As a transgender undocumented Latina, this week’s #WCW Catalina Velasquez cannot compartmentalize her identities – so don’t expect her to.
The Colombia-born, Miami-raised and Washington, DC-living Latina is involved in several social justice efforts. She tackles LGBTQ issues as the Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communication for Casa Ruby, a homeless shelter for trans and queer youth, immigration rights as a member of the advisory council of United We Dream, and race and ethnicity by sitting on the board of Inclusv, an organization breaking down barriers for people of color to enter politics.
That’s not all. At Consult Catalina, a public relations and diversity consulting firm the 29-year-old founded and sits as president, she works with nonprofit organizations, government groups and corporations to ensure that inclusivity goes beyond tweets with rainbow flag emojis and writing “very strong diversity HR policy” on job descriptions.
Ahead, the colombiana shows us that the only way to crush the patriarchy is to be intersectional at all times.
So you are kind of a Jill of all trades. You’re involved in so much, including being the founding president of Consult Catalina, the Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communication for Casa Ruby, sitting on the board of Our Revolution, Megaphone Strategies, GetEqual, Inclusv, on the advisory council of United We Dream and now even helping to organize the LGBTQ Equality March. How would you define your social justice work?
My social justice work is comprehensive and multidimensional. It’s work that focuses on people on the margins. If you look at everything I do, take away the prestige and the titles, it’s not just LGBTQ, not just immigrant justice and not just fighting income inequality; it’s about addressing the issues of complex human beings, because we live complex and nuanced lives and need to be able to see folks for who we are: multidimensional. It’s work that allows me to bring my full self, and I say that because not every place is welcoming of all of me.
Your work crosses issues of immigration, LGBTQ, feminism, race, reproductive health, homelessness and poverty. What would you say binds these different issues together, at least for you?
Shared humanity. It’s this experience of waking up in a world that is every day less welcoming of all people that creates a need for us to come together to build common ground.
On Twitter, you once wrote, “As a Trans undocumented Latina, I don’t have the privilege of separating my immigration status, ethnicity and trans identity from my feminism.” How do you think mainstream feminism asks women of different marginalized backgrounds to compartmentalize themselves?
First, there is no such thing as white feminism. White feminism is white supremacy, and we must call it out as such. But, to answer your question, we’re always asked to come and support initiatives without organizers really understanding the vast effects they will have, or how my other identities interact with those initiatives. We need to look at the world through a kaleidoscope, with different lenses, shapes, shades and colors living interconnected. The undocumented struggle is a suffrage struggle. When 49 percent of the population is women, then it’s also a gender struggle. When the government does not fund abortions, and there are all sorts of fears for undocumented people to get a provider, including $700 fees and checkpoints, then it’s also a reproductive health struggle. Immigration is a feminist issue.
At Consult Catalina, you actually offer organizations and brands cultural competency trainings and diversity consulting. What would you say are some of the biggest issues trans Latinas are experiencing right now in the workplace?
Many corporations have the willingness and desire to be pluralistic, but to be welcoming of people of all genders, races and backgrounds, there are systemic elements that need to be enforced. It’s not just about hanging a transgender flag or putting a very strong diversity HR policy on every job description. It’s looking at the most simple task that will guarantee you’re attracting pull from different brilliant communities and will provide the cutting-edge pluralistic lens organizations need to meet the needs of the community. For example, look at your working space, is it one where you’re required to show an ID at the front door? Does it have health care for employees that define gender-affirming procedures as necessary, not cosmetic. Is your workplace a space that respects the privacy of employees when dealing with sensitive subjects? Is your job description based on people’s actual capabilities instead of their higher education? Do you offer mental health care days? There is a way to center underserved populations while meeting all legal requirements, and it goes beyond a tweet.
What are some ways organizations can make spaces more welcoming, respectful and pleasant for trans Latinas?
A welcoming space is one that centers people’s human needs. It’s understanding that, as a trans Latina, you may need to take a day off to get your fingers printed by ICE, and shouldn’t receive pushback for that. It’s understanding that, as trans Latinas, we’re likely the breadwinner, as I am. My deported family depends on me, all while I remain in immigration limbo. I have a commitment that goes beyond what I want. Can you understand that or are you going to write me up because of that?
You’re also at Casa Ruby, a homeless shelter for LGBTQ youth in Washington, DC. Why do you think spaces like these are essential?
When you shift the narrative from one of victimhood and are able to fight the savior mentality complex, you understand the value that comes from organizations where its leaders represent the people they serve. The success of Ruby’s blueprint comes from the fact that she is an openly HIV-positive woman, a former sex worker and someone who lived undocumented for over 10 years. These are not talking points; these are experiences that inform the way she provides direct services for those in need. I work in this place because it’s rare to see a trans Latina run and lead organizations, and I know that our leadership is not always respected and not always welcomed. It’s an act of defiance, and major players who are focused on optics and less-effective ways see a threat in Casa Ruby as an organization, as a blueprint for effective social justice work around queer and trans communities. I like working for an organization where the money that comes in goes out to the people that need it, and you see the people growing. From the time they touch Casa Ruby till they leave, our mission is to develop success stories. We want to invest in them. We will connect them with a meal, housing, basic needs and then focus on career development, placing them in a job and creating sustainable models so they can feed themselves.
The number of LGBTQ homeless youth is shocking. What are some of the accompanying problems that come from this?
So much: homelessness, sexual assault, gang violence, neglect, being silenced. The U.S. likes to think it’s the best and greatest, but there are tons of humanitarian crises taking place. And what’s behind the high numbers of LGBTQ homelessness? State-sponsored violence. We live in a world where young people are not seen as legitimate, not respected as the experts of their lives. Young trans people say, “mami, I’m a woman,” and are not believed. Instead, they’re rejected, put into psychological warfare through corrective therapy. And the state either does nothing or supports the violence. Trans and queer communities are erased. Our experiences and bodies are classified as Rated R, not seen as something that needs to be discussed.
Many of the people that Casa Ruby shelters are Latinx and Black. How does race and ethnicity compound this issue?
We cannot ignore the effects of compounded oppression. People of color, immigrants and people who speak different languages are victims of police profiling and struggle to access education and health care. Then, when you compound that with being queer or trans, the rejection won’t just come from the usual suspects. You start to see this in your own community. People who want to unite and build up the community also reject you. When you really go to the root of it, yes, it’s white supremacy, but that creates trauma in communities of color, which is internalized and acted on, because hurt people hurt people. Trans people of color are rejected by the mainstream, our own communities and our own families.
How do you see your work as helping to crush the patriarchy, among other oppressive systems?
The patriarchy is an effect of white supremacy and European colonialism, and I provide a critical gender, queer and post-colonial lens onto everything I do. Everywhere I go, I am a woman and speak to the needs of other women, even if they have different bodies and health care needs than I do, because we can’t ignore that there’s a war against the feminine.