Karla Wong is painting in her kitchen. She’s adding texture to the purplish blue background behind a portrait of a woman wearing a yellow victorian-style dress.
The woman seems to be floating, and Chicago’s signature skyscraper — the Willis Tower, which many still refer to as the Sears Tower — can be seen in the distance.
The walls of Wong’s tiny west suburban Addison apartment are draped with her colorful paintings. Each canvas tells a story.
“This one is called transgender,” Wong said. “I’m going to add a justice scale that represents that justice has finally arrived for us.”
Wong said she started painting this piece when she found out she would be getting a new birth certificate and passport reaffirming her gender identity. The 47-year-old painter is a transgender woman.
Many transgender Americans have limited access to legal forms of identification that affirm their gender. It’s even harder for immigrants, such as Wong. And not having a valid ID can limit access to school, work and housing. That’s why the Mexican transgender community is celebrating a recent move by the Mexican consulate in Chicago to start issuing birth certificates and passports for transgender nationals living in Illinois and northern Indiana.
“This is a big step in the Mexican consular network,” said Reyna Torres Mendivil, Consul General of Mexico in Chicago. “Now we’re able to do that in the 50 consulates in the United States and in the rest of the world.”
The consulate in Chicago has issued 11 new birth certificates so far to transgender Mexicans living in the area.
This recent change in policy is important, said Bamby Salcedo, president of the TransLatin@ Coalition, a Los Angeles-based advocacy organization.
“The fact that the Mexican government is now validating our existence even though we have fled our country is definitely a big deal to our community. But it’s also a sign of progress,” Salcedo said.
Salcedo said her organization surveyed dozens of Latinx transgender people across the country. In the report titled, “TransVisible,” of the 101 participants surveyed, almost half of the respondents said they found it “very difficult” accessing documents reflecting their gender identity.
“We live at all these intersections,” Salcedo explained. “We are immigrants. We are monolingual Spanish speakers. We are trans. We are survivors of multiple acts of violence.”
Salcedo said contributing factors for that violence is discrimination in the workplace. She cited a 2018 workplace assessment report where 45% of trans workers reported they had been harassed by a co-worker or supervisor.
Yamileth Vazquez said she was harassed by co-workers who didn’t let her use the women’s bathroom inside the factory where she worked.
“The other workers waited for me outside the women’s bathroom and asked me why I was using the restroom,” she said in Spanish. “I told them I’m a trans woman. How do you expect me to use the men’s bathroom?”
Vazquez said she was glad her employer told the women to stop the harassment. Vazquez said other co-workers misgender her regularly.
“I feel a lot safer with an ID with the right gender,” she said. “You shouldn’t be discriminated against simply because your documents say one thing but in reality there’s another person standing in front of you.”
On a recent Tuesday morning, Vazquez joined nearly a dozen trans women gathered on the second floor of the Mexican Consulate in Chicago to get their new legal documents. Some celebrated by taking photos and videos and waving tiny Mexican flags.
“We are so pleased to welcome all of you,” said Torres Mendivil during a press conference.
“This is your home,” she told the trans women picking up their new documents. “This is a safe space. This consulate is a piece of Mexico here.”
Wong attended the press conference and was asked to give a speech.
“This is a victory for all of us,” Wong said.
And it came just in time. Wong’s art is becoming popular. She’s got exhibits coming up in San Bernardino, Calif. and one of her paintings was featured on cans of Chicago-based Dark Matter Coffee. Her art is intricate and delicate and features trans women. Each canvas illustrates a story from her life.
She fell in love with art after graduating from law school in Oaxaca. She was the only trans woman to work as a composite artist for the attorney general there. By the time she came to Chicago, she was experimenting with colors.
Her art is guided by the artistry of her native Oaxaca and influenced by her family, including her grandfather who migrated to the Mexican state from China. Wong wanted to keep her last name when she updated her documentation.
“I feel so proud of who I am,” Wong said to the trans women. “When I’ve been asked: what gender would you choose, if you could be born again? I’ve always said: ‘I want to be trans.’”