Kenya Cuevas
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   Mexico

Kenya Cuevas

By establishing the first network of shelters for trans persons in Mexico, Kenya is addressing the high rates of homelessness that frequently undermine efforts to improve the trans community's…
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This description of Kenya Cuevas's work was prepared when Kenya Cuevas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.

Introduction

By establishing the first network of shelters for trans persons in Mexico, Kenya is addressing the high rates of homelessness that frequently undermine efforts to improve the trans community's quality of life while strengthening their collective capacity to mobilize for change. Further, she is involving the public and private sectors to create an institutional framework to break cycles of poverty and exclusion on a large scale.

The New Idea

The trans community experiences some of the worst levels of poverty, discrimination, and violence in Latin America. Kenya’s life story reflects this reality starkly, but it has also allowed her to understand what needs to change. Her motto is: “our greatest vengeance is to be happy.” She aims to see trans people represented in all professional, political, academic, and cultural spaces. Guided by this vision, she is reimagining the possibilities available to trans people and is creating the conditions to make them a reality.

Through Casa de las Muñecas, Kenya responds to trans people’s basic needs while also pushing for institutional changes that allow them to access full rights as citizens. While she initially focused on using activism to raise awareness and call authorities’ attention, she shifted to a solutions-driven approach that combines on-the-ground support for the community engaging decision makers to design more responsive policies and practices. On one hand, Kenya collaborates with public institutions, businesses, and the media to address prejudice and implement new laws and policies. She engages leaders to challenge negative stereotypes about the trans community, both through information and by embodying a different narrative. Once a foundation of individual empathy has been fostered, she works hand in hand with authorities to institutionalize this mindset and design or reform services that account for the context of the trans community. For example, ensuring that processes for public services are accessible for people with low literacy levels like most of the trans community in the country.

On the other hand, Kenya prepares trans people to exercise the rights she is fighting to secure. She has built a national network that connects trans people with support services such as legal counseling to change their identity or help to find medical centers that offer empathetic care. This strategy includes 2 shelters —the first for trans people in Mexico—where people can have a safe space to recover their health, complete their education, and find employment. The aim is to connect and build trust between the trans community and public and private institutions, a relationship that has been historically defined by fear and exclusion. Moreover, the model is not limited to helping trans people to survive; it is carefully designed so that they can develop the physical and emotional health, the skills, and the relationships they need to thrive. Kenya expands their choices beyond informal, precarious livelihoods and ensures that they will be ready to step into the new roles that open for them.

In the next few years, Kenya seeks to establish more shelters across Mexico and Central America that can be self-sustaining. Her expansion strategy is partnering with a local public institution that can donate the space for Casa de las Muñecas to set up and administer. She will continue to advocate for institutional reform and policies and legislation that can create change at a national level, starting with a bill to change Mexico City’s penal code so transfemicide is recognized as a specific crime. Although it is pending approval, the debate around the reform has already helped to shed light on the high rates of violence against the trans community. Conversations are also underway with the Ministry of Education to develop integration and inclusion protocols for LGBTQ+ children and youth.

The Problem

In Mexico and around the world, trans women experience some of the highest rates of poverty, discrimination, and violence. Their average life expectancy is 35 years compared to the country's average of 77. Studies by national NGOs have shown that such low life expectancy is the result of violence and social, economic, and political exclusion, which often begins at an early age. A similar situation can be seen across Latin America: The Observatory for Murdered Trans People states that 78% of murders worldwide happen in this region. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), trans children and youth are commonly expelled from their homes, schools, families, and communities as a consequence of expressing their diverse gender identities. Similarly, the REDLACTRANS network—a trans advocacy NGO fighting discrimination in Latin America — finds that up to 77% of trans people were kicked out of their house in their childhood and over 20% abandon their studies.

