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Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana Politics, Identity, and Faith in New Migrant Communities
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2009 Duke University Press
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Chapter One Devotional Crossings
Transgender Sex Workers, Santisima Muerte, and Spiritual Solidarity in Guadalajara and San Francisco
CYMENE HOWE, SUSANNA ZARAYSKY, AND LOIS ANN LORENTZEN
In the early evening hours in the living room of a Guadalajara brothel, "Veronica," a male-to-female transgender sex worker who plies her trade in both Mexico and the United States, rose from her chair to turn up the volume on the stereo. The song, "A quien le importa" (Who Cares?) sung by the Mexican pop diva Thalia, filled the room. Veronica explains that the song echoes the way that many transgender sex workers live their lives: on their own terms, despite condemnation.
People point me out They point at me with their fingers They whisper behind my back And I don't care at all
I know that they critique me They swear that they hate me Jealousy tears away at them My life overwhelms them
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
Veronica's perspective, one that combines defiance with an acute awareness of societal opprobrium, is indicative of much of the devotional practices that are described in this essay. Our focus is on the spiritual practices and religious cosmology crafted by Mexican transgender sex workers who journey between San Francisco, California, and Guadalajara, Mexico. Based on ethnographic research and interviews in both the United States and Mexico, we explore how Mexican male-to-female transgender sex workers craft unique devotional rites and beliefs among one another in order to create spiritual solidarity and confront the often precarious life circumstances that can result from sex work, border crossings, and gender nonconformity.
These religious practices are best placed in cultural and political economic context. Our goal is to better understand how these devotional practices and beliefs coincide with the way Mexican transgender sex workers are, themselves, understood and treated by the state, in Mexico and in the United States, as well as by the social orders of which they are a part. We argue that these devotional practices are not renegade rituals to saints and icons outside of the traditional Catholic pantheon. Rather, the belief systems created by transgender sex workers as they cross geopolitical borders and gendered boundaries, serve to create spiritual agency within structural systems that are hostile to sex work, transgender persons, and border-crossing individuals from the south. Transgender sex workers in Mexico and in the United States, we argue, are acutely aware of the ways in which they are marginalized and thus seek alternative communities and develop spiritual practices that are shared among one another, not to disavow the Catholic traditions they may have learned as children, but to reshape their faith and the meaning they bring to devotion.
Devotions, prayers, and offerings to these saints or "pseudo saints," such as St. Jude and La Santisima Muerte (Saint Death or the Holy Death), might appear to be a way in which marginalized individuals find solace in their difference by embracing the radical fringes of devotion. We argue, however, that the opposite is true. In fact, transgender sex workers in both the United States and Mexico create a mobile, devotional subculture among themselves by sharing, translating, and crossing borders to reevaluate the role of particular saints and religious practices in their lives. In this sense the culturally distinct devotional practices they invent lend further evidence to the deterritorialization of religion, faith, and culture that has followed in the wake of mass migrations and "flows" (Appadurai 1996) of the late-capitalist postcolonial world (Gupta and Ferguson 1997; Hannerz 1989). The border provides a conceptual lens; the border influences the lives of those who traverse it and mediates the unique spiritual practices developed by those who cross it.
A desire to feed one's faith and follow a spiritual path lies at the heart of the religious practices of the transgender sex workers whose voices and experiences are represented here. Migrating from Guadalajara, Mexico, to San Francisco, California, and back again is one factor in the devotions that these women choose-there is an imperative of mobility for religious symbols, easily transported, that "travel well" (Kaplan 1996) on their circular journeys between Mexico and the United States. Coping with what some have called "a generalized condition of homelessness" (Said 1979, 18) entails creative responses. However, the perception that the traditional Catholic Church has rejected them also compels people like Veronica to seek spiritual guidance and faith in particular saints, sanctified virgins, or "unofficial" icons, such as the Holy Death. Mexican transgender sex workers have created a spiritual cosmology that draws from more marginalized icons. In part this reflects their own structurally precarious positions in society, but more than this it reflects their spiritual ingenuity and ability to creatively embrace saints who they believe light their particular way in the world.
