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How One Sibling's Transition Changed Us Both
Read by Selenis Leyva
Read by Marizol Leyva
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I’ve never had to give much thought to my identity as a woman. I’ve never had to question who I am or how the world sees me. My body, my mind, my heart—even when I think back to my earliest memories—everything has always felt connected.
From an early age, I played house. I was always the mommy holding the baby doll. When my breasts started to change, I became fully aware that my body was different from those of my brothers and the other boys around me. I always felt somewhat soft and somehow pink. Never did I question my choices in favorite colors or my instant love of Barbies. Never was I made to feel that how I naturally moved, talked, or expressed myself were offensive or wrong. My gender identity was assigned to me at birth and it matched my soul; therefore, it just was—it just is—and it has allowed me to just be.
But we live in a world in which many of us are constantly told that we can’t act a certain way because it isn’t “okay.”
Some of us must constantly edit our natural movements, expressions, interests to more neatly fit into what is expected of us.
Some of us look into a mirror and the person looking back at us is not the person that lives inside.
I have had moments when I’ve hated my body. Because of weight gain or because my shape didn’t match that of most models and actresses. I’ve wished for fuller breasts, for longer and leaner legs. And I’ve also had moments when I hated my Afro-Latinx features. As a child, I always felt ugly compared with my cousins, who all had fair skin and nice hair. I remember being stared at or hearing comments that made me look in the mirror and recognize that my features—my skin, my face, my hair—were considered ugly. Every time I looked at my reflection, I wanted to change what I saw. I grew up intensely aware of my flaws, thinking that everyone around me believed that my looks weren’t “right.”
But it wasn’t until my sister Marizol began her transition that I really stopped to think about what she might have been feeling. It wasn’t until I saw how desperately she fought to understand herself and what was happening to her that I really took a moment to put myself in her shoes.
I realized only then that I had witnessed Marizol be uncomfortable and isolated for much of her childhood. Marizol off to the side, hesitant. Marizol disappointed with gifts. Marizol in football gear, awkward and bored. Marizol trapped, unable to live her truth. This, of course, was when I knew her not as my sister but as my baby brother, Jose. I remember the first time I tried to understand these memories from her perspective, to understand the emotions that she must have been feeling. Instantly, I was devastated. Only then did I understand that she, like many trans people, had been living in a prisonlike state where something was off. That “something” is superficially seen by the world but deeply felt by the person who is trapped.
The reality is that I would not have given much thought to how it was to be transgender if it hadn’t been for my sister. This is not to say I wouldn’t have sympathy for the struggle and the injustice people in the trans community face daily but simply that I likely would not have taken the time to fully immerse myself in someone else’s experiences, that I would not have been able to comprehend what it truly means to live with a constant disconnect between your heart, body, and soul.
I have been witness to the childhood of a person who, by the age of three, clearly had a disconnect between body and brain. Before her transition, I saw my sister struggle as an awkward little boy, always off in his own world. I saw sadness in moments that should have been filled with happiness. I saw a little boy fight against his natural essence in an attempt to avoid being picked on or scolded. I saw and felt his embarrassment more times than I care to count—and to this day it haunts me.
Though we are living in a more accepting world than we were twenty years ago, my sister still lives in fear. I have been with her when someone “spooks” her in public. That is, when someone calls her out as trans. I have seen the energy of others around us shift when she walks into a room. I have seen the stares.
I have also seen my sister fully celebrated. I have seen her feel beautiful and happy and confident. And I have seen how quickly, with a single look or word, that all can be erased, taken away from her. This is the reason I want to share with you our story. The story of My Sister. I hope to have you see, to have you understand and empathize with Marizol’s journey. To recognize that she, like all people in the world, deserves to feel safe and be loved. That she deserves to be acknowledged and addressed as the woman she is and always has been.
MARIZOL AND I believe that individuals have the ability to take control of their gender and sexual identities, and that others should respect their choices. We also recognize that the realities of fully realizing oneself, and being properly affirmed by others, can be messy. For over nineteen years, our family and friends knew Marizol by a different gender and name. That knowledge and the habits that formed over years were not easy to revise. Other family members and I would slip, using the wrong pronouns or name. This is especially complicated when referring to Marizol before her transition.
