When the renowned, respected, and much-loved campaigner and activist Lorena Borjas became sick with the novel coronavirus, it hurt her throat too much to speak to her close friend Cristina Herrera, CEO and founder of the Translatinx Network. And so the pair, who had known each other since 1987, texted each other.
“She was scared not just for herself, she was really scared about how corona was impacting so many communities, especially older people and people with other chronic conditions. She was scared not just for herself but for her community,” Herrera told The Daily Beast after the announcement Monday of Borjas’ death from coronavirus-related complications at 59.
“She just wanted to feel better and get better,” said Herrera. “We were exchanging information about getting the message out to the trans Latina community. Even though she was sick, to the end Lorena was always looking out for other people.”
“That’s so Lorena, it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Lynly S. Egyes, legal director of the Transgender Law Center and another close friend and colleague of Borjas’, told The Daily Beast. “Lorena always gave me hope that there were good people in the world who got things done because they were the right thing to do—not because they were getting paid or getting something out of it. She was the type of person who, after you met her, impacted your life in some way. Lorena was one of the most amazing people I ever met.”
Through the influential Lorena Borjas Community Fund, which was set up to bail out and support those arrested on prostitution charges, Borjas was also at the time of her death helping oversee an emergency GoFundMe campaign for trans people affected by the coronavirus.
Borjas’ loss, activists told The Daily Beast, is as incalculable as the positive impact she had on all the lives she touched through her activism. On Monday, tributes on social media came from LGBTQ advocates like Bianey Garcia, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Borjas died the day before the International Day of Transgender Visibility, which marks—as her own life did—both the discrimination and prejudice trans people face alongside celebrating their many contributions to society.
Borjas’ life’s work was centered at the confluence of many intersections, which mirrored the intersections of Borjas’ own life: transgender, Latinx, immigration, sex work, and sex trafficking. Her activism was practical and political. She helped organize HIV testing for sex workers and oversaw syringe-exchange programs for trans women taking hormone injections.
She became—as her friend Cecilia Gentili, the owner of Transgender Equity Consulting, tweeted—“the mother of the Trans Latinx community of Queens,” where she lived in Jackson Heights.
“I think she believed that no one is safe unless everyone is safe,” said Egyes. “She knew how trans people and immigrants were treated and what they experienced, and she knew she had to speak up and do what was right.”
“I can sleep now. I can rest. I’m safe. I’m happy”
Borjas emigrated from Mexico in 1981, at 20. In Queens Public Television’s Emmy-nominated documentary short The Story of Lorena Borjas, Borjas said she did not consider she had a future in Mexico as a gay man, and she had wanted to find a hormone specialist so her transition could be properly medically supervised. She became a permanent resident in the U.S. in 1990.
Borjas was convicted of fourth-degree criminal facilitation in 1994 when she was 23 years old and a victim of human trafficking. Her convictions meant she could not renew her permanent residency or become a U.S. citizen. That personal battle would take 25 years to fight and win.
In 1995, wanting to challenge “police policies and systems,” Borjas told the documentary she became an activist, organizing her first trans march. She wanted to help trans women who were being unfairly targeted by the police and those seeking HIV treatment.
On Dec. 26 2017, Gov. Andrew Cuomo pardoned Borjas, after a campaign led by Borjas’ “best friend” of 20 years, Daniel Dromm, the New York City Council member who represents Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, with legal support provided by Egyes and the Transgender Law Center. Borjas then became a fully naturalized U.S. citizen. “It was an unbelievable day when she finally got that call,” Dromm told The Daily Beast.
“It was huge, the pardon,” Egyes said. “It meant she could live her life without the fear of Immigration coming to get her. She was frightened her convictions would mean they would find a way to deport her. The pardon meant that fear was gone, and she was also free to travel to speak all over the world.”
In his phone call, Cuomo praised Borjas’ “honorable community work,” Borjas recalled in the documentary, adding, “I consider myself the luckiest trans woman that doesn’t have to wake up in the morning and prostitute herself.” It had not been easy, she said, thinking for the last 20-plus years, “What am I going to do, where am I going to end up?”
Her campaigning, she said, had given her focus. Seeing other trans women “happy” was her goal, alongside getting them work permits and ensuring they completed their transitions with proper medical care.
