By Susanna Zaraysky
Leaving the Mary of Magdalene for St. Jude and the Santisimma Muerte (Holy Death)
Maybe it’s my fault
For not being mainstream
It’s too late
To change now
I will stay firm in my convictions
I will reinforce my ideas
My destiny is the one I decide on and choose for myself
Every night, Jajaira stands on a street corner in San Francisco’s run-down Tenderloin District in a mini skirt and halter top with a Santisimma Muerte pendant dangling above her breasts. She is one of 15 male-to- female transgender sex workers who come to San Francisco from Guadalajara, Mexico’s “Gay Mecca” to pay for transgender operations while praying for protection and salvation from Mexico’s popular street saint.
The need for faith and spirituality underlines the religious and spiritual practices of the Mexican male to female transgender sex workers who migrate from Guadalajara, Mexico to San Francisco, CA. Rejection by the traditional Catholic church has propelled this group of transgender sex workers to seek spiritual guidance and faith in individual devotions in the form of saints, virgins or in an unofficially recognized saint, namely the Santisimma Muerte. Instead of venerating the Mary of Magdalene (who was historically misinterpreted from the New Testament to be a prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears) and using her image as a symbol for salvation, Mexican transgender sex workers turn to their own source of spiritual comfort. They take their religious symbols and beliefs with them on their northward journey to San Francisco and practice their rituals and spiritual credos across the border.
Definition of transgender
A transgender person is someone who changes from their original biological sex. Usually a male to female (MTF) transgender person is someone who was biologically a man and either through hormones or through operations became a female; however transvestites (men who dress as women, but don’t undergo any physical or hormonal changes) also fall into the category of transgenders. Most commonly, MTF transgenders feel that they were born as the wrong gender and they always identified themselves as women and felt attracted to men. From childhood, they wanted to wear female clothing and be like a girl.
The typical operations for a MTF transgender are: breast implants, plastic surgery around the hips, buttocks, lips and eyelid. For the breasts, transgender people get breast implants or take hormones to generate breast tissue. Eyelid operations make the eyes look more feminine. Lip operations create fuller lips. For feminine curves and hips, transgenders get plastic surgery in the buttocks and legs.
In the United States, only doctors may prescribe gender altering hormones. However, in Mexico people can buy these hormones in a drugstore without any prescription and transgender people often self-prescribe hormones and take those recommended by their friends. In San Francisco, the Department of Public Health operates a free “Transgender Tuesday” clinic, where doctors and nurses and social workers work specifically with the transgender population. The doctors prescribe hormones and other medicines. For those who do not opt to go to the free clinic, they often buy these hormones on the street with the risk that the hormones may be fake and contain harmful substances.
Another way to change a male body to a curvy female one with is hips is via silicone injections. In Mexico, there are numerous reports of transgender women who inject themselves with motor oil to make breasts. The motor oil is very dangerous because once it gets into the blood stream it causes health problems.
One of the main reasons the sex workers come to San Francisco is to earn money to pay for their operations, because the operations are the most expensive way to transform the body. The price for a breast implant operation in Mexico ranges from $1200-$2000 and the same operation in the US can cost between $5000 and $6000. Quite a few people travel to Thailand to get these operations because the doctors in Thailand charge less for the operations than in the United States.
A complete sex change operation is very expensive and very few people can afford to do it. Most transgenders do not get castrated, rather they keep their original genitalia and make the rest of their bodies look feminine. The sex workers do not want to get castrated because their main draw for clients is their feminine look with male genitalia. Most of their clients go to them and not to anatomically female sex workers because they want to be penetrated or they like the feeling of having sex with a woman with male genitalia.
Though many male to female transgenders look very feminine and very attractive, they are never totally feminine. There are a couple of attributes which cannot be changed with male-to-female operations. Even though transgenders take hormones to make themselves more feminine, their voices usually stay quite masculine. The Adam’s Apple in the neck remains, thus leaving a noticeable trace of one’s original masculinity. Male fingers and hands tend to be bigger than those of females and the operations and hormones cannot change this physical characteristic.
