Its dawn in San Salvador and NadiA is half passed out in an above ground passageway; make-up smeared across her face, her ripped silky pink camisole revealing her prickly chest and sweat stained bra. From what’s pictured one can’t be sure exactly what has happened but violence is implied. NadiA is a transvestite living in Soyapango, the poorest, most violent and heavily stigmatized city in El Salvador, which is currently the most violent (non-war) country in the world. NadiA is a gender-fluid queer body in a conservative, religious and gang filled society that rejects her very being. She hears gunshots at night, sometimes has to steal bus money from her father and has prostituted herself out of desperation.
The story takes place over the course of two years and follows NadiA through her everyday life. The photographs seek to portray the fragility of life for LGBTQIA people living in El Salvador and give voice to a young transvestite who, despite all her pain, continues to persevere with a bright attitude and infectious smile. This portrait series sheds light on the isolation, fear and ostracization of people like NadiA so that we are able to bring awareness to these issues and effect meaningful change. Her pain is palpable but so is the hope for her future.
NadiA has petite frame, a quick wit, a lot of sass and a little charm, which she doesn’t give away easily. When she was just 18 she had the realization that her life had no value in the world, that she was a nobody. Later, through a subtle act of reclamation, she named herself NadiA. NadiA is the feminine form of “nadie” which means “nobody” in Spanish. Right now she is 32 years old but according to statistics her average life expectancy as a gender non-conforming person is just 35, giving her only three more years to live.
NadiA speaks broken English from listening to the pantheon of gay divas like Madonna, Cher and Chaka Khan. Here she is performing Mariah Carey’s Emotions to an empty room. Ever since she was little NadiA has performed in her room. It is only now that she has overcome her shame and found the courage to do it publicly. When NadiA’s dad first found out she was gay he insisted that she go to a psychiatrist to get medication that would make her straight. Because of the deep cultural misunderstandings about sexual orientation nearly forty percent of the LGBTQIA population in El Salvador have undergone some kind of therapy.
NadiA says she “stars to fell like my true self” when putting on makeup. It takes her about four hours to transition to a female form. When the dresses are zipped and the eyelashes are glued she transforms — she becomes lighter and funnier, as if she can finally fully inhabit her own body. Although she feels more in tune with herself as a woman she is also acutely aware of the danger she faces when she walks out the door. El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder against women in the world and violence has been identified as the leading cause of death among Salvadoran women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four.
NadiA sits down to a special treat of the $2.99 Pollo Campero kids meal at Galerías Shopping Mall in San Salvador. In El Salvador malls represent the kind of safe public spaces that don’t exist anywhere else in the country. From this mall in the wealthy neighborhood of Escalón NadiA can see the call center which serves the United States. She once worked there before having a mental breakdown due to their exploitative practices. Call center employees make about $2-3 per hour and have their wages docked for taking bathroom or water breaks. Looking at her city NadiA said, “the only options I have growing up were the gangs, the evangelicals and the Picsa (Pizza) Hut.”
NadiA lives in Soyapango, the poorest and most dangerous city in El Salvador. Her house is only a few blocks from the invisible border between the MS 13 and 18th Street gangs. The border areas are notoriously violent because of long held turf wars. One misstep and she could die. Gang violence overwhelms her life but the irony is that there are more gay people in El Salvador than gang members — about 100,000 gay people and only 60,000 gang members.
NadiA dreams of being internationally famous one day. She spends hours on her social media platforms but to date only has 113 followers on Instagram. One can find expensive technologies, like this iPad, and name brands in even the poorest neighborhoods. This is because of remittances from the 2 million Salvadorans in the United States. According to the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador there were $4.58 billion in remittances in 2016 but because the rate of consumerism is so high and no one saves or invests in education, the country continues to have the regions lowest economic growth. Some say that no one saves for tomorrow because tomorrow is never promised.
NadiA has cavities in almost all of her teeth. She lost her first one earlier this year. But like all the other losses in her life she figures out how to make it sparkle.
NadiA poses with the Leaning Tower of Pisa for her friends while out drinking at an event to promote a local beer. This image was taken moments before a man threw a chair at her from across the room. She walked away slowly, shaken-up but determined to not let it show on her face or in her speech. NadiA regularly suffers from this kind of harassment but over the years she has learned how to dress her own wounds and walk on. She is hard—because she has had to be hard.
