Soraya Santiago Solla

Bárbara “Soraya” Santiago Solla (December 6, 1947 – September 22, 2020) was a pioneer of the transgender community in Puerto Rico as well as the first person in Puerto Rico to change the gender designation on their birth certificate following gender confirmation surgery.

Soraya Santiago Solla
Born(1947-12-06)December 6, 1947
DiedSeptember 22, 2020(2020-09-22) (aged 72)

A native of Puerto Rico, Santiago had gender confirmation surgery in 1975 at the age of 28 while living in New York City. Upon returning to Puerto Rico in 1976, she successfully petitioned to change the gender listed on her birth certificate.[1]

Her memoir, Hecha a mano : disforia de género (Hand Made: Gender Dysphoria), was published in 2014.[2] During the same year, Santiago was featured in the documentary, Mala Mala, which was nominated for awards by GLAAD and the Tribeca Film Institute and won numerous others.[3]

Early lifeEdit

Santiago was born on December 6, 1947, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to Alicia Solla, a local hotel housekeeper, and Ramón Santiago Berrios, an official for a Puerto Rican tax agency.[1] Santiago grew up alongside one sister, Carmen Santiago Solla. In her memoir, Santiago recalls that, from an early age, her parents were attuned to her effeminate mannerisms, resulting in physical abuse and frequent immersion in conventionally masculine activities, including attending boxing matches with her father.[2]

In her later teenage years, citing irreconcilable differences with her family, Santiago departed to New York City, where she stayed for over 10 years. There, Santiago met and befriended numerous members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom also belonged to the million-member Puerto Rican diaspora that had relocated to New York City following the Second World War. This mid-century mass migration from the commonwealth to the mainland was due largely to the worsening Puerto Rican economy as well as the rapid expansion of the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, the latter of which made contiguous migration much more attractive to young Puerto Ricans.[4] In New York City, many queer Puerto Ricans, including Santiago, were frequent patrons of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village for years prior to the notorious Stonewall riots of 1969, when LGBTQ patrons throughout the neighborhood fought back against violent police raids in an event now considered to be a major catalyst for the U.S. gay liberation movement.[5]

Transition and return to Puerto RicoEdit

In the 1950s, Bronx-native Christine Jorgensen dominated public attention when she traveled to Europe in order to find a surgeon willing to provide gender confirmation surgery as well as hormonal treatment. The later-actress and activist rose to fame in large part due to her background as a U.S. serviceman during World War II, a contrast which challenged the masculinity that had come to define the post-war U.S. (as demonstrated in the New York Daily News’ front-page story, “Ex-GI Becomes Blonde Beauty”), and which emboldened other transgender women to pursue their own surgeries and treatments.[6] As the gender confirmation industry expanded overseas, American universities and colleges began to heavily invest in studies related to sex changes. By the 1970s, over 40 gender clinics could be found in universities across the country.[7]

After receiving $3,000 from her mother in 1975, Santiago followed the lead of Jorgensen and other trans women in New York City, undergoing gender confirmation surgery at a local clinic after receiving approval from both the federal and Puerto Rican governments.[8] A year following the procedure, Santiago returned to Puerto Rico and settled in Carolina, where she petitioned in court to legally change both her first name to Bárbara and the gender on her birth certificate to female. During the court case, a gynecologist testified that Santiago had female genitalia, leading to the success of the petition and Santiago’s subsequent fame across the island as the first Puerto Rican to publicly acknowledge having undergone gender confirmation surgery.

Also in 1976, Santiago set up a later-famous hair salon in Carolina called Soraya Hair Design. At this hair salon, Santiago consorted with politically-influential upper-class women for decades until the aftermath of the global financial crisis — and its later role in the 2014 Puerto Rican government-debt crisis — rendered the salon’s operation unsustainable.[1]

In 1986, Santiago utilized her new legal gender designation to marry Héctor Mejía Santana, a man from the Dominican Republic, and appeal for his immigration to Puerto Rico. Although Puerto Rican officials initially resisted accepting the appeal due to Santiago’s previous legal status as male (compounded with Puerto Rico’s ban on same-sex marriages), Secretary of Justice Héctor Rivera Cruz ultimately permitted Santana’s immigration, deeming the conjugal union as legal due to Santiago’s birth certificate.[9]

In Santiago’s memoir, she mentions the adoption of a son, Eddie, whom Santiago trained to become a hairdresser alongside her.[10]

During the 2008 U.S. elections, Santiago ran for a seat on the Municipal Assembly in Carolina as the pro-statehood New Progressive Party candidate. Although she ultimately lost the election, Santiago once again made history for being the first trans Puerto Rican to run for any public office.[11]

Views on trans identityEdit

Although Santiago is remembered as a source of inspiration for the Puerto Rican trans community, she did not herself ascribe to the identity of transsexual. In an interview for Mala Mala — the 2014 documentary which featured other members of the Puerto Rican transgender community, including RuPaul’s Drag Race star April Carrión — Santiago clarified her identity as a heterosexual woman who had corrected her gender dysphoria, pointing to the documentation which she had acquired in 1976 asserting her legal identity as a woman.

In the documentary, Santiago claimed that transgender women who had not undergone surgery were not legitimate women due to their lack of commitment to the permanent aspects of gender confirmation, and were instead superficial "beauty queens." Furthermore, in an interview with Remezcla in 2015, Santiago asserted that her “forty years of womanhood” had not begun until the completion of her gender confirmation surgery in New York City.[9]

Santiago maintained these two notions throughout her life — that transsexuality was an offensive and inaccurate label, and that surgery was necessary for a different gender identity — putting her in stark contrast with younger members of the trans community, including Ivana Fred, a Puerto Rican transgender activist who was featured in conversation with Santiago in Mala Mala.[3] Unlike Santiago, Fred moved for a more inclusive view of gender identity, which considered the personal and financial motivations for opting out of surgical procedures. Furthermore, Fred considered the distinction between transgender and cisgender individuals to be crucial to understanding the unique inequality that the trans community of Puerto Rico has historically faced.[9]

In these ways, Santiago and Fred’s differences represent a generational divide within the feminist community (specifically between second-wave and third-wave feminists) concerning belonging and the legitimacy of gender identity. Many older cisgender feminists — such as journalist Elinor Burkett, who wrote “What Makes a Woman?” for The New York Times — have been denounced for diminishing trans women’s experiences on the basis of genitalia, garnering the label of trans-exclusionary radical feminists from others in the community.[12] Similarly, author and professor Janice Raymond elicited controversy in the 1970s for accusing transsexual women of exploiting the female form and worsening gender oppression through conforming to the binary.[13] On the other hand, younger cisgender Black feminists, including Brittney Cooper of the Crunk Feminist Collective, have espoused the distinction between cisgender and transgender bodies in an effort to highlight the unique reproductive violence that has been committed against Black female bodies since the era of American slavery, while also avoiding the minimization of the particular and often deadly violence that Black transgender women face.[14] Although Burkett and Raymond reject any possibility of a commonality between cisgender and transgender women’s experiences, they indeed share Santiago’s belief that there is a distinctly female way of life upon which womanhood is contingent.


On September 22, 2020, following complications from cancer, Santiago died of respiratory failure in Carolina at the age of 72, spending her final days in the care of Fred and her adopted son, Eddie. At the time of her death, Santiago had freshly graduated from the University of Puerto Rico with a degree in political science and was in the process of writing her second memoir.[15]

Community impactEdit

Collective queer resistance in Puerto Rico is thought to have begun in 1974 with the creation of the Comunidad de Orgullo Gay de Puerto Rico, which also established a small community center.[16] Located in San Juan, “Casa Orgullo” was the meeting space of the first organized group of LGBTQ activists on the island. Inspired by the Stonewall riots of 1969 and the notable participation of queer Puerto Ricans such as Santiago over the course of that summer, the founding members of Casa Orgullo set the stage for future LGBTQ movements in Puerto Rico well beyond their own disbanding in 1976 — ironically the same year that Santiago returned to the island.

Violence against queer Puerto RicansEdit

Despite the cavalier attitude with which Santiago often described her transition and legal battles, her notability and position as a trans role model stem largely from the noted danger of such transparency in Puerto Rico, even to this day. Since the creation of the commonwealth, queer history in Puerto Rico has been characterized by a lack of governmental protections as well as exorbitant amounts of discriminatory violence.[17] However, this violence was largely ignored until Ángel Colón Maldonado, referred to as the “Angel of the Bachelors,” was arrested for killing up to 30 gay Puerto Rican men in the 1980s, resulting in a highly-publicized investigation and trial between 1985 and 1987.[18][19] Maldonado is now serving a life sentence for three confirmed murders.[20]

In 2002, Puerto Rican legislators passed a hate crime law protecting sexual orientation and gender identity, but it has rarely been invoked since its passing.[21] As a result of this governmental unwillingness to discuss Puerto Rican homophobia and transphobia, the vast majority of LGBTQ murders (particularly those of trans individuals) that have occurred during the 21st century remain unsolved. According to the TransLatina Coalition, the murders of transgender people in the U.S. disproportionately take place in Puerto Rico, comprising nearly half of the U.S. total as recently as 2020.[22]

Birth certificate changesEdit

In 2017 — over 40 years after Santiago first garnered national attention for changing her legal gender — American civil rights organization Lambda Legal filed a lawsuit against the Puerto Rican government to allow transgender individuals to legally change the genders on their birth certificates without requiring transitional surgery (the loophole which Santiago had first utilized in the 1970s).[23] In their lawsuit, Lambda Legal invoked the 14th amendment’s guarantee of equal rights to citizens and discouraged the Puerto Rican practice of visibly striking out corrections to birth certificates. In 2018, the District Court sided with Lambda Legal and ordered the Puerto Rican government to issue accurate birth certificates to Puerto Rican residents upon request.[24] As of April 2018, the Demographic Registrar makes official corrections “upon receipt of certification by a professional of the gender identity of the applicant.”[25]

Posthumous legislationEdit

As of October 15, 2020, Medicaid in Puerto Rico offers coverage for gender confirmation surgeries, hormonal treatments, and other gender transition-related medical fees.[26]

On October 30, 2020 (approximately a month following Santiago’s passing), the Joint Commission on Social and Community Development and Gender and Health Affairs, Emergencies and Disaster Administration of the Municipal Legislature of San Juan virtually convened over Zoom to discuss the renaming of the TranSalud Clinic in Santiago’s honor.[27] The measure was presented to the committee by mayoral advisor José F. Chaves Ortiz and José Rabell Cancio, a public policy advisor in the San Juan Department of Municipal Health. During the presentation, Chaves highlighted that the TranSalud Clinic was the only Puerto Rican health facility specifically geared towards serving the needs of the trans community and that Santiago’s decades of openness about her life experiences had expanded trans rights across the island. The commission approved the proposal on November 4, 2020.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c Robles, Frances (October 3, 2020). "Soraya Santiago Solla, Transgender Trailblazer, Dies at 72". The New York Times.
  2. ^ a b Santiago Solla, Soraya (2014). Hecha a mano : disforia de género. San Juan: Lúdika Proyecto. ISBN 9781618875563.
  3. ^ a b Mala Mala - IMDb, retrieved 2020-12-07
  4. ^ "Migrating to a New Land | Puerto Rican/Cuban | Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History | Classroom Materials | Library of Congress". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  5. ^ "Why Did the Mafia Own the Bar? | American Experience | PBS". Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  6. ^ "Bronx Army vet undergoes first widely known gender reassignment procedure in 1952". Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  7. ^ Beemyn, Genny (2014). Trans Bodies, Trans Selves. Oxford University Press. p. 16. ISBN 9780199325351.
  8. ^ Begnaud, David (2020-02-28). "Interview with Soraya Santiago". Twitter. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  9. ^ a b c "Stars of 'Mala Mala' Doc Speak Out: "Wanting to be a Beauty Queen Is Different from Being a Woman"". Remezcla. 2015-07-10. Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  10. ^ Santini, Antonio (2020-09-28). "Trans Icon Soraya Santiago Changed the World — Her Legacy Must Live On". Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  11. ^ La Fountain-Stokes, Lawrence (2018). "Being Mala Mala: Documentary Film and the Cultural Politics of Puerto Rican Drag and Trans Identities". Caribbean Studies. 46 (2): 3–30. doi:10.1353/crb.2018.0021. JSTOR 26743847.
  12. ^ Burkett, Elinor (2015-06-06). "Opinion | What Makes a Woman? (Published 2015)". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  13. ^ Stryker, Susan (2006). "(De)Subjugated Knowledges: An Introduction to Transgender Studies". Transgender Studies Quarterly.
  14. ^ Cooper, Brittney (2017-01-23). "Pussy Don't Fail Me Now: The Place of Vaginas in Black Feminist Theory & Organizing". Crunk Feminist Collective. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  15. ^ "LGBT Summit: Bios | Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños". Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  16. ^ "Edificio Comunidad de Orgullo Gay de Puerto Rico (U.S. National Park Service)". Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  17. ^ "HRC Responds to Rash of Anti-LGBTQ Violence in Puerto Rico". HRC. Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  18. ^ "Temen vuelva atacar sicópata asesino". El Vocero. 1986-06-24. Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  19. ^ González, Idalia (2001). ""El Ángel de los Solteros": estudio de caso de un asesino en serie puertorriqueño". Revista de Ciencias Sociales: 85–104.
  20. ^ Levenson, Michael; Garcia, Sandra E. (2020-04-24). "Bodies of 2 Transgender Women Found in Badly Burned Car in Puerto Rico". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  21. ^ "Hate Crime Laws" (PDF). LGBT Movement Advancement Project (MAP). 2020-07-07. Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  22. ^ "End the Violence Against Transgender People in Puerto Rico". TransLatin@ Coalition. Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  23. ^ Lambda Legal (2017). "Civil No. 3:17-cv-01457-CCC" (PDF). Lambda Legal. Retrieved 2020-12-07.
  24. ^ "Arroyo v. Rosselló". Lambda Legal. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  25. ^ "Puerto Rico". National Center for Transgender Equality. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  26. ^ "Puerto Rico Medicaid program now covers transition-related health care". Washington Blade: Gay News, Politics, LGBT Rights. 2020-10-15. Retrieved 2020-12-08.
  27. ^ Comisión Conjunta de Desarrollo Social, Comunitario y Asuntos de Género y de Salud, Emergencias y Administración de Desastres (2020-11-04). "Para denominar la clínica TranSalud del municipio autónomo de San Juan con el nombre de Soraya Santiago Solla". Legislatura Municipal de la Ciudad Capital. Retrieved 2020-12-07.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)