Why San Francisco from Guadalajara?
Guadalajara has an interesting dichotomy in its character. It is known to be a very conservative city with a strong influence from the Catholic church. Guadalajara is the capital of the state of Jalisco and Jalisco men are known to be very macho types. In contrast to its very conservative character, Guadalajara is also the “gay mecca” of Mexico. There are many gay bars in the city and one of the areas best known for gay bars and nightclubs is the Aranzazu area, near Plaza San Francisco in central Guadalajara. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that a gay area of Guadalajara is next to a plaza bearing the name of a famous gay city. There are a variety of gay bars in the city catering to middle-class and upper middle-class populations and there is even a gay radio station operated from the University of Guadalajara.
Father Hernán Quezada, of VIHas de Vida, the Jesuit organization working on AIDS awareness in Guadalajara explained that the strong gay culture in Guadalajara could be a reaction to the strong machista currents in the region.
In Guadalajara, the transgender prostitutes worked in three brothels in a lower middle class area managed by a transgender woman named Patty, who is the Madam and the political and community organizer for transgenders in Jalisco. She operates an organization called “CONTRASTE” that represents the transgender community in Jalisco.
None of the sex workers used the Spanish work “bordello” (whorehouse), they always said “casas” (houses), when referring to Patty’s venues of prostitution. Every night that the prostitutes work, they had to pay a certain fee to Patty for the use of the houses. Patty rents out the three houses and makes her money from the daily use fees by the prostitutes. In 1995, Patty was inspired to open up the brothels so that the girls would have a safe place to work and would be able to make money to provide for their hormones and operations. Before then, the sex workers were looking for clients on the street and were often beat up either by the police or by clients or ill-wishers walking on the street.
Patty saw her efforts on behalf of the sex workers as social work for the general community. By providing a safe place for men to pay for sex with transgender sex workers, she was helping them deal with their concealed sexuality. As homosexuality is considered a sin in Mexican Catholic culture, men who yearn for sex with a man, are afraid of exploring a relationship with a man and may have to rely on prostitutes for their sexual needs.
Patty’s assistant, Elvira (neither transgender nor a sex worker) explained that the casas were actually protecting the community from domestic violence:
This a type of social work because it’s the only place in town that assures safe sex. Imagine if these men didn’t have this opportunity to unburden themselves sexually. The men who come here and have sex with one of the “girls” here is really gay, but he has a wife and kids. What would happen if they didn’t have sex with one of these “girls”? Then they could rape their children or their neighbors. This opened my mind. This man wants to have sex with a man but can’t get it, and so he beats his wife or hurts his children…
For those working in Patty’s brothels who want an escape from the overarching strict Catholicism of Mexico, they aim to cross the border to San Francisco. In the Guadalajara “gay scene”, San Francisco is seen as an ideal city to live, because of its openness to gays and transgenders. During a conversation with Dr. Hector Carillo, author of, “The Night is Young” (a book explaining the characteristics of gay culture in Guadalajara in the age of AIDS) described the Guadalajara gay scene as romanticizing San Francisco because of San Francisco’s reputation as liberal and open.
San Francisco, California is very well known it in United States and around the world as a city open to people of various sexual orientations, cultures and religions. The Castro District in San Francisco is the main gay cultural area of the city with many gay dance clubs, bars, cafés and stores catering to the population. In addition to being a city open to gays, San Francisco is also known to be a City of Refuge because it was named after St. Francis of Assisi, known for his work for the poor and downtrodden. San Francisco does not allow the Immigration and Naturalization Service to do immigration raids in the city.
Transgender sex workers usually come to the US to earn money for their operations and to start businesses in Mexico. Most stay for at least a year and once they earn some money, they often try to travel back to Mexico to visit their families. Since they migrate to the US illegally with a coyote taking them across the border, they pay $2500 each time they cross from Mexico to the US. Once in California, they take a bus to San Francisco and get picked up by their friends in San Francisco. Sometimes, sex workers lend money to their fellow sex workers who want to cross into the United States. The sex workers in San Francisco frequently buy inexpensive phone cards and call their friends in Mexico at the brothel or at their homes.
