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What it Takes to Serve San Francisco’s Trans Latinas

A Q&A with Maritza Penagos, the Interim Executive Director of San Francisco Mission District’s nonprofit El/La Para Trans Latinas. El/La serves 300 to 325 participants a year, with a core group of 30 who use their services weekly. El/La also hires trans Latina women. Six of eight of their staff members are trans Latina and former participants of the program.

They are an organization that supports transgender women of color – one of the most vulnerable populations in the City of San Francisco. They provide a wide range of services including meals, an evening drop-in space at their building — conveniently located one block from 16th street BART – workshops, peer social networking, retreats, case management, referrals, HIV Prevention and PrEP navigation, leadership development opportunities, and advocacy on transgender issues including immigration and violence. We ask what it takes to serve San Francisco’s Trans Latinas.

San Francisco is a city of contradictions and El/La Para Trans Latinas is at the intersection of many of them. On one hand, San Francisco is a sanctuary city where immigrants are told they are welcomed What it Takes to Serve San Francisco’s Trans Latinasand are ensured safeguards. San Francisco is also a beacon for the LGBTQ community around the world. On the other hand, it is one of the most expensive cities to live in the nation.

El/La Para Trans Latinas is a nonprofit that advocates for the interests of transgender Latinas by providing resources and tools for personal development in a safe space. Not only do El/La’s participants face the giant wave of gentrification head on, but El/La itself is facing the possibility of being displaced from its Mission District office.

Maritza Penagos reflects on this contradiction and on her time as interim executive director of El/La in an interview with Community Initiatives during her last week as acting director.

“I’ve worked in nonprofits for a really long time and have learned a lot in terms of resilience. This position [as interim Executive Director of El/La] has given me a new perspective on how to coach people when they are burned out and my staff has a lot of those tools,” Penagos says. “The burnout comes from retraumatization. Being personally exposed to a lot of trauma and then working with community members going through similar trauma.”

The issue focus for El/La has changed over time from a strong focus on HIV prevention to more broad issues facing the trans community. What are the issues trans Latinas are facing now?

What has changed is that San Francisco and the world at large are seeing that trans people are more than a vector of HIV, in the past that’s why funding had come in to serve trans people. There has been a real shift of understanding that trans people are complex with a complex set of issues.

We have a lot of boots on the ground kind of work now. We have high-touch case managers who will go with people to their appointments. Sometimes staying with participants for four, six hours to hold their hands or help them navigate the system.

San Francisco is an interesting mix of having programs like El/La and a plethora of immigration services compared to most of America, yet being an incredibly expensive place to live. So that’s a whole other kind of survival that participants have to keep up with. All of us are exposed to the hustle brought on by powerful gentrification.

In this political climate, our participants sit at the apex of everything. They are Latinas, immigrants and trans. There’s a high level of fear and uncertainty in the community. Even though, as an agency, we are the most stable we have ever been; there is an existential threat that we will be displaced.

How do you help someone navigate being at the apex of these political and social issues? 
Some of the ways we build resilience or a buffer is to offer a lot of peer support by saying “I have been through this, let me tell you what works for me.” We match our community with services and networks but we do it with direct, warm hand offs – we don’t just give them an address or a phone number, we sit with people for two, five hours while they wait for their appointments or meetings.

We try to think a lot about workforce development opportunities. Working at El/La is a really coveted job in the community since not many places are safe for trans Latinas to work. However, we have a small staffing budget.

This year we worked with Mission Economic Development Agency. They have a workforce development training so we worked with them to bring on-site training for our participants that was adapted for trans folks in the workplace. All of our participants that went through it graduated. We really saw an increase in value, in their own self esteem and confidence. A lot of them have been placed in full-time work. There has been some tangible economic justice that we’re trying to achieve.

Where do you see trans neighbors and friends needing more support?
Neighbors is a great word because people have to be willing to have trans folks as their neighbors. Housing is the biggest issue, probably the biggest issue for everyone in the Bay Area, but it is so much more magnified for trans people. There are shelters that are not trans safe. They have to choose to be in shelters that are not trans safe.

We need a different housing policy that allows trans people to be housed. The wind is blowing in this direction. The City of San Francisco has an Office of Transgender Initiatives, and is the first city to have established an office like this. They have taken on trans housing advocacy.

When you’re thinking of equity, you have to think of people with the least amount of equity.

Why is San Francisco’s Mission District an important geographical space for El/La?
We’ve been here for 25 years — we are the heart and soul of the Mission District and we are the Mission in so many ways. We were initially funded for place as an anchor in the district.

Our participants are always asking what is going to happen. The uncertainty takes its toll and the opportunity cost is high. Instead of worrying about placement, we could be more focused on our mission.

What’s been the most rewarding part of your time at El/La?
The staff. They are highly expert in their roles, which brings a real alignment of values, a real trust with each other, a real team. They go above and beyond to get important work done in this community. Is there anything you want people to know?
Without generalizing, the [trans people of color] community is incredibly resilient. We all miss out when they’re not provided with the opportunities they deserve: opportunities to authentically be themselves in a safe environment, having access to the basic hierarchy of needs, and the opportunity to thrive to reveal to us the full potential of humanity.

About El/La Para Trans Latinas

El/La Para Trans Latinas is a non-profit that advocates for the interests of transgender Latinas by providing resources and tools for personal development in a safe space. They started as a program of Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida (PCPV) in 1993 and were the first Trans Latina HIV prevention program in Northern California. In 2006, after PCPV lost its funding, El/La became a fiscally sponsored project with Community Initiatives. They serve San Francisco’s Trans Latinas population and beyond.

Learn more about El/La Para Trans Latinas