Recently published autobiography ‘Malva, mi recorrido’ could be a take on Argentina’s recent history through a transvestite lens, giving the word to a community segregated for many years.
According to statistics from transvestites’ organisations, this community has an average life of 35 years, giving Malva, a 90-year-old transvestite, the opportunity – if not the need – to recall a collective memory that has nearly vanished.
Malva would not be your typical history teacher, but her life story as a transvestite in the 40s and 50s in Argentina is certainly an eye opener on Argentina’s complex history. When I came across Malva’s story through a Centro Cultural Rojas (CCR) programme and saw that she was signing her autobiography, I immediately contacted her for an interview.
You have just published your autobiography, how did this project come about?
I am proud to say this is my book; this is my story, my life story. I could not get my book published for a year and finally Centro Cultural Rojas opened its doors to me, their communication project Technology Gender coordinated by Paula Viturro was interested in publishing my book. They are great people and I am very thankful for their collaboration. The book was published on 27th April and we had a presentation to the public on 15th May. It was wonderful. I have been writing my journals for some time, but this book took me a lot of time and thought, recollecting all the bits and pieces of my memory to make it what it is and what I wanted it to be.
So what is it about, what did you want it to be?
Well, it is the story of my life in Argentina, specifically from 1943 to 1955. This not a political history book, it is simply the memories of my path. But living under Perón has had an influence on my living conditions so I reflect on that. The book starts with my up-bringing in Chile and how I eventually decided to cross the Andes and come to Buenos Aires. I could say there are two parts in the book; firstly from 1943 to 1947 when I left home, my first experiences and my settling-in in Buenos Aires. In the second part I talk about the period that starts and finishes with the presidency of General Juan Domingo Perón; from 1947 to 1955.
In what way was Perón a turning point in your life?
Perón was elected democratically but the system and society he forged was one that segregated us and many others completely. Of course he did some good things. But for people like me, no, his policies gave a disastrous turn to my living conditions. He did a lot of very good reforms for the workers, very important and good reforms, because there was no social security whatsoever before him. So people liked him because of that. But he was a fascist, completely homophobic and against any kind of behaviour deemed excessive. He installed a system that prohibited a lot of things and excluded a lot of people, he censored speech and thought, and you couldn’t say anything against Perón or his wife Eva. He had a police like the Gestapo to control everything that would be against the system. There was the Alianza National Libertadora, adulators of Mussolini and Hitler, completely anti-Semitic. He did well because he was re-elected democratically and because of a few reforms he did people loved him (pension fund, social benefits, work benefits, paid holidays, and education). But gradually people got tired, well, at least the military. It was ten years of authoritarianism, violent abuses and restriction of speech and thought, slowly shifting his personal cult into something pathological.
What was your living conditions in Buenos Aires during those times?
I did many things, from waiter, to chef, to couturier. Buenos Aires was an exciting city to live in where interesting people lived. I heard Gardel, Troilo and Pugliese live; I would go to the cabarets, cafes and other nightlife places. The city was very different from today. But it was also very difficult and restrictive, in 1947 almost every night there were arrests of transvestites and homosexuals, we would not spend more than 30 days without a judicial cause. [Malva’s several arrests and imprisonments in the Villa Devoto Prison are described in the book]. We were prisoners because we liked men, because we were “disrupting the public order”. At one point we reunited in ‘Maricas Unidas Argentinas’ as a social and political organisation but our group was quickly dismantled. Most of us lived in slums or in terrible conditions. We were subjected to constant judgement, treated brutally and humiliated for the sake of not fitting in the system. I just want homosexuals from today; and the society in general to know about the way we lived and were treated.
With the change of governments did your living conditions change?
It was the same situation, worse actually during the dictatorship. We had a community but it was very disparate, we had to hide. All the censorship, control and exclusion continued and worsened but it wasn’t just us anymore, it was generalised. There was no human rights organisations to defend anyone. The only one who wasn’t homophobic was Agustín Lanusse but other than him it was constant reprisal and repression. [Malva’s travels to Brazil and other South American countries are described in the book]. In the 60s and 70s our lifestyle became more widespread and a transvestite artistic movement started to develop with a lot of carnivals taking place. Then Perón was re-elected for a third time, after which I left to Brazil. Following the summer carnivals I came back to Buenos Aires; where my heart stands.
Since the restoration of democracy how did your situation improve?
Today we have the first government in our history that actually gives us a place in society. Any gay person can freely get married! That’s a huge step. Transvestites can dress up freely, protest, organise reunions, we are accepted and tolerated in today’s society thanks to the current government. Of course as any government there are problems in the system and negative aspects to its policies, but for us as a community the situation has gotten much better. Under Alfonsín as well our living conditions got better but it didn’t last.
In comparison to other South American countries, how does Argentina fair?
There are still quite a lot of restrictions in Brazil and even more in Peru. Venezuela is pretty restrictive as well. Uruguay and Chile are more liberal. Colombia is very free and so are Mexico and Paraguay. Argentina is definitely leading the way in terms of sexual tolerance and freedom. However our democracy is young and I think that we need to sustain it; everyone needs to participate and maintain the freedom we have acquired.
What would be your message to younger people?
I think young people, transvestites, gay, people like us, should get politicised. I think that is very important. To sustain and enhance what has been achieved until now because we don’t know what might happen tomorrow. I am not saying transvestites should have a political party as such, I think people should join whichever party they support. But younger people should strive to represent us as a community at a political level, as governors and senators.
How could the current situation continue to improve?
I am so happy that the situation is what it is today. When the equal rights law was voted we were all invited at the Casa Rosada. It was a way of saying to us that we are human beings and that we are part of this society. I went inside the Casa Rosada! Never have I thought such thing would be possible. I was scared when I went in. When I arrived, a guard said to me “Go ahead, Madam” before, it would have been “Go away, fucking bitch”. This government has done a lot in terms of human rights and in terms of gay rights. Before we would get assaulted or killed in the street, today young transvestites are free to do anything anytime.
As of challenges to come, I think we should press on the change of sex. Lawyers do not understand what it is like; they only take a medical point of view. I think we should also fight for the right of adoption. Why wouldn’t we be able to give love to a child? So many children are abandoned or mistreated. Who says we can’t have children? Who says we can’t dress them, feed them, and love them? People often see us as exuberant people, who live in debauchery, but it is really not true, we are more tamed and probably more moral than our neighbours! It is a stereotype we should confront. There are still some wars to be won but we are definitely making improvements. I wrote an article on what family is in El Teje [see below], this would never have been possible a few years ago.