Interview: Latina Trans Women Start Worker-Owned Cooperative

I recently had the opportunity to interview members of a new worker’s cooperative for Latina trans women based in New York City. As many of the women involved in...

I recently had the opportunity to interview members of a new worker’s cooperative for Latina trans women based in New York City. As many of the women involved in the co-op aren’t fluent in English, Jesus Daniel Puerto of Make the Road New York spoke to the women and provided collaborative answers about the project. His responses are provided in full below, with minor edits.

Tell me a little about the origins of the cooperative. What inspired you to start it?

Make the Road New York promotes economic justice, equity and opportunity for all New Yorkers through community and electoral organizing, strategic policy advocacy, leadership development, youth and adult education, and high quality legal and support services.

The idea to assist community members in developing worker-owned businesses began when we first started providing Workforce Development services back in 2009. Through research, fundraising, and training from other cooperative developers, we were able to start this work in 2013, first with a group of 12 women and 3 men who we successfully assisted in launching Pa’lante Forward Green Cleaning, a cleaning cooperative providing professional office and home cleaning services throughout New York City.

Soon after our project began, transgender members of our LGBTQ Justice Project in Queens called PRYDE watched a movie about transgender-led worker cooperatives in Argentina and Skyped with some of the activists there. They approached our workforce department, and we were very excited about working with them to make this a reality.

The LGBTQ Justice Project is a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and queer people primarily from communities of color in Queens and Brooklyn. The mission is to empower our communities through organizing and education. Our membership is intergenerational, ranging from age 14-50+. This project is one of the few New York City groups founded by, led and constituted by low-income LGBTQ people of color organizing around public policy issues that have impact at the city-wide, state-wide and national level.

Who are the women working on creating the co-op?

The women who are part of this cooperative are all trans Latinas from different countries in South America and Central America. They came to this country to create a future for themselves. The members of this cooperative are co-founders and long-term leaders of our LGBTQ Justice Project in Queens called PRYDE, and they have been fearlessly fighting for the rights of local LGBTQ community members for over 5 years now.

Without the development of our LGBTQ Justice Project, the members of this cooperative wouldn’t have had the support and voice needed to make this a reality. PRYDE meets on a weekly basis, bringing a vital voice in the fight to end issues like employment discrimination and police brutality against their community while creating a better and more inclusive New York City. These meetings also bring together community members to a space that is safe where they can learn about their rights and develop the right leadership skills to continue being leaders within our movement.

These women have been recognized for their leadership by the local City Council among others.

What are the barriers to traditional employment that make this so important for Latina trans women?

In 2013, Make the Road NY surveyed members of the LGBTQ community, and we found that transgender and gender non-conforming individuals face the highest rates of unemployment. These rates come from the high rate of employment discrimination that community members face when seeking employment. In our findings, we saw that members were not promoted to higher positions and that the harassment they faced forced them to leave their jobs. This project seeks to be the solution to the barriers that these women have faced, from the lack of training opportunities in specific industries to business development skills, all done in a space created for and by them.

Why did you decide to focus on beauty and cosmetology services?

Towards the end of 2014, we went back and surveyed the group about their interests, presented results, and they unanimously voted on the cosmetology industry. Cosmetology is an industry in which the participants have experience and/or are interested in learning and developing the necessary skills. As of now, there are eleven participants who are part of this groundbreaking project, eight of whom are enrolled in school and three others who already possess their license.

What have been the biggest challenges so far in creating the co-op?

Currently, the cooperative members have been working collectively to make sure that they are succeeding in school. They are creating alternatives and solutions to the overlapping challenges that come with such commitment. Transportation from home to school is a huge factor right now. Some have very little to no financial support, which makes it difficult to cover transportation costs. They are already investing much of their day in school, and there is very little space to work outside of that.

Our fundraising efforts aim to cover the costs of the cosmetology licensing training, but there’s much more help needed to assure the success of this project.

What are the next steps?

The cooperative members will continue to complete their 1,850 hours required by the state to become licensed cosmetologists throughout next year. At the same time they will be engaging in ongoing bi-weekly meetings to develop their business.

What are your dreams for the co-op? What do you want it to look like in 5 or 10 years?

We dream that this cooperative will serve as an example for community members seeking solutions to similar experiences and barriers that the women have faced. We are hopeful that their business will be a very successful one, providing a range of services for people from all walks of life.

Thank you! You can watch a video by cooperative member Jennifer de la Cruz and contribute to their fundraising efforts here.

Image Courtesy of Norbert Nagel, via Wikimedia Commons