“For her pardon we had a lot of political support,” recalled Egyes. “Lorena had proclamations and awards up the wazoo from so many people, but it was the beautiful letters from community members she had helped that spoke to the impact she had had on so many lives. After getting the pardon and her green card back, Lorena would text me and say, ‘I can sleep now. I can rest. I’m safe. I’m happy.’”
“One of the happiest memories I have of sharing with Lorena was when she became a U.S. citizen,” said Herrera. “Accomplishing that goal, which was a long struggle for her for so many years, made her so content. Her dream came true of becoming naturalized. To see her so happy, and for her to feel so safe, was a huge celebration for us. She had been doing so much great work for the community for decades. We saw it as the universe gifting her this huge reward for all she had done.”
“Lorena always wanted to help the community”
Herrera recalled meeting Borjas in 1987. “She was already female-presenting at that point and so charismatic, and studying to become an accountant. The trans community was dealing with a lot: the crack epidemic, the HIV crisis. But Lorena still found it in her heart to get us to smile and to stay positive. We would hang out until late in the evening talking about our good memories and also our struggles. She was gentle and nurturing, and she was already good at finding resources.”
As the years went on, said Herrera, many of their trans peers “started to die of AIDS. Some passed away from addiction and violence. But Lorena always wanted to help the community.” She campaigned, networked, “and even though she had her own personal interruptions, she continued to push back and helped address the needs of the community.”
Herrera said that when the trans community in Jackson Heights was facing police violence and profiling, Borjas spoke to public officials and campaigned for law enforcement to change their approach. Later, her focus turned to issues such as ensuring trans people did not use black market hormones, and their HIV care.
Chase Strangio, deputy director for transgender justice at the ACLU’s LGBT & HIV Project, told The Daily Beast that he met Borjas in 2009.
“I really think Lorena is one of the most important organizers and fighters for justice in the trans community, particularly for trans Latina immigrants and sex workers and people with HIV. She had such an unbelievable model of organizing and taking care of people. She was truly relentless.
“She took people to appointments. She got people food, shelter, cellphones, MetroCards—and also immigration status. She organized for the community either through creating spaces for connection or advocating for political change. She really was a monumental leader and caretaker for trans communities in the United States and around the world.”
In the documentary, Borjas cries as she recalls Dromm’s longtime friendship and support. “You do the best job in New York City and I’m here for you, and I’m going to help you,” she recalled him telling her, when their battle to get secure her pardon began.
On Monday, Dromm told The Daily Beast that they had “got along famously from the get-go when they met at a gay bar or Queens Pride”—he can’t remember which—20 years ago.
“She was just a wonderful, wonderful human being. I don’t know what words describe her; she was so warm and caring. There wasn’t a thing she wouldn’t do for anyone. She struggled in life, she came to this country as an immigrant, went through the whole traumatic experience of adjusting to life in a new city, particularly New York, which can be tough at times. She came out as trans, worked with the trans community, fought for the rights of immigrants with groups like Make the Road New York. She was always present, always working for the community. And she was great fun to be with, very funny, very kind.”
For Strangio, Borjas “saw the ways in which structural systems of oppression were killing our community, particularly trans immigrants but also sex workers, people living with HIV, all trans people, all LGBTQ people. She kept so many people alive, and dozens and dozens of people she helped are now doing incredible work themselves.”
Dromm was so impressed to see her mobilizing other trans Latina women “by telling her own story. She was a powerful example because people trusted her, and she was able to organize in her community. Her death is a huge loss for LGBTQ activism and particularly for the Queens community and trans Latina community. But she achieved what other people might think unachievable—leaving Mexico, coming here, being transgender, fighting for transgender Latina rights. That is her legacy.”
Egyes said, “She taught me how to be a community lawyer, how to actually work with the community, and what that means. I will always treasure that. Lorena held you accountable. If you said you were going to do something, she made sure you did it. And she was humble. She won a lot of awards in the last few years, but she’d been working for around 20 years before they started happening. She just did the work.”
When ICE and the police were particularly targeting trans Latina sex workers around 2009-12, Strangio said, Borjas mobilized community groups to help disrupt the “funneling” of those being arrested into the immigration enforcement system. “She wouldn’t take no for an answer when she saw so much injustice in her community.”
Strangio, who helped Borjas set up the fund in her name, said, “Her vision was the heart and soul behind all of it,” helping pay bail on immigration bonds, then helping those arrested find legal representation, and just practically and emotionally support those she helped, present for their HIV tests and court appearances.
Egyes said she had partnered with Borjas in a “rapid court response program,” in which if a trans woman was arrested for prostitution, “Lorena would show up in court so the judge would know that that person was loved and that person had family. A lot of trans women who are fleeing persecution in their home countries come to New York. Lorena needed those judges to know that trans women had family, a ‘chosen family.’”
“I think the fund is one of the things she was proudest of,” said Herrera. “It was a huge accomplishment. She was tired of seeing her community arrested and put in jail or removed from cities. It provided a safety net.” All of Borjas’ work, said Herrera, was intended to make the lives of others like her better. She wanted others to experience the full and positive life she had built.
Egyes recalled Borjas going out at night to give coffee and condoms to sex workers, to chat to them, to make sure they were OK. “This wasn’t paid work. She cared so much about people. I remember one time she was at my office, and we were supposed to be discussing her pardon case, and she said, ‘Wait, I have a couple of people I need to talk to you about. I said, ‘Lorena, this meeting is to talk about your case.’ She was always putting other people in front of herself.
“She was incredibly generous with her time and resources, even if she didn’t have a lot. She provided shelter to people who were escaping abusive situations. Lorena ran so many support groups I can’t even count. She did it because she didn’t want people to struggle as she had to. She saw a need and filled it. She had no money. She got the condoms from the Department of Health in the morning and then gave them out at night.”
“Very few of us survived. Lorena was determined to make it”
Surveying the 33-year span of their friendship is to survey a story of trans Latina survival and triumph, said Herrera, in the face of the crack and HIV epidemics, violence, harassment, and law enforcement hostility.
“Very few of us survived. Lorena was determined to make it and determined to make all our lives easier and safer, and she accomplished a lot of that. We have safety nets that we didn’t have then when we first met.”
“We spent thousands and thousands of dollars at law school for our learning,” Strangio said. “Lorena knew it, and she knew how to push us to be better at it, and made us all better people, better lawyers; and it was a model she took across the country and around the world. She had so much hope and such a big heart.
“She herself had been criminalized and experienced addiction. She had experienced herself the confluence of immigration and the criminal legal system. And she took her lessons from surviving on the streets. She held so much love for her community, and she was driven by the inspired legacies of resilience within her community as a Mexican woman, as an immigrant, as a former sex worker, and as a trans woman.”
Borjas’ death, said Strangio, leaves “a huge hole in the movement and in our lives,” with those who knew her and those who were inspired by her “determined to carry on her work, and carry her spirit.”
Egyes said Borjas had returned to Mexico this year for the first time in 39 years. “She told me a lot of things had changed. Not everyone from her younger years was there. I think it was bittersweet.”
The scale and nature of Borjas’ legacy is still unknown, said Egyes. “There has been so much she has done, and so many people she helped and supported. The number of people who have said to me ‘I’m alive because of Lorena’ is astounding. I think there is so much there, and so many legacies. She was a fighter. She will be missed in a big way.”
“For me, her death leaves a huge void, both as a friend and as a campaigner,” said Herrera. “We don’t have that many effective leaders who are with us for a long time. Today is a day of such loss. With her death, we lose a huge piece of history. People like Lorena and me are supposed to grow older together, and reminisce about their younger years, and all the good things we did in the 1980s and ’90s. And now Lorena is gone, and I may feel lonely. I get a little scared.”
“Having Lorena for the last 30 years was such a great asset to us,” Herrera added. “And she was such a good friend all this time, and someone who taught me a lot of important things—and kept me positive even when we had difficult times in this country. She was like a sister to me and a role model, and it was such a pleasure growing with her professionally, emotionally, and spiritually. We went through a lot, and we were also able to enjoy a lot of good memories and moments.”
For Herrera, “It often takes a lot of work and discrimination to develop into a true community leader, and Lorena was a true community leader with great compassion. A great warrior. I hope our community has other opportunities to benefit from people like her.”