Courage, Voice and Visibility: A Conversation with Bamby Salcedo
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Bamby is the President and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition, a national organization addressing the issues of transgender Latin@s in the US. Her remarkable and wide-ranging activist work has brought voice and visibility to not only the trans community, but also to the multiple overlapping communities and issues that her life has touched, including migration, HIV, youth, LGBT, incarceration and Latin@ communities. She is nationally and internationally recognized for her leadership.
Below are edited excerpts of my conversation with Bamby Salcedo:
Bamby, thank you so much for joining me for a conversation about you, the TransLatin@ Coalition and our work together. I wonder if you can start by sharing your journey to the TransLatin@ Coalition.
First, I always acknowledge my creator, my higher power for giving me the opportunity to breathe one more day. I acknowledge the beautiful and amazing people who are joining us today. And obviously, thank you so much for the opportunity to share a space with you and to share a little bit of my experience. I think it’s important that we give a little context to people about how Bamby Salcedo came to be, and obviously through that, how the TransLatin@ Coalition came to exist. I’m Bamby, a very privileged trans Latina who also has the privilege to lead a national advocacy organization that is based in Los Angeles providing life-supportive and lifesaving services to trans gender and nonconforming people in Los Angeles.
I’m originally from Mexico. Born and raised like many other children who come from families from the outskirts of the city who come to the city to try to find a better way of life. That was certainly the experience of my mother, and also my father. They got together when they were very young.
My father ended up leaving my mother before I was born and my mother had to raise three of us on her own until she met someone, who became my stepfather. [And he] was a very abusive and rough person. And I was trying to find myself in a home where there wasn’t really any type of supportive love. [While] there was love, my mother had to work all day, and there wasn’t really the love that I needed. As a result I started using drugs when I was about eight years old, and became one of those children who grew up on the streets, like many of those children that you see in our countries, who sell chicle or boleros. I became one of those children, but I was also going to school, living this multi-dimensional life. I learned early on how to survive in the world.
I was going to school and using drugs and studying, doing straight criminality, if you will. When I was 12 years old, I started being institutionalized. I started [getting] arrested and [was] in juvenile halls. From 12 to 16, I was in and out of those correctional facilities. Obviously my mother didn’t really know what to do with me by then. My father was already living in the United States. […] And when I got out one time, my mom said ‘maybe you go to your dad because you’re not doing good here.’
Through all of this, I was going through my own gender confusion, if you will. I started dressing up with my gay friends. I met a group of people who created a Menudo fan/dance club. I was a little boy, and was part of this dance group. So it was like this, you know, different types of lives. I could not ever be myself. At that time I was obviously the boy. And so there were a lot of expectations on me and me wanting to support my mother, trying to give her a better life. I had to pretend to be someone who I was not.
I came to the United States, like many people, across the border with no documentation and went to live with my father. Unfortunately, my father was already married to someone else who didn’t want me in her house. When I came to the United States, I studied and was using heavier drugs. That’s when I discovered heroin and cocaine and I started injecting myself. I only lasted two years, because I couldn’t stay with my father’s family. Then I went up to Northern California to work at a tortilla factory, and was exploited as a minor. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, like many other young people at that time, it was just too much. I lasted a couple of years there, because I had this hunger to be myself. Since I grew up in a big city, I decided to come to Los Angeles. That’s when I started my transition, at 19 years old. At that time I felt like I could do that because there wasn’t nobody around, like my family.
Bamby, I want to thank you for being so generous about sharing your story. I have known you for a number of years, and have known about your work. It is clear that you have a light and a vision. From hearing your story, it strikes me that growing up you were quite invisible, and through your work at the Coalition you are totally visible. I see you and others see you. I want to acknowledge your power and thank you for sharing this important part of your story with us.
