caminata Por La Equidad.
I recently had the honor of re-watching Mala, Mala, an iconic documentary directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles profiling Puerto Rico’s trans communities, during a viewing celebrating its 10-year anniversary. I hadn’t seen the documentary since it came out and I couldn’t help but see the film with new eyes. At the time of its release I was 26, living in Washington, DC, and getting ready for bottom surgery. As a Puerto Rican trans woman, I had never seen myself reflected in a film until that point and was immediately enamored by two of the film’s starring voices: Ivana Fred and Soraya Santiago.
I was inspired by the way Ivana used her voice, visibility, and beauty to organize and advocate for the needs of her community. During the screening of the documentary, we had the honor of being joined by Ivana Fred herself, who has since become one of the leading voices in the transgender community in Puerto Rico and a personal friend and mentor.
Joanna Cifredo & Ivana Fred during a 2022 interview with Metro Puerto Rico
Speaking to the audience about the current state of affairs for transgender people, Ivana told the screening attendees, “For me, it is very sad to see that these issues continue to be discussed at a moment in history when the trans community is most visible.” She went on to discuss the recent attempts to limit trans women in sports, concluding, “I believe there is no social justice if we are still trying to limit people of trans experience in various spaces where we should be given the opportunity to develop ourselves like any other human being.”In the decade since the release of Mala, Mala Puerto Rico has lost one of our community’s most celebrated pioneers, Soraya Santiago. In addition to being the first trans woman to run for public office in Puerto Rico, Soraya was also the first trans woman in Puerto Rico to undergo gender affirmation surgery, commonly referred to as SRS or a ‘sex-reassignment surgery.’ At the time, I had never seen an elderly trans woman before. I remember thinking to myself, “If at my age Soraya had the guts to undergo bottom surgery in the 70s, in a foreign country, and with no English, surely I could do it too.” Soraya gave me the strength to face the biggest moment of my life with bravery and grace.
Soraya Santiago as pictured in her 2020 NY Times obituary
It has been years since I completed my transition and I’m now around the age Ivana was when she starred in Mala, Mala. As a millennial, I am entering that stage of life where my generation is beginning to serve as a bridge between two generations. On one hand, we have who we refer to as the ‘elders’ or the ‘pioneers’ the generation of trans women who fought and in many instances gave their lives so that younger girls like myself could stand a chance at a happy life. On the other hand, we have a whole new generation of young trans girls, who older trans women will often refer to as the “babies” or “eggs” waiting to hatch.Trans women in their 30s and 40s are at this in-between stage where we remember what it was like before Laverne Cox graced the cover of Time magazine with the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point.” We remember a time when marriage equality wasn’t the law of the land and serving your country as an out LGBTQ+ person was not allowed. Yet we are young enough to have benefitted from the work that many of our forebears laid down. This juxtaposition has left me with an immense appreciation of the resiliency and bravery within our older generation and younger trans generation.
Joanna Cifredo and others in Puerto Rico celebrating Trans Day of Visibility
As I look around me, I am in awe at just how far our trans community in Puerto Rico has come in such a short period of time. Now Villano Antillano, a transgender woman from my hometown of Bayamon, is one of the most prominent rising stars in Spanish urban music, making headlines worldwide. At the same time, Danielle Victoria Arroyo, a former transgender activist turned fashion model, will be the first woman of trans experience to compete for the coveted title of Miss Universe Puerto Rico and the chance to represent the island nation at the prestigious Miss Universe pageant.It has been said that “you cannot be what you cannot see.” Mala, Mala provided me with a reflection of the power that has always abided within me and showed me the power of representation. It taught me that there is strength in community and that standing in your truth in a world that is constantly trying to erase you is (and will always be) a revolutionary act. Most importantly, what the documentary taught me is that no matter what the world throws at us, our community will always prevail.As we say in Puerto Rico, pa’lante.