This interview was originally published in Spanish in Jacobin América Latina.
One year ago, Gahela Cari became the first trans woman to run for public office in Peru. Despite receiving high approval with 24,562 votes, she did not win a seat in the parliament because her coalition, Juntos por el Perú, did not pass the 5 percent threshold required by the electoral board at the national level. Even so, her candidacy was historic.
Now, in 2021, the situation is different. Recent protests awakened in the population a strong rejection of neoliberal and conservative politics that have dominated the country for decades. In this context, Peru will hold general elections again in April. Gahela will run for Congress again, as part of the Juntos por el Perú movement led by Verónika Mendoza.
According to the latest polls, Verónika Mendoza is in third place in the presidential race and has strong potential to make it to the second round. Has the time for Peru’s progressive Left finally arrived? Gahela speaks to this and other questions in a conversation with Eloy Marchán for Jacobin América Latina.
EM: You describe yourself as a trans woman, Afro-Andean, Indigenous, migrant, social activist, militant leftist, and intersectional ecofeminist. How do all of these qualities manifest?
GC: We all have diverse identities that our body goes through and that we are forced to repress. We’ve all grown up in a society that has taught us to hide who we are, to be repressed, and to feel ashamed. That happens because there are social contracts that force us to do so. The same thing happens with racialized people because there is a whitening process. It’s to survive; nobody hides their sexual or gender identity because they want to. In reality, it’s because they want to stay alive.
EM: Conservative groups tend to attack your views for, according to them, representing a minority and not representing the “common interest.”
GC: I don’t do politics thinking about what those who oppose [human] rights will think. I do politics thinking about the ways [of life] that have been silenced all this time, about the people who are invisible. I am not worried for even one second about what the anti-rights groups think. I am convinced that if I engage in politics, it is to be able to build a society with equal opportunities and conditions for all. And that implies giving voice, tools, opportunities, and conditions to those who have never had them.
EM: Why did you decide to make the move from territorial activism to electoral politics?
CG: I have long been part of social movements. I am the daughter of campesino leaders. I opened my eyes in a context of struggle, rebellion, and courage. However, despite that, I was educated to not be part of political parties. My father always told me, “Don’t be part of politics, of political parties.”
Years later, I understood that being an activist is necessary and creates big changes, but it doesn’t manage to change the system. The problem is not one of norms or poor management, because the problem is systemic. If the system is the problem, we need to change it. And it cannot be changed overnight.
I think both the streets and the social movement play an important and fundamental role. But I do not want to spend my life convincing everyone else or trying to influence the decision-makers. I want to be part of making the decisions. And that can only be achieved through political parties. Note that in Peru there is the option of being “invited” by a political party; but I don’t want to be invited.
EM: Are you critical of invited candidates? For those who don’t know, the “invited” figure refers to the phenomenon of the leaders (“dueños”) of political parties reserving electoral spots for people from outside the party. According to some, it is a generalized trend in Peruvian politics that weakens the construction of a solid political party.
GC: I have said that everyone finds their own way of doing politics. Particularly, despite the fact that I have received various offers from other parties to participate as an invited candidate, I have decided, along with my team, to bet on an alternative proposal like Nuevo Perú (New Peru).
In terms of the figure of the invited candidate, I think each context is unique. The ideal is to create solid parties with clear proposals. Nothing guarantees that an invited candidate will adopt the party’s platform proposals. As a concrete example: if tomorrow I’m in Congress and within my bloc, someone says to me that they don’t want to sign the Integral Trans Law or that they don’t want to accompany the struggle, I will say that it doesn’t matter to me what they want personally.
In Congress, [lawmakers] represent a party and their political ideals, and the platform proposed by Nuevo Perú prioritizes the defense of peoples’ rights. Women’s rights and the rights of sexually diverse people cannot only be fought for from outside, but also from within, in order to understand that the struggles of women and LGBTQI+ people and Indigenous people are urgent tasks.
My team and I are aware that, today, the only Peruvian presidential candidate that represents real and profound change is Verónika Mendoza. Despite having had offers [to participate] in numerous other spaces, we have decided to be here, on the right side of history.
GC: Let’s talk about Verónika Mendoza. What do you think? Is now Verónika Mendoza’s moment?
GC: It’s common to call politicians opportunists. But Verónika has shown us through her actions that she has been consistently and permanently in the struggle. She has been there in the fight against the Pulpín Law (a business law that creates more precarious working conditions for young people), in the fight to decriminalize abortion, and all the actions to defend rights. Her work has been constant and there is an explicit commitment. If I weren’t convinced that she is the best person to be president of Perú, I would not be running on her slate.
EM: And what does it tell us that Mendoza has allied herself with Juntos por el Perú, the party founded by Yehude Simon, who received payments from Odebrecht?
GC: Yehude disappointed me since the Baguazo massacre. But parties aren’t chacras (family farms), they don’t have one boss. They are a departure point, which can be very simple, but it is real. I don’t engage in politics from a pedestal. I am aware that there is no space completely free of homophobia, transphobia, classism, and machismo. Political parties are a reflection of society. There is a Left that continues to be machista, classist, and continues making deals with the establishment.
EM: Are you referring to Marco Arana’s Broad Front (Frente Amplio), the other left-wing party in Perú?
GC: There are multiple spaces.I believe it is necessary to continue building a Left movement that responds to intersectionality. This isn’t going to be achieved overnight. We deserve political spaces that are committed not only to the discourse, but action.
EM: The question is raised of the relationship between the new Left movement in Perú and Latin American progressivism. Do you believe that in Perú we are in a moment of “progressive populists”?
GC: I think that a lot of the things we say are not popular. In fact, many of the things we are proposing are deeply unpopular.
I am convinced that what we are proposing doesn’t have much to do with populism. What happens is that speaking from our context gives us an idea of the situation. I am not talking about decriminalizing abortion just here in Lima. I have had the opportunity to visit many spaces that have been formative for me, all across Peru.
I believe that we shouldn’t confuse populism with what is popular. Like Nuevo Perú, we aren’t trying to copy another space. We are building something different, in the heat of the debate and the struggle.
EM: Let’s talk about feminism. How do you define this struggle?
GC: To me, feminism is salvation. It saved me and gave me a new vision of life. I am still in construction, I continue to question myself as I try to build a collective feminism, which goes along with everything that I mention when I introduce myself.
I believe that intersectionality is the way forward and that comes from understanding that all the struggles are necessary. It is interesting, because feminism started to defend women, but it has evolved as the years go by. In the beginning, feminism didn’t talk about the struggle of all women, or the defense of campesinas. No. There wasn’t anyone defending racialized women, either, Afro-descendent women.
EM: What should the political subject of feminism be?
GC: It has to be the image of a dignified life. The priority are all women in all their diversity. Feminism isn’t just a struggle for women: it’s a struggle for a different world. It’s a bet on life. I am pachamamista, and in my cosmovision I don’t believe that it’s enough to fight just for the rights of people, we also have to include the earth and our natural resources. We have to achieve a balance, a harmony.
EM: There is a sector of feminism that believes that trans women intensify the sexualization of women. What is your response?
GC: We must reflect on the way people are raised and how trans women find ways to survive in the midst of so much precarity. Feminism has a debt with trans people. Society has a debt with trans people. This has to make us reflect. If trans women replicate social norms, it is because we haven’t been allowed to be who we want to be.
EM: Judith Butler maintains that trans exclusionary feminism is not feminism.
GC: We must read Butler, of course. But even more so, we simply must look around. Trans people are part of this planet. We have always been here. We live in a world that condemns trans people, trans men, nonbinary people to live in misery, expose themselves to dangers, to extortion, and to murders.
Do we really need to read a book to know this? I think it’s enough to open our eyes and look around. We cannot transfer responsibility and precarity onto trans people and feminists; this is a societal and state problem, and it is also a problem for the press. We must remember the role of the media. What do they say when we are murdered? “A man dressed as a woman.” This contributes to morbidity.