Meanwhile, discrimination and difficulties to access legal documents that support their gender identity lead many trans people to informal, criminalized jobs like sex work or unemployment: only 5% of trans persons in Mexico have a profession and the rate of unemployment among the community is over 90%, according to a 2018 national study on discrimination against the LGBTQ+ population. The study also estimated that 70% of trans women do not have social security and that only 6% earn more than a thousand dollars a month, in addition to being the group that most frequently suffers harassment and discrimination at work. As a result of these inequalities, many trans persons experience homelessness or precarious housing situations that increase their risk of suffering violence, drug abuse, and health issues like HIV. Indeed, Mexico has the second highest rate of murders of trans people in the world, according to Trans Murder Monitoring, and most are not prosecuted.

Despite such challenging conditions, Kenya noticed that few of her trans friends completed support programs or attended health checks to avoid affecting their income. Since many of them were sex workers and lived in hotels, missing a day of work to go to school or the clinic put them at risk of homelessness. In the long term, however, abandoning opportunities to improve their situation only perpetuated their vulnerability.

The Strategy

Casa de las Muñecas is destigmatizing the trans community and creating an enabling environment for them to live full lives. The strategy focuses on three tiers: direct support for social reinsertion, increasing visibility to tackle discrimination, and engaging decision makers in the public and private sectors.

Kenya is creating a national network of shelters where trans and LGBQ+ people can receive the support they need to complete their education, find employment, access health and legal services, and other opportunities. The program is a four-stage personal plan tailored according to each person’s needs and life goals. Firstly, newcomers are diagnosed to define their plan, receive psychological counseling and medical assistance, and get legal help to get all the documents they need to access public services. Secondly, they start an education program that includes government-certified primary and secondary school as well as job training and workshops in sports, culture, and other recreational activities. Residents also learn about their rights and the support available through public institutions and others, with the aim of de-normalizing the violence they often experience and overcoming self-exclusion. As they grow more confident, residents can lead activities themselves. Once they have made good progress on their plan, in the third stage they can complete high school and Casa de las Muñecas helps them find a job and housing to become independent. In the fourth stage, residents are discharged but continue to be accompanied by the organization over a transition period to ensure that they do not relapse.

Currently, there are 2 established shelters and 2 more are opening soon in different states. However, Kenya also has teams working in 5 other states: groups of volunteers that are trained to self-organize to provide some of the same services as the shelters despite not having a physical space yet. Through this decentralized network and the shelters, Casa de Las Muñecas has served over 50,500 people, including trans women but also some cis-gender LGBQ+ persons and people with HIV, migrants, or otherwise homeless. Their shelters are the only ones in Mexico that admit trans women, so institutions across the country channel residents to them. Casa de las Muñecas partners with public institutions, businesses (such as Nike), and NGOs to facilitate their services.

To expand this supportive environment beyond Casa de las Muñecas, Kenya is tackling prejudice by destigmatizing and increasing the visibility of the trans community. Her experience has shown her that discrimination is often rooted in a lack of information, rather than ill intent. Therefore, she conducts DEI trainings for businesses, universities, and public institutions to address the exclusion trans and LGBQ+ people face in these spaces. For example, Kenya has implemented DEI training programs for the staff of all of Banamex’s branches (one of the largest banks in the country), for all directors of public shelters in Mexico City, and with journalists to change how news involving trans people is covered in the media. Currently, she is training judges across Mexico. Kenya sees these trainings as a first step to raise awareness and cultivate empathy, so decision makers become open to finding solutions. At the same time, Kenya realizes that shifting mindsets needs to be accompanied by a change in the structures that trans people must navigate to access services and opportunities. That is why she works with partners to embed anti-discrimination protocols, policies, and practices and then supports implementation through a train-the-trainer model. To reach the general public, Kenya collaborates with media and civil organizations to develop campaigns that raise awareness of issues affecting the trans community and change the narrative about this population. She is currently producing a Netflix documentary series to showcase the work of Casa de las Muñecas and, more broadly, portray trans people in a different light while shedding light on the situation in Mexico.

