Sister Mónica: Ministering to Trans Women in Argentina
Sister Mónica Astorga Cremona, a nun who belongs to the Order of Discalced Carmelites, answers the phone and briefly summarizes the mobilization she generated when her work became known: “I told the Pope that, although he urged young people to make trouble, I’m the one who’s doing it.”
Mónica has come out out in recent weeks in various media in the province of Neuquen, where she lives in a cloistered convent, because of the work she’s doing with a group of trans women. But in addition to this work, for many years she has been helping inmates in prisons across the country.
Mónica’s voice is cool, calm, and strong, and if a person didn’t know her age, they’d bet she wasn’t more than thirty or so. However, behind those vocal chords are 30 years of work in the community and 50 years of age. Hence the need to clarify that although the Pope spoke to the young, she’s the one who’s “making trouble.”
WHO IS MÓNICA?
Mónica became a nun when she was 20 years old and she remembers that at first her concern was for the young people the same age as her who were taking drugs and ending up drunk, so she devoted her prayers to them.
Then she began to work with prisoners whom she has accompanied for 20 years through letters and phone conversations that she maintains regularly. “With the prisoners, I’ve always gotten the most conflictive cases because I like challenges.”
“Every morning I read the news and the police reports and I often find that one of my prisoners has escaped,” she says with a gentle laugh, like the one of a mother when she’s talking about her children.
“I feel that God wants me to accompany the wounded and that’s why I take responsibility. They often tell me I stand with them; it’s that I feel that from that place I can understand them. Because when we look at them from the other side, it’s impossible. I get in deep,” the sister adds.
And because of this kind of attitude, it’s not surprising that in December 2005, when Romina, a trans woman, approached Lourdes Parrish, the bishop decided this was a job for her.
Romina went at that time to the church because she wanted to donate a tenth of her wages. “When the priest asked her where it came from, she told him from prostitution, and she explained that that was the only work she could get. At that point, the priest called me and told me about the case.”
“That’s how I came to link up with them,” Mónica remembers.
THE DISCALCED CARMELITES
The Order of Discalced Carmelite nuns is a community in which the nuns devote themselves to contemplation and live a cloistered life in the convents. However, although Mónica lives in the convent and doesn’t go out except for sporadic and specific tasks, she finds a way to generate action.
“The first time I came to see the group of trans women, I asked them to tell me their dreams. One of them, Kathy, told me that hers was to have a clean bed on which to die,” says Mónica. At that time the nun contacted a priest, told him about the case and got an abandoned house which eventually became the refuge of the girls, as Mónica calls them.
As she got to know this group of women, she learned how they lived — that they couldn’t hold any job except prostitution because they weren’t accepted in any position, that they often didn’t finish their studies because they were discriminated against in school, and that hospitals threw them out when they were about to die, so that in most cases they died alone and abandoned.
“When Romina started telling me her story, I couldn’t believe it, and when I heard the other girls’, it was worse. Every day I’m discovering more things,” she adds.
Since Mónica has been working with this group, she has been able to get them a shelter where they can stay if they are ill and where they have a sewing workshop, and she has even helped one of the girls be able to open a hair salon to work in. In addition, she has convinced Kathy to join Alcoholics Anonymous, and she hasn’t been drinking for two and a half years.
Mónica admits that within the Church itself there are conflicting opinions as to her work with these people, but says she has the support of Pope Francis and that in her community small advances have already been achieved.
“Once, when Romina had just come to the church, a lady came to find me and told me,”There’s a transvestite.” I replied that she was a trans woman, and then she asked me what she was doing in the church, to which I replied, “What are you doing here?.” At first, she continued questioning me about Romina’s presence, until I asked her what would happen if that were your child,” she says.
“After a couple of days, she came back and apologized to me, and at the following Mass she went looking for Romina to give her the sign of peace,” she adds.
THE POPE’S SUPPORT AND THE PLANS
“The center of the Church is Jesus, and he doesn’t discriminate,” says Mónica, when she explains why she devotes herself to working with groups of people who are usually excluded and rejected.
Moreover, she affirms that Pope Francis knows of the work she is carrying out with this group of women and that he supports her. In an email he wrote her: “In Jesus’ time, the lepers were rejected like that. They [the trans women] are the lepers of these times. Don’t leave this work on the frontier that is yours.”
Mónica thinks the whole society should change so that trans women can be integrated and have a normal life, far from prostitution and drugs. “The girls make a huge effort against the stream. We have to help them and integrate them. They are capable and intelligent people, but they are abused. We ourselves are the ones who lead them to the streets. If society would open the door to them and give them a chance, we could help them get out of this. I want to get them off the streets and out of drugs and alcohol.”
To try to understand how people think, Mónica reads the comments on the notes that are published online, especially the police notes. “Whenever I read them, I think who is that person to judge like that and bury another live. You never know what could happen to you tommorrow. The comments I see are terrifying, but they help me understand what people are thinking,” she adds.
With the hope of those who believe that nothing is impossible, Mónica confesses her dream: “I want to make SROs for the girls so they can have decent housing. I always tell them I’m dreaming of creating a building. I’ve already called an architect and — although I don’t have one peso — told him I would like to have some places for the girls, and be able to rent some offices to help families in need.”
“The girls reply that my dream is wonderful, and they tell me, “You surely won’t stop until it comes true,” she adds enthusiastically.
Finally, Mónica lets it out: “If I could, I would scream at the world to respect them and love them, because they deserve it.”