It’s karaoke night at the LGBT Network’s communal meeting space, the Q-Center in Long Island City, Queens, but it takes more than Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” blasted through an office wall to distract the women of Mirror Beauty Cooperative who are assembled for their weekly planning meeting.
I’m sitting with founding members Lesly Herrera Castillo and Joselyn Mendoza, along with more recent recruit Jonahi Rosa. (as well as their partner Daniel Puerto, who translated from Spanish during our interview), in one of the Q-Center’s conference rooms a dozen-odd feet from the lively lounge area. Though Mirror was conceptually born in 2015, its members haven’t yet managed to secure physical space to open up shop, each continuing to work in other salons as they meet here each week to pursue their dream: a worker-owned makeup and hair salon run by and for Jackson Heights’ trans Latinx community. At the end of the tunnel, they hope, lies not just economic independence but also freedom from the racial and gender discrimination they’ve experienced their entire lives.
The name “cooperative” may conjure up the image of a vaguely crunchy grocery store popular with white people, as Puerto and I joke before beginning our interview, but the reality is that worker cooperatives, in which workers own and democratically operate their businesses without answering to a separate managerial class, have been a path toward economic freedom and justice for people of color in the United States for over 100 years. Organizations like the Young Negroes Co-operative League in the 1930s paved the way for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in 1967, which in the decades since has grown into a labor network of tens of thousands of rural Black workers. In the past 10 years, the number of co-ops in the U.S. has nearly doubled, with much of that growth in communities of color.
Most new co-ops have been worker takeovers of existing businesses, but Rosa, Herrera and Mendoza are attempting to start Mirror from the ground up as they struggle against the twin stigmas of being transgender and immigrants.
“The significance of the cooperative for me is that it’s an opportunity to create more jobs and make a space that’s free of discrimination,” explains Mendoza, a Mexican immigrant who began cosmetology training four years ago. “As trans women, we don’t often have access to a healthy economy, and this allows us to change that and obtain other services like health care.”
“As trans women, we don't often have access to a healthy economy, and this allows us to change that.”
“Our communities have limited opportunities,” Herrera agrees. A 26-year veteran of the cosmetology industry (with 15 of those spent in the States after emigrating from Mexico), Herrera says the hardest part about working as a trans Latina isn’t always finding work — it’s keeping it. “Lots of our problems with discrimination stem, if not from our bosses, then from our [cisgender] colleagues” who are often actively hostile, she says.
The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey of more than 27,700 trans, gender-queer and nonbinary people found that 16% of respondents who had held jobs reported having been fired for their gender identity or expression. Trans women and trans people of color were the most likely to have this experience.
Herrera, Mendoza and Rosa all have their own stories of discrimination and the loss that comes with it, so when word of the groundbreaking Argentinian co-op Nadia Echazú (a clothing and textile workers’ cooperative owned by trans, or travesti, people, which also provides training and education for gender-diverse Argentinians) reached the U.S., Mendoza saw a way out of the cycle of oppression.
“I loved the idea of a worker cooperative and was pleased when Joselyn invited me to be part of this project,” recalls Herrera. For her, a trans worker-owned salon is a chance to “work freely” and express her creativity without fear of discrimination or mistreatment from managers or fellow workers.
Herrera maintains that Mirror is “focused on giving work to the trans community,” but that’s not the only way in which the collective is trying to aid marginalized people. Mendoza says that, in her opinion, “the greatest benefit of this is for undocumented people to have the ability to work.” That’s why the founders registered Mirror as an LLC, or limited liability corporation (a business milestone they recently hit). As opposed to organizing as an entity like a cooperative corporation, which many co-ops do, creating an LLC makes each member a co-owner rather than an employee, so each can be identified by individual taxpayer identification numbers, or ITINs, rather than social security numbers. Although ITINs don’t automatically grant legal authorization to work, the IRS application for an ITIN requires only proof of identity and a filled-in income tax form to obtain one, making it relatively straightforward for undocumented workers to obtain. Because the IRS does not report taxpayer information to the Department of Homeland Security or Immigration and Customs Enforcement, undocumented immigrants can safely use their ITINs to open bank accounts, apply for loans and establish credit and tax histories. According to the National Immigrant Law Center, ITINs can also be used as proof of residence and to claim “crucial economic supports,” such as the Additional Child Tax Credit. In 2014, the IRS reported that ITIN holders paid an estimated $9 billion in annual payroll taxes.