EM: Months have passed since the protests for democratization in Peru. Has Francisco Sagasti—who was named interim president thanks to the marches and the youth, including Inti Sotelo and Bryan Pintado, who died in the protests—disappointed you?
GC: Francisco Sagasti has never represented me. We know perfectly well who he is and the neoliberal policies he defends. It is necessary for the Transition Government to continue and that it understands that we have urgent needs: one of them is combatting Covid-19.
But this cannot make us lose sight of other urgent needs, like changes to the police, who for decades have committed murders to defend mining and banking interests. Deep reforms are needed to end the criminalization of protests in Peru.
EM: There’s a debate in the Peruvian Left: one sector does not support the term “bicentennial generation,” which is used to identify the young people who protested. Are you in favor of this term?
GC: I believe that we, the youth, do not need a cliché phrase. What we need are spaces to be able to push for a generational renewal to keep raising our voices. The place of youth must not only be in the streets, but also in the spaces where decisions are made: on congressional slates, in elections, in spokesperson roles. Beyond the phrase, what we need is to push for and to understand an intergenerational focus.
EM: The free market concept is deeply rooted in Peru. At the same time, some spaces on the Left advocate for taking the defense of freedom back from the neoliberals. What is your position?
GC: I completely agree. We’re the ones who defend liberty, pleasure, and love. We’re the ones who guarantee freedom of choice.
On the other side of the equation are the people against that right, the ones who tell you what to do. With freedom of choice, we’re looking to build another world, without suffering. Where are anti-rights people or those with Profamilia when they lay off thousands of families in the middle of a pandemic? Haven’t we in leftist spaces been the ones protecting life in a situation as difficult as the pandemic?
EM: Has the pandemic weakened or strengthened capitalism?
GC: For me, the pandemic weakened it. But we shouldn’t underestimate those who defend capitalism, on the contrary. They’ve been losing a lot of tools: terruquear (denigrating leftists as terrorists), pointing out, and stigmatizing. We’ve shown that the system in which we live offers us nothing more than an illusion. Where is the Peruvian economic miracle when all the medical centers collapse? They told us we were living through an economic boom, but none of that has transferred into people’s pockets.
EM: Isn’t the pandemic making the rich richer? In the beginning, there was concern over the needs of the public and different groups; however, that moment didn’t last. Now, it’s going the other way.
GC: I disagree. Obviously, there is more money for those who control capitalism. While doors were closed to small businesses, large stores were allowed to continue operating.
But I see a different narrative. There are a lot more people in the streets questioning the system, the model, and the way of making decisions. Yes, there’s more money, but there’s also a citizenry that is reflecting. Before, those of us who spoke out for a new constitution were a small group of people; not so anymore.
EM: The debate around the legalization of abortion is already happening in Peru. Is the country ready?
GC: I don’t think the “ideal moment” exists. We can wait 50 or 100 years and they’re going to keep saying that “it’s not the right time.” For them, there will always be something more important than the rights of women, trans people, and farmers. The struggle to decriminalize abortion can’t be postponed. And that’s why it’s one of our main policy proposals.
If now isn’t the time, then we have to build the right conditions. There’s a movement that’s working toward the decriminalization of abortion. I don’t trust politicians within the traditional political class, but I do believe in organizing spaces. I dream of a country where maternity is desired and not imposed, where women who want to terminate forced pregnancies don’t end up in jail or the cemetery. It’s not fair. When will it be the right time?
EM: In the short tem, what other struggles should move forward?
GC: First, the agrarian struggle needs to be strengthened. Second, the struggle of las canas (the elders) needs to be pushed. The private pension system which has been in place for decades in Peru has been a categorical failure. In the trans struggle, many think that we’re just women; but we trans people are diverse. The struggle for our rights isn’t just about changing our ID cards.
EM: Is Perú a transphobic country?
GC: Yes. I have no doubts about that. In this country, it’s very difficult and very complicated to be trans. Just for your ID card to show your name, you have to go through the courts, which isn’t just expensive, but also emotionally damaging. Those who belong to the Peruvian justice system have no understanding of gender, let alone have an idea of gender identity. In many cases, they end up ruling against trans people with their backs turned. Going to the Peruvian judiciary can be a retraumatizing experience.
There’s a book that categorizes the disparities that exist with respect to the judicial system’s treatment of cisgender people and trans people. When cisgender people go to change their names, they aren’t asked to confirm the name change with a psychologist; they aren’t asked for surgical paperwork, they aren’t asked to certify hormonal therapy. Trans people, however, are asked everything from A to Z. There are cases in which they even force us to get naked during trials. Isn’t that too much? Here in Peru, not even 1 percent of trans people work legally. Something isn’t right. If the state doesn’t do anything to fix this, it’s committing de facto transphobia.
EM: What is it like being trans in Peru?
GC: During the pandemic, for example, they never took that into account. The state didn’t realize that trans people survived despite precarious conditions. The only paths available to us are cosmetology or wedding decorations. What else does that leave us? Hosting events, being the butt of the joke. They call us to entertain nightclubs, parties, to be ridiculous. The other path for a trans woman in Peru is sex work.
EM: Why is Perú still behind in the struggle for sexual liberation? Recently, the Constitutional Tribunal shamefully ruled against the case of economist Óscar Ugateche, who had requested for his marriage to another man to be recognized.
GC: There are a bunch of factors. One has to do with colonialism. And that’s not an exaggeration. If you look at history, in early Perú, diversity was valued. In the chronicles of Guamán Poma de Ayala, you’ll find the Qali Warmi, who were people of diverse genders and sexualities in charge of carrying out ceremonies. There was a spirituality tied to the land, fertility, and care. And that has been fading away as time passed because of colonization and the process of evangelization.
It’s not by chance that the Church has persecuted people of varied gender and sexuality, burning them alive in public plazas and accusing them of sodomy. Recovering this history is its own process. For example, I’ve been part of the Indigenous movements for many years; I’m the leader within the National Federation of Peruvian Women Peasants, Artisans, Indígenas, and Workers, Fenmicarinap (la Federación Nacional de Mujeres Campesinas, Artesanas, Indígenas, Nativas y Asalariadas del Perú).
EM: And there’s a huge bias toward trans people within Indigenous and agrarian movements in Peru...
GC: When I joined (because my parents were peasants), I was always seen as gay; but, when I began my transition, almost every door was closed to me. My family, which was dedicated to the agrarian struggle, kicked me out of the house with only the clothes on my back. My mom threw me out because she didn’t want my siblings to be “infected” because the pastor had told her that I was a rotten apple. It wasn’t just my family that rejected me, I also lost my job.
EM: It’s a looming task for the Peruvian Left to educate union, social, and peasant movements to be inclusive of trans people. This work is huge because these groups have been rightly characterized for their machismo.
GC: We’re already headed there. The Left has been working on that for many years and moves forward with every step. The fact that I’m a congressional candidate is proof of that. Lourdes Huanca, the president of Fenmicarinap, was berated with questions about how I could be part of the organization. People told her, “What is that cabrito [swine] doing here?”
Once, during an event with Indigenous leaders, they told me that gays and trans people did not exist in Andean and peasant regions, such as Ayacucho or Puno. I took those leaders to places like Inclán and Zepita so they could ask the trans women there where they were from. They responded: Ayacucho, Puno, Tacna, Apurímac, Loreto, and Amazonas. So why then were they there? Because their parents wanted to kill them, because their siblings had raped them. At that moment, they were faced with a crude reality. We trans people haven’t migrated by choice, but rather to save our lives.
Eloy Marchán is a journalist and sociologist teaching political theory at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and a reporter for the news website El Foco.
Gahela Cari is a candidate for Peruvian Congress for Juntos por el Perú (Together for Peru).