Even in the seemingly progressive paradise that is San Francisco, it’s not easy being a transgender woman of color — let alone an immigrant, too. They’re often victims of violence, they’re regularly left out of funding, and they encounter transphobia and prejudice across social services. But in an old brick building in the Mission, up three flights of stairs and behind a white door, is a refuge: El/La Para TransLatinas. For nearly 15 years, the organization has created a space and advocated for trans Latinx people — and with the recent sale of their building to a local nonprofit, they can continue to do so for decades to come.
Interim Executive Director Maritza Penagos has held her breath over the past few months as negotiations over the Redstone Building’s sale took place. Coworking conglomerate WeWork was rumored to have made a $21 million offer for the large, 105-year-old edifice on 16th Street, which is home to many longstanding nonprofits, from Wonder Dog Rescue to Mojo Theatre. For months tenants held meetings and rallied the press as the owner negotiated with the nonprofit Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA) to find a price they could both work with. Last week, they reached a deal.
The sale to a nonprofit known for caring for its tenants is a big win for El/La, which serves one of the most vulnerable populations in the city. Its drop-in hours draw hundreds of people: In a four-month period, 287 people passed through their space. Of those, 75 percent identify as transgender, 99 percent are Latinx immigrants, and 20 percent identify as queer.
“We have people who are here every single night we’re open,” Penagos says. “This is home. We have women who literally get released from detention, some organization gives them money to get to San Francisco, and we’re all they have. We’re doing everything from teaching people how to ride BART, to getting them to a political asylee lawyer, helping them go through the gender-affirmation process, getting them signed up for Healthy San Francisco, getting their ID changed.”
Many of the people connecting with El/La aren’t able to find trans-competent care elsewhere — even in San Francisco. Shelters and navigation centers can be dangerous for someone who doesn’t adhere to a traditional gender identity. Despite attempts at bilingual services, many city services fall short when a monolingual Spanish speaker shows up. And locating providers who understand the intricacies of being transgender — or even the right terminology — can be a challenge. Within El/La’s purple walls, people find the support necessary to thrive.
“We’re always looking at how we build resilience,” Penagos says. “We build it by creating a safe space. If people come here and feel safe, and we can get them access to some basic services, they’re going to blossom. We see that over and over and over again.”
“San Francisco is my city, is my home — all of San Francisco, literally. My living room is El/La, my closet is my car, my yard is Golden Gate Park, my bathroom is the beach,” one Colombian woman — who wished to remain anonymous — told SF Weekly at a gathering about trans-friendly housing last month. “I have to move through all the city all the time, because I do not only have one roof over my head.”
But from 5 to 9 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, she has somewhere she can kick off her shoes, eat a meal, and chat with people who face similar struggles. And the longer El/La is around, the more people it helps get on their feet. Of its eight staff, five are former participants of the program, creating a strong, peer-based style of mentorship.
“I’ve worked in so many nonprofits in the city over the years, and this has been the best job,” Penagos says. “The staff have such high potential, and are so mission driven. It’s a dream come true.”
Nevertheless, Penagos’ remaining time at the organization is limited. After coming on as interim executive director in 2017, she will leave her role in June. Much of her job over the past year has been to get El/La into a secure financial place, to better support a future trans Latina “who’s going to be an emerging leader and may or may not have had the typical opportunities that most executive directors have had,” she says. Interviews for potential leaders have been underway, and an announcement on who will step into the role should be released in the coming weeks.
It’s not going to be an easy path forward. El/La continues to be underfunded, despite its position in addressing some of the biggest health and safety discrepancies in San Francisco. Transgender women of color face higher infection rates for HIV, lower treatment rates, and a higher mortality rate — yet El/La only receives $122,000 per year for HIV prevention and treatment, $28,000 of which is earmarked for PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis.
“If you were to look at the funding in relation to prevalence and incidents, it is so subpar,” Penagos says. “That’s been one of the most frustrating things. We can’t get access to what the San Francisco AIDS Foundation is able to give to their clients. It oftentimes means our clients have to go somewhere else to get something, versus us being able to offer it.”
That struggle will continue, but the fight to stay in their location on 16th Street is over.
“I know that our participants have really been concerned about having to leave here. There is really an emotional connection to this place, that goes beyond it just being a building,” Penagos says. But the organization is similar to the people who walk through its doors: Now that it’s got a secure place to live, it can start looking ahead.
“We’re 13 years old,” she adds. “We’re looking at our quinceañera. We’re really growing up.”