Herrera and Mendoza began organizing Mirror together three years ago but have yet to raise enough money to secure a space and start taking customers. They say they’ve encountered significant setbacks due in part to a lack of traditional education and the shrinking economic freedom for immigrants. Mirror’s GoFundMe campaign, the largest component of the co-op’s fundraising efforts, has brought in less than $800 of their $150,000 goal since its launch in late May.
I ask if the members are frustrated that the recent increase in transgender visibility has economically benefited white trans women but left trans women of color behind. Mendoza is quick to agree. “White trans women have always had more privilege in every area of employment,” she says. “Latina trans women always have multiple obstacles in the way, and I think if a collective of white trans women were to start a project like this, their incubation process would be faster than ours because of their historical access to privilege.”
Still, Herrera says she believes “we can always depend on the white trans community” to offer material support “because they know they’re on a better [economic] level.”
Herrera says that if the fundraiser fails, they have a confidential “Plan B” to keep moving toward a new goal of opening physical space by this time next year. “I feel that the GoFundMe will organically show that people love us and support us,” Rosa counters, undeterred.
A literal mind might question whether a worker-owned beauty shop without a shop is truly a cooperative. As they work to grow into a full-fledged and fully functioning business, Mirror is embodying the spirit of a cooperative and working toward their greater goals of dignifying labor and improving the quality of life for people in their community.
Even without a storefront to call their own, they’re building their presence in the neighborhood by volunteering their time and talents. Just after launching their fundraiser, the trio marched as co-grand marshals in the Queens Pride Parade, with Rosa hefting a sign reading “Invest in trans Latinas.” At a recent community service event sponsored by SAGE, an LGBTQ elders’ advocacy network where Puerto works, Mirror provided hair treatments to elderly and low-income LGBT folks in the New York City area. Herrera says the collective intends to run events to benefit local homeless shelters every month once the shop opens. Each of the women seems focused on making Mirror not just another salon but also a nexus of community organizing and collective action. As Rosa puts it, “We want to work, [and] we want to give agency to our community. It’s a perfect opportunity for our community to come together and make something for our future.”
Listening to the women of Mirror discuss their vision and resolve is stirring, but as a trans woman myself, I wonder how they’re holding up. Living as a nonwhite trans person in America under the Donald Trump presidency brings with it a host of traumas and anxieties. The neighborhood of Jackson Heights brings its own. Though the diverse enclave boasts a vibrant intersection of Latinx and LGBTQ communities, it’s also been the site of numerous anti-trans hate crimes over the past few years — assaults often fomented by bigotry and resentment toward the trans Latinx sex workers who look for business under the train tracks at night.
As we talk at the Q-Center, just a couple of neighborhoods away, Kathy Sal’s name is still fresh in my mind, and I personally can’t imagine being so bold as to create a trans-owned and -operated business anywhere near the block where she was followed home and beaten in 2015.
But for Rosa and her sisters-in-arms, leaving their home — and the diasporic community they’ve found there — has never been on the table. “I walked through the most dangerous streets of Puerto Rico by myself,” says Rosa, who moved to New York three years ago. “I’ve always been outside, exposed. That [violence] is exactly what I don’t need to focus on.” And as Herrera reminds me, “attacks don’t happen only in Jackson Heights. They can happen anywhere. I believe that with our work and that of our allies, we’ll be able to continue working on a better future.”
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