Dora Santana identifies herself as a black Brazilian transgender woman from São Luís - Maranhão. She’s spiritual, socially conscious, and reverent towards her ancestor’s legacies and her intersecting communities. At the time of this interview, she is working on her PhD in African and African Diaspora Studies at UT-Austin. She believes, “academia can be a strategic space for critical thinking leading to social transformation,” and hopes to pursue a career as a professor.
Raised by a single mother who worked as a maid her whole life, she lived in her grandma’s house with her grandma’s three grandchildren, her mother and godmother. As a result, she says, “I've always been surrounded by very powerful black women. So my reference of womanhood actually comes from these women….They were amazing, and they worked their butts off to sustain us in different ways...these [are] powerful women that struggled a lot in their lives, that worked a lot. They were also emotionally broken because they dedicated their lives to caring for people, and they were depleted.” Dora talks about how that impacted her, “to be very caring, but at the same time, say, 'Well, this can wait. This can wait because I have more basic necessities to take care of.’”
She didn’t understand how she was different from the girls she was raised with. “That's when I started to be called in terms of gender, 'No. You can not do this. You can not play with their dolls.'” This scolding was not only related to gender, but possessions. “Somebody asked me once, 'did you dress up before?' I did not because I could not take people's clothes, or other people's things. I would put my dolls in drag...but I would not take their Barbies or things because I was taught not to get people's things.”
Dora elaborates, "I was always reminded in every way, in every way, that everything had to change. The way I would talk, or the way I would sit....I used to tell people that I became a linguist because I've always been called a lot about the way I spoke. My mom has great intonation. She’s like,
“'Why are you talking like that?'
“'Like that, how?'
“'Like this, like this!’ She would not say anything, she would just get intonation, pitch and everything.
“'Oh, okay. So how should I talk?'
“'[lower] Like this, like this.'”
When Dora realized she could be rewarded for being smart, she became very focused academically. Her studies also, “allowed people to leave me alone. 'Why don't you have a girlfriend? Why are you like this? Why is he so soft? Blah, blah, blah.' My mom would have this as a defense, 'Oh no, because this child is studying,’ or, ‘He's focused on his work.’ So that kind of protected me for a long time.”
In 2008, she came to the United States to work on her master’s in linguistics. After her master’s program, she returned to Brazil for a few years. But she missed her work in academia, so in fall of 2013, she returned to the University of Texas to get her PhD. Soon after, she started transitioning. “In April, I'm like, 'No. I can't do this anymore. I don't have patience. It's been a long time.' Then, I just posted a picture on facebook, changed the name, talked to people, said, 'If you want to unfriend me, you are free to do that.’"
Her mother didn’t have access to a computer to see Dora’s transition, so Dora made plans to meet her mother in Rio De Janeiro that summer. “My mom, when she arrived, she was very nice. She would look at me, and she would keep looking. It was funny." Dora’s mother, though accepting, sometimes has trouble understanding, or incorrectly projects what she sees on TV about trans people onto Dora. But seeing Dora in Brazil, helped her understand better.
“Something happened that was very sweet. When I was there in Rio with my mom, we were going to the market…She would look around. And if the men were looking, she would stare at them, and make eyes. And I would just grab her like, 'can we go?'…she looked at me, 'Hey. If you're doing this, you have to be comfortable doing this. If you're going out, don't just run like you're nervous or something. Just be yourself. If you're doing this, just do it.' So, okay, I was amazed. And she was like, 'Sometimes people are looking just because they find you pretty or something.”
Dora is critical of her privileges and choices. The fact that she sometimes passes as a cisgender woman, that she waited until living in a middle class, university neighborhood to transition and that she was accepted for her visa and school program perceived as a man are things that make her question her legitimacy to talk about a trans experience. On the other hand, she knows she made choices that were right for her timing and safety. “The fact that I allowed myself to transition here [the university], had a lot to do with the conditions in which I had to fight for basic survival [in São Luís], to have a job, to support my mom, to have something to eat, find shelter.”
Her past can also cause an altered perspective of her present. “Hey, it's not like somebody is going to shoot you if you come home at 10pm. That would have happened before. I would've been beaten or something in some kind of dark corner.” She says that thoughts like those used to make smaller injustices, like men objectifying her, bearable. Now she doesn’t allow herself to think that way, and holds her current reality accountable.
Safety isn’t the only obstacle she avoided by transitioning outside of her home town. In Brazil, a health official decides what you are approved for in terms of transition. Name changes, gender changes, hormone therapy and surgery require two years of psychological evaluation for approval. The process is also warped by classism and racism, and black trans women often turn to self medication, and sex work to get by.
She’s still trying to change her name in Brazil. “It's very bureaucratic,” she says. When asked what will happen to her transition when she returns, Dora says, "I don't know. When I go, I take all my hormones and medications from here. Last time I went, I made sure that I had a 3 month supply so I did not have to deal with the Brazilian Health System.”
But the prospect of what happens next doesn’t faze her. “There are days where I just feel very good that I've been able to be Dora before I die...I'm Dora, I'll die as Dora. That's something that comforts. If I don't have anything else, I have this.”