Deep in the lush green mountains of Eje Cafetero, the western Colombian region packed with coffee farms, a unique group of individuals tend some of the fields.
When these indigenous Emberá farmworkers finish their days, they head back to the dormitories. There, they put on makeup, jewelry, and traditional women’s clothing to match their true gender identity.
Since these women are transgender, they aren’t accepted back home in their own communities. They’re often punished or forced to leave their villages, even if they have families and children. But on these coffee farms, the women say they feel like they’re recognized for who they are.
Lena Mucha, a Berlin-based photographer who has also studied social anthropology, was approached by a local Colombian newspaper with an idea for a story about the women.
“I’ve been working with indigenous communities before, but I had never known about this issue and found it really interesting,” Mucha says.
When she researched indigenous trans women in Colombia, she found very little information about them—only a couple of short articles had been written about them, and there weren’t any nonprofits or worldwide organizations advocating on their behalf.
“Even [for] organizations that work with indigenous communities, it’s something totally new for them,” she says.
She set out to find these women and tell their stories, driving around the region on a motorcycle as she searched for them. It was tough at first, because of their relative seclusion and their tendency to move from farm to farm, finding work where they can.
Yuliana belongs to the ethnic group Emberá Katio and comes from the eastern Pacific region of Chocó.
“I know in Colombia being transgender is quite heavy,” Mucha says. “It’s a very conservative country. LGBTQ [awareness] is something that’s coming slowly and in the bigger cities, like Bogota. When it comes to villages and indigenous communities, they see it as a disease that comes from the white man. There’s no understanding of why this can happen and that it’s normal.”
The coffee farms are an escape for these indigenous trans women. They work in the fields during the day and can dress as they’d like during their free time without punishment or harassment. Mucha says the farmers claim they like hiring the women because they don’t complain. They’re strong, hardworking, and inexpensive to hire—most of them make about 100,000 Colombian pesos, or around 30 U.S. dollars, each week.
Most of these women come from regions directly around the farms or neighboring departments. The work is often the only employment they can find, and the farms provide basic on-site dormitories and food.
“In their communities, they can’t live their [gender] identities, so they’re really looking for a way to get out of there,” Mucha says.
Angélica, one of the women Mucha got to know while she was at the farm, says she won’t go back to her community.
“Here I can finally be who I am and live my identity,” Angélica told Mucha.
They keep to themselves, maintaining distance from other indigenous workers on the farms. Many of them don’t speak Spanish and are socially reserved because of the prejudice they’ve faced, so Mucha says it was hard to get to know them.
“I spent a couple of days at one farm,” she says. “It was one of the biggest [coffee] farms. I went the first day, took some photos, and I printed them and brought it to them. This really opened the relationship we had and made them trust me.”
She accompanied some of the women on a Saturday to Santuario, a nearby village where they often spend some of their hard-earned money on things like makeup and jewelry. There, she saw firsthand the harassment the women face from people in their own communities.
“There was a situation where other indigenous people were starting to talk to them, taunting them or bullying them, saying, ‘What are you doing here?’” Mucha says. “I could see how they would have been treated back in their villages.”
During their free time, when the farmworkers transition to appearing like women, Mucha says they totally transform.
“They were strong women,” she says. “I think they were really enjoying their lives there. For them, it’s like freedom and they can express themselves. Nobody is bothering them.”