Nicole Santamaria

I Never Blame People

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

Editor’s Note:  Human rights injustices and violations take on many different forms ranging from discrimination, denying access to basic rights including education, employment, and the right to vote, emotional and physical abuse, to assassinations with barbaric mutilation and dismemberment.  

All of the above is particularly true of women in El Salvador, the country with the highest rate of femicide in the world where every 36 hours a woman is killed.  The machismo culture in Latin American countries may have a strong contributory correlation to this high statistic. 

Adding another layer to injustices and crimes beyond violating women is a group whose lives have become highly endangered because of their gender bias, that of the LGBTI community.  150 recent cases of hate crimes against this group have been identified with not a single case brought to justice.  The reality within Latin America is the total impunity by its law enforcement authorities to investigate and prosecute the violators of these gender-based hate crimes.  In a nutshell, members of the LGBTI community are being targeted and killed for no other reason than for their gender identity.  “Be a patriot, kill a gay” are signs that are reminiscent of those on streets during the country’s civil war (1980-1992) which read, “Be a patriot, kill a priest.”  Life can be very vulnerable for a woman in El Salvador, particularly one with non-traditional gender issues. 

Firmly grounded in her Christian faith, Nicole defines herself as an activist against gender-based violence and protecting the rights of transgender women.  However, she is more than that; listening to her share what she hopes will be a beginning of positive change in Salvadoran societal attitudes and actions, she is also a sensitive and determined advocate for those groups who do not have a voice; do not have a visible spokesperson to represent them.  The groups vary from time to time depending on where the needs lie.  It may involve speaking out for the indigenous group at a given moment or for the gay community another time.  Nicole is willing to represent those without a voice. 

Nicole was once that person herself.  She finds that by including others in her healing, she heals herself through working as a professional art therapist. 

Fluent in four languages, she studies and travels extensively while passionately and courageously crusading as a bold ambassador of the transgender community.  Colectivo Alejandria is the organization Nicole and other women founded whose purpose is to collectively reach out to those facing discrimination and violations of their human rights.  Its focus is the right of education, which she feels is the grassroots for opportunities throughout life.

 Read how and why Nicole became so deeply involved with this movement steering her life toward advocacy for human rights.  She has a selfless, compelling story.

It took some broken teeth and internal damage plus a great deal of emotional trauma to motivate me into action.  Studying art therapy to heal myself, I discovered  it is a useful tool for helping others.  That was six years ago.




This assault happened when two doctors and I were working and decided to stop for dinner.  It occurred outside the restaurant. Four men approached us; two put guns to the heads of the doctors.  One was robbing me and trying to rape me.  Thoughts of my pending torture and killing; my possibly being cut into pieces and thrown into the river for my mother to have to identify went through my head and I screamed and screamed and screamed while fighting my assailant off.  Meanwhile someone nearby with a cell phone must have called the police.   When a cruiser pulled up, the robbers had only took my documents and money.

Five years later, working with sexual workers in a dangerous area in downtown San Salvador, a group of “mareros” stopped me and touched me.  When I pushed one away, he hit me, but only took my purse.  I consider myself blessed to survive because a week later in the same location a woman was killed.

Parents and society want to raise children in a particular gender specific role sometimes forcing a gender on a child whether or not it fits that individual child.  I was raised as a boy.  I was born on October 10, 1979, as the country was approaching its civil war.  My parents felt it was safer to raise me as a boy during that time.  The army raped girls.

I was raised in a strong machismo culture promoted by my father.  He could easily become violent toward my brother and me.  My mother also became a victim of domestic violence.  She was hospitalized twice due to his attacks.  I can remember an incident when I was 15; the three of us kids tried to save our mother from our father’s beating.  My father was not an alcoholic and he never used drugs.  His problems stemmed from anger management issues as a result of a neurotic mental illness personality.  I feel the root of the machismo culture is unrelated to economics; rather something the fundamental religions say God created women to suffer and be oppressed.

On my sixth birthday in 1986 El Salvador experienced a devastating earthquake that destroyed my five-story school building while we were in class.  My classroom was located on the first floor; older students were rescuing us younger students.  I can vividly recall the scenes on TV of similar earthquake destruction in other schools with no survivors and parents carrying their dead children out of the debris.  This experience taught me about the fragility of life and vulnerability we live with each day.

Another hair-raising experience during my early childhood occurred when I was seven or eight years old.  I was sitting on a rocking chair inside the house and just happened to be rocking BACK at the very second when a bullet literally passed before my eyes across my body through the door.  That is a close call.  Another fraction of a second later rocking forward and I would be dead.