To explain the shared spiritual traditions circulated among Mexican transgender sex workers in San Francisco and Guadalajara we first elaborate a definition of transgender and describe the socioeconomic circumstances of the sex workers whose experiences are represented here. Integral to their life dynamics are the conditions of border crossing in both a literal and symbolic sense; we will explain how "the border" provides a key conceptual lens in addition to being a literal geopolitical boundary. Second, we elaborate the historic and migratory ties between San Francisco and Guadalajara, as well as the symbolic significance of each city as particularly tolerant of sexual and gender difference. The cities are linked symbolically as "open," and through word of mouth workers in Guadalajara's casas (brothels) are integrated into single residential occupancy (SRO) hotels in San Francisco. We also draw attention to "sexual migration," a process whereby individuals choose to migrate not simply for familial or economic reasons, as much of migration studies and political pundits would have us believe, but for reasons of sexual freedom and expression. Finally, we turn to the social conditions, in particular the social services, available to sex workers in both cities. These structural elements, we argue, must be understood alongside of the religious practices and rearticulations of faith and spirituality that are realized through devotion to St. Jude and to Santisima Muerte.
In both San Francisco and Guadalajara the altars that transgender sex workers construct for the Virgin of Guadalupe (the indigenous virgin of Mexico), Saint Jude (the patron saint of "lost causes"), and Santisima Muerte were adorned with flowers, candles, incense, and money. While all of the sex workers who were interviewed in this research also had relationships with St. Jude and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Santisima Muerte appears to provide a very specific divine intervention in their lives. The Virgin of Guadalupe and St. Jude are both part of the accepted pantheon of viable saints to which one may offer devotions. St. Jude, well known as the saint of lost causes or desperate circumstances, would be an expected source of spiritual sustenance for those who toil in dangerous work like the conditions that confront transgender sex workers on a daily basis. Guadalupe is a national saint, and one's belief in and devotion to her index one's mexicanidad or "Mexicaness." Sharing information, tips, images, and techniques of worship to Guadalupe and St. Jude clearly provide a spiritual cohesion among transgender sex workers as they move between San Francisco and Guadalajara.
We will argue, however, that it is Santisima Muerte who reveals the most important axis of spiritual solidarity among Mexican transgender sex workers-it is her feminine form, challenging death, that plays the most dramatic role in their religious lives. Santisima Muerte, who is the most marginalized figure in this trinity, is most like the women themselves and closest to their experience. Most importantly, one learns about Santisima Muerte from friends and fellow sex workers who provide images, statues, and altar-preparation rules. Santisima Muerte's secrets are circulated among the small network of women who struggle against many odds on a daily basis. She is a shared deity who is condoned by the Church but rather sanctioned through a reciprocal process among transgender sex workers themselves. The Holy Death functions, effectively, to network and knit together transgender sex workers through their shared devotional practices in a spiritual solidarity.
STUDY SCOPE: MOBILITY AND METHODS
Because people, commerce, and discourses now constantly cross borders (Lavie and Swedenburg 1996)-some more easily than others-the research for this essay was mobile rather than situated in a single locale. Interviews with twenty-nine transgender sex workers, all originally from Guadalajara, were conducted in Spanish in both San Francisco and Guadalajara over a course of two years (2002 and 2003). Most participants came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. However, even those who started working as prostitutes in Mexico when they were teenagers still managed to finish high school, and some spoke with a very sophisticated vocabulary. In Guadalajara the interviews were conducted onsite at the brothels where participants worked, as well as in cafés, parks, restaurants, and private residences. Interviews were conducted with casa managers, as well as with priests, nuns, and other religious workers who work with transgender sex workers and who preferred to remain anonymous.
The interviews in San Francisco were sometimes stalled due to the precarious residency status of the participants; none of whom had legal documentation. These women speak very little English, are sometimes plagued by alcohol and drug abuse, and live in blighted neighborhoods. After more than a year of visiting their homes and speaking with sex workers on the street and in health clinics, the women who participated in the study developed a level of comfort and commitment to the interview and research process. At one time, there were eighteen transgender sex workers from Guadalajara living in the same residence hotel in San Francisco's Tenderloin District. This dynamic fluctuated however, as transgender women went back to Guadalajara and, in turn, came north again.
