A coffee plantation might seem like an unexpected safe house for an at-risk Latin American transgender woman, but Columbian T-girls who live in danger or exile in their traditional cultures are finding haven in java farming.
It wasn’t something official, it just happened that small groups of kinship among indigenous trans women on Columbian coffee farms began to attract other women from villages across the country.
Coffee farming is backbreaking labor in difficult conditions for very low pay, but unfortunately that’s not particular to the industry in Colombia. The job was different from other sources of employment for a few reasons. The plantations were willing to hire trans women in the first place, meaning they provided an employment option that was safer than sex work or unemployment.
The transgender women can dress how they want after work with less hassle than elsewhere, although they do face some harassment from other indigenous workers who are cis men. The difference is that they can live in dormitories with other transgender Columbians, so they have a unique kind of community.
From the perspective of the plantation owners, they can look the other way. There is perhaps an unspoken understanding rather than a radical political statement or a defense of human rights. The farmers find trans women workers a bargain, at about thirty dollars a week, or a hundred thousand Colombian pesos. They say the women are strong and hardworking and don’t complain.
Lena Mucha, a photographer and masters graduate in social anthropology from Berlin, was approached by a Colombian paper about a story on trans Colombian women. She set out on motorcycle through the mountains, looking to tell the stories that were invisible to the world.
“I know in Colombia being transgender is quite heavy,” Mucha says in National Geographic. “It’s a very conservative country. LGBTQ [awareness] is something that’s coming slowly and in the bigger cities, like Bogota. When it comes to villages and indigenous communities, they see it as a disease that comes from the white man. There’s no understanding of why this can happen and that it’s normal.”
Colombia is slow to accept and understand transgender issues or LGBTQ rights, even in its bigger cities like Bogota. For the coffee girls, most of them are from remote mountain or jungle villages where even Spanish, the language of the conquest centuries ago, is still not spoken. Many of the transgender coffee workers are members of the Embera Catio community, a remote tribe with only 35,000 people in existence.
Hard work in the hot sun for so few pesos may not seem like much, but having a safe community, a few bucks for clothing and makeup and shampoo, and friends who are like them or accept them is everything.