The conditions of prostitution in Guadalajara and San Francisco are drastically different.
When the transgender prostitutes make it to San Francisco, their situation changes dramatically. There is no Madam who takes care of the community or who acts as a political representative. The Tenderloin District in San Francisco is known for the sex trade and also for drugs. Most of the transgender sex workers work in this area of the city. They rent rooms in “Single Residential Occupancy” (SRO) hotels in the area and pay by week or month. Their rent is often very high, somewhere between $800 to $1000 a month for a room with or without a kitchenette or its own bathroom. As the women are illegally in the US and do not have credit histories, they can not rent a normal apartment. The sex workers use their own bedrooms as the place where they take their clients.
When I first started my research in the fall of 2002, all of the transgender sex workers from Mexico were living in the New Pacific Hotel on Polk Street. Two South Asian men ran the hotel. There was no key to get into the hotel, visitors and residents had to ring the buzzer downstairs and the doorperson upstairs buzzed them through the first two doors. At the top of the old dirty staircase, the doorperson sat in a small room and checked to see who was coming into the building. Visitors had to tell the doorperson who they were visiting, often being asked to leave a picture ID at the front desk. In the evening and at night, all visitor had to pay $10 to go to see any of the residents in the building. There were often people drunk or high on drugs yelling and screaming in the hallway and getting into verbal fights. In the New Pacific Hotel, none of the units had their own bathroom and residents shared common bathrooms on each floor. Every room had a sink.
Many scantily clad transgender sex workers lingered around the transgender strip club called Divas in the Tenderloin area.
Faith and spirituality individualized by transgender sex workers
Due to the omnipresence of Catholicism in Mexican culture, Mexican transgender sex workers maintained Catholic traditions despite their ostracism from the church. They learned to internalize their own spiritual practice.
With the religious base of Mexican society being so strong, transgenders often encountered difficulties with their religious upbringing. The Catholic Church does not allow homosexuality and does not permit prostitution. When young transgender start cross-dressing or enter into the gay community, they feel uncomfortable going into church dressed like women. They feel that people are looking at them and that they will be kicked out by the priest. Many either stop attending church services all together or only go to church when there are our no services being held, so that they can be alone.
The hypocrisy of the church was one of the reasons why so many of the sex workers did not attend church on a regular basis. Several of the sex workers interviewed commented on the hypocrisy of the church vis-a-vis the gay population. Arianna, a transvestite, said that she wanted to be a priest, but did not feel comfortable with the anti homosexual sentiments of the church:
I am Catholic because, I grew up in the religion. I don’t practice it, but I’m a believer in Catholicism… The religion prohibits me from being homosexual. I wanted to be a priest. I knew that in the seminary there were homosexuals but the church wanted to show the outside world that they were against homosexuals. I prefer to get paid for my work. If I work in the seminary, I would be performing sex on others and I would not be paid. Many priests have been kicked out because they raped people.
Though there are religious groups in Guadalajara open to the gay and transgender community, the transgender sex worker population does not search for more excepting churches in their area. In Guadalajara, there is a “gay” church called La Iglesia de Santa Cruz, part of the Metropolitan Community Church (a Protestant church in the US open to people of all sexual orientations).
Rodolfo Contreras, Deacon of the Apostolic Reformed Catholic Church in Guadalajara, was a gay activist and former Jesuit. He was made deacon of this reformed Catholic church that was started by a German priest in Miami who wanted to open a Catholic church for gay people. Mr. Contreras worked with the gay community and was very familiar with the topic of religion in the transgender community and offered his insight on the topic:
“Outreach to the transgender community will be a slow process because transsexuals feel dirty and unworthy and these feelings don’t go away with just one talk with them. When people in the community hear the word religion, they automatically close up. ….The orthodoxy of the Catholic Church has made them feel like they are unworthy and that the do not have the right to be present at a religious service. The church has generated guilt, embarrassment and marginalization.”
