On an iconically grey Lima sky kind of day, I head to Gahela’s home in the Breña district of Lima. Earlier she asked me to go pick up some forms from a lesbian couple in Miraflores, so I’ve been all over the city by 1pm. She’s gathering forms from everyone to support her candidacy as a congresswoman. She needs 100 folks to join her political party, Nuevo Peru by next week and we’re already at 60. If we gather 100 by this week and 500 by the end of the month, she can run for office, and if she wins, she’ll be the first indigenous trans woman in congress. I call and wait outside her home while I catch my breath.
Her home is also a refuge for queer and trans migrant folks moving thru Peru. As I get upstairs, I am met by three beautiful angels who are staying on the couch, also helping Gahela pick up forms all over the city, while making deliveries for their new men’s lingerie line.
It’s almost 2pm and none of us have eaten. We each give some money and decide to make “arroz a la cubana.” There’s already rice ready. Gahela cuts and fries plantains while Heysser goes to make copies of the forms and buy some eggs.
As she often does, Gahela just starts talking, dreaming about what our future could be, recalling the stories and experiences of Indigenous women who set the path. “You know, we always talk about how Túpac Amaru was murdered by the Spanish, torn to bits by 4 horses tied to his limbs, but Micaela…”
Micaela Bastidas Puyucahua — Afro-Andean Quechua and wife of Túpac Amaru Condorcanqui — was the speaker, mind, and leader of the largest anti-colonial, anti-slavery rebellion in the Americas in the 1700s. “They tried to cut her tongue,” we both say. Gahela starts, “I think it’s even more horrific what was done to her, it’s symbolic of what they want from us.” Micaela put so much resistance at the time of her public execution that her executioners gave up and used the garrote instead. “Her entire family was watching, she was murdered before Tupac.”
Luis walks into the kitchen, “Esté...chicas, disculpen…saben como puedo llegar a Ventanilla de aca, como puedo agarrar carro?”
“No se maricón, pero esperate para que comas,” growls Gahela. We burst out laughing.
“Ay que bagreeeeee, que bagre, que malaaaaa”
“Bebita pero tienes que irte tragando pues...una de ustedes haga refresco pues,” asks Gahela.
Heysser chimes in, “Por si acaso te he sacado 30 copias, por si las moscas se equivocan en algooo.” She’s made ten more copies of the forms than what Gahela had asked for, in case the girls end up writing their names and not their government names on the forms by accident, she says.
Gahela continues, “For example, I believe in the need to abolish gender, but I don't think it has to be here and now. First we have to ensure that we all have a DNI (National Document of Identity) with our names, that we can all access the same opportunities and conditions; and then we argue, right? We can argue what is the precedent for abolishing gender.”
“But you cannot tell a person who has been kicked out of her house, who has nothing to eat, who has nowhere to sleep, that just dreams of having her boobs, that you want to abolish gender. She just wants to fill her gut, she just wants to have a little money to be able to have her surgeries done. And so, the academy ends up being very violent, with its back turned to the real and concrete identities of the people. And we also end up analyzing things from our logic, from our needs, or from what we think are the needs of the people. But we forget that those who are living that in reality and in the concrete are people who do not necessarily want what you want.”
Gahela gets ready to take some pictures outside while we wait for more “bebes,” as we say when referring to folks in our queer and trans community, to stop by and sign their forms.
She comes out with a hot pink shirt and her favorite chumpi.
“We have been taught that highlighted colors do not go with our skin...and when I tried this on, I was like ‘wowww.’ I loved it and I regretted not having bought another. I bought it to play the virgin; I put on a little white dress first and I don't know what happened or how the white dress fell off.”
The girls and I burst out laughing.
“Como se habrá caídoooo?!”
Gahela, “No lo seeee!!!!
No se cosas extrañas pasan en esta casa, siii porque estaba bailando con una bebita y de la nada terminamos agarrando.”
*gasps from the living room* “ay buses1!”
“‘de la nada’” I say, laughing.
“Well, she was looking for a macho guy. She was checking out, I don't know what boy...and I was just trying to have fun. I was tranqui, and I was like: well, it's my friend's birthday. I want to spend it with the babies. And I was with you for a while, until the end...I really don't know when I ended up like this.”
