Francisco promotes a process of restoring the dignity of transvestite and transgender people that helps them reveal their full potential while working on a cultural change for valuing and incorporating diversity in every social system, starting with the educational and labor systems.
The New Idea
The transvestite and transgender population in Argentina and the region currently has a life expectancy of less than 40 years and only 1% reach the age of 65 due to the systemic discrimination they suffer, where sex work is the usual means of subsistence. In this context, Francisco co-created Mocha Celis, an organization that offers transvestite and transgender people access to tailored support to regain their dignity and rebuild their lives beyond marginalization.
Education is a central pillar of Francisco's approach, as most of the population he works with left home and school at an early age due to discrimination. Mocha Celis' flagship program is a three-year public high school where the curriculum was designed with a gender perspective and based on the specific needs of the trans community, such as being respected in their identity and the way they are named, having a teaching staff capable of listening to and understanding their life stories and challenges, and studying at times that suit their precarious and marginalized jobs. The school is approved by the government and 280 students have graduated since 2014. Beyond addressing the literacy and skills gap, the school functions as a gateway to other programs that are comprehensively designed to respond to the concrete challenges faced by this population. These include access to rights, food reinforcement, training for employment in partnership with companies, health programs, leadership training, and community building. There are currently 2,500 people enrolled in the organization's various initiatives.
Francisco's high school model has, since 2021, been replicated in twenty new locations of the country, as well as in Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. In addition, the organization's programs are beginning to change the mindset of companies, government officials, and citizens for the transformation of society as a whole. For example, Francisco works with more than 20 companies in the development of conditions for the inclusion of trans people in employment. These changes take into account not only trans people, but the whole company's approach to DEI, transforming the exclusionary roles they have traditionally occupied in society and creating new rules that enrich the whole company. Furthermore, three companies have played a role accompanying trans employees in their transition processes due to Mocha's Celis training and support, introducing a new health perspective within the company. In addition, several graduates are occupying positions in public agencies such as in the Public Prosecutor's Office, the National Insurance Superintendency, the Ministry of Transportation, the Government of the City of Buenos Aires, and the Ministry of Social Development.
Francisco's expansion strategy consists of partnering with social organizations and schools interested in the diversity approach to whom he will transfer their methodology. In these processes, he is involving transvestite and transgender people from the Mocha community, who were trained in community development along the high school program. Mocha Celis does not seek to promote inclusion in an exclusionary educational system, but rather the profound transformation of the system.
Until now, society has been organized under a binary model (male-female) that structures the functioning of institutions and social roles. This structure carries significant consequences for all people who fall outside this limited paradigm. For transvestite and transgender people, the path of identity development is often lonely and fraught with discrimination, even within their own family.
Although there are no official figures on the number of transvestite or transgender people in Argentina, since the 2012 gender identity law, 9000 people changed their gender identity. Considering the total Argentinian population to date, this means that, on average, 20 out of every 100,000 inhabitants have changed their identity, according to a report from the National Registry of Persons (RENAPER). Notably, it is estimated that there is a significant number of people who, for various reasons, have not yet rectified their identity.
While Argentina is at the forefront of the region in terms of legislation that recognizes and guarantees the rights of the LGBTQI+ community, these advances are very recent, and institutions and culture still do not reflect these changes. Discrimination against these communities remains widespread. For example, the transvestite population in Argentina currently has a life expectancy of less than 40 years and only 1% reach the age of 65 according to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). The primary cause is systemic discrimination that pushes many people onto the streets and into sex work. The UNDP describes 90% of this community as sex workers; violent deaths and extremely low life expectancy are the results of three dimensions of oppression – as women, sex workers, and trans workers are predominantly exposed to ‘male violence and police violence.’
For many members of the LGBTQI+ community, especially transvestite and transgender people, discrimination has forced them to leave their home before they reach 18 years of age. As a result, most abandon their studies and to survive, they tend to migrate to other provinces and engage in informal sex work, where they are exposed to cruelty, violence, and further discrimination. Attempts to restart their education often fail. Secondary education institutions do not have schedules according to the needs of students who work during the evening and night and cannot join classes during the morning as they subsist from sex work. They also often wear clothes that are rejected by the schools' dress codes.
The rejection of non-hegemonic gender identities extends beyond families and schools. Transvestite and transgender people have been systematically invisibilized as, historically, official statistics do not include trans people. The name that appears on the identity document, and all the records and procedures that depend on it, do not match their preferred gender. The lack of official validation is an obstacle in everyday social life, such as in the use of public toilets and changing rooms.
