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Who knows how to sew?

 Hecho en Buenos Aires (Argentina) 05 January 2019

In Argentina, the co-op and school, Nadia Echazú, run for transvestites and transexuals, is the first of its kind in the world. Maria de los Angeles Alemandi visited, and from one stitch to the next, made new friends and learnt about their ongoing struggle to leave prostitution and marginalization. (1584 Words) - By Maria de los Angeles Alemandi

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Photo: Sandra Cartasso

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It's good bye to high heels, fake eyelashes and miniskirts. Here they sport flat shoes, but without losing a pinch of transvestite glamour. They keep their eyes fixed on a needle and their ears alert to the "sheekee-sheekee" of the sewing machines. We are on the second storey, on the corner of Vicente Lopez and Dr. Sande Streets, where the school and work cooperative business  operates and sixty transvestites and transsexuals make sheets to sell in various outlets.

The key: work

The story began when some some transvestites and transexuals were invited onto television show Hebe de Bonafini and the Mothers of the Mayo Square. In the interview they said what they have always said: that the state was not taking responsibility for them, that society discriminated against them, and that the existing systems of labour denied them entry.

"What would you do?"  asked the president of (Argentine human rights campaign group) the Mothers of the Mayo Square.

"The problem is work," they responded.

None of them had ever had the experience of formal employment, and Hebe promised to introduce them to a Mr Griffin.

"We didn't even know who he was!" they said "So we went and looked him up in the internet… we didn't want to look like fools. Mr Griffin turned out to be the president of the National Institute of Associations and Social Economy (INAES)" said Lohana Berkins, transvestite activist and founder of the Nadia Echazú co-op.

Today with the support of INAES, the National Labor Department and the municipality of Avellaneda, they manage and run their own textile factory and their images look smilingly down from posters hung on their walls, declaring: "The right to work is for everyone"

First Stitches

The idea was Mr Griffin's. In a meeting he spoke to them about the possibility of creating a co-op , and they smiled, almost confused. All of the sudden they discovered themselves making decisions, making new friends and fighting against age-old prejudices. In public offices, people did not know how to interact with them or even what to call them. Some people marveled at their initiative, some were uncomfortable with their presence, and others did not know how to approach them.

Even with their sharp answers, confidence and vitality, they insist it was not easy to take the first steps in their enterprise. They didn't even know how to write an invoice. Many still don't know how to read and write.

"There were days where we did all the paperwork correctly, but other days we just wasted our time because the paperwork was prepared the wrong way" says Lohana.

The house where the co-op operates was bought with finance granted by INAES, and they bought it without having seen it. The day they received the key they ran to open the door, they could not believe their eyes.


Nadia Echazú is the first transvestite and transsexual co-op in the world. It is made up of ladies aged from 20 to 56 years old. It opened its doors in April 2008, and in the first year it was christened with the name of a transvestite activist from northern Argentina. "Nadia Echazú died young, at 33, and in the worst conditions. We decided to give the co-op her name to create collective memory. The transvestite community has individual oral history. We didn't all appear with Zumba Lobato. Neither she nor Florencia de la V would have existed if we weren't here since before. To take a proper name is to stop being a police case number, a file", says Berkins.

Hebe de Bonafi - the Argentine activist and founder of Mothers of the Mayo Square - is the godmother of this school/workshop that turned the lights on for the first time to provide the training dictated by INAES. Before putting on a thimble, the ladies were taught how to run a business, what a product was, how it was packaged, how it was sold, and how to open a bank account. They also learnt to use computers, create an email and a blog. This was followed by silk screen printing, pattern making, design and tailoring classes.

Trannie rage

Seated in her office, Lohana Berkins is a little cold. When she pauses, which is not very often, she bites the neck of the shirt she is wearing, and stretches it to cover her Adam's apple. She is a teacher and a rebel. It was her who created the Association for the Struggle of Transvestite Identity (ALITT). In 2003 she received the Felipa Souza international award for her work for the civil rights for the LGBT community. Today she is the President of the co-op. She is surrounded by fabric rolls, books, stacks of sheets, a waving golden Chinese cat, a painting of Che and a giant pin that says "Trannie Rage".

She speaks of how miserable they were before, of how it wasn't worth it to dream because they all knew what could happen to them.

"It was a miserable life. You could die and no one would claim you."

Now everyone wants an office. The divas that were lurking inside now want more, and the co-op is beginning to be too small for them. Some have gone on to look for work in shops, others are thinking of opening their own boutique, studying at university or becoming designers. "Trannie astuteness" Lohana says laughingly.


In another room Leyla sits herself in front of a machine. She picked her name when she was 14 years old. Now she is a well-lived 47.

"Let's see how you're supposed to sew this garbage," she protests as she sinks her head in the white stitching. She makes collars and is working on the fifth of the 50 she has to finish today. She has been in the co-op since it was founded and living on the west side of town, it takes her two hours and three buses to get there everyday.

Leyla has been designing clothes as a hobby since she was young: mainly embroidered dresses full of gold threads. She swears she never used a pattern because, like everything in life, "the order of things does not alter the product".

Norma Gilardi is the secretary and, she says, the oldest member. She is responsible for paperwork, answering the phone, organizing workshops for comrades in prison, and she is the one who is currently yelling to let the members know that the water for "mate" tea is boiling. She says she likes to see the girls so focused in sewing, and so changed.

The co-op's one northern Argentinean was a teenager when she came to Buenos Aires on vacation and stayed. She immediately became Cintia, and every night made herself up and went out to brave the cold, wait for clients, and run from the police. Until she started working in the co-op. This Friday afternoon the only thing she is worried about it sewing well. Cintia does not remember what she dreamed about when she was young, but she is sure of something: she never dreamt of prostituting herselfor being a seamstress. Even if they had seen themselves in a crystal ball, none of the Nadia Echazú would they have suspected the twist and turns of life, or that on a day like today they would be so focused on that running thread and on the everyday routine of the enterprise.

Upstairs from Lohana's office, away from the administrative area and ironing room is the sewing shop. There a teacher is leading a workshop on how to make dust slips. It is a practice exercise and  thenine ladies are focused on the keeping the zigzag motion without pinching their fingers. The afternoon sun comes in through the windows: casting a long shadow of the gates, illuminating pieces of cloth scattered on the floor and making empty chairs noticeable. If today there are only a few workers it is because some are getting ready to head out tonight. According to Cintia, not all of them can manage with the 600 peso subsidy they receive each month during this training period and what they make from the co-op.

The sheets now are bought over the phone, online, or directly from the co-op. They have flower patterns, animal prints, or with children's motifs and twin, double, queen, or king size. The basic quality sheets cost  between $65 and $95 depending on size, while the he knitted ones go for  $105 to $150.

At the beginning of next year they will "cut the fabric" for this project by themselves. The income then will depend exclusively on the sheet sales. In a meeting they decided that they would split the money they make evenly, regardless of being the president, treasurer, associate or ironing supervisor.

Lohana is convinced that everything will go well, she has the best expectations. "Oh please, I want to sell our products in a store front of the Alvear Palace Hotel" she says.

Translated from Spanish into English by Adriana Nodal-Tarafa.

Originally published by Hecho en Buenos Aires ©


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