Lorena Borjas — a human trafficking survivor and lifelong defender of immigrants, sex workers, and trans folks — died this morning from complications due to COVID-19, according to tweets by Bianey Garcia, Borjas’s chosen daughter. She was 60 years old.
Known as the mother of the trans Latinx community in Queens, Borjas earned the reputation through a roughly 30-year career as a community organizer. Beyond leading some of the first marches to specifically honor the trans women of Jackson Heights, Borjas advocated for her sisters through organizing HIV testing opportunities for trans sex workers, establishing a fund that would bail out folks who were arrested on prostitution charges, and through running syringe-exchange programs for trans women taking hormone injections. She was a leader in her community, a voice of wisdom, and a guide for activists in generations to come.
“Lorena Borjas showed up at my office every day until I paid attention and understood what was needed. She carried her roller bag across the City to make sure people got where they needed to be, to make sure those of us with power listened and supported her community,” wrote the ACLU lawyer Chase Strangio in a Facebook tribute to Borjas. “She and I and our team at the Lorena Borjas Community Fund raised tens of thousands of dollars to pay bail and bond for people and even when I lost sight of what and who mattered, she kept reminding me…Lorena taught me more about advocacy than I could have ever learned anywhere else.”
Born in Veracruz, Mexico, Borjas immigrated to the United States in 1981, at 20, in search of medical care to begin her transition. What she found upon settling in Jackson Heights, however, was far from the culture she had hoped for. Living in a tiny apartment, along with 20 other trans sex workers, Borjas started life in New York with little more than a newfound sisterhood: “We were women without families and who had run away from our countries, persecuted for expressing our identity, for being ourselves,” she told Voices of NY in 2018. “Here in New York, we did not have the life and freedom we had been dreaming about. We also endured violence and abuse here. In those days, it was a real crime to be a transgender immigrant of color.”
In 1990, nearly a decade after arriving in New York, Borjas successfully secured her legal status as a permanent resident of the United States. Yet it was in that same year, according to “The Story of Lorena Borjas,” a short documentary following the activist’s life, that she would be arrested on charges of prostitution and human trafficking. As Borjas explains, the opposite was true; she was herself a survivor of human trafficking — a fact that would be acknowledged by Honorable Judge Serita from Queens Criminal Court in 2017, the same year New York Governor Andrew Cuomo would officially pardon Borjas of her prostitution convictions.
By 1995, Borjas had decided to devote her life entirely to activism: “What I lived through helped me fight for justice for my sisters,” she told Voices of NY. “My goal in life is to help them in everything I can. I share my story to let them know that, yes, we can have a dignified life away from the streets.”
As news of the legendary activist’s passing spread around the nation this morning, social media brimmed with tributes from fellow organizers, friends, and family.
Lorena Borjas was dedicated to protecting members of her community through her final day. A GoFundMe page she helped organize to support trans New Yorkers losing income due to COVID-19 cancellations is ongoing. You can donate to the fundraiser here.
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