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Navigating Transness in an Immigrant Home Has Brought Me Heartbreak & Hope

My parents always made birthdays a grand occasion. When I was a kid, my mami would bring a cake to my grade-school class; in those moments, as I sat in front of that confectionery fire hazard, I felt on top of the world. Blowing out the candles gave me a reason to dream. It gave me an excuse to demand my wishes come true rather than have them sink as they did the other 364 days of the year. It’s March, so I’m preparing to dream again. I turn 33 this month. As a nonbinary trans baby and someone who was formerly undocumented, I don’t take for granted having made it this far. My Jesus year is momentous — and the wish I’m making while blowing out the candles this year is, too.
After months of planning, my biggest dream of the last 28 years — to visit the country I left when I was five years old and was never able to return to — is being realised. Going back home to Chile, I’ll see my paternal extended family for the first time since I left and my maternal grandparents since they visited us in South Florida seven years ago. It’ll also be the first time they’ll meet me tatted and trans, and I’m anxious and kind of a mess.
Planning for this trip has hit the defrost button on so many memories and emotions that have iced over the years. Will returning to Chile finally feel like I’ve found “home,” a place where I belong? Will I still feel the ease, happiness, and acceptance with my grandparents that I did when I was tiny? Even now, as I page through old photos from my birth country in search of ones to recreate on this trip, I feel myself tensing up. As much as I’m over the moon about ringing in this birthday with exciting adventures, I’m also terrified of how I’ll be perceived by my extended family and how their perceptions could colour every moment of the 17-day trip. I started microdosing testosterone (“T”) six months ago, and while the physical changes my body is going through are still slight, they’re definitely noticeable. The smallest furry caterpillar has taken up residence on my upper lip, and a frog permanently lives in my throat. This aside, my designer chest, which some extended relatives have undoubtedly seen on my social media, might attract unwanted conversation

As a nonbinary trans baby and someone who was formerly undocumented, I don’t take for granted having made it this far. 

Yet there is a thought that does bring me comfort amid this flurry of anxiety: knowing that my immediate family will have my back if my dream suddenly takes a turn for the worst. If anyone steps out of line, my Tauran sister will bring upon them the wrath of a thousand suns. If someone looks at me sideways, my Capricorn mami will likely slap them with an “¿y tú, qué miraí?” and keep it moving. And if anyone dares to ask an invasive question that I don’t want to answer or have difficulty explaining, my Aquarian papi will shoot me a quick glance and tenderly redirect the conversation. Don’t get me wrong, all these situations are extremely awkward for me to think about, but it’s a relief to know I have a family of protectors.
It wasn’t always like this, though.
Growing up in an undocumented (and eventually mixed-status) immigrant household for nearly three decades was a funhouse of mirrors; there were corridors of reflections that showed opaque and distorted fragments of us as individuals and as a family. Our legal status defined and dictated how we navigated life and what we prioritised as a household. Often, we kept a low profile to stay safe. So naturally, the mirrors would reflect back only the practical, reasonable, controlled aspects of us and nothing more. We moved through this terrifying carnival trick as a unit, without much color or shine as far as onlookers were concerned. Because of this, for a long while, we were completely insular and came to rely heavily on just each other to make it through the other side. While I’m grateful that living collectively bonded us solidly and sharpened our problem-solving skills to the finest point, the intense sense of responsibility we had to each other often left my sister and me feeling guilty when we acted independently or made personal goals. In our world, life was a team effort. Nearly everything was to be discussed, decided upon, and agreed on as a team and for the team. At the time, it made sense, but somewhere along the line all these tricks we learned to stay safe ended up burrowing deep within us, long after they were no longer needed. 
I felt the full weight of that truth in 2007, when I was accidentally outed as gay at 17 years old. My parents were less than thrilled with my surreptitious desires and not at all supportive of “the path” I was taking. All of us were still undocumented at that time, and the only way for me to open a door with my immigration status was to get into college. There was no room for distractions, no exceptions. It wasn’t personal; this is just how it was. After all, this moment was the reason my parents had sacrificed so much. It couldn’t all be in vain. Being gay was too big a risk. None of us was really even exposed to what queer life was like. On novelas, we saw queer folks as the butt of a joke or an element of sass. And even then, “esas lesbianas marimachas” didn’t get a place in the novelas we watched because they were way too subversive and smutty. 
I couldn’t be gay because I couldn’t call any attention to myself. As someone who was undocumented, visibility wasn’t safe for me or them. Now, looking back with perspective, I understand they were trying to protect me the best they knew how. It wasn’t a useful or healthy method of protection, but I acknowledge they had limited tools to work with. Remembering the times when my mami would ask me why I was actively trying to make life harder for myself, I can now hear the trauma that underlined this question: being undocumented pushed us to make painful concessions that made us smaller so that we could accommodate to our reality. 

As someone who was undocumented, visibility wasn’t safe for me or them.

