Feature Interview with Jessy D’ Santos, Directora de Programas/Program Director @ El/La Para TransLa
Lindley Mease: What is your role at El/La and what is the story of how you became involved?
Jessy: I just started in April with El/La at this new new staff position. Before that I was a participant in their programs and projects. El/La wanted someone who has experience working with the community and has been a volunteer for other organizations that help the LGBTQ community. I’ve been a volunteer for five years doing fundraising with East Bay Sanctuary, which helped me become legal in this country.
I’m glad to part of El/La because when I was just a project participant I always wanted to just spend more time here. It’s so nice. It’s like being home. Most of the girls live in places where they can’t cook or where they just have small spaces where they can’t do so much. And this is a space where they offer us a plate of soup — warm soup! This is something that I wanted for a long time — to have a warm plate of soup and a place that was like being with my sisters. It feels like home because I hang out with my Latina sisters.
I can relate to the needs that these girls have because I have the same needs: housing, food, a safe place to stay, a place where we can talk and not be afraid to talk about our lives.
LM: Who are the participants in El/La? What does El/La offer them?
Jessy: When we talk about participants, we mean the girls that come here looking for help. We help them get an ID; that’s the first step, an ID from the city of San Francisco. The next step is helping them to get their gender and name changed. Julia — she’s the case manager — helps with all these steps. We put participants in touch with lawyers who can help them become legal in this country. I call them all “my sisters” but I’m not too professional! [laughs] I hear others call them “clients” but I don’t like so much the word “client” because some of these girls have sex for money and so they have a different relationship with the word “client”. I like to call them sisters or participants.
We have food days here. We are not allowed to have a kitchen in our space; we have a small stove to cook. We have chicken soup, enchiladas, mole — all kinds of food from our countries, because most of us miss that. We have two volunteers Monday and Tuesday and some of the other participants volunteer to cook other styles of food from different countries. Wednesday we get donations from different organizations — like gourmet food — which is great. And participants often bring food like tamales.
On holidays we make special food like posole and traditional mole. We mix up all our cultures and make it like home.
LM: Where are most of El/La’s participants from?
Jessy: Most people are from Mexico and Central America. There are also a few from Brazil and Cuba. We learn from each other, and sometimes the girls have a chance to visit and see other countries. Some of us are planning to go to Cuba to visit the home and family of one girl.
LM: What is the vision for El/La Para TransLatinas?
Jessy: Our mission is to fight for the rights of and advocate for our transgender community. Most of the girls are afraid. They feel alone. They come to talk. They come to ask for help. If El/La didn’t exist there wouldn’t be a safe place, food days, celebrations and spiritual rituals, and HIV prevention. We are the only organization that has all these benefits and a safe space. Participants feel safe here.
We have some volunteers who take care of the main door in case ICE comes to our building. All the people on the staff have been prepared to move participants to a place where they won’t be found. They don’t have right to take these people if they don’t have a warrant.
We make participants feel safe and like this is home, like a bigger family. In December, for example at Christmas, most of the other organizations don’t open their doors and we do. We try to find funds from other organizations and stores and we get gifts for the girls, because Christmas is kind of sad because we don’t have family close to us.
Without El/La we would be in hotels or on the street. It means a lot.
LM: How would you describe the movement that you are a part of? Do you engage in advocacy or powerbuilding among your sisters to advocate for immigrant rights & Transgender rights?
Jessy: Our movement is to have more visibility. We are helping the girls to get a job, a better position. I’m glad to be the first translatina in many places. As program director I see that we get invited to places, but we need more visibility. And participants need to work on education to be more prepared to leave the streets, to leave sex for money, and to have a better life.
LM: You mentioned that you worked with a lot of Dreamers — people protected by DACA (Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals) policy. How is the community responding to the threat of DACA being taken away?
Jessy: We have a couple of participants here who are part of DACA, so we went to the rally in San Francisco, and the girls were invited to talk. It is not just about the transgender community. It is about students, about all the community, about dreams to become a better person in this country. It is so upsetting. We have been crying with these people. It is so upsetting to see all these changes since the new president. It is upsetting to see our sisters in this position, but we are working with other organizations to see if we can get asylum for those in the transgender community.
LM: Where do you see El/La in ten years?
Jessy: We have been talking so much about getting our own space. San Francisco is expensive but we would love to have a small space. Many of the girls that come here are homeless. We are fighting so hard right now to secure shelter before December — because it is rainy and so cold.
LM: What are some of the primary barriers to achieving that?
Jessy: Funding. Eighty percent of our funds have restrictions — they can only be used for certain things. The other twenty percent comes from donors and that’s what we use for food, clothes, shelter, and gifts for the participants in December.
Sometimes the girls come to us and they don’t have enough money to pay their rent, so we fundraise to get money to help them with rent.
Most of the girls are getting [feminization] surgeries, including me. From that 20% of our funding, the girls get $50 for hygiene needs and we are giving $75 for food that girls will need for at least one week while they will be at home after surgery. It’s not much but we are happy — they are happy — that they have a gift card for food and stuff while they are at home after the surgery.
LM: Funding is so challenging. Building the fundraising capacity of organizations like yours is fundamental to building power for change. What might Blue Heart money go to?
Jessy: December is coming and we are working on housing, food, and being warm by Christmas. It hurts my heart every time we close and I know there is someone who doesn’t have a place to go to sleep. We don’t allow people to stay in El/La. One of the projects is clothes for Christmas. Or other gifts for Christmas. Also, to be sure that the girls have a place to stay I’ve been talking to some of the hotels around. Or El/La can help with a deposit on a place, so that girls can pay just the rent. What Blue Heart members donate will help with this.
LM: What are some mistakes that folks who are supporting you make? What would you share with people who want to be an ally to your work?
Jessy: We have a few people who come to help us but they don’t know about how to use pronouns. So we are teaching them about the pronouns. There are girls that don’t look so feminine, and volunteers call them “mister.” We also have transgender men that don’t look so masculine and they get called “girls.” They don’t feel comfortable when they are called that.
I’m learning that it’s not just transgender folks who use other pronouns. So, I’m learning at the same time that I am teaching. I tell people you have to ask, “What’s your pronoun?” People ask the name, but the pronoun is more important. We, people, feel more respected when called by the right pronoun. So, respect what people want to be called.
LM: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Jessy: We are learning and we are teaching. We are open to all, especially in this moment that we have this new president. When he put this restriction on bathrooms for kids I was at this rally and I was in tears. Then I was fighting for DACA and I was in tears. So we have to work together and we have to fight. This new president is making so much mess! I really appreciate all your work, because we are working together to help people who are in the streets. Thank you for your help.