Lorena Borjas, the great Latino pioneer of transgender activism in New York, dies of coronavirus
The death of the godmother of trans activism in New York, who dedicated her life to helping her community, has caused deep pain to all the people she inspired. But her memory will remain.
An undocumented migrant in the United States, a transgender and precarious person, but above all a historic fighter for LGBTQ rights and Latinos in New York City, Lorena Borjas is remembered for handing out condoms to the sex workers in her neighborhood in Jackson Heights. She also organized syringe exchanges to protect transgender people going through hormone therapy, and even established an HIV testing clinic in her own home.
"I didn't expect people to come to it," said her friend and fellow Latino and transgender activist Cecilia Gentili. "She was going to them."
So concerned was she about her community that even as she waited for the results of her COVID-19 test, Lorena Borjas thought about how transgender immigrants would cope with the pandemic. She died of the coronavirus at 59, and now New York mourns this godmother of marginalized communities, whose spirit of struggle and love is so necessary in these troubled times.
"Heartbroken." That's how shocked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was when she received news of Borjas' death last Monday at a Coney Island hospital from complications caused by coronavirus. She was also honored by New York Attorney General Letitia James, New York City Council President Corey Johnson, and several anti-discrimination and trans community rights associations who recalled her commitment and determination.
"Lorena spent her life tirelessly fighting and supporting our trans sisters, making sure they were treated with the dignity and respect they deserve," Make the Road New York, an organization that fights for immigrant and working-class communities, said in a statement. "We will truly miss her. May she rest in power and love.
While Cristina Herrera, founder, and CEO of Translatina Network and friend of the activist, remembered tough times when Lorena Borjas was a lighthouse in the midst of darkness:
"Lorena brought us light when we were living in a very dark time here in New York. She brought us light when we were dealing with the crack epidemic, when we were dealing with the AIDS crisis, dealing with changes in immigration policy.
Borjas came to the United States from Mexico in 1981 searching for herself at 20 years old. At that time, she considered herself a gay man and migrated in order to make her transition. And she succeeded.
However, she remained undocumented until 1986, when she was granted amnesty under a law enacted by President Ronald Reagan. Four years later, she was a legal permanent resident of the United States.
The legality did not change her precarious status as a transgender woman and she was arrested for prostitution and trafficking, but was a victim herself. This and other convictions kept Borjas from achieving citizenship, and also drove her life as an activist.
In 1995, Borjas organized a transgender march to protest "police policies and systems" and helped transgender women deal with the AIDS pandemic.
"Lorena has done more than anyone I know to shed light on the trafficking epidemic in transgender communities and to help other trans women escape exploitation," recalled Lynly Egyes, who represented Borjas on behalf of the Transgender Law Center.
Chase Strangio, deputy director of transgender justice at the American Civil Liberties Union's LGBT and HIV Project, met Borjas in 2009 and began working closely with her a year later on immigration and criminal justice issues. Above all, they supported Latino transgender immigrants who were in trouble with the law.
"She brought people who needed legal support to the office every week and made sure I paid attention to the police crisis and deportation facing her community," Strangio told CNN.
Over time, her hard work paid off with the creation of the Lorena Borjas Community Fund, which helps transgender people and others pay legal costs and fees.
Fortunately, she also received the legal help she needed. In 2017, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo granted Lorena Borjas a pardon so she would not be deported.
"You could aspire to be like her but you clearly know you won't be like her because you're not as selfless as her," Gentili told CNN. There wasn't a minute that the godmother of New York's transgender and immigrant community wasn't looking out for the well-being of her people.
From providing new immigrants with subway cards to staying up late talking to people and trying to help them solve their problems. She even phoned them to remind them of doctor's appointments and then followed up to ask how the visit went.
Bianey Garcia, an activist with Make the Road New York, met Borjas when she was 17 and had a somewhat out-of-control life. The transgendered godmother invited her to a support group, but it wasn't until the former sex worker was arrested that Lorena started visiting her and helped her get an immigration lawyer to avoid being deported.
"I really appreciated her for everything she did when I needed it most," said Garcia.
Lorena Borjas' life was not easy.
She had to face many challenges and traumatic situations, as most transgender people, undocumented migrants, and sex workers do. But she is the best example of how one person can affect the lives of others for good.
Her memory will permeate every street in Queens, New York, and beyond. Let her be a flame of hope and Latino pride when fear and sadness threaten to overcome us.
Rest in peace, madrina.