(He interchanges the words “transvestite, transsexual and transgender, but he is referring to the same population.)
This disinterest in locating open and friendly churches continues when the transgender sex workers migrate to San Francisco. The sex workers I spoke to said that the went to mass very infrequently and usually just to pay homage to Mexico’s patron saint, the Virgin of Guadalupe, on December 12th.
Without a supportive church to attend, transgender sex workers find their own source of spirituality within themselves. By continuing cultural religious traditions, this group maintains a religious and spiritual base in their life with daily prayers, pendants, religious symbols, and altars.
The way people are brought up religiously in Mexico is through practices: going to church every week, saying prayers, adoring specific Virgins, doing pilgrimages to various churches, and performing specific rituals at celebrations and for “Holy” days. Since these sex workers cannot go to church or participate in various religious celebrations because they feel like personae non grata for being transgender or gay, they are inclined to adore specific saints or the Santisimma Muerte.
Sandy, one of the sex workers who lived in the brothel described her nightly practice of praying:
The religion is fighting a lot against our way of being, our lifestyle… I don’t have to be in a church to feel good. I am not very attached to religion. I pray and that’s it. I believe in God. When things are not going well for me. I speak to the cross that I have on my pendant and I say “God please help me.”
Most of the sex workers commented that they pray on a daily basis, many of them pray before they go to work or after each client and once they get home. They feel that this daily prayer provides them with enough strength to go through their day on the street. While working on the street, they encounter many risks such as being physically attacked by hooligans on the street or hurt by clients. The most common risk to their life is contracting a sexually transmitted disease because of broken condoms. They pray for security so that they can go through their work without being harmed. Ninele, a transvestite sex worker commented that, “I ask God to protect me from anything that can happen. From drugs and from violence.”
Images (crosses, pendants, pictures, figurines, altars) of one’s devotion are also very important elements of spirituality and religiosity for transgender sex workers. Since they are very mobile people, the images are an easy way for them to have a reminder of their religious background. Several of the women wear crosses or pendants with the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe or the Santisimma Muerte. Some keep their jewelry on the while they are with their clients and some take them off because they don’t think it’s proper to wear religious symbols in a brothel.
Transnational Traditions and Customs
Rodolfo Contreras explains the basis of Mexican religion and why it travels so well, “Mexican immigrants bring their religion with them. Their Catholicism is very much based in rites, traditions and customs that are not questioned… In the US, there are Mexicans who wear the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe even though they are outside of Mexico.”
Two of the sex workers interviewed were afraid to bring their altars and pendants across the border with them because they thought that the coyote might steal them. When they arrived in the US, their families sent them their altars and images from Mexico. Others buy altars, candles incense and religious icons of their choosing in the Mission District in San Francisco. The Mission District is the traditional Latino neighborhood in San Francisco where one can find products ranging from food, clothes, music and religious items from Mexico and other parts of Latin America. The santeria store called Yoruba Botanica on Valencia Street in the Mission District sells candles, incense, altar pieces, prayer books and other items related to the Santisimma Muerte and other Catholic and non-Catholic religious and spiritual items.
The Santisimma Muerte or Holy Death in English is an unconventional saint with African or Caribbean origins that has surfaced in the Mexican religious landscape with a great amount of popularity. She is called the Holy Death, because she looks like the incarnation of death and symbolizes death. Some of the sex workers believe that the Santisimma Muerte is the one who first saw Jesus Christ after he died and she welcomed him into the world of the dead. The Santisimma Muerte has a following by people in risky professions, those on the cusp of death and danger. The transgender sex worker population highly values this “saint” as she helps them dodge death on the streets with her symbolism of death.
Santisimma Muerte worshippers believe that she was the first spirit to greet Jesus Christ in heaven after he died. While wobbling on the margins of society and risking death every day while working on the street, these prostitutes want to be protected and the Santisimma Muerte is their holy shield against death.