All three of us children attended private Jesuit schools.  The one my sister and I attended was Externado de San Jose.  I realized growing up, the gender identity problems I had were never at school where my peers and teachers respected me. They were only at home primarily with my father.  The Jesuit schools raised our awareness of another point of view in terms of human rights and dignity.  Parents of many of my friends who attended the school were survivors of the July 30, 1975 massacre, were exiles, or had disappeared family members.  We were exposed to injustices at very young impressionable ages.

Grief is tough to handle at any age but I lost two very important people in my life within six months of one another when I was a teenager.  My maternal grandmother, who I was close to and who served as a religious role model, died on May 23, 1994.  My best school friend died on August 29, 1994 of leukemia and the hardest part of his death was knowing death was imminent and not being able to say goodbye to him.  In the Latin culture we hold that as an important tradition.  My parents were well intended in shielding me from what they expected to be too shocking a scene for me to handle to visit him in the hospital on his deathbed. He had been held back in 8th grade due to his illness and I had moved onto 9th grade and so we were not seeing one another on a regular basis.  I don’t blame my parents; I don’t like that word and feel you cannot live in peace if you use that word.  Things happen and you have to learn from them and the word is complicated.  I prefer to blame situations, circumstances, contexts, like machismo or hate or prejudices rather than people.  People just reflect these ideologies.

The most important thing I learned about losing my friend was not to have anything to regret.  Having been in two different grades I didn’t have the opportunities to spend good quality time together with my friend I wish we could have.  I want to never regret anything I omit doing for someone.  For example, I had lived away from home for 16 years and returned to live with my mom two years ago.  She experienced a deep depression after losing her sister.  It was worse than losing her mom or husband.  She was destroyed.  I am with her now spending time together because I have the opportunity to do so.  I want her to have the best memories of me and I want to create the best memories for her while I can.  It is useless later.

I don’t think I could have or would have survived any of these ordeals without either of two key elements.  The first is my faith.  The Jesuits at school rooted us in a deep, grounded kind of faith toward helping others.   It allows you to question.   It was never an obligation to attend services at the school chapel if you did not want to.  The Jesuits exposed us to liberation theology and my tradition of thinking of God is not His being up in the clouds but very near to us.  My faith is a deep strong faith.  I thank God for everything in my life and feel if I didn’t have faith, that if there were not something supreme for me to believe in, I would not have survived.  Now I serve as an active leader within the Anglican Church.

The second key activity that probably contributes to my survival and well-being is my thirst for reading.  I began to read at age four.  There were not kids in the neighborhood my age.  My sister is eleven years older and my brother is nine years older.  My gender identity issues played into my inner conflict.  I couldn’t do girl stuff because I was not permitted to.  I wouldn’t do boy stuff because I was not interested in it.  I was in limbo and sometimes felt very alone.  Reading served as an escape from reality; I could fantasize in the characters of the books; it could be cathartic.  Reading was key in filling hours of loneliness for me.  Loneliness, for me, was not simply being by myself.  I could be in a large sea of faces but remain lonely in my thoughts and in my heart.

I started reading cartoons when I was young and moved into historical books.  I probably read everything by Nicaraguan writer, Gioconda Belli.  Reading did more than fill the void in my life; it taught me a great deal and I ended up winning awards and earning scholarships for the rest of my education as a result of pursuing and striving to learn.  I love learning languages and began to learn English from a Canadian neighbor when I was five.  I took six months of Portuguese classes; learned German from a boyfriend, and speak a little Italian.

The arts connected with me and like many avid readers, I wrote but only for personal use or for school.  I was also involved in theater, singing and dancing.  I chose to study in art design at Universidad Dr. Matias Delgado, a private college, because National University did not offer classes in that area at the time.  I studied fashion design, jewelry, landscape, photography, children’s puppetry, etc.  Because I tend to be on the active side and require only four hours of sleep a night, besides reading, I tend to be involved with projects on a larger scale; part of a sisterhood.  For example, I began raising and rescuing birds.



My mother is my “tattoo.”  She is in my heart.  Our personalities are quite similar and we both tend to react in a calm manner in hard moments.  She isn’t necessarily expressive, but a role model in her actions of courage and serenity.  My mother can see both sides of a coin.  She chose a humanistic profession.  My mom has worked as a school teachers since the time she was 17 years old.  She studied sociology at the National University, which was a dangerous field of study during the 1980’s when the military prosecuted students studying in the human rights fields.  My mom was one of the survivors of the July 30, 1975 massacre {military attack on university students}, which is still memorialized in this country.  At the time it happened, the Jesuit school Externado de San Jose opened their doors to those fleeing the massacre.  My mom graduated from college and became a sociologist when I was six.  I was aware how hard she studied and worked for her degree.  When I was nine, she studied in Spain for her Masters’ degree for a year.