At the individual level, transvestite and transgender people face health problems related to barriers in accessing health services with a gender perspective, as well as the effects of the surgeries and silicone materials that they use to shape their bodies. Additionally, many experience homelessness, which aggravates their health problems and exposes them to violence that can, in the most serious cases, lead to hate crimes. This reality is also permanently reinforced by mass media, which has historically lacked a gender perspective and in some cases continues to characterize this group as "criminals", "vagrants", and "degenerate", among other negative traits that reinforce violence and discrimination. The systematic violence of institutions reinforces a vicious circle that Francisco and others call "social transvesticide," a term that underlines the general lack of empathy in society and its consequences.
Recent laws recognize non-binary gender identity and their rights, such as the change of identity on IDs, but the problem is so deep-rooted that advances are not yet reflected in society. For instance, a decree that was recently approved, Cupo Laboral Travesti-Trans 721/2020, establishes that transvestite, transsexual, and transgender people who meet requirements must occupy no less than 1% of all positions in the national public sector. Although the law represents a positive step, few people in the trans community have completed their high school studies, and far fewer are university graduates, which prevents them from pursuing these roles in the first place.
Having access to education and training helps transvestite and transgender people to feel empowered and encourages them to occupy spaces that have historically excluded them. In the process, identities are made visible in the social space while prejudices and stereotypes are challenged. With this framework Francisco co-founded Mocha Celis, a social organization which promotes the integral development of transvestite and transgender people and accompanies them in the fulfillment of their life project. The organization began in 2011 with a secondary school, the Bachillerato Mocha Celis, as an entry point to develop access to identity documents, healthcare, community management, and economic development. As Francisco and his team understood the depth of the problem, they developed new solution pathways with nationwide reach. In 2021 Mocha Celis was legally constituted as a civil association, and part of the team is made up of former high school students.
The high school is a central part of the approach since it functions as a gateway to other activities and is the pillar from which the new life trajectories unfold. Faced with a population that is systematically discriminated against and rejected because of its identity, even within their own families, creating a space of trust and care was a priority in the project's strategy. This is why Francisco and his team prioritized starting from scratch with a school focused specifically on this community and not on creating integration strategies with existing educational institutions. The pedagogical and teaching team is specialized in gender, diversity, and human rights. In addition, 30% of teachers are trans and some of them are program alumni, allowing students to have references from other possible lives, but close to their own. In order to support the common challenges, Mocha Celis created a Student Welfare department, which accompanies students in matters of access to health care, change of identity card, and psychological support. Course schedules were specially adapted to guarantee continuity in attendance. After completing the three-year curriculum, graduates obtain a formal degree certified by the Ministry of Education that allows them to continue their university studies or access formal employment, a situation that was previously unthinkable.
In terms of content, among the traditional high school subjects, the curriculum offers occupational training that includes different workshops aimed at developing professional and entrepreneurial skills. In order to transform the training into real-life changes, Mocha Celis works with about 20 companies in processes of job placement and transformation of the work culture with a focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This coexistence involves the whole of society, opening up new questions and breaking down internalized norms and structures. This work allowed 12 companies to change their hiring and onboarding protocols to facilitate the evaluation and incorporation processes, respecting diversity criteria and creating appreciative environments. To date, more than 400 students have accessed higher education and they have had no students drop out, with a job placement rate that reaches 90% of the graduates in both the public and private sectors, with partners such as Mercado Libre and Aerolineas Argentinas, among others. Some graduates have also started their own organization, including five student-run cooperatives that employ a group of 20 people.
Francisco and his team worked close with the activists Diana Sacayán and Lohana Berkins in the promotion of the 1% Trans-Travesti Labor Quota Law, which demands that members of the trans community represent no less than 1% of companies’ workforces. The strategy was to start with the Province of Buenos Aires and the law was voted in 2015 but was not regulated until November 2019. In the interim, however, Diana Sacayán was murdered in 2015 and Lohana Berkins died in 2016, and that was a very strong blow to the LGBTQI+ community. It took four years to achieve its regulation and in the meantime Francisco and his team worked with the municipalities in order to sensitize on the importance of the law and its implications and thus press for its provincial regulation. Apart from the Municipality of Avellaneda, they worked with the organization Conurbanes por la Diversidad and the deputy Karina Nazabal in Lanus, with AMI in Mar de Plata and with Otrans in La Plata.
