By Andrea Gutierrez
» Originally published in make/shift (Winter 2015/2016, no. 18)
Bamby Salcedo is not afraid of her power. The first time I crossed paths with the trans Latina activist was this past March in Los Angeles at the annual live art show and fundraiser hosted by Mujeres de Maiz, an art and activist collective for women of color. Bamby was one of the featured speakers, and I walked into the venue just as she was finishing up. I don’t remember much, only that she spoke with conviction and purpose, and that she held the rapt attention of the entire auditorium, her fist aloft in the air.
The second time we crossed paths, Bamby stumbled into my office at Cal State LA. She was running late to class—as a student, as a guest speaker, I didn’t know—and she wanted to know where in the maze-like building she could find the room. I gave her directions, and she was on her way.
The third time we crossed paths was more drawn out. Bamby had to cancel our interview at the last minute because she was held up in Washington, D.C., after attending the U.S. Conference on AIDS. What I didn’t know was that she had made some waves that weekend after taking over the stage in protest with a group of trans activists demanding to be heard and for their issues to be recognized. Always busy and never complacent, Bamby graciously made time to sit down with me in October.
AG: I understand that there’s a story behind your name.
BS: The name Bamby is from my childhood. I was a fast runner. People said, “Que corre como venado”—that I ran like a deer. Eventually I associated the venado—or the venada—with the name Bambi, like the movie. That’s how Bamby came to be my name, but with a y. It started as a nickname, but it has become part of my identity. Someone once made a mean comment, and a friend said, “Unleash the deer!” So sometimes when things happen, I say to myself, Oh motherfucker, you don’t want me to unleash the deer!
What first politicized you and drove you to take action?
For a large part of my life, I was living in a fog. I didn’t have a clear sense of who I was, or what my purpose was. I was eventually able to reform myself, get clean from drugs, and get away from street life. Then [trans teen] Gwen Araujo was murdered in 2002. That was the tipping point for me—to get angry and outraged with what was happening. It really spoke to me. It was a bridge for me to get involved and to contribute to creating a better place.
Her murder was like a call to action. She could be you.
Not only could she be me, but the same things that had happened to me in the past were still happening to my sisters. Even though I was in a better place—because I wasn’t on the streets, and I wasn’t into drugs—some of my friends were still experiencing all of that. That’s how I started getting involved, started learning from a lot of people. They mentored me. I didn’t really know anything about how to organize. I had to learn everything.
This year you made waves by leading protests at the National LGBTQ Task Force’s Creating Change conference in Denver in February, and in September you were at the U.S. Conference on AIDS in Washington, D.C. You took over the stage at both conferences. Why these events? Why these protests?
Creating Change is a national conference that many influential LGBT leaders, funders, policy makers, and government officials attend. The idea was to call them out, to let them know that it is time for them to intentionally invest in trans people. Not only that, but Jessie Hernandez, another trans teen, had recently been brutally murdered by the Denver Police Department, and the chief of police was scheduled to give the welcome at the conference. We organized the local community there and took the stage during the plenary session. We thought it was a great opportunity to make the LGB community see who we are as a trans community, and what they need to do to support us. This was a way to tell them, “Stop bullshitting. This is real. These are our lives.” Since then there have been several initiatives with different foundations, so I think there is a new wave of intentionality in terms of supporting trans people. In my opinion, the protest was effective to make things happen.
The United States Conference on AIDS is a national conference. It was an opportunity to call out the Office of National AIDS Policy, because they had just launched a new national HIV/AIDS strategy. With their first strategy in 2010, there was mention of the trans community, and there were some things that they were supposed to implement, but they never did. This time, five years later, with the new strategy, we took some steps back, because the Office of National AIDS Policy hadn’t really addressed the needs of trans people and HIV.
They’re having the National HIV Prevention Conference in December, and they invited me to be one of their keynote speakers. I thought they were going to hate me. But it means our protests are working. We’re bringing awareness.
What do you say to detractors who don’t understand why you would protest at an event where the attendees consider themselves allies? People who think, “This isn’t the time or place for that,” like you’re being ungrateful.
People who are not trans will never experience the life of a trans person, especially a trans woman of color. When we say that we’re allies, what does that mean? When those issues are not affecting us personally, they are not important to us. They are secondary. But how can we empathize and how can we show support? Support could be as simple as, “Shut up and listen.” And if you have resources, put your money where your mouth is. Being an ally is not just, “Yes, I support you, I support you.” You have to actually do it.
There are a lot of gay, cis white men who have a lot of resources, and they don’t put their money where their mouth is. We still need to get them to understand—and a lot of society in general—that we are not men in dresses, and that we’re not trying to get their boyfriends. Transphobia is real.
Even within gay and lesbian communities.
Right. All of that is real. It’s a collective effort, but it’s not going to happen if we don’t open our minds, if we don’t open up our hearts, and if we don’t open up our pockets. Because the trans movement is poor. And if there’s no economic power, we have no power. We’ve got to build that, and we can build it faster if those gay, cis white men contribute to the cause. Not only economically, but also politically, to support us and to advance our movement.
When [trans activist] Jennicet Gutiérrez heckled President Obama during a Pride event at the White House this year, she was booed by those in attendance, and the way people reacted to it was like, “Hey, we’re here already, so just chill.”
And who has access to those events? A lot of those events are just props for people. But how many of the people are actually doing the work? They may have the money, but they’re not doing the work. I’ve gone to fundraisers where they’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars in one sitting, in one dinner. I wish the trans community could have something like that. I wish I could do something like that.
You’re the founder of the Coalición TransLatin@. It’s a network with leaders across the country. Are they working in their own locations?
The TransLatin@ Coalition is a national organization formed by leaders in different regions. We have representation in eleven states, with seven active chapters. We’re an organization that’s by us, for us. Our mission is to address the specific needs of trans Latin@ individuals who live in the United States and to provide leadership development to all of the trans community.
What have you all been working on lately and what do you have coming up?
We’re developing a program that’s called the Center for Violence Prevention and Transgender Wellness. It’s a multipurpose, multiservice space for trans people, specifically to address both the structural changes that need to happen in our community, as well as community empowerment. This includes not only providing services, but also leadership development, professional development, working to lower the recidivism of incarceration, entrepreneurship, economic empowerment—all of those things that we need as a community, for us to get to the next level. We’re starting the model here in Los Angeles and will eventually replicate it.
You’ve mentioned that the trans community is poor, with people not being able to get work or even a safe place to live.
That’s the community involvement that we’re thinking about. Foster leaders, and then build it, build it, build it. That’s what we’re doing collectively right now as an organization. But obviously, we’re continuing to collaborate with other organizations and different groups. We’re excited for what’s happening right now, but we’re waiting for some money to come in.
We [held] a fundraiser, GARRAS, on November 22—a fashion show highlight[ing] trans and gender-nonconforming people as high-fashion models, as well as designers and stylists. GARRAS actually means something:
Groundbreaking Activism Redirecting and Reforming All Systems. Everybody who contribute[d] or participate[d] in the event is an activist. Through their collaboration, and through their support, they change systems.
Seems like it’s important to get that message out to people, the different ways that you can be an activist.
Of course. You don’t necessarily have to be a Bamby Salcedo.
Showing up on stage at a conference!
You don’t have to do all of that. Some people have said to me, “I support you, but I would never do that.” People have their own reservations, like they don’t have the guts.
Are you afraid when you get up there?
I just unleash the deer. [Laughs.] I don’t know, I just become the deer. Like everybody else, even when we do actions, I get nervous. That’s the process. But then it happens, and I become another person. A passion takes hold of me.
Do you feel like it gives you life?
[Eyes grow wide.] Yeah! It gives me life.
Your work explores the intersection of many identities and experiences. But at that intersection is also violence. A lot of the work that you deal with has to do with different kinds of violence that trans people—trans women of color, in particular—experience. I saw a photo of you recently wearing a shirt that said, “Mi existir es resistir”—“My existence is resistance.” How do you deal with that violence, not only on the macro level—you’re protesting at conferences, you’re doing work with the coalition—but also in your own life. What keeps you going and how do you take care of yourself?
The love and support that I get from different people, and the community as a whole. Throughout the years they have lifted me up and give me love. Another thing that feeds my soul is when I see a young trans person who is shy at first, and then I see them developing through the support that I provide, not necessarily monetarily, but through morale or connections. And when a trans person in detention is released and gets connected into activism, into leadership development—these are some of the things that feed my soul.
Do you think things have gotten better for trans women of color since you started out as an activist?
There have been minimal increases in different things, but we are nowhere near where we should be. If we think back twenty-five years ago, there were no clinics in L.A. where people could access hormones. Now there are two clinics, but it’s not enough. They have long waitlists, long lists of patients. I think the world of HIV funding has supported our community in some ways. It is how I was able to get a job, the way that many trans women are able to get jobs. But there’s a lot of work that needs to be done, of course. Things are a lot better, but not where we should be.
Where do you think we should be?
Trans people should live in a society where our existence is acknowledged and dignified; where trans people do not feel afraid to walk down the street because they might be killed; where we can live our truths; where we can live authentically the way we are, as who we are, without fear. And we need to live in a society where there’s justice for all of us—not only for those of us who are here, but also those who have gone, who have been killed because of ignorance and stupidity.
What would you say to a young trans woman of color who is just trying to find her way? How does she get involved? How does she empower herself?
I hope she understands the power that she has. If she doesn’t have the resources, she needs to go get them. If it’s by asking, by all means ask. If it’s by digging, by all means dig—unapologetically and unafraid, because our lives are worth it. ☀