It was dawn in San Salvador and NadiA was half passed out in an above ground passageway; make-up smeared across her face, her ripped silky pink camisole revealing her prickly haired chest and sweat stained bra. “Don’t look me like this,” she said as she propped herself up on the metal fencing. NadiA frequently finds herself looking for somewhere safe to rest after long, long nights in the streets. One human rights report found that gangs often required new recruits to attack members of the LGBTQIA community as part of their initiation process. Members of the LGBTQIA community believe they are a particularly easy target for violence because perpetrators know police are less likely to investigate those crimes.
NadiA struggles with mental health and substance abuse issues. Her relationships are usually as volatile as her mental state. She is pictured here in the arms of a man she never embraced again. NadiA said, “I was raised by telenovelas so I always looking for the right one that at the end is the wrong one.”
Whether they are peeking over belts on the bus or waking her up in the middle of the night, guns surround NadiA's life. The gangs have guns, the police have guns; even the 17-year-old security guard in front of the local supermarket has a gun. The United States is the the single largest source of guns in El Salvador. There is evidence to suggest that there are enough guns in El Salvador for 1 out of every 13 people to own one.
The Salvadoran LGBTQIA organization Asociación Entre Amigos noted a four hundred percent increase in hate crimes in the previous ten years and highlighted the evidence of torture in many cases of murders of LGBTQIA people. Even knowing these statistics NadiA manages to have a sense of humor about it all. “I’m still alive and that's all that’s mattering now,” she said as she tried to remove her make-up from the day, pushing the sparkles even further into her deep features.
NadiA makes an effort to participate in cultural events but finds that even supposedly “open” communities are shut off to her. This night, at a panel about women in art, she was devastated to hear one of the speakers say that there is no queer art in El Salvador.
NadiA can’t go to the bathroom alone. Every single time she has to use the toilet she must ask someone to accompany her. For this reason she avoids food and drink to the point that it causes debilitating headaches. There are no laws protecting LGBTQIA people in private establishments. “I have saw them kicking out gay peoples just for holding the hands,” NadiA said.
NadiA embraces the indigenous aspects of her heritage by learning to cook some of the traditional dishes like this sweet corn tamale. She identifies strongly with the indigenous population of El Salvador because they are also discriminated against. It has been almost 100 years since the state sponsored massacre of nearly 30,000 indigenous people in the town of Izalco. At that time being ‘indio’ was synonymous with being a communist and enemy of the state.
Riding the bus in drag is extremely dangerous for NadiA but it's her only means of transportation. “One time I was in the bus in the clothes of a boy and that man feel so threatened from my pink socks he show me the knife. He wasn’t even bad guy, he just scare,” Nadia said. When this happened NadiA was dressed in boys’ clothes. It was only a little pair of pink socks that incited that reaction in him. “This is the hard part,” she said, “they don’t can understand.” El Salvador has suffered an increase in violence against members of the LGBTQIA community, especially those who are transgenders or transsexuals.
One thing that keeps NadiA going is knowing that these issues don’t just affect her. A recent study by the Central American University José Simeón Cañas in San Salvador found that 40 percent of Salvadorans would like to leave to leave the country. For this reason we have seen such a surge in migration to the United States in the last decade. NadiA thinks about leaving for New York City where they have gay bars, French cheese and free audio books at the library.
NadiA was kidnapped by her father at age three. This is one of the last photographs she has with her mother. She feels a huge hole in the space where her mother should have been which she is still trying to fill. She remembers crying on the floor listening to Gloria Trevi’s El recuento de los daños (Recounting of the Damages) while holding this image. It's painful to remember that time with her mother and to see herself dressed in boy’s clothes.
When NadiA doesn’t have anywhere to go she seeks refuge in Mister Donut. It’s open 24 hours a day and she can make one cup of 95¢ coffee last the four hours between midnight and the early bus. Here a friend meets her in the morning to offer support and a shoulder to cry on.
NadiA waits for the bus with a quarter she stole from her father's wallet. Keeping quarters in the ear is considered to be very masculine in this country and as she was raised as a man she maintains some of these habits. Before the dollarization of El Salvador they used to put colones in their ears.
NadiA is an avid reader and is currently reading The Penetrated Male by Jonathan Kemp. She finds literature a comfort because it allows her to access ideas and conversations that aren’t happening in her developing country. This connectivity, through books, films and pop-culture, is kind of salvation for her.
Through the collaboration of this journalistic piece, NadiA has been given a new voice and is representing her community through her story. Just a week before this image was taken NadiA was kicked out of an art gallery for the way she looked. Here she sees the images of herself for the first time at the prestigious Luis Poma Theatre in San Salvador. “El perico, donde se pare, es verde,” she said after the show, which translates to It doesn't matter where the parrot is standing, it will always be green.