The story that follows—our story—has been divided into three sections: Part I: Jose, Part II: Beginnings of a Transition, and Part III: Marizol. A short interlude from Marizol comes at the beginning of Part II. The book closes with an epilogue from Marizol and a list of resources that we hope is useful to those seeking help and advice for themselves and friends and family. In the first two sections, I speak freely about my youngest brother, Jose, and use male gender pronouns. This is uncomfortable for me—painful, even—because I know that name and those pronouns to be not just incorrect but also insulting and hurtful. I want to be clear that it is never okay to call out or refer to a trans individual by their birth name. Deadnaming, or “the practice of uttering or publishing the name that a trans person used prior to transition,” according to the LGBTQ news and entertainment magazine The Advocate, is an act of violence, one that demeans and insults and harms. After a lot of discussion and thought, Marizol and I have decided to be open about the name she was given at birth, but it was a sensitive and highly personal decision, one that not all trans folk would make. It does not give anyone the permission to call her by that name or to call other trans persons by the name or gender they were assigned at birth.
On a similar note: we want to be true to Marizol’s experience as she came to discover her gender identity and as she embarked on her journey of transitioning. A major part of these experiences was getting to know others in the LGBTQ+ community, including those at all stages of their transitions. In a few instances, this means describing certain individuals before they began to transition and, thus, by the gender assigned to them at birth, not as the gender they identify with. We’ve chosen to be clear about this distinction because it was significant for Marizol to see others begin the process of transitioning and to learn that, years later, an individual she once knew also had transitioned. We want to be explicit, however, that we are not deadnaming these individuals but only describing them this way because of how influential they were to Marizol’s personal discovery. For the sake of everyone’s privacy and personal safety, we have changed the names of these individuals and most others appearing in this book who are outside of our immediate family.
By the end of Part II, the name Jose and those incorrect pronouns (he/him/his) disappear. From the beginning of Part III, Marizol is presented as Marizol, my sister, and correctly referred to as such. That said, it is important for me to state, and for you, our readers, to understand, that Marizol has always been herself. Though she was assigned male at birth and was known as “Jose” for most of her life, Marizol has always been female. She, however, kept this from our family for quite some time, revealing her true self initially only to the family she was discovering in her LGBTQ+ community. Even after she began to physically transition, Marizol camouflaged and censored herself around relatives. This double life is explored in Part II: Beginnings of a Transition. Marizol was present in the world during this time, but she tried to hide herself away from me and other members of our family. How often I wish, during that time, that I had been more open, more educated, more understanding.
For the most part, our voices are separated by chapter. For some especially high-tension moments, we alternate speaking, back and forth, within the same chapter. In some instances my recollection does not line up perfectly with Marizol’s, and we embrace these contradictions. We want to remain true to the reality that memories have funny ways of changing over time, that the details of life experiences and stories are wholly dependent upon the storyteller.
Recently, Marizol and I shared the same thought with one another: As happy as we are that conversations regarding trans rights and representation are more and more common these days, both of us feel, at times, cheated. We feel cheated because, for so many years, we didn’t have the language to describe what Marizol was going through. We feel heartbroken that our community—our predominantly low- to middle-class, Black and Brown neighborhood in the Bronx—lacked the kind of openness we see more and more of today, an openness that would have allowed Marizol to thrive at home, in school, and at work. For me, had I had the education and resources I have now, I could have provided a stronger support system. I constantly feel that I failed my sister when she was most in need because I simply didn’t know enough. I regret a lot of those early years, when she was at her darkest points and I was so absorbed in my own struggles and pain that I left her to deal with her demons on her own. I cry often thinking back on those times. But I also know that my support has been lifesaving for her. This, unfortunately, isn’t always the case. Too many trans and LGBTQ+ youth are without loving, supportive families, and thus are left to fight for their rights—and lives—on their own. Though progress has been made, society at large still has a long way to go in supporting, understanding, and embracing those who feel out of place.
We want to share our experiences—for Marizol, as a trans woman of color, and for myself, as a family member and close ally—to reduce the stigma around transgender individuals. But, ultimately, we are telling our story because we want to offer others—whether they are in the process of transitioning or are watching a loved one transition—hope.
You are not alone, we say. It is a struggle, but it is a struggle both an individual and a family have the power to overcome. We are telling our story so that family and close friends can understand the importance of support. We are telling our story to help our society find empathy for its members who are trans. We are telling our story in the hope that trans people will be not only valued but also celebrated.
Whenever I think about Jose as a baby, I think about the crying.
Jose didn’t cry like other babies. His cries didn’t have that pathetic sweetness, that cuteness that made you want to gobble him up, to swoon and pinch his cheeks. No. His cry was desperate.
From day one, Jose struggled with his existence. From day one, his little body was in turmoil. His mother was an addict, and he spent the first month of his life in the hospital, detoxing. I remember looking down at him in the crib, watching his whole self tremble. He screamed and cried and his little body, furious and desperate, made the entire crib shake. Right away, I knew there was something different about him. And for me, everything changed.
I GREW UP in a traditional immigrant family in the Bronx. My father is from Cuba, and my mother from the Dominican Republic. I am the oldest of their children, and for much of my childhood, I had only two younger brothers: Tony and Tito.
My father is extremely hardworking and resourceful, and throughout his life, he’s held many different kinds of jobs; he’s worked as a porter, a butcher, a landlord. When I was very young, my father opened his own butcher shop in Harlem. I remember that it was such a point of pride for him: his first business. For me, though, as a young girl, I hated it. It looked like a mini-supermarket with a few groceries for sale, but the meat on display was the main attraction. The smell of the place was unbearably strong, and I found the back room—with pieces of meat hanging from the ceiling, blood splattered everywhere—terrifying. I secretly wished that my dad owned someplace less gross. Still, it was hard to ignore how proud he was of the place, or how important it was to him.
But it was scary at times. The communities in the area were quite segregated (East Harlem, or Spanish Harlem, was predominately Latinx, while Harlem was African American), and tensions were high. My father, though he speaks with a thick accent, is a light-skinned Cuban man who doesn’t fit the stereotypes of what Latinx people look like. His shop was in Harlem, in a low-income community near several large housing projects. Many of the people in the community loved my father, and he’d talk about his customers with kindness. Young kids were always coming in, asking him, “Hey, Papi, how are you today?” Older women in the neighborhood playfully flirted with him, giving him hugs and saying, “Looking good today, Papi!” But in addition to stories like these, I remember overhearing other kinds of stories he and my uncles, who worked with him, would tell about the shop. People trying to steal groceries, or how, one night, they were held up at gunpoint. After that incident, my father decided to register for a gun of his own. This terrified me, and my mother as well. She would always stay up late, waiting for my dad to return home. I can remember lying in bed with my eyes open, waiting for the sound of his car pulling into the driveway, telling me that he was safe. Eventually, during another holdup, my father’s uncle was shot in the hand, and my father was forced to fire his own gun. No one was seriously injured and no one died that day, thank goodness, but it was enough to get my father thinking about closing the shop for good. After about ten years, he sold it and went on to piece together several jobs to support us—he did construction, drove taxis, worked as a handyman.
My mother, a stay-at-home mom, made extra cash babysitting children from our neighborhood in the Bronx. Growing up, the house was always full of kids. Our home became like a day care, and I, my mother’s helper.
Like most firstborn children in immigrant families, I took on a role of authority from a very young age. I’d translate for my parents at the doctor’s office, school conferences, any and all appointments a family member might have had. I was expected to read and translate every letter that was delivered to our house. I had to make phone calls, too, and fill out forms, write notes to teachers. Because my parents didn’t write or speak English, I had to do everything they could not. And because I was a girl, I was also expected to help my mother babysit.
At first, I loved it. I was playing house! And I got to be the mommy! I changed diapers, heated up bottles. During snack time, I lined the kids up at the table and passed out Cheerios and apple slices. But then there was the flip side: sunny afternoons I’d be stuck inside while my brothers and cousins played out in the yardita, their shrieks and laughter creeping through the brick walls of our home. Soon, I began to resent how I had to spend every afternoon indoors taking care of other people’s kids. I began to hate translating, and reading letters, and going to parent-teacher conferences and sitting between my mother and my teacher. And then I hated babysitting. I just wanted to be a normal kid.
Mami ran a tight ship. Despite sometimes having up to a dozen children in our home at once, it never felt chaotic. The house was always tidy and always put together, my mother’s floors so gleaming you could see your reflection. Like a day care, my mother had a schedule. I remember how, every single day, she looked forward to the serene promise of nap time. And she had rules. Everything child-related was restricted to the back of the house, to the small bedroom that served as the toy room: el cuarto de los juegos. There, we set up the Barbie house and train sets and chests of toys. The front half of the house was like a museum. No one was allowed in the living room. The dining room was off-limits. The glass doors were to remain shut. Nothing was to be touched.
WE WERE A typical Latinx family in many ways. And like many Latinx families, our physical characteristics varied widely. Take my brothers and me: we all looked different.
Tony was a really good-looking boy, with beautiful caramel-colored skin like my mother. But thanks to my aunts and uncles, I knew from a young age that he had “pelo malo,” or bad hair. For their standards, which were culturally inherited, his hair was too kinky. And this, combined with his wild temperament, made him seem unruly all around. Luckily, according to my aunts and uncles, Tony’s light eyes were something that “saved” him.
As a child, I secretly favored my youngest brother, Tito, over Tony. Tito was mild-mannered and sweet, the kind of child you want to love and hold and fuss over. I had been conditioned to believe that “good hair” and fair skin were the ultimate signs of beauty, and of the three of us, Tito’s skin was the lightest. And he had “pelo bueno,” these long, soft, beautiful curls that, when no one was looking, I’d brush and tie up with ribbons, like I did with my dolls. With him, I could pretend that I had a baby sister, which is what I always wanted.
I was somewhere in between. My skin tone was lighter than Mami’s and Tony’s, but darker than Papi’s and Tito’s. My hair was more malo than bueno, and my aunts made it a point to always let me know that my hair was a problem. Many of them, at our house for family gatherings every weekend, would comment on the state of my hair before even saying hello to me: “Ay Dios mio y ese pelo!” On my dad’s side, all of my cousins had pelo bueno. And every time we’d play outside or go swimming, and my hair would become kinky, they would make fun of me and tease, “Why does your hair stick out like that?”
Seeing this, my mother tried to help me with my hair. “No quiero que te vean con este pelo asi,” she’d say, wanting me to look presentable, and we’d get to work early on Saturday mornings. First, she’d slather my hair in deep conditioner. Then she’d set it in rollers. Next came tugging on my hair so much that my scalp hurt and my head throbbed, all just to get the perfect bun or pigtails. But then there were weekends when she didn’t have time to do my hair, and when my aunts and cousins entered our house, they’d scan my head, making me feel like I was just awful to look at. Eventually, I began to dread these get-togethers, even though I loved playing with my cousins. And if my mother heard them make a comment or crack some kind of joke, I knew that the next weekend I’d be woken up well before Saturday morning cartoons aired to endure another round of hair torture.
I was “una mulata.” Latinx cultures, like many cultures around the world, have a history of anti-Blackness that discriminates against those with darker skin and Afro features. Being mulata was considered better than being “fully” Black, but only slightly. Mulatas are often portrayed as jezebels, the temptresses who get in the way of wholesome relationships. And harmful ideologies like these have been passed down for generations. From a very young age, these awful, racist stereotypes began to haunt me. I always felt different, like an outsider. My aunt, who looked mulata herself—but don’t tell her that!—would give me “tips” on how to manage and “fix” my hair. But they never worked and always left me feeling even worse.
Today, many individuals vocalize and celebrate an Afro-Latinx identity, and I am proud to embrace it myself. But growing up, it was not a term used in my family or in my community. In many ways, any suggestion of Blackness or African heritage was shunned in my extended family. My parents weren’t concerned about who was more Black or who was more white, but those words from my aunts and uncles stung. I became conditioned to believe that light skin and “good” hair were the prerequisites to being attractive. I never felt pretty. Nor was I ever told that I was pretty. And this kind of internalized racism created a deep-seated sense of self-hatred in me, one that brought me years and years of pain. It is something that even today I fight to overcome.
OUR PHYSICAL FEATURES didn’t matter to Mami and Papi; they loved us and supported us all the same. And I remember how the dynamic of our home changed when it was just us, our immediate family. This was especially true in the late afternoons, after all of our cousins and the neighborhood kids Mami babysat had left for the day. My brothers and I were expected to clean up our toys before Papi came home from work, but we always had so much energy around this time, amplified by the aroma of dinner that filled the air. We’d run around teasing each other, laughing or fighting while Mami, working hard in the kitchen, called for us to calm down.
But of these warm, cheerful memories, one day sticks out in particular. I was around eight years old, and Tito didn’t want to play or run around. He just lay in front of the television, leaving the craziness to Tony and me. Something was off. I saw it in his face and I felt it in the air. I saw it on my mother’s face, too; two deep lines—a clear sign that she was worried—formed between her eyes. And I overheard her on the phone with my father talking about Tito. When she hung up, she announced that Papi was coming home early, and this made me even more uneasy.
What I remember next is how Tito sat on the bed wrapped in a blanket with my mother rocking him and holding him close. His skin looked like a ghost’s, and though he was only three, heavy, dark circles hung beneath his eyes. My parents were going to take him to the hospital, and when they lifted the blanket from his lap, I saw that his belly was distended, long and taut.
The doctors said that it was non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Terminal. That my parents should begin making arrangements.
But Mami and Papi refused to give up. They refused to let go of their youngest son without trying everything they possibly could. Both of my parents are people of deep, sincere faith, though they show it differently—for my mother, it is all about church and prayer, whereas my father is constantly looking for signs. But both have a strong belief in miracles. During the first several weeks of my brother’s illness, I didn’t see my parents all that often. They spent their time at the hospital by Tito’s side. My mother held on to her faith in prayer, but my father needed more guidance and went to see a woman in Brooklyn who read the tarot. She told him that the doctors wanted to operate, but that they shouldn’t.
“It isn’t the right time,” she said.
My father returned to the hospital and told the doctors to wait. They were shocked and tried to insist. But Papi was adamant, too, and instead of major surgery, they performed a biopsy. Later, after receiving the results, the doctors admitted to my parents that surgery likely would have been too much for Tito’s frail body to handle and that it could have made his condition worse.
The next time I saw my brother was through a window in the pediatric intensive care unit. He was so thin and his bones so fine, I’m not sure I would have recognized him on my own. He spent three months in the ICU, hooked up to monitors and tubes. During that time, we saw many children come and go. One day, a bed was filled. The next, it was as if no one had ever been there. I was so afraid my brother would one day disappear just like the others.
My parents never wavered in their faith. In a way, those long days in the hospital made their faith even stronger. They prayed and showered my brother with constant love and care. There was not one night that my father spent away from that hospital room; he slept there, in a chair, beside my brother’s bed. He and my mother discussed how, if Tito survived, they would help other children in whatever way they could. They didn’t know what they meant by this at the time, but they held on tightly to this promise. It was a promise not only to God but also to each other.
Once Tito was out of the hospital, my father took a trip to Puerto Rico. His friend Hector had told him about La Virgen del Pozo. In 1953, three children saw a young woman floating in a cloud above a natural spring in Sabana Grande. A crown of seven stars circled her head. She wore a white gown, a pale blue cloak, and held a rosary between her hands. When they looked into her eyes, the children were overcome by a deep sense of peace. She continued to appear day after day for over a month, and people from all over the country flocked to the spring. Hector explained to my father that people visit La Virgen from around the world, people who are in search of miracles.
My father packed with him a pair of Tito’s pajamas. They were light blue, long pants and a short-sleeved shirt, covered in little yellow tricycles. These pajamas were Tito’s favorite, his signature look. In addition to the pajamas, Papi also packed a small pouch of old coins he had collected over the years.
Papi’s first stop was a church in Ponce. There, he left the old coins—an offering—to the statue of La Virgen. Next, he traveled to the site in Sabana Grande where La Virgen appeared and a statue of her now stands. He saw the artifacts people in search of miracles had left behind: pictures in frames, toys, wheelchairs, a car. My father kneeled in front of the statue, set down my brother’s pajamas, and prayed: “Si nos concedes la vida de nuestro hijo, si lo salvas de su enfermedad, prometemos ayudar a otros niños.”
- "Selenis and Marizol Leyva have crafted a moving and searingly honest portrait of what it means to lead an authentic life. By turns poignant and anguishing, the story of Marizol's journey as she fights to become who she was always meant to be will capture your imagination, but it is the immutable bond between sisters that, in the end, will break your heart."—Kate Mulgrew, author of How to Forget and Born with Teeth
- "The spellbinding fusion of two sisters' fierce voices gives us this groundbreaking memoir about the fight to love and be loved as we are. My Sister is a must read for our fractured era, evoking the power of bridges to knock down the barriers that separate us -- from ourselves and one another. It's fast-paced and beautifully real."—Jean Guerrero, Emmy-winning journalist and author of Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir
- "Fiercely honest, this book not only chronicles a harrowing journey to self-acceptance; it also celebrates an interpersonal love that transcends the bounds of blood and family. Bold, raw, and courageous."—Kirkus
"[An] unsparingly candid story of one transgender woman's transition."
"Heart-wrenching...What makes My Sister special is not only the way it addresses trans identities with such care -- educating readers in a respectful and non-condescending way -- but also the way it balances a trans person's journey with the corresponding journey that her family must take to embrace her as she is...An important, informative and captivating read that chronicles two strong women learning to love one another."
- On Sale
- Mar 24, 2020
- Hachette Audio