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.
According to the Latin American Trans Network life expectancy for gender non-conforming people is just 35, giving NadiA, age 32, only three more years to live. NadiA is a constructed feminine form of the word “nadie” (nobody) in Spanish that she invented as a way of reversing the negative connotation of being a nobody in this society.
Performing Mariah Carey’s Emotions to an empty room, NadiA takes every opportunity she gets to be on stage. She speaks broken english from listening to the pantheon of gay divas like Madonna, Cher and Chaka Khan. NadiA’s dad insisted for years that she go to a psychiatrist to get medication that would make her straight. Forty percent of the LGBTQIA population said they had undergone some kind of therapy, of which half had been recommended by a psychologist.
NadiA puts on makeup in a friend’s bathroom. The process takes about four hours to transition to a female form. El Salvador has one of the highest rates of murder against women in the world. This type of violence has been identified as the leading cause of death among Salvadoran women between the ages of fifteen and forty-four. NadiA says she “starts to fell like my true self” when putting makeup on but is also acutely aware of the danger when she walks out the door.
NadiA sits down to a special treat of the $2.99 Pollo Campero kids meal at Galerías Mall in San Salvador. In El Salvador malls represent the kind of safe public spaces that don’t exist in the country. From this mall in the wealthy neighborhood of Escalón NadiA can see the call center which serves the United States where she once worked before having a mental breakdown due to their exploitative practices. Looking at her city NadiA said, “the only options I have growing up were the gangs, the evangelicals and the Picsa Hut.”
NadiA lives in Soyapango, the poorest and most dangerous city in El Salvador. Her house is less than two minutes from the invisible border between the MS 13 and 18th Street gangs. The border areas are notoriously violent because of long held turf wars and if she missteps 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 87 followers on Instagram. You will find expensive technologies and name brands in even the poorest neighborhoods 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 the country continues to have the regions lowest economic growth. Some say that no one saves for tomorrow because tomorrow is never promised.
NadiA shows her mouthful of cavities and missing tooth which she adorns with a fake diamond.
NadiA poses with the Leaning Tower of Pisa for her friends while out drinking at a promotional event. This image was taken moments before a man threw a chair at her from across the room. NadiA regularly suffers from this kind of harassment but she is determined to not let it cripple her.
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 poking out of someones pants on the bus or waking her up in the middle of the night, guns surround NadiA's life. There is evidence to suggest that there are enough guns in El Salvador for 1 out of every 13 people to own one. There are 11,000 guns registered every year, that is about 30 guns per day. The United States is the the single largest provider of guns to El Salvador.
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 good sense of humor, “I’m still alive and thats all thats mattering now.”
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 that there is no queer art in El Salvador.
Whenever NadiA goes to the bathroom she must be accompanied by a female friend. There are no laws protecting LGBTQIA people in private establishments. “I saw them kicking out gay peoples just for holding 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. A 2013 survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Centre found nearly two thirds of Salvadorans believed society should not accept homosexuality.
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 (dressed as a male) and that man feel so threatened from my pink socks he show me his knife. He wasn’t even bad guy, he just scared,” Nadia said. El Salvador has suffered an increase in violence against members of the LGBTQIA community, especially those who are transgenders or transsexuals.
About 40 percent of Salvadorans would like to leave the country, according to a year-end survey published by the Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University José Simeón Cañas in San Salvador.
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 first 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.
Becasue she can’t afford real clothes most of NadiA’s drag comes from the 10¢ bin at Megaboutique thrift store which is filled with exported used clothing from the United States.
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.
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.