The Santisimma Muerte figurines are in different colors and have herbs and rice at the bottom that signify good luck. A red figurine is for destruction; a white one symbolizes purity; a green statue is for money; an orange one brings protection and a yellow one attracts love.
To prepare an altar for the Holy Death, the devotee lights candles while praying to her. The white candles are for praying for something good to happen to someone, red candles are for love and black ones are to wish something bad to someone.
On the white and black candles, there is a prayer written in Spanish and in English asking for protection and help from the Holy Death.
The prayer booklet, “Novena a la Santissima Muerte” has prayers for a nine day cycle of prayers to the saint. The booklet is pink and there is a picture on the cover of the Holy Death, holding a globe in one hand and a pendulum in the other. There is a halo over her skull head. She is wearing a robe with a hood covering her skull head. Her fingers are all bone. There is a frame around her picture, with a skull in each of the four corners.
The transgender sex workers who pray to the Holy Death see her as just another Catholic saint. They do not differentiate between her and the traditional Catholic saints of the church and see her as an intermediary between them and God. However the Holy Death is not excepted in the Catholic Church. Catholic orthodoxy does not permit one to venerate death, because God is about the life of love. Rodolfo Contreras expounded on this, “The cult of the Holy Death is one of idolatry. In Catholicism, one is not supposed to adore death”.
Her fame in the community can be explained by the fact that the Holy death is most commonly revered by people in risky jobs, those close to death. Since the sex workers have jobs that put them in such high risk of death and violence, the yearn to be protected. Because of her proximity to what they fear, she appears to be a strong spiritual force in their lives:
For me, the Holy Death is about a preparation for death, to welcome death. You know that some people are homophobic. Some people are claustrophobic, others are afraid of spiders, closed rooms, darkness, etc. All of humanity is afraid about death, 100% of people are afraid of death and this is a preparation for death. It’s about not being afraid of death, about not being so attached to the fear of death. More than anything, it’s about not being afraid, to know that there will be something after my spiritual release.
Jajaira, transgender sex worker in San Francisco, CA
The Santisimma Muerte is a heartbeat away from the sex workers, protecting them from entering into the world of the dead, where she exists.
Vicky, a sex worker who worked in San Francisco and returned to Guadalajara put her faith into words, “The majority of gay people are in danger and the Santisimma Muerte takes care of people in danger, she helps us survive.”
Juan Carlos Esparza of the ITESU, Jesuit University in Guadalajara, gave a context to the phenomenon of the Santisimma Muerte in Mexico, ‘Death is in the origin of the supreme being, there is a Spanish phrase that says, “Death gave birth to the saint”… Dead people have an important role in the lives of people who are alive.”
Mexican culture seems to be particularly fascinated with the Day of the Dead, more so than many other Latin American countries. On the Day of the Dead on November 1st, people go to cemeteries and perform rituals and ceremonies for their loved ones who have passed away. People have parties with music and food on this special day when they remember those who died. The popularity of the Holy Death with the sex worker community seems to weave into the cultural traditions around death in Mexico. While in Guadalajara, I interviewed a gay couple (who dressed as transvestites while working) who both pray to the Holy Death. On the Day of the Dead, they prepared an altar for the Holy Death mixed in with flowers and pictures of their loved ones who had died. They combined the tradition around the Day of the Dead with their veneration for the Holy Death.
In a brochure about the Holy Death that one of the sex workers gave me, the instructions called for devotees to have a separate altar for the Holy Death and to not mix it with the altars for other saints or devotions. Most of the sex workers give some sort of offering to the Holy Death as a symbol of gratitude for her help. Flowers candles, food, water and money were typical items to be placed at an altar for her. The sex workers gave her flowers or money if she helped them with something that they specifically asked her for.
As with St. Jude, the devotion to the Santisimma Muerte come via referrals. Friends tell friends about the Holy Death and the results they have had praying to her.
