I'd work at Proyecto during the day, then in the afternoon I'd run to the hair salon and cut hair and at night I'd work the streets. There was a lot of money for programs at that time. I then worked in Finnochio's for eight years. Finnochios was a cabaret on Broadway. I worked there as a female impersonator. At the time I weighted 365 pounds. Then the place closed: The lady owner died and the grandson sold it. After Finnochio's closed I left for Los Angeles looking for my partner. It took me three months but I found him.

I came back to San Francisco to a hotel in Polk and Eddy. I can't remember the name; it's no longer there. I lived there for a year, a year and a half before I was kidnapped, raped, and thrown into the freeway. That's the downside of sex work: You never really know. I underwent the greatest trauma of my life. After I was released from the hospital I went to live on Ninth and Mission and in 2003 decided to go back to school, so I enrolled at City College. I learned how to write because I didn't know how to write and my reading wasn't good either. I finished my degree at City College in fashion design. I have my diploma somewhere.

I'm staying in San Francisco because it is helping transgenders a lot with surgery. But frankly I'm scared of going into the streets. Because the man who kidnapped and raped me is out in the streets. He's not locked up. If it wasn't for my dog I wouldn't go out. Now I am doing a show for a theater called Garage. I'm also sewing, cutting hair — but if I get a call to work in construction, I do it! Or plumbing.


Marlen Hernandez
Nuevitas, Cuba
Year of arrival: 1985

I was born in Nuevitas, Camaguey. Nuevitas is a seaport, very pretty. Let's say like Veracruz or Acapulco. When I was 6 I was taken to La Habana and grew up there. Before coming here, I was locked up in jail. For homosexuality. Because I was cruising the streets in full makeup. At that time, in the '70s in Cuba it wasn't permitted; now it is. When Castro opened the Mariel Bridge, I didn't want to come because I didn't want to leave my family, but my mother went to see me in jail and told me to come to the U.S because I had no future in Cuba. At least here I could have something.

I came to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Six months I was in New York. Terrible weather, I didn't like it. I left for Chicago and lived three years there. From Chicago I arrived in Los Angeles and stayed for six months. Then I came to this fabulous city! I am not sure exactly what year I arrived in San Francisco but I believe it was 1985 or 1986 and I was already a woman. I left Cuba very feminine and in the United States I quickly transitioned to a woman.

My life has been a deal of successes and failures. When I got here I didn't have any type of help. So I started selling drugs, I was prostituting, I began performing. I'd steal from the stores and would sell the girls clothes for their performance. Always to try and survive would I do these things. When I got here, I really didn't know anyone, but there were several Cubans around and I began entering the scene, performing at an American club. A club in the Tenderloin. I don't remember its name. It is gone now. There I met a person from the Latino community who is dead, a person who was very famous: La Roni Salazar. La Roni saw my talent and said, "You should not be here, niña! I'm going to take you to Esta Noche." I didn't know the place back then. It is a Latino place. She took me there while there was a talent contest going on. I entered it and won.

From that point on, I began working at La India Bonita. There I met Adela and all the other girls from that time. Many who are already dead. After working at La India Bonita I began performing at Limón Verde. All the time performing, performing — and I'm still doing it! I've always had a certain drive for the show! It has always been in me. In Cuba I'd see all the women around my house and would stand in front of the mirror and mimic the songs from the radio with their mannerisms. It was always on my mind. I always liked it but here I was able to develop it.

When I worked at Limón Verde I had my own group of Cuban girls and non-Cuban girls. Then I went to work at Esta Noche and in Esta Noche I had three days that were mine, performing with Mexican girls.

I worked with las Cubanas at La India Bonita for a long time. From there I got my own show where I'd perform as Pantoja, Rocío Durcal, Rocío Jurado. I don't have pictures from back then. I don't have anything from that time, not even the memory.

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These stories are inspirational and touching. Natural born citizens take so much for granted. The struggle to be more than the sum of your bits and pieces is one that every person can identify with. I hope to read more articles like this one in SF Weekly!

Faithful reader,

John Gunderson

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