In addition to individual interviews, countless hours were spent in residence hotels, casas, social service agencies, churches, health clinics, street corners, the occasional bar, and other sites in San Francisco and Guadalajara frequented by transgender sex workers.
GENDER TRANSITIONING AND THE AMBIENTE GAY
The term "transgender" is contested territory. "Transgender" was originally understood to designate those who wished to change their biological sex (hormonally and surgically) to match their gender identification. Here we use transgender in a more comprehensive sense in order to include those who live outside the social expectations and norms of gender behavior and comportment (Halberstam 1998; Hooley 1997). Rather than understanding transgenderism as a pathology, our definition focuses on the transcending, or crossing, of culturally defined categories of gender (Bockting, Robins, and Rosser 1998; Nemoto et al. 1999) to include those who wear other-gendered clothing and who may have undergone, or wish to undergo, surgical or hormonal therapy in order to transform their bodies to better suit their perceived gender. In the study conducted in Guadalajara and San Francisco, the majority of participants were male-to-female (or MTF) transgender persons who exchanged sexual services for remuneration (that is, "sex workers"). Three participants identified themselves as "transvestites" and had not had any surgical or hormonal therapy to transform their biological sex to suit their gender. Most commonly, the participants felt that they were born as the wrong gender. They always identified themselves as women and felt attracted to men. Since childhood, they had felt the desire to both act like a girl and wear feminine clothing.
The ability to physically transform one's body was one of the primary reasons that transgender sex workers gave for their decision to migrate North. Earning dollars to pay for gender-transforming surgeries ranked high in their priorities. Cosmetic surgeries that reshape the body (breasts, face, and hips, for example) are of course available in Mexico, but many participants felt that conditions in the facilities there are more dangerous than in those in the United States. News reports in the United States add to this belief, with stories such as the one about a former stripper in Mexico who started her own plastic surgery clinic without any credentials. Instead of injecting citrus blends to burn fat, or bovine collagen to increase the size of hips or lips, she allegedly used a mixture of industrial silicone (for sealing car parts and appliances) and soy oil (a gelatin-like substance). Similar incidents are common in Brazil (Kulick 1998) and in other parts of Mexico (Prieur 1998). In Latin America transgender sex workers have innovated ways to radically alter their physical form, though often not without dire physical consequences and side effects.
A complete sex-change operation, whether in Mexico or in the United States, is highly expensive and very few of the women interviewed can afford the cost, coming as they do from underprivileged backgrounds and having to earn their living in the sex trade. Directly related to their sexual labor is the decision by most to keep their original (male) genitalia. Numerous times they explained that one of their best assets, and one that draws clients to them, is their ability to affect a very feminine appearance-but with male genitalia. Their clients, they explained, prefer them to biological women because many of them desire penetration, or else simply the idea of being with a woman with male genitalia. While these women described their decisions not to undergo genital surgery as one of market strategy or a professionally based decision, there may have been other unspoken reasons that did not emerge through the interviews.
Typically, sex workers had breast implants and surgery to increase the appearance of fat and curves around the hips and buttocks. Lips and eyelids are also made fuller and more "feminine." Alternately, they might use hormonal treatments to increase their body's own production of tissues in strategic locations. Without the benefit of surgery or hormones, some women resorted to street strategies, including injecting themselves with industrial silicone or other ingredients to create more feminine hips. In Mexico, the women reported, there are many transgender women who inject motor oil to create breasts-a very dangerous practice as the oil migrates around the body and into the bloodstream.
Among the transgender sex workers who participated in this study, almost all of them found support for their emerging transgender identity in the ambiente gay (gay community or gay scene); in the ambiente they were able to find romantic and sexual partners even if the transgender women themselves did not consider themselves "gay" but rather women who were attracted to men. Being a part of this community, being an entendida (someone "in the know") was fundamental to their ability to embrace their gender identity and to be a part of a shared knowledge structure, as one who "understands the significances and nuances of queer subaltern spaces" (Rodríguez 2003, 24).
Excerpted from Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana Copyright © 2009 by Duke University Press . Excerpted by permission.
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