“suele suceder,” we say giggling.
*BANG BANG plays in the background*
Queen Nicki dominant, prominent.
It's me, Jessie, and Ari,
If they test me, they sorry
Ride his uh like a Harley then pull off in his Ferrari
If he hangin' we bangin' phone rangin', he slangin'
It ain't karaoke night but get the mic ‘cause I'm singin' Uh
B to the A to the N to the G to the, uh (Baby, baby, baby, bae, ba—baby)
B to the A to the N to the G to the, hey...
Heysser stops rapping to Nicki Minaj to let out a “Gahela, tenemos que ir ahorita?”
See, anybody could be good to you
You need a bad girl to blow your mind, your mind (Okay)
She reminds us that we’re waiting for Polilla to arrive before we can get to our next destination.
“I was raised to hate women,” says Gahela. “Because I'm never going to be a ‘woman’ or because I'm never going to have a vagina, because I'm never going to be a ‘real woman.’ And I mean, they end up putting it in your head over and over and over and over again. So when I saw two lesbians, at the beginning I was very angry, very angry, and I hated — I rejected them — to say in a few words.”
“And little by little I was deconstructing that, but it takes a while; and luckily, I have been at the side of many valuable people who have shown me that people can love no matter what they have between their legs.”
Heysser hands me a chocolate. She just came to Lima a month ago from Pucallpa, coincidentally the town where my family is from. We sit in the living room while she answers her clients from the men’s lingerie line in her best secretary voice. We listen to Gahela.
“But the real thing is that not all people have that possibility, they continue in their spaces, in their bubbles with their friends, and they continue with that individualistic way of seeing life, right? It seems to me that that is key, right? To start building bridges between all identities between all orientations.”
It’s been a couple of weeks and I wake up early one morning to catch a slice of Gahela’s time before she heads to collect more signatures to support her candidacy. This time I tell her to throw the keys out the window so she doesn’t have to run down four flights of stairs. It’s one week before the primaries and the house is reverberating with papers and excitement.
I notice there are some new plants, one of them a rue, a plant known for its abortive properties. “Is that a rue?” Gahela nods. She just came back from traveling to Ica this week and mentions that the babes have been decorating the house. Alex says he found the rue on the street. We laugh.
“You didn't find it, the rue found you,” says Gahela.
“We found each other,” says Alex.
Gahela fries some potatoes and eggs for breakfast. I brought some tamales, so I set them down in the kitchen while Heysser goes to the store to get some milk for the strawberry milkshake.
“I believe that a different world, free of violence, exploitation, misery, poverty and all forms of discrimination is possible. But it will not fall from the sky, we can’t buy it in a supermarket, in a bodega. No, that world has to be built; and there it will be necessary to take [on new] responsibilities, [make] commitments [and], decisions; take on tasks in order to achieve a society with justice with equality, with a real, full and effective democracy — not this fictitious democracy that ends up crushing us, that kills us, that dismembers us.”
Listening to Gahela always feels like opening my heart and soul to all our ancestors' rage and love all at the same time. It always rattles me that we can discuss this while making food, having breakfast. Like right now, how we’re sitting in her living room, sharing a meal together with all the other trans folks that live and/or seek refuge in her home.
“We must continue to make visible who we are, what we do and how we love. It serves as a tool of rebellion springing from our affections. There is nothing more powerful that challenges the system more than our existence; than our hugs; than the times we hold hands in private and in public; than the times we go out into the streets and look at each other, recognize each other, give each other affection.”
Sacha, Heysser, Brittany and I sit on the living room couches that at night become beds, haven and protection. We pass around the bread, potatoes, eggs, and tamales as Gahela continues.
“When we walk, expressing who we are, that is deeply powerful and directly questions the system beyond any discourse. It is our affections, our presence, our visibility and our existence that directly destroys this system that is not only capitalist, but also patriarchal and extractive. Capitalism does not work alone. There is a criminal alliance between capitalism and patriarchy. And it is an alliance that has to be broken by joy, by enjoyment, by pleasure, by our smiles, our heartbeats. So I think that in the midst of all that, it is necessary to have to keep hugging, keep loving — madly, passionately, rebelliously.”
Gahela started her transition when she was 19 while still living in Ica, about seven years ago, and then she came to Lima. Her parents haven’t seen her since Christmas of last year. Recently when Gahela went to Ica, she ran out of time and couldn’t visit them. They live in a small town called Bernales which is in the province of Ica.
“Suddenly they saw me on TV in January during the campaign,” she says. “Actually I wanted to ask you if you wanted to come with me to see my family, maybe take some pictures on the farm.”
A few days later we are on our way south of Lima, with Esteban who will help us record some video as well.
It’s a small town in the middle of many farms, with a very old church in the center of it. Gahela’s family has a home in front of the town’s plaza and we stop by to drop off our things.
Gahela says that this is a space that contains many emotions for her. Beautiful and very difficult moments, especially complicated ones. We walk past the school she attended.
“The transphobic violence that one lives in classrooms, the school space, marks a person a lot. While most of the students were concerned about how to pay attention to what is written on the blackboard, I had to find ways to avoid that violence and that transphobia disguised as a joke. Passing through here brings to mind those situations of harassment, attempted rape, mockery, ‘jokes.’ But it also brings back other beautiful memories like when I participated in the competitions, the school ceremonies for Mother's Day and Father's Day. I have lots of mixed feelings.”
“¡Buenas!” says Gahela to people she knows as we walk down the streets of Bernales on the way to see her mother on the other side of town.
“Holaaaaaa Gahela,” they reply.
One person calls her Micaela. “¡Micaela, te vi en la televisión!”
We laugh and also recall Micaela Bastidas Puyucahua, the fierce Indigenous leader Gahela and I spoke about that first afternoon together.
In the house, we sit with her mother with a pile of choclo (corn) between us. “Thank you for accompanying my daughter,” she says to Esteban and me. “She is not alone.”
“Mi hija no está sola.”
I ask Gahela about her name as we husk the choclos and thresh them. She tells me it is a made-up word bringing together Quechua and Aymara words, “Gahela,” a fierce fighting woman.
Her mom chimes in. “I've been telling everyone about the signatures. ‘Oh, let’s support Gahelita,’ people say…”
“Now that I walked by, many called me Gahela. I was surprised because before they called me by my dead name. If they call me that again, I'm not going to answer them,” says Gahela.
Her mom shares that she’s been telling people in the town that she no longer wants them to call her that. “I tell them, ‘my daughter is my daughter’.”
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Gahela and her mom stand outside their house in front of a big geranium in the evening. Gahela has her left hand in a fist and wears her green bandana around her wrist.
That night Esteban, Gahela, and I stay in a wooden room inside the brick house by the farm. These wooden spaces were given to folks in the Ica area after the 2007 earthquake destroyed many of their homes. We’ve had a long journey and finally have a moment to chorrear (chill) and talk together.
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Esteban and Gahela sit outside Gahela’s childhood friend’s home.
Esteban and I are sharing our skin care routines when Gahela starts to tell us about her first love. “Go get your little voice recorder!” says Esteban to me giggling.
“I met him in catechism class. I got a scratch on my knee, and he came over with a little paper.” Gahela was 12 or maybe 13, and she kept telling him to leave her alone. At some point he started walking her home from the church after catechism class. “He was into sports and I was into the library. Total opposites.”
“I finished the catechesis and we continued seeing each other there in the church.”
“Jajajajajajaja, te pasaste!” Esteban and I burst out laughing.
“Entonces la iglesia era como su lugar seguro?” he asks.
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Gahela sits outside her childhood home, surrounded by sand, many colorful plants and the straw wall of her home as she speaks.
“In a way the church was our space,” she continues. “We went to the same school, but he was a year younger so we hardly saw each other. I didn't go out much. I didn't go to the bathroom. I would hold it until I got out of school. I didn't like it because there was a lot of transphobia and a lot of danger in the bathrooms, and since a group of boys had tried to rape me, I didn't go to the bathroom. So we didn’t see each other at school. But at the same time, I didn't want to see him there.”
“One day he says ‘I want to ask you something, please close your eyes’.” Esteban and I gasp, hold our hands to our open mouths and laugh. “I closed my eyes, but I was like looking, and I saw him coming towards me and I said nooooo. But then I let him kiss me later.”
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Esteban takes a photo of Gahela as she stands in a corn field.
In the morning we are dying to pee and Gahela tells us we have dozens of kilometers of farm to go pee in. We walk around the perimeter and then tend to the chickens, rabbits, hens, and roosters. Esteban is freaked out by the chickens so he goes to hang out with Pancha the pig, and brings her some corn to eat.
“On this farm we used to plant cotton, corn, sometimes sweet potatoes. Right now my parents can’t cover the costs. That is why they have left it there until they get a loan. Because the life of rural people is very difficult, every year they ask for a larger loan than the previous one to pay their debt, and they end up entering into an unpayable debt.”
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Gahela puts on her hat as she stands inside a field of corn.
We check in with Gahela’s family who are starting to make Pachamanca in the plaza as a welcome to Gahela. Pacha means earth, and manca means pot in quechua; it’s usually a meal prepared in the earth, hence the name –– the earth itself becoming a pot. But this time they are improvising and making it in an actual pot in the street.
While the goat, potatoes, fava beans and more stew, we head out to La Laguna de Moron, a natural oasis only a few kilometers away. There are many versions of the myth about Moron, but the general consensus is that he was a child of colonization, son of an hacendado (plantation owner) and an enslaved woman.
Photos by xime izquierdo ugaz. Left: Gahela sits outside her family’s home by the plaza. Right: Gahela’s mom checks on the Pachamanca while Gahela gives it a taste.
Legend has it that he would steal from the hacendados in the neighboring towns and spread the wealth to all the people who needed it, then run and hide in the lagoon so no one could find him. In some versions of the story, Moron is also the lagoon; he becomes the water and the weeds that surround it.
“My family is from Ayacucho. They migrated here after the internal conflict, running away from the violence,” Gahela says. “There is no conversation about it ever. It is very difficult and painful for the family, so much so that it is not something that is discussed. But that is the situation for most of the people here.”
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Gahela holds onto the rim of her hat while standing in a corn field. She is wearing her green bandana around her left wrist.
The feelings that colonialism leaves behind is ingrained in so many families here and across the Americas. “My family prefers to leave it there, not talk about it, like what they do with…”
“...all the uncomfortable topics,” says Esteban.
We laugh loudly as we walk together.
Photo by xime izquierdo ugaz. Gahela places a yellow flower on her hat as she sits in a field of purple flowers.
“They hide them,” says Gahela. “Pretend they don't exist. Like when they discover that a son or daughter is gay or lesbian.”
At the oasis my camera stops working, and some light is leaked into the film before I can take a picture of Gahela inside the water like I imagined. We are cracking up because it’s mercury retrograde, and after many attempts to fix it, we just accept Mercury has won this time.
Photos by xime izquierdo ugaz. Left: Gahela sitting in La Sangradera a puquio (from the Quechua, ‘pukyu’ spring of water) in Bernales. Right: Gahela sits in a mound of corn that is drying.
“Actually, it is an intervened phrase, from ‘when a feminist dies, she never dies’ or ‘when a compañero dies he never dies.’ The life of someone who fought is always vindicated. And there is no one who fights more than a trans person faced with a system that wants to turn off their life.”
We are walking in the sand around la Laguna de Moron making our way back to the motorcycle taxi that brought us here, driven by Gahela’s family’s neighbor. Her little niece has joined us and she’s listening intently too. Her glasses gleam in that iconic bright sun of Southern Peru.
“Cuando una trans muere nunca muere, it is a claim and an open question to the system, an interpellation as well. [It is] a way of transmitting that we are still here, resisting; and that now we are not satisfied with just resisting. That we want everything. [We want] a just society with equality in which we can exist and love, without having to be persecuted or have people impose blame on us for it. A reminder of why we fight, why we are here, why we get up every day from our beds in order to procure and leave a less violent world.”