In order to become a devotee of the Holy Death, one has to be accepted by the Holy Death. Pocahontas, a transvestite sex worker in Guadalajara, learned about the Santisimma Muerte from her partner and fellow sex worker, Arianna and she claims that not everyone can enter into the realm of the Santisimma Muerte, “Sometimes people give statues of the Santisimma Muerte to their friends thinking that she will help them and it doesn’t always work. The candles die out when she doesn’t like somebody, she is very selective.” Pocahontas and Arianna swear by their faith to the Santisimma Muerte because she saved Arianna from a deadly fire.
Two sex workers I interviewed, Donna and Paula told me that they tried to work with the Holy Death for a month. They brought her flowers every day and lit candles, but felt no results. None of their wishes were granted, so they decided not to pray to the Holy Death anymore. Donna and her boyfriend were both praying to the Santisimma Muerte at the same time and only her boyfriend was successful, so Donna decided to stop praying to the Santisimma Muerte, but she had to think of what to do with her statue, “I was told that I could not throw away the Santisimma Muerte statue and that I could not abandon it, so I gave it away. I gave it as a gift to a spiritual cleanser. Because if you throw her away, it is bad. I was told that I had to give her away.”
There are several myths and beliefs about the Holy Death. Juan Carlos Esparza, researcher at ITESU, told me that it is a commonly held belief that the Santisimma Muerte is jealous and that she gets angry with a believer if he or she doesn’t fulfill promises. She takes away a loved one if she is unhappy with one of her believers. It is also rumored that she is jealous if one of her believers has a romantic partner and can take away a lover if she is upset. Vicky, the sex worker who had recently returned from San Francisco, told me that she “married” the Holy Death because the Holy Death had performed so many miracles for her and she was not happy with men anymore.
St. Jude Thaddeus (known as St. Jude)
Those wishing to stay within the traditions of the Catholic Church, opt to pray to St. Jude, the saint and adversary for the most difficult and desperate cases, so he is quite popular in this community as they also see themselves as weak and vulnerable in society. (Saint Jude is not the same person as Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus Christ before his death.)
Due to the fact that being transgender is not well viewed in neither Mexican or US society and that sex work is illegal both in the California and in Mexico, the sex workers feel that they are on the margin of society and need help. Jadira, a sex worker in Mexico who had taught many other sex workers about St. Jude, described him in this way, “He helps those who are sex workers. He is the saint of money and he protects people who work on the street.” Joanna, an ex-sex worker in Mexico who goes to the St. Jude chapel devoutly once a week explained why he is so popular with sex workers, “People who are in danger, pray to him. There is a lot of popularity for him for drug addicts, delinquents and prostitutes. Wherever it is, I see him.” Sex workers commonly pray to St. Jude asking him for protection on the streets, luck with clients and money.
St. Jude is generally popular in Mexican society and there is a big St. Jude Chapel in Guadalajara that has a special service on Wednesday afternoons for people who were sick and those poor praying for those were sick. When I attended the church service at the St. Jude chapel, it was very hot outside and the huge doors of the church were open so that people could watch and hear the sermon from outside. All of the pews were full and it seemed like it was a very popular church. Only three of the sex workers talked about attending church services or visiting the church on a regular basis, the emphasis was on praying to St. Jude on one’s own.
Though some of the sex workers learned about St. Jude from their families, most of them learned about the saint from other transgender sex workers like themselves. Friends give altars or St Jude icons as gifts. Jadira (quoted earlier) learned about St. Jude from her grandmother and when she felt comfortable with St. Jude, she introduced him to Vanessa (currently residing in San Francisco) and to her roommate and fellow sex worker Barbie. Vanessa continued her devotion to St. Jude and even went to the St. Jude Chapel in San Francisco with a Mexican friend.
Each sex worker had her own altar ritual for her St. Jude Altar. Several of them regularly give money to Saint Jude on the altar as a thank you for the favors that he has done for them. Some of the sex workers had altars that were mixed for Saint Jude, the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Holy death, while others have separate altars for each saint or devotion. It is common to see flowers given as gifts to Saint Jude. Only one of the sex workers interviewed in San Francisco prayed to Saint Jude and a she had an altar that was mixed for both the Holy Death, St. Jude and the Virgin of Guadalupe above her bed, the same bed that she used for her clients. She did not move the altar when she had clients visiting her room. The sex workers interviewed in Guadalajara had altars for Saint Jude in their homes and some of the wore St. Jude pendants outside the home.