My mom was a sociologist; she was also a feminist and a teacher living in a violent home situation.  She was not only building her professional skill base, but working up the courage to leave my father knowing she would need to provide economically for three children.  Although abusive, my father was very successful in the advertising field of employment.  He was the economic power of our family.  We lived a comfortable middle class lifestyle.  This all factored into my mom’s decision.

In 1995 when I was 16 my parents divorced and my mom continued to support and educate us.  All three of us are well educated as a result and have professional careers.  My sister is a pediatric ENT; my brother is an electrical engineer.  I became a product designer in the arts and crafts area.

After I graduated high school, I worked and studied at the university and wanted to help my mom economically with my studies.  In 2004 I went to Costa Rica to continue my studies and stayed there two years.  At that point I decided to see a doctor about my confusion with my gender identity.  She did extensive blood and DNA testing resulting in the findings of something I never heard of – XXY intersexual status.  She told me 75 types exist and my case showed 3 types: chromosomes, hormones, and physical traits.  Now all my feelings made sense and I made the decision to go through the transition.

During this treatment time in Costa Rica, I continued to study.   I decided to use those art therapy skills to help both myself heal from my assault six years ago as well as to help others in similar situations of gender based violence.  Being a woman in El Salvador is dangerous.  A human rights defender makes us very vulnerable.  Part of working with human rights is empathizing with others who suffer.  When you enable your own heart to heal, that energy transfers to those around you.    My business card reads, “Social design for a social change.”  There are only three art therapists in El Salvador.  We work separately; I often volunteer my services since many who need help are unable to afford to pay.

I had no intention of starting Colectivo Alejandria, but I discovered there was no organization for individuals from LGBTI community who were survivors of Homo Lesbo Bi Trans Inter phobia gender-based hate crimes.  As we studied what this group collectively needed, we discovered that many are pushed out of their homes at young ages.   They have NO ACCESS to health; NO ACCESS to education; NO ACCESS to employment; NO ACCESS to health care.  The majority of the Transgender Women end up as sex workers because only 3% of them have an education and 97% have no opportunity to work in other employment options, and are forced into sexual work to survive.  25.6% have HIV.  (HIV has not been a problem within the transgender community.) Out of 6 hate crime murders, 4 are transgender persons and 2 are gay; transgender are targeted. There is often personal harassment and denial of voting privileges at polling places for LGBTI individuals if their photos do not match those on their DUI cards.  International poll watchers have helped in this recent past presidential election to reduce this discriminatory practice.

Our organization chose education as our grassroots goal to work on because it is such a basic overriding need to satisfy before employment and health care kicks into place.  There are no opportunities without an education.  It is not possible for transgender individuals to receive either a public or private education in El Salvador unless they go to night school, attend classes on weekends, or take on-line classes.  This is because of the pervasive discriminatory attitude within the schools, which is even promoted at the college level by the professional staff.  Staff is not trained to deal with the dynamics or respect the diversity of the transgender individual.  There is a current case pending at a private university in which a transgender student had to quit due to the physical and emotional violence from the professors who promoted the students to violate her human rights.  We are denouncing that university’s practice.

We’ve spoken with the Minister of Education about this injustice.  Recently five transgender women graduated from high school for the first time with gender expression but with their legal names or names given for their parents.  One student was in her second year of Journalism school but she quit for the discrimination.  There is another transgender woman studying in the same University in the Law School who is also facing discrimination.

As the only visible intersexual face in this county, certainly I am aware of being targeted; I am aware of dangers in this field I chose to pursue.  I dream of a life without fear.  I hope the new generations could be raised in a better and more secure place to provide a happy life without prejudices.  I hope that my efforts serve as a beginning, a springboard for other advocates and activists in this area of human rights.  I hope that my two nieces can be raised in a different context than we were raised.  One child I am currently involved with is an 11- year old rape victim who is 7 months pregnant.  She should NOT have to bear and raise this child robbing her of a life of her own and raising an unwanted child.  She is the same age as one of my nieces.  I cannot imagine a society forcing her to keep and raise the child.  I want to fight for her.  Abortion rights do not exist in El Salvador, which has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the world.  We human rights workers would like to see 3 exceptions made: in the case of rape, if the baby doesn’t have a chance to live outside the uterus, or if the mother’s health is at risk.



I am currently close to completing a study in gender-based violence.  Although I dislike labels, for political reasons, I need to present myself working on behalf of rights of others.  Sometimes I will present myself as indigenous if that will help that group of women; other times I will present myself as a transsexual, if they need my assistance.  It is basically all under the umbrella of  “Stop gender–based violence; allow gender diversity in human rights.”  Then there are several other areas I am trying to decide between studying for my Masters’ degree.  All relate to societal changes.

My faith, my mom, and the love for what I do all continue to provide me with personal strