María Belén Correa and Cecilia Estalles speak with Devan Díaz and Thora Siemsen about El Archivo de la Memoria Trans Argentina
Founded by activist archivist María Belén Correa in 2013, El Archivo de la Memoria Trans Argentina is a historical-memory project devoted to lost friends and forebears. This growing collection of more than ten thousand documents—photos, videos, and mementos––gives flesh to trans lives in Argentina. The archive originated as a private Facebook group, a forum for research and discussion sustained by the dedication of its members. With the help of Carolina Figueredo, Luciano Goldin, Car Ibarra, Luis Juárez, Magalí Muñiz, and Cecilia Saurí, the community has retrieved treasures that have survived decades of police, military, and social repression. In 2014, photographer Cecilia Estalles began digitally preserving the group’s efforts and broadening its scope, creating a blueprint for kindred collectives. Last year, with Editorial Chaco, the archive published its first book, which is, inter alia, a beautiful art object.
THORA SIEMSEN: When I look at a project that developed among friends, I’m always curious how those people met, how it came about. How did you all find one another?
MARÍA BELÉN CORREA: I started a long time ago with one friend, Claudia Pía Baudracco, who was one of the most important activists for trans people in Argentina. We were collecting souvenirs, pictures, documents—trying to remember nice moments. She died in 2012, two months before Argentina passed its watershed Gender Identity Law, which made hormone treatments and gender-reassignment surgery accessible through the public health system, and which allowed people to officially change their gender without a medical diagnosis. Her family got to know me. They gave me her ashes and one big box with all the things that she collected––maybe ten thousand pictures, passports, postcards. I started a private Facebook group for transsexual people in Argentina or from Argentina but living elsewhere in the world. Within four months we had fourteen hundred members. In 2014, I met Cecilia.
CECILIA ESTALLES: At that time, I was searching for information about the transfemicide of a woman named Gina Vivanco. She was killed by police in 1991 because she witnessed a robbery that had something to do with them. I was making a short documentary about what happened to her. I went to Canada to present the film and visited the ArQuives in Toronto, a Canadian LGBTQ2+ nonprofit founded in 1973. I said to myself, “Argentina has to see this.” I proposed to Belén that we work toward making a physical archive, and that I go to the house of each of the girls in the Facebook group to gather images and digitize their collections.
MBC: I’m in Germany, and I work here communicating with Cecilia in Argentina. Nobody knew Cecilia, and nobody would give the pictures to her directly, so I contacted the girls because the girls know me. The collection, which started with the box from Pía, got bigger. Cecilia is a photographer, and she saw that this kind of photography had artistic as well as historical and political value and that it needed to be seen as all of these things. In Latin America, we are one of the first archives for transsexual people, about transsexual people, and by transsexual people. Groups in other Latin American countries use us as a point of reference for how to do this work themselves. We are always adding new materials to our collection, so that it doesn’t lie there dead.
DEVAN DÍAZ: Was this book a way to assert an Argen-tinean identity that has been ignored?
CE: For me, the book is a way of rescuing these people from oblivion. I believe the book carries an opportunity for healing for the trans people of Argentina. I think that we always thought first about what’s internal to the collective. We wanted outsiders to see what we had to show them. There are many girls who lost their friends, their families, and in these photos they can visit them again. People whom they had lost long ago may return to their lives.
DD: In the book, it seems like birthdays and Carnival are always times of celebration, no matter what is going on.
MBC: We didn’t have so many opportunities to reunite. Our reunions were in jail or when somebody was laid to rest. Birthdays or Carnival were our happiest times. Carnival was a moment when we could be whatever we desired, because for a few days, the police couldn’t touch us. I could dance in my costume that I worked on for a year.
TS: How would you describe being a trans citizen of Argentina now?
MBC: Depends on your age. The statistics say the average transsexual person in Argentina lives anywhere from thirty-five to forty-one years. Young people can continue in school and work while transitioning. But there are people totally out of sight of the system. They don’t have a job; they’re not qualified because they never had the opportunity to go to school. Because of the new law, younger people’s lives are better. The problem at this moment is the older person. Many of those who are now over forty-five have silicone liquid floating around inside their bodies or untreated diseases because we don’t have a good health-care system in Argentina. We need new laws for all the girls who are over forty-five, who don’t have housing, health insurance, work, an education.
DD: Silicone injections began in trans communities in Brazil but quickly spread across Latin America. It might be hard for some people today to comprehend the intense cost-benefit calculations of taking such risks. Do you consider silicone to be a drug or medicine?
“Carnival was a moment when we could be whatever we desired, because for a few days, the police couldn’t touch us.” —María Belén Correa
MBC: The only good part is when you can look in the mirror and feel like you have the key for your body so much faster. That moment is magic. Then, slowly, you realize the consequences. We didn’t know anything at the time. But after twenty-five years of silicone in my body, I can say it’s not great. When we speak to the new generation and they’re unhappy with how they look, we talk about silicone like a drug: In the moment, you feel great, but with time, not so much. In the 1970s and ’80s, it looked like a solution. In 2021, we know it’s not a solution.
CE: But now there are many more possibilities. With the Gender Identity Law, you can think about getting on hormones, you can consider getting whichever operation, and it’s all fine and legal. It’s a good idea to remind the young girls of this so that they don’t take things into their own hands, even though the wait lists for surgery and hormones are very long and the law isn’t always carried out the way it should be.
MBC: Some girls don’t want to wait. My friends died so young, and we all thought we would die without our real bodies. If we died in surgery, we would at least be very beautiful in the box. Everybody knows you need to survive the first twenty-four hours after the initial injection. If the silicone hasn’t blocked your blood vessels after forty-eight hours, maybe nothing went wrong. It’s Russian roulette.
CE: Right now, many of the oldest women in the archive are suffering from this, and there are many who have infections, many who cannot undergo surgery because––
MBC: —there’s not any doctor who wants to touch that body because it’s a danger. It looks like cancer. It looks like necrosis.
“If we died in surgery, we would at least be very beautiful in the box.” —Cecilia Estalles
TS: Belén, what did you miss most about Argentina in exile?
MBC: I missed everything. And every time I come back to Argentina, I have fewer friends. Today I heard a journalist say that certain things are impossible to forget because the mark that they leave is impossible to remove. I’m marked by torture, violence, and exile. The worst is when you leave and you don’t want to, because it’s totally different than when you can prepare to go.
Before I left Argentina, I was living with friends. There were constant threats by the police. It was common for a girl to disappear, and everyone would assume it was because the police got her. The threats got more intense, and my family started receiving violent phone calls. I lied to my mother and told her I was going on vacation to a resort town called Mar del Plata. Instead, I took ten days to prepare my escape. I called her when I got to the United States and told her I didn’t know when I’d be coming back. Now, when I return to Argentina, it is not the same. I try to keep track of everything I’ve lost. My life is in Germany now. My family’s here, my husband. Our dog is our Kind [child].
DD: Are these photos an antidote to shame?
CE: The book was something we fashioned out of love, out of feelings of closeness, out of our connections. It was a long process, and our friend Verónica Fieiras of Editorial Chaco worked alongside us. The book tells the story of our sisters’ distinct experiences—friendship, exile, Carnival, everyday life.
There is a young woman who studied Google results in Argentina before the archive, as well as what happened after we brought it into existence. Before, when you put “trans” in the search bar, tragic images would appear. When the archive was established, the search results changed completely. I think all our work has something to do with presenting a new way of seeing the world via the trans gaze, a loving gaze. Like when someone who cares for you takes your photo.
Devan Díaz is a writer living in New York.
Thora Siemsen is a writer living in New York.
Translated from the Spanish by Karim Kazemi.