Joanna was the only person who had a prayer book specifically for Saint Jude. In this prayer book, there were different types of prayers for St. Jude to be recited in different occasions and she spoke about a special prayer program she did, “I pray to him every day. There is a prayer book for St. Jude for a 40-day period. On the first day one has to pray one “Padre Nuestro”. Every day in the 40-day period, one adds one more prayer. By the 40th day, one has to recite the Holy Father forty times. I did this.”
Their faith in St. Jude was paramount, but the prostitutes had little interest in finding out who he really was. Despite the fact that many of the sex workers were very devout to Saint Jude and were very happy with the help that he had given them as their intermediary before God, none of them knew the real history of the saint and what he was known for in biblical times. Joanna, who practiced the multiplication of the prayer in the 40 day period, also said that the church in Mexico had a piece of St. Jude’s bone in the Chapel. Rodolfo Contreras provided some insight to this “blind faith”, “If people don’t have anything sustaining them in their lives, they need to believe in something. They don’t care about the history of the person or saint to whom they are praying, they just need to believe in something”.
Transgender sex workers continue their traditional customs and charter their own spiritual paths. The need for faith and spiritual support and comfort transcends all spheres of humanity. Those in the “underworld” of the sex trade are also human beings desiring help from the divine despite the fact that they are in a profession that society does not find admirable.
For those who are truly pious, they might not consider praying to a saint as true religiosity; however, for these sex workers, this may be the only way they know how to practice religion. In their own personal way, they are trying to connect to a higher power. Some may be more spiritual than others and some may concentrate on practices rather than belief, but this is a result of the way Mexican culture presents Catholocism, in the form of rituals, holidays and traditions.
One can not say if the life of the sex workers is indeed easier or better once they come to the US. There was more drug abuse amongst the sex workers interviewed in San Francisco than in Mexico. This is most likely due to the stress of living in a new place. Most of them do not speak English and they are quite vulnerable being both illegal in the US and working in an illegal profession. This constant threat of danger is what makes the spiritual beliefs of these women to be so strong.
On one of the first nights that I was doing my research sitting in the living room of the Guadalajara brothel, one of the sex workers turned up the volume of the stereo when the song, “A quien le importa” (Who Cares?) by Mexican pop singer Thalia came on. The lyrics of this popular song summarize the way the transgender sex workers live their life: on their own terms, following their own drum beat:
Who cares (English translation)
People point me out
The point at me with their fingers
They whisper behind my back
And I don’t care at all
What does it matter to me
I am different from them
I am not anyone’s
I don’t have an owner
I know that they critique me
They swear that they hate me
Jealous tears away at them
My life overwhelms them
What does it matter?
It’s not my fault
My circumstances insult them
My destiny is what I choose for myself
Who cares what I do?
Who cares what I say?
I am this way and I will continue to be, I will never change
Maybe it’s my fault
For not being mainstream
It’s too late
To change now
I will stay firm in my convictions
I will reinforce my ideas
My destiny is the one I decide on and choose for myself
Who cares what I do?
Who cares what I say?
I am this way and I will continue to be, I will never change
The transgender sex workers who believe that they are women, will do everything they can to be as feminine as possible, not minding the ridicule of society. They are not mainstream and their faith in their individual devotions keeps them flowing on their own path in life.
This study was sponsored by the Pew Foundation and administered by the University of San Francisco’s Religion and Immigration Project (TRIP), under the direction of Prof. Lois Lorentzen of the Theology and Religion Department. TRIP conducted research on the role of religion in the lives of new Mexican immigrants in San Francisco.
The interviews with the transgender sex workers in San Francisco were done between August 2002 and September 2003.