Thank you. I appreciate that. It goes back to what you’re saying about the work that we do at the Translatin@ Coalition. When we started in 2009 there was a lack of visibility and voice for the specific needs of trans Latina immigrant women living in the United States. That’s why we started. At that time there were two national transgender organizations that were doing amazing work, but unfortunately [did not address] the needs and issues of our community. We started because of a need. I am one of the privileged ones, who have had the opportunity to overcome many horrible experiences and to turn those into opportunities.
I have the opportunity to reform my life by seeing life, and not just my life, but the lives of the people who are my friends. Me, who once stood up in a corner with doing sex work. I’ve lived and survived. Unfortunately right now we have the same things that still [impact trans communities], violence, homelessness, drug addiction, sex work as a means to survive, sexual abuse, incarceration, all of those things that I’ve had the privilege to overcome. Because I had the privilege, it is also my responsibility.
You and the Translatin@ Coalition are doing so much. I know from experience that your work has saved lives. I wonder if you can talk about the impacts of COVID, and how the organization responded to the needs of the trans community.
Obviously, COVID-19 has [had an] impact in the whole world. The numbers don’t lie. People of color, black, latino, and indigenous people are the most impacted by the pandemic. And when it comes to trans people, I can definitely make the argument that trans people [are] the most impacted population. It is important for us to understand and recognize where trans people were in society, before this pandemic. [Before the pandemic]trans people were still making $10,000 a year, making us one of the poorest people in this country.
The continuous discrimination that we face while trying to gain employment, or even those who are privileged enough to have employment [face] harassment and discrimination. Again, that is why we exist as an organization, to organize people across the United States. Trans people were not having access to the basic things that they needed, so we started providing direct support in response. All these social issues compound against our community.
Then we have this global pandemic and the whole world shuts down. As an organization, we made a decision to maintain our doors open. We knew that many members of our community wouldn’t even have access to food — so we [started to] serve lunch every day. Understanding where trans people were situated before this pandemic and understanding how they spend them a house set back the trans community, the trans movement, the gains that we have gone through the last few years. Nothing was a priority. It’s going to take some time for the trans movement to recover. To give you an example, most people in the United States got some type of relief from the government. Even in the previous administration, some people got like $1,200 for instance. The majority of trans people, I didn’t even get that. Even now, people got $600 and then they also got $1,400. The majority of trans people didn’t even get that. Why? Because the majority don’t have employment. Therefore we don’t make [taxable income]. Therefore we don’t get that benefit. Even here in the state of California, the governor allocated $76 million to support undocumented people, and trans people who are undocumented were not even able to receive that type of support because of the requirements [for to access it]. That’s just to give you some examples.
It has only been in the last five years that more trans groups and trans leadership has been developed. [Our organization] only got our first grant in January of 2016. It’s been in the last five years that we have been operating with a service provision arm of the organization, to support our community directly, while working on policy changes, to change the institutions that need to be changed, for all of us to have a better quality of life. There’s so many different aspects on how this pandemic has really impacted trans people.
I know that the Transgender Coalition has been doing a lot of state and federal policy work, including during the Trump administration. I wonder if you can talk about what it’s been like to be part of the policy work. In such a short period of time, so many folks from the TransLatin@ Coalition have done so much policy work in California. Can you share about this work?
Policy has always been part of the work that we do. When we initially started in 2009, we started thinking about how to change and transform the institutions that marginalize our community. That has always been part of the work that we’ve done. When we started getting funding, [it was] initially to support the community directly.
I have to recognize our Manager of Policy and Community Engagement, Michaé de la Cuadra, who went through the Women’s Policy Institute (recently renamed the Dr. Beatriz María Solís Policy Institute). We developed a policy plan that focused on five different areas, [including] the immediate needs of our people.
Last year we started doing budget advocacy. We’re still learning about all of that. We started advocating for a hundred million dollars to be allocated across the state in five different areas. Obviously we were not successful the first year, but we learned a lot, and we’re going to go at it the following year. That was in 2020, and through that we learned that we needed to get legislators that were fully supporting our efforts. We reached out to our local assembly member, Miguel Santiago, who wanted to sign on to it, but he only wanted to sign on to the health piece of it. Then he said that he wanted to turn it into a bill. And so we’re like, oh hell yeah, even better.
