Colombia’s indigenous transgender women find refuge, freedom working on coffee farms

image-01Francy came to work at the coffee farms five years ago. (Lena Mucha)

Yuliana and her colleagues head home after work. (Lena Mucha)

Although photographer Lena Mucha had worked with indigenous communities while studying anthropology, she had never approached them with a camera. But after reading an article that one of her friends wrote about some unique transgender women from the Embera group in Colombia, she became intrigued and decided to investigate. The women whom her friend wrote about had left their villages to find work on coffee plantations because they felt they could live freer lives there.

“I was told that the indigenous leaders are convinced that being transgender is a disease the white man has passed [on to] them,” Mucha said. “In their communities, the transgender women who decided to live openly transgender are punished by their own people. This is why they leave their families. Working on these coffee farms means they have a free space where they can express their gender identity openly.”

When she first approached the women on the farms, they were hesitant about having their pictures taken. But Mucha persisted, shooting photos and then coming back with prints to show the women what she was doing. This broke the ice, Mucha said, and some of the women became much more comfortable with her presence and allowed her to continue her work. When asked what she hoped her project would communicate to the world, Mucha told In Sight:

“I think there is still a lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation about what it means to be transgender and to live this identity. Many people, and most of them in Colombia, were surprised that among the indigenous Embera [there] actually exist transgender women. Another point is related to the predominant narrative that exists about Colombia: What we know about this culture is related to conflict and the narco culture. This is the image the media have been and are still communicating to the world. But Colombia is much more than this and there are so many subcultures we have never heard about, like these indigenous transgender women. Visual representation really matters and can change how we understand the world and its complexities. It’s a powerful media to connect and create empathy with someone we might never know and this is what I aim with this story as well.”

image-03Heading back to the farm after work. (Lena Mucha)

image-04A group of workers load up into the back of a truck. (Lena Mucha)

image-05Francy and her colleagues unload the truck at the farm after a 10-hour workday. They earn $35 a week. (Lena Mucha)

image-06Yuliana putting on her makeup. Every evening after work the transgender women dress up. (Lena Mucha)

image-07Nail polish and accessories in the workers’ dorm. (Lena Mucha)

image-08Francy, 19, after being dressed for the evening. (Lena Mucha)

image-09Francy, Angelica and Mariana decompress in the evening with their colleagues. (Lena Mucha)

image-10Francy and Dario relaxing in their free time. They both belong to the ethnic group of Embera Katio. Back in his home village, Dario has four children with his wife. (Lena Mucha)

image-11On the way to the town of Santuario on a Saturday morning. Every week the women go to the village to buy new materials to make their traditional dresses and jewelry. (Lena Mucha)

image-12After arriving in Santuario, the women get out to go shopping. (Lena Mucha)

image-13Francy buys earrings in a shop in Santuario. (Lena Mucha)

image-14Angélica, 17: “I felt that I was different when I was 12. I liked to wear dresses and play with girls,” she said. At the age of 15 she left her home village and decided to work on the coffee plantations. (Lena Mucha)

image-15Angélica plans on staying on the coffee farms: “I won´t go back to my community. Here I can finally be who I am.” (Lena Mucha)

Photos by Lena Mucha, written by Kenneth Dickerman
Source – The Washington Post