The Queens of Sarmiento Park by Camila Sosa Villada (trans. Kit Maude) — Silvia Rothlisberger

The Queens of Sarmiento Park opens at the end of the 1990s with a scene in Sarmiento Park, near de statue of Dante where a group of transgender prostitutes are waiting for horny costumers, an ordinary night for this group of nocturnal creatures that becomes extraordinary when Auntie Encarna the older of the pack finds an abandoned baby by the drainage ditches. She unflinchingly decides to take the baby to the pink house ‘the queerest boarding house in the world’ and raise him as her own, changing the routine and the lives of this group of travesti prostitutes.

Camila, the narrator, was born as a poor boy in the small town of Mina Clavero, from a very young age she started to show effeminate manners resulting in hate and embarrassment from her alcoholic and machista father, who foretold Camila that the only conceivable destiny a boy wearing skirts could have is ‘sucking cocks’. As a student in Cordoba, Camila found it impossible to get a job. Any potential employee would reject her after realising her id card didn’t match with her name and gender. As if she couldn’t escape from the fate her father had foretold her: ‘to become a whore’ Camila started working as a prostitute alone until she ‘began to experience the minor tragedies of the trade. Cruelty of the johns. Haggling here, forged bills there, a punch in the car, brutality in bed’. She decides to approach the travesti prostitutes of Sarmiento Park where she was welcomed to the group.

Camila Sosa Villada’s novel, translated from Spanish by Kit Maude, is a coming-of-age story, a rite of passage, a group portrait and a political manifest. In the introduction to the Spanish edition the book’s editor Juan Forn describes what Sosa Villada did in this novel as an alchemy: ‘the shame, the fear, the intolerance, the scorn and the incomprehension are transformed into high prose’. Sosa Villada constructs a compelling novel based on her own experiences of becoming Camila, working at night as a sex worker in Cordoba while attending university during the day, and the first transgender women she met in Cordoba who saved her from another fate her father had foretold her: turn up ‘lying in a ditch, with AIDS, syphilis, gonorrhoea’. The horrors experienced in this nocturnal Cordoba by these community of travesti prostitutes who no one, except themselves, protect, are rendered in a poetical manner, blended with characters and situations that brush with the fantastic. Sosa Villada explains in the author’s note that she is reclaiming the word travesti, left untranslated throughout the book, even if it’s used as an insult, because it is the terminology that better reflects her experiences as a Latin American travesti, who grew up in poverty. A term, Sosa Villada explains, northern academia has ‘decorously buried under terms that were completely alien’ to her.

While making a group portrait of sisterhood, chosen family and friendship a bigger portrait is shown of police brutality, scorn and rejections from society, abandonment from institutions that should be protecting them.

While making a group portrait of sisterhood, chosen family and friendship a bigger portrait is shown of police brutality, scorn and rejections from society, abandonment from institutions that should be protecting them. These travestis live precarious lives, they live in the margins, a nocturnal marginalised Cordoba. Throughout the novel the different members of this herd, a chosen family, are introduced: Auntie Encarna was the oldest of the group, 178 years old (travesti time works different: ‘seven years for every human one’); Laura the pregnant woman that worked among them, the only one ‘who had been born with a carnivorous flower between her legs’; Natali the she-wolf; Maria the Mute who turned into a bird; La Machi, ‘a medicine woman who was rumoured to be able to bring the dying back to life with black magic’; Sandra the saddest travesti of the pack; Angie the prettiest travesti of the park who died of AIDS. The arrival of the abandoned baby christened as Twinkle in Her Eye (El Brillo de sus Ojos) to the pink house turns their resentment into a yearning to improve themselves “in spite of the death sentence that loomed over” them.

Every slight lingers like a headache for a few days. A painful migraine that can’t be soothed. The insults, the mockery. The heartbreak, the lack of respect. The wheedling of costumers, their outright scams, exploitative chongos [men they fuck for pleasure and not for money], submission, idiotically kidding ourselves that we’re objects of desire, loneliness, AIDS, broken heels, deaths, murders, internecine feuds over men, gossip, he saids and she saids. It never seemed to end. The beatings, on top of everything else, the beatings the world dealt out to us, in the dark, when you last expect it.

The travestis that worked at night in Sarmiento Park had a routine: during day light they try to be invisible hanging out in Auntie Encarna’s pink house the safest place for them, a haven that offered shelter and protection. For Camila it was paradise, as she was used to hiding her identity in the boarding houses where she lived before ‘but in the pink house travestis wandered naked through a patio overflowing with plants, talking openly about the effects of silicone gel, giggling as they shared their shameful hopes and dreams’, watching porn or soap operas, playing cards, sharing clothes, wigs and shoes, or giving advice to the rookies. Nocturnal by nature, the pack comes out at night wearing platforms and stilettos to wait for costumers next to the statue of Dante.

Parallel to the experiences inside the boarding house and Sarmiento Park, Sosa Villada chronicles this period in Argentina when it was very dangerous for travestis as they were being murdered and “disappeared”. Not that trans-femicides don’t exist anymore but through the work of activists such as Marlene Wayar and Susy Shock, there are now laws in place to protect trans rights. An example is the Gender Identity Law (Spanish: Ley de identidad de género), which came into force in Argentina in 2012 and allows transgender people to be treated according to their gender identity and have their personal documents registered with the corresponding name and gender.

They didn’t want any of us to survive. One was stoned to death. Another burned alive, like a witch: she had gas poured over her and was set alight by the side of the road. More and more disappeared. There was a monster out there, a monster who fed on travestis.

Sosa Villada turns the light towards the clandestine and takes these marginalised characters out of the margins, brings them to the centre.  Among the horror stories these travestis endure there is also a fairy tale, they are the queens of their own life, of the park, the women that dazzled the streets of Cordoba at night.

The Queens of Sarmiento Park (Las Malas in Spanish) is available from Virago.

Camila Sosa Villada, 1982, Argentina, is a writer, actress, and singer. She previously earned a living as a sex worker, street vendor and maid. Her debut novel The Queens of Sarmiento Park had a mainstream success in Argentina and won the Premio Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz and the Grand Prix de l’Héroïne Madame Figaro. @LanoviadeSandro

Kit Maude is a Spanish translator based in Buenos Aires. His translations have been featured in Granta, the Literary Review, and the Short Story Project, among others. His translation of The Naked Woman by Armonía Somers was shortlisted for the National Translation Award 2018. @readinginbarsforeverafter

Silvia Rothlisberger is a journalist and writer based in London. She is contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on literature in translation and Latin American culture. @silviarothlis