Another strategy developed by Francisco was to place five job placements in national agencies like the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Superintendence of Insurance of the Nation to build success stories that testify to the need and impact on the quality of life of trans people and the whole society. This measure opens a new horizon for the community that allows them to dream of a new life, and in this sense, Mocha Celis' high school education is fundamental in ensuring suitable training to access those job opportunities in the future. After the quota law approvement, in 2021, they went from an enrollment of 150 to 400 students, and to meet the increased demand, Mocha Celis has recently moved to a new building provided by the city government which was inaugurated with the participation of the Minister of Education of the Province and the Minister of Women, Gender and Diversity. Among other particularities, the building is very easily accessible in relation to public transportation and close to the users' neighborhoods, and the building has gender-neutral restrooms.
To ensure that the employment of the trans community is sustainable and that, in the near future, the mediation of Mocha Celis is not necessary, in 2021 Francisco and his team launched a consulting and training division that focuses on promoting diversity and inclusion in key institutions such as government, large and medium-sized companies, and social organizations. This work unit supports the change of mindset and practices within institutions while contributing to the financial sustainability of the organization. As a great example, three partner companies with the assessment of Mocha Celis are accompanying their trans employees in their identity transition processes, assisting with health issues and psychological support. Together with the developer Shifta, Mocha Celis launched the Mochapp application to keep track and collect useful data on the health, educational, or employment situation, among other variables, of their student community to better support them in facing their pressing challenges. As of now, the app is for internal use only and allows Mocha Celis staff to follow-up the evolution of students' conditions and integrate the data in the design of programs.
Beyond working on employability with the community itself, Francisco is promoting a cultural change in society as a whole that requires the visibility of the trans community and its realities in their own voice, the generation and dissemination of data for decision making at the political level, and the normalization of gender diversity as a human right. To fulfill this cultural change, Mocha Celis and the organization Brandon (a social organization that works with culture and the arts to promote LGBTQI+ rights) created the "Brandon/Mocha Popular School of Gender and Diversity" which is run by the transvestite and transgender community. This open learning platform addresses topics such as comprehensive sexual education (ESI), leadership development, the history of LGBTQI+ activism, communication and "artivism". They have already launched two editions with 120 people participating.
Showing stories from the trans community builds bridges for empathetic inclusion. To achieve this, Mocha Celis and Brandon created the documentary "Mocha", which was fully developed and performed by the students in 2019 and is available on Cine.arTV. This free online platform performs national content, with an estimation of 800,000 views, according to the platform record. They have also published two books that are available on their website. The first, “La revolución de las mariposas”, was supported by the Public Defender´s Office and is based on research that documents the situation of the trans population in the City of Buenos Aires 10 years after the publication of the book "La Gesta del Nombre Propio" (developed by the trans activist Loana Berkins). The second, “Travar el saber”, was developed with the support of the Publishing House of the National University of La Plata (Edulp) and gathers first-person narratives of transvestite and transgender people in educational spaces such as the Bachillerato Popular Travesti-Trans Mocha Celis, OTRANS Argentina (CSO), and the National Universities of Avellaneda and La Plata. This publication evokes the historical struggle, not for inclusion in an exclusionary educational system, but for the transformation of the system.
Mocha Celis’ collaboration with Brandon has also produced photographic exhibits that recover, protect, and vindicate the memory of this social collective, brutally attacked during the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Since 2016, they have held the "Mocha Fest", an artistic-cultural event to raise funds for the school, promote student entrepreneurship, showcase transvestite and transgender artists, and celebrate diversity. The festival mobilizes about 1500 people in each edition. The organization also maintains an open library named after Lohana Berkins, where anyone can find books and unpublished content with a gender perspective and reinforces a process of normalization of gender diversity as a concept. For this visibilization approach they have gained support from the Public Ministry of Defense, the National Institute of Cinema and Audiovisual Arts (INCAA) and top universities,
Considering all these programs, Mocha Celis has an active community of 2,500 members in Buenos Aires who are direct beneficiaries. Francisco believes in the importance of working collaboratively to activate local talent with the experience developed by Mocha's approach. To this end, they devised a decentralized replication model that works with existing social organizations and schools that want to adopt their methodology. Mocha Celis began a process of demand generation through social networks and attractive communication campaigns, focused on the students' protagonism. Thus, different organizations in the country began to contact Mocha, interested in the educational model. At the beginning, there were permanent communications with the referents of each space, to transfer methodology, working principles and achievements and failures experienced by Francisco and his organization. In 2021, they held the First Federal Meeting of Transvestite-Transgender Education (EFETT), which aimed to create a space for the exchange of practices, identify genuine needs of the different local realities and promote the design of public policies developed in a collective work. The EFETT was attended by over 1,000 people, including 530 teachers (80 of whom are transvestite and/or non-binary) and 360 students (100 of whom are transvestite and/or non-binary). This past October they held the second EFETT to reinforce the community and keep the policy building, with special focus in the interior of the country. As of today, the project has been replicated and has inspired more than 20 similar initiatives starting with high schools in Tucumán, Santa Fe, Córdoba and internationally in Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and Paraguay. Francisco and his team identify the organizations to work with, and advise them on curriculum development, partnerships with the state and strategies for funding the project according to local idiosyncrasies and needs. For example, in the case of the province of Santa Fe, they oriented the curriculum towards the care of the elderly because they identified that this area has a high labor demand in the area. In the case of the province of Córdoba, they organized the curriculum with a focus on art and cultural management, also because of its relevance in the area.
As a result of these two events, Mocha Celis has led the creation of a National Assembly for Trans-Travesti Education to foster collaboration and share successful public policies and programs. This year they plan to publish a new book with audiovisual tools and a website that will collect and systematize the process of creating the high school, as well as the socio-political-pedagogical strategies they have developed to date. They will also hold an international forum, together with organizations from countries in the region that have educational projects with a gender perspective, in order to create a movement of educational initiatives for diversity in Latin America.
Through Mocha Celis, the transvestite and transgender community has found a space of belonging that helps them to leave marginality and forge a different destiny from prostitution. Francisco envisions the transvestite and transgender community leading this transformation through their experience and revealed capacity in society as a whole.
Francisco grew up in Puán, a rural area southwest of Buenos Aires province. His school was 15 kilometers from his home, in a town made up mostly of descendants of Volga Germans. At school, they called him "schwarz," which means black in German. That, along with his sexual orientation, was the excuse for discrimination by his peers, from which Francisco took refuge by spending time in the school library. While he was in high school, a major flood cut off access to his school, so his mother converted their home's dining room into a classroom so that local children and teenagers could continue their studies. This circumstance allowed Francisco to connect with the importance of education and its value for people's development, which he inherited from his mother.
Interested in promoting education and culture, he was the creator and leader of the street group "Fallen off the Map," a space for youth participation in isolated rural areas with few other opportunities. After graduating from high school, he organized a cultural event for Puan's 100th anniversary. This event allowed Francisco to connect with the local government, which opened up the opportunity to lead a Youth Volunteering program in his town, where he was responsible for creating public policies and initiatives to promote youth participation.
Francisco moved to Buenos Aires to continue his studies in film and television production and direction. There, he continued promoting culture and non-formal education in popular neighborhoods through the Faro TV project (a cultural TV initiative done for and with young people). His interest in popular culture and gender issues prompted Francisco to contact Lohana Berkins, a trans activist who ran a textile cooperative of transvestite people, to showcase the story of the cooperative on Faro TV's channel. Francisco was shocked by the injustices and cruelty faced by the trans community and decided to commit himself to transforming this reality, with education at the core of his strategy.
For a year, Francisco collaborated with Lohana and a group of volunteers to reach out to transvestite and transgender people to offer them an opportunity to continue their studies. They started with a supportive space and the idea of linking them with public high schools run by the state, but they quickly realized that years of exclusion and abandonment meant that existing institutions would not meet their needs. Thus, they designed the Mocha Celis High School from the beginning with and for the trans community. New challenges resulted in new educational projects, such as the training center for employment, the incubation of work cooperatives, the recent creation of the publishing house and a consulting branch to deepen their impact on the community. Mocha Celis is the name that Lohana Berkins chose in honor of a transvestite person from Tucuman murdered in the 90s who, while in prison, wanted to learn to read and write.
Francisco seeks to take this initiative to the entire region, working with grassroots organizations interested in gender issues. Francisco believes that when a trans person has access to high school and university, that person's life changes; when many have access to education, society changes. With this vision, Francisco aspires to create a society where diversity and inclusion are the norm.