It’s difficult to think back on these moments, to remember that my parents didn’t accept my queerness or believe it. They thought my disinterest in boys was related to the boys’ disinterest in me. According to my parents, it was all because I had low self-esteem due to my body size, and that my lack of confidence and weight were keeping the swarm of teenage boys from approaching me. This caused a further blow to my self-esteem and the start of a sort of reform boot camp. For months before I started college, we took family trips to the gym and they surveilled my food. We don’t speak much about those times. It’s too painful for me and, possibly, too embarrassing for them. In their ways, they’ve said and made their amends. It wasn’t easy, but with a lot of education, patience, love, and understanding from both sides, we’ve been able to move past that shadow period. In 2016, they both proudly walked me down the aisle when I got gay married and have grown to be wonderful cheerleaders in most aspects of my queerness.
My transness, however, has brought with it its own set of unique challenges and opportunities. In college, I discovered a word that could capture the dissonance I had been feeling within myself since I was around eight years old, when I began understanding the world and I perceived my body differently: dysphoria. At first, this feeling was uncomfortable, but after hitting puberty, it became a veritable nightmare. In high school, I began binding with several super-tight sports bras; in college, I used duct tape. It was also in college that I first began learning about trans identities and gender-affirming surgeries from other trans students. It opened up a map of a world I had been dreaming about but didn’t know I wanted. Throughout my 20s, I began navigating my way around this new world alone, finding welcoming harbours where I felt seen and understood. I felt protective of this journey, like it was a sort of beautiful, rare plant that I needed to nurture before sharing. I didn’t want to tell my parents until I was sure my little trans seedling was in full bloom. 
I was 31 when that time came. It was spring 2020, and I had made the decision to get top surgery and tell my parents. By then, it had been 15 years since I had “dropped the last bomb,” as my mami likes to say, yet part of me felt like it was still too much for them to handle and too soon. Again, I was twisted and warped with the guilt of choosing myself instead of the unit. I was embarrassed and uncomfortable. When the FaceTime tone beeped, I felt like the world was about to swallow me whole. But then I saw my parents’ faces, and the words just bursted out of me. My glorious sister, who is without a doubt my most valiant champion and steadfast companion, helped facilitate the rest of the call as my parents tried to process what they were hearing. I can barely remember the conversation, but I do know, in a beautiful turn of events, my dad, a loyal and trustworthy ally, was completely on board. My mom wasn’t elated, but she didn’t put up a fight. She asked somewhat prying questions and didn’t exactly mask her disappointment, but she wasn’t angry. Thinking back on the conversation, the response wasn’t perfect, but there were some serious wins considering what we’ve been through.  
In keeping with the many changes life has had in store for me, I moved back to my papis’ house in early 2021 to support them through the pandemic, which has been a mixed bag. It’s been a wonderful change to help them financially, something that wasn’t always possible when I was undocumented, but it’s been challenging to have them be so present during this part of my trans process. I still struggle substantially in conversations with my parents around my transness, and generally anything that’s happening or shifting within me. For starters, my Spanish has gotten a little clunky, which was perfectly fine until I had to initiate conversations about gender and sexuality. When I first explained to my parents in 2019 that I identified as nonbinary, it took them for a loop. According to my mom, if I didn’t identify as “a mujer, entonces quieres ser hombre, con barba y todo!” My papi, while initially confused, was quicker to understand the concept of nonbinaryness with a little help from the Trans Student Educational Resources’ Gender Unicorn

I appreciate the notion that language is always in flux, but I can also understand the disconnect when it comes to implementing language with our elders.

Using gender-neutral language and pronouns in Spanish has also been difficult. For my sister’s wedding, we made pronoun stickers for the guests. While confused at first, my parents did well using the pronouns or just calling people by their names. But it didn’t really stick. Recently, mami giggled at the idea of writing “bebitx lindx” or “bebite linde” on a baby shower card. My parents also still don’t use gender-neutral pronouns with me. I don’t push it — it’s one of the few concessions I make regarding my gender around migrant elders. As someone who has grown up in a generation that prioritises inclusivity, I appreciate the notion that language is always in flux, but I can also understand the disconnect when it comes to implementing language with our elders. Some things are just not accessible. As I make my way back to South America, I’m keeping this in mind. 
When I began taking hormones last year, looking for accessible Spanish-language literature around how to support an adult family member who is taking hormones, what changes were to be expected on hormones, and how to process all of that information as a parent felt like finding a needle in a haystack. It didn’t exist. I don’t know if my parents have researched or looked for support on their own. We haven’t spoken about this aspect of my transition since that initial conversation. I haven’t quite known how to broach the subject, but I’m sure my continuing physical changes will break the silence at some point in the near future. While I know I could be more proactive in proposing conversations, right now I’m just giving myself permission to process my journey and grow into myself so that I’ll have more strength and resolve for the conversations ahead, because there will always be more conversations. I take comfort in knowing that there’s no one-size-fits-all manual on how to transition — any way you do it is the right way if it feels right for you.
Honestly, I have absolutely no clue what I’m in for once I arrive in Chile. Uncertainty and I have yet to become friends, but we are very well acquainted. I’ve learned to make peace with not knowing. Variability, awkwardness, and ache are just a few of the many rolling waves that come from exploring the great and vast oceans of identity. These waves have put my body through a lot, and not all of it has been wonderful. But sometimes there’s bliss, and that’s enough for now. While some pivotal parts of my past were spent in a twisted carnival, I trust that my family will have my back as we move forward. I think that was the missing piece before. 
As I finish packing for this new adventure, it only seems fitting that “Tren Al Sur” by Chilean rock band Los Prisioneros comes on to remind me que aún hay muchas alegrías por venir. “Porque me llevan a las tierras / Donde al fin podré de nuevo / Respirar adentro y hondo / Alegrías del corazón.” This is my birthday wish, for me and for my fellow trans migrants returning to their birthplace in search of the homes they had to leave: to know we are already home because our bodies never left us. Our bodies have held us tenderly through all our seasons and have been waiting for us to come back to ourselves, whole and full of joy. 

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