And so that’s exactly what we did and how Assembly Bill 2218 happened, the Transgender Wellness and Equity Fund. The power of the people is really what supports all of that [work]. We also formed a statewide coalition of trans-led organizations across the state. And then in the middle of a pandemic, in 2020, we crafted a piece of legislation. We introduced it, we pushed it, we mobilized, all the way to the governance status. Assembly Bill 2218, the Transgender Wellness and Equity Fund came to be a law, a historic piece of legislation. For the first time, in the state of California, a piece [of legislation] was introduced by trans people. There has been other legislation specifically to support trans people, but they were not introduced by trans people themselves.
What a fantastic and impressive victory, bringing us closer to where we need to be.
Yes, but, there was $15 million attached to this piece of legislation. But because of the pandemic, the money was taken out of the bill. So there is a bill, that became the law, a transgender fund, but no funds in it. So right now we need all the support because we’re going through the budget advocacy process. Those $15 million need to be reallocated to the fund. We need more money, but even if it’s just for that piece of legislation, that money needs to go back [into the budget]. We know that both the state, the city and even the county have a lot of money and they really need to invest in trans communities. It’s their responsibility. We’re holding people accountable for what they need to do.
Bamby, I know that culture change is part of the work of the Coalition. Can you talk about some of the cultural changes you have seen happen and what would it need to be to really transform the trans community?
I think there definitely needs to be a cultural transformation in order for our society to really understand who trans people are, and to do what needs to be done to better the quality of life of transgender, nonconforming, and intersex people. We believe that in order for us to have a better quality of life, we need to transform culture. We did that on different levels. It is important for us to let the world know about the services that we provided in the middle of a pandemic. That’s a way to influence cultural transformation, and passing legislation. We created videos for campaigns, and educational sessions on COVID prevention.
An important campaign was #FreeKellyCampaign. Kelly [Gonzalez Aguilar] was a young trans woman, 21 at that time, who was detained in immigration detention for no reason. They [said] that she was a threat to society because she got arrested for a minor crime, not a felony. So they kept her there for almost three years, until we won. She is now out and thriving.
It’s important for us to recognize trans women who are immigrants living in the United States also include those who are in immigration detention. Our work has always been to support trans women who have been in immigration detention, even before it was fashionable. Now there’s all kinds of groups saying that they do that, but that’s another thing, right? We have always been connected to trans women who are in immigration detention. They share our information inside, and write to us. In 2015 ICE (US. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) created a trangerder [unit] at Santana jail. We were picking them up and linking them to services, even when we were not getting any funding.
I was wondering if you can talk about your relationship with Mexico, and with Guadalajara. After all these years in the United States, what are your feelings?
Unfortunately there isn’t a relationship. Through my imprisonment, my incarceration, I spent about 14 years of my life in and out of prison here in California. Because of that I was deported four times, but I always find a way to come back. I have not had the opportunity to go back to Guadalajara, and I’m hopeful that that’s going to change soon.
Unfortunately, but also fortunately I was a victim of a hate crime in 2015, I was assaulted. So through that, we applied for a U visa and it was accepted. Right now, I am waiting for them to send me my green card. I’m hopeful that happens soon. According to my lawyer the waiting time was three to five years, and we’re now in the five-year mark. I have heard that people who applied for U visas right now, the waiting time is seven to 10 years. But I guess I was lucky enough that happened to me then. Thought that I am going to be able to gain some type of status and then I’ll be able to travel and hopefully build a relationship. I do have a relationship with a very dear friend of mine, whose name is Paty Betancourt, who is one of the founders of RedLacTrans.
When the green card comes, we’ll have a party,
That would be amazing. Hopefully it will bring some type of normalcy and then yes, we’ll definitely get to celebrate.
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