Kenya is further scaling her impact by influencing national policies that guarantee trans people's access to basic rights such as justice, health, and employment. For example, inspired by her torturous experience seeking justice for her murdered friend, Kenya worked with Mexico City’s authorities to create an interinstitutional protocol to handle transfemicides (the murder of trans women), including the creation of a specialized unit within the Prosecutor’s Office. The protocol prevents the misgendering of trans women in public records, enables prosecutors to investigate attacks as hate crimes, and makes it easier to measure the true extent of the problem. In another instance, Kenya collaborated with the National Electoral Institute and the civil registry offices to reform the process to change gender identity officially. This included making sure that all materials and procedures are fully accessible considering the low literacy levels of trans persons, as well as establishing support channels with NGOs to prevent extortion. Further, Kenya created a working group to design the policy and processes for new gender identity documents to be accepted in social security procedures, such as claiming pensions. On a more pragmatic note, Casa de las Muñecas negotiated with authorities in Mexico City to have a designated space in the cemetery for trans persons who do not have a family to claim them. To achieve such changes, Kenya leverages her public recognition to open doors, but then activates the membership base of Casa de las Muñecas as a mobilizing force to generate pressure on decision makers from the ground up.

In the next few years, Kenya seeks to establish more shelters across Mexico and Central America that can be self-sustaining. Her expansion strategy is partnering with a local public institution that can donate the space for Casa de las Muñecas to set up and administer. She will continue to advocate for institutional reform and policies and legislation that can create change at a national level, starting with a bill that is currently being reviewed by legislators to change Mexico City’s penal code to recognize transfemicide as a specific crime. Although it is pending approval, the debate around the reform has already helped to shed light on the high rates of violence against the trans community. Conversations are also underway with the Ministry of Education to develop integration and inclusion protocols for LGBTQ+ children and youth. Kenya also plans to support institutions to update their processes to admit identity changes, since implementation today is uneven.

The Person

Kenya ran away from home at 9 years old, when she was still José Armando, escaping violent attacks from her brothers who abused her for being different. That same day she started a new life as a sex worker and became Kenya. She felt like herself for the first time; however, life on the streets was difficult and frequently violent: at 12 years old she was infected with HIV, she became addicted to drugs, and then spent 10 years in prison after being framed by her drug dealer.

In prison, she had her first experience in activism: after seeing several of the women in her unit die from HIV for a lack of proper health care, she spoke out in a documentary and partnered with the doctor behind the project to lobby the prison authorities. As a result, the prison partnered with a clinic to provide treatment. Spurred by this achievement, Kenya advocated for herself without a lawyer, without knowing how to read or write, and obtained her release. After prison, Kenya went back to sex work but continued promoting access to health, collaborating again with the doctor she met in prison as well as with NGOs and the Global Fund HIV/AIDS program to do outreach with other trans sex workers for HIV prevention.

Her life took a dramatic turn again in 2016, when she witnessed the murder of her friend and colleague Paola Buenrostro. She would have been killed herself if the attacker’s gun had not become stuck. However, the prosecutor did not accept Kenya as a witness and the culprit was allowed to walk free. Frustrated with the discrimination and prejudice that hampered the investigation, Kenya made it her mission to find justice for the death of Paola and to ensure that other trans people would not suffer the same fate. She organized a massive protest where she carried Paola’s casket, making sure that she would not become one more victim made invisible by discrimination. The movement she inspired sparked the first national conversation about the rising violence against trans people. It led to an investigation into Paola’s case by the National Commission for Human Rights, which proved that her and Kenya’s rights had been violated during the handling of the case and forced a public apology by the Prosecutor’s Office.

At the same time, the experience showed Kenya that she could not create lasting change through activism only. She realized that institutions were more open if she approached them with empathy rather than confrontation and shifted her approach to collaborating with them to understand the problem and develop solutions. In parallel, Kenya used her newfound knowledge for navigating public institutions to help other trans persons and sex workers to access healthcare, start school, or other support. To drive this work and open up new sources of funding, she established Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias in 2018. When the pandemic hit and thousands of trans people were cut off from their livelihoods, Kenya set up the first shelter in Mexico City.

Kenya has been named by Forbes as one of Mexico’s 100 most powerful women and by Quién Magazine as one of 50 people who are transforming the country. She is widely recognized as one of the most prominent leaders of the trans rights movement in Mexico.

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