Cerenha La’Croa’n, a six-foot-five, 250-pound nurse with tulip lips, a white jacket and blonde ponytail, saunters through a gritty stretch of Buenos Aires on her way to the hospital. Through thick square sunglasses she beams at friends on nearly every block. A policeman waves. A coiffed older woman stops to thank her for a free haircut and color job. A male nurse halts her for a hug.
“I attract everyone, everyone wants to be a part of the light,” La’Croa’n boasts in Spanish, then pulls out ice packs from a plastic bag on her shoulder, handing them to a wily car windshield washer whose eye is red and swollen from a fight.
“Gracias, gracias!” The hooded hustler sheepishly grabs the gift from La’Croa’n amidst honking cars.
So when a pack of men bark cruel names and gawk at her on the next block, La’Croa’n just laughs it off.
“I’m the woman they’re never going to have,” she says, then switches to English and quotes a Josie and the Pussycats song. “I don’t want to be your girlfriend…boy, you’ve never met a girl like me.”
It is hard to imagine a girl like La’Croa’n, a thirty-two-year-old transgender nurse who started working on sugar fields as a small boy in Northern Argentina.
La’Croa’n often gets approached in her nurse outfit by men who assume she’s a prostitute. According to a government study, more than ninety-five percent of transgender people in Argentina work in the sex industry.
“It’s hard to find other jobs. Things are changing but we have to work hard to eliminate discrimination here,” says Marcela Romero, president of the Association for Transgender, Transsexuals and Transvestites in Argentina.
La’Croa’n ignores the men’s propositions and remembers her degree from the city’s top Catholic nursing institute, Profesorado Padre Luis de Tessa. She wore a neon yellow and black dress with hip-high slits to get her diploma from the nuns.
“This is what I am. If you like it, great, if not, that’s O.K.,” says La’Croa’n, who has used no hormones or surgery to change genders but considers herself 100 percent female. “I know what I am.”
* * *
Gustavo Alarcon started working on a sugar farm at age six. By then he already fantasized about other boys and snuck into his mother’s room to prance around in her high heels. But for the next ten years, he never knew being “gay” existed. Gustavo’s machista father beat him regularly because of his femininity. His mother forbade him from spending the night at friends’ houses. Young Gustavo assumed he had a psychological illness — until a gay social worker showed up in his town.
Gustavo, then sixteen and working at the town government’s office, served the social worker coffee, and as soon as they locked eyes he felt a spark. Two days later the social worker, from a larger town nearby, explained to him that homosexuality was both normal and prevalent.
“I jumped out of my cocoon and became a butterfly. I started living to the max,” La’Croa’n says, recalling the genesis of her transformation.
“It was an instant change — my smile, my whole way of being. I realized I wasn’t alone,” she reflects. “He took me out with him and his friends in his town that weekend, and it was complete liberty.”
Gustavo soon moved alone to Buenos Aires, with little money but bullet-like resolve to join the cosmopolitan center. The high school graduate cleaned houses and sold candy, books and wallets made of chip bags on the street.
Then one day a friend gave him a purse, and the accessory captivated him. He added more and more female elements to his persona over several months, until about six years ago Gustavo became Cerenha, named for the character Serena in the Argentinian soap opera “Don Juan and his Fair Lady.” She chose La’Croa’n by rearranging the letters of the last name she was born with to create her new one.
The newly-named La’Croa’n felt bold and empowered to follow her gender inclination, even though she realized it could be an obstacle to finding work.
“A restaurant, like here, won’t hire you if you’re trans,” she says, standing in the casual corner bar she frequents in Buenos Aires’s Almagro neighborhood. “Some [transgender] people think it’s easier to go park yourself on the street than to find a job.”
But La’Croa’n remained determined to build a career — and her minority status in certain ways worked in her favor.
“Everyone wanted to help me,” she recalls, “because they thought it was beautiful I wanted to be something other than a prostitute.”
* * *
La’Croa’n swings open the doors at J. M. Ramos Hospital and staff members greet her with a flurry of cheek-kisses. She heads to the patients, whose legs are suspended in braces in the orthopedic and trauma unit. One man who can barely speak grabs her manicured right hand and she strokes his head with her left.
“Time to get your hair done again?” she asks, leaning over his bed.
Then she nods discreetly at a grimacing patient down the row of beds. Thick straps hold still his swollen legs.
“That’s exactly what I had,” she says.
La’Croa’n first entered J. M. Ramos on a stretcher — unconscious, with two fractured legs after a car hit her while crossing the street in 2008. She was placed in the men’s unit, but about a week later staff moved her to the female wing.
“We realized she may be physically a man, but she’s a woman. We saw it was shocking for her to be in there with the men,” says a nurse, Federico Zhoy. “Since I’m gay I feel gender identity is a very important theme.”
Through the next ninety-four days, two leg surgeries, Christmas and New Year’s Eve, La’Croa’n stayed alone in the hospital with her own personal “bubble of strength.”
“She was a complete diva, with a lot of positive energy,” Zhoy recalls. But when La’Croa’n asked for his contact information upon leaving the hospital, he declined because she was a patient. “We have to separate ourselves when we’re not working, from our patients’ pain and problems.”
A couple of years later La’Croa’n returned — this time with a nursing degree.
“I was shocked. She was beautiful, with a long skirt and so tall — we don’t realize how tall patients are when they’re lying in beds,” laughs Zhoy, now one of La’Croa’n’s best friends.
La’Croa’n is a volunteer at J. M. Ramos — as she has been for a few years since receiving her degree — and comes here after her daily paid job caring for a ninety-three-year-old man with Alzheimer’s. She bathes patients, fixes their hair (one of her myriad jobs before nursing was working as a beautician), feeds them and helps in any way possible.
She’s been waiting for a job here for the past year.
“If she would just start out as a man like me, and then switch [genders] after she got the job it would be easier,” Zhoy says. “It’s hard, there’s still discrimination.”
Hospital management have only told La’Croa’n there are no vacancies. Argentine law prohibits discrimination against transgender people; the country is also known for its liberal gender laws, with recent groundbreaking legislation allowing transgender people to marry and to change their genders on their birth certificates without medical or legal paperwork. But Zhoy and other colleagues say society is slower to adjust than the legislation.
When I talk to the J. M. Ramos supervisor she claims a number of jobs have just opened up, and predicts that La’Croa’n will soon get hired.
“I’d be very proud, because she’d be our first transgender nurse,” says the supervisor, Alicia Noemi Marchiorre. “She has a great sense of etiquette, and aesthetics. She’s intelligent, cordial and pretty.”
* * *
La’Croa’n is the only transgender woman among her group of friends, but for special occasions, many of her gay male compatriots dress in drag. That means she’s the leader of the pack when they go all out, like when she threw a recent party for Carnival in a red sequin tube top and short black skirt.
“I’m the prettiest one,” La’Croa’n jokes with Zhoy, who nods his head in agreement.
La’Croa’n may gloat with the attention, but she still dreams of anonymity, if just for a moment in a crowd. When we first meet, she tells me she found peace on a recent trip to Miami.
“It’s nothing like here. There you’re just another grain of sand,” she says. “I love it.
But later she confesses that was just a dream — she’s never been to Miami or anywhere in the U.S.
“I’ve always wanted to go there, ever since I saw ‘The Birdcage,'” she says, referring to the movie in which Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play a gay couple in Miami Beach. “I always imagine that there you can do anything, and nobody cares.”
While she may sometimes dream of a new life in a faraway place, ultimately La’Croa’n embraces her standout presence. The people she grew up with in her tiny rural hometown of Tacuarendi have embraced her each time she returns — evolving in appearance, but with the same ebullient spirit. After La’Croa’n’s accident, her parents, shaken with the near loss of their child, also became more affectionate.
This October, the natural performer will return to partake in Tacuarendi’s ritual festival, as she did as a teen boy. The cheers, drumbeats and sparkles are already in her mind’s eye.
“This is the first time I’ll be dancing as a woman,” she says with a smile.
* * *
Meredith Hoffman is a freelance journalist whohas written for the New York Times, Slate, Tablet Magazine and World Policy Journal, and previously worked as a reporter for DNAinfoNew York. Follow her on Twitter at @merhoffman.
Sofia Ungar is a freelance photographer and a visual artist based in Buenos Aires. She travels extensively throughout Asia and South America. She is now filming her first movie.