September 30, 2020 at 9:00 am EDT | by Wilfred W. Labiosa
A letter to Soraya Santiago (1947-2020)
Soraya Santiago was a groundbreaking transgender rights activist in Puerto Rico. She passed away on Sept. 22, 2020, at the age of 73. (Photo courtesy of Wilfred W. Labiosa)

Dear Soraya,

You impacted the lives of so many. Your comments were always honest and from the heart. I remember the first time that I was given the opportunity to meet you. It was just before you ran for public office. You were the first member of the LGBT+ community and first transgender woman in the PNP (pro-statehood) party, ever to run in an election (for City Council in Carolina.) I was so nervous, meeting an iconic figure of our LGBT+ Puerto Rican community. You were the first to transition in the 70s; you were the first to legally change your documents including your passport and Social Security card; you married and divorced legally and had a business for more than 35 years. I was meeting “The Soraya.” You were so pleasant, easy to talk to and told me so many stories. I left there re-energized to continue my work in New England with the Latinx LGBT+ community.

I saw you again in 2014 when you were in New York City promoting the documentary “Mala Mala.” You were shinning and talking about your experiences. You were also selling your book. Once again, you were the first to write about gender dysphoria and educating about the meaning of the term and community. Your book brought to our attention the struggles you faced, the love and support you received from your mother and family and the many hours in the court system you had to endure to complete your processes. This book is a jewel, and soon it will be translated into English so that many others can learn about your incredible life.

Fast-forward to early 2017. We spoke about the organization that I was developing in Puerto Rico. I asked you to be part of our founding board of directors and to my surprise you accepted. I was so happy to have you in our Waves Ahead and SAGE family. You were an integral part of our formation and in the development of programs for our LGBT+ elders in Puerto Rico. In the meetings, you spoke eloquently about the issues, and taught us about activism and Puerto Rican politics. You represented us during the Stonewall 50 celebrations in New York City in June 2019.

I thank you for speaking at our events, and at the ribbon-cutting ceremony of the first community center in Puerto Rico focused on LGBT+ older adults. You came to the center often; you shared your stories with so many; you laughed with us, and provided words of wisdom to console us during the pain our community suffers.

Soraya, my apologies on behalf of the LGBT+ community that didn’t acknowledge you as a heroine of our community, as the leader you were and as an integral part of the movement. My heart hurts from the lack of love provided by members of our community when you needed it most. I suffered when I asked for help, in order to provide you the care you needed, and they turned their backs. I hope that you accept their apologies, better late than never! Your 73 years need to be memorialized and respected. You were a pioneer in so many aspects, the LGBT+ community needs to learn to respect you as our elder. I know you are sending them your bendiciones!

I wanted you to know that SAGE Puerto Rico and Waves Ahead will honor you by naming our shelter in your honor. It will be called Soraya’s Shelter. We will provide transitional beds to individuals kicked out of their homes for being LGBT+, no matter their age because in Puerto Rico this occurs even with elders, and those who simply need a roof over their heads. We will raise the funds to establish it sometime soon. You will continue to provide a shelter to so many, just as you did in your salon and home. We will continue your labor of love.

Finally, I want to thank you personally for the advice, love and camaraderie that you provided throughout the years. We had our arguments, I know. I didn’t return few calls, I know. But we always shared the vision to help our LGBT+ brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico. I owe you a trip to Cuba, I know; but soon, I will take your book, and share your memories with them in Cuba. Every time we traveled together, you brought a message of possibility and love. I will continue to share that message, and I know that everyone you have impacted will continue to share your stories. Your legacy will live among us! I will miss you! Thanks, Soraya for everything, you will be our Santa Soraya! May you rest in power!  

For more information on Soraya’s book and Waves Ahead/Sage Puerto Rico, 

Wilfred W. Labiosa, PhD, is the executive director of Waves Ahead and SAGE Puerto Rico.

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