“I didn’t want and to live under constant threat of arrest,” says María Belén Correa. “I wanted a future. And that is why I began to organise.”
Correa was born in Olivera, Argentina, in 1973. By the late 80s, she was living in Buenos Aires. “At that time there were just scattered groups of trans girls selling sex. Through the 90s, people were migrating from the interior to capital. Also from the neighbouring countries: Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil. The red light area grew up around the transitory hotels where people stayed.”
It was a time when police brutality against trans people was endemic. Argentina’s military dictatorship had fallen in 1983, but police tactics lived on and the trans community were targets, subject to extortion, raids, indefinite detention and torture. Many trans people simply disappeared. Wearing clothes which “did not match your gender” was illegal and Correa was arrested multiple times. “You couldn’t even go to a restaurant without risking arrest,” she says.
In 1993, Correa co-founded the Asociación Travestis Transexuales Transgéneros Argentinas (ATTTA) and began speaking publicly about the persecution. Meanwhile, police violence continued. In 2000, Correa’s friend, Vanessa Lorena Ledesma, another high-profile trans activist, died after five days in police custody. Her body, when it was returned, showed signs of torture.
Correa began to receive death threats. She was arrested again and again, forced to leave her job and prevented by the police from travelling. “For all the allegations I made public on TV and the fear that something would happen to my family, I decided to escape to the United States in 2001 and in 2004 they granted me political asylum,” she says.
In New York, Correa met trans women from around the world whose stories, she says, were even harsher than her own. “It felt like a genocide of the trans population,” she says. Co-founding RedLacTrans, The Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People, “was essential to unite the experiences of other exiles.” For sex workers, who were (and still are) criminalised, Correa saw the stark division between those for whom arrest meant deportation and those with passports and legal documents.
In 2012, the death of Correa’s friend, Claudia Pia Baudracco, ignited what would become a ground-breaking project. “Creating an archive was a dream we’d shared,” Correa says. “She was a lifelong friend and when she died I inherited her ashes and a box with everything we’d gathered.”
In the collection were photographs, newspaper clippings, letters and postcards belonging to trans women who’d fled Argentina. The Archivo de la Memoria Trans was born, documenting Argentina’s trans population from the 70s, 80s and 90s. What began as a private Facebook group has grown to an archive containing more than 8000 pieces.
The images are compelling. A group of women pose on a night out, high heels, big smiles; a weathered black and white image is Janet Degraz, disappeared during the dictatorship; the caption next to a couple dressed for a carnival reads, “We waited all year for the six days of Corsican in which we could go out and be free… People applauded us: they shouted beautiful things and took pictures with us. We were like the stars of the party.”
A black and white 1980s image shows women carrying the coffin of sex worker La Patrullero, so-called because of her sharp eyes and ability to spot the police from a distance. “She’d call out ‘La Patrullero!’, slang for patrol car,” Correa says. “Everyone would run. It became her nickname.” La Patrullero was eventually run over and killed by a police car on the Pan-American Highway. “Era la diversión de la policía corrernos y vernos morir en la ruta.” [“It was the fun of the police to run and see us die on the road,”] reads the caption.
Today, Correa lives in Hanover, running the archive and working with Cosmopolitrans, helping sex workers who travel through Germany. “I value each meeting and moment,” she says. “Our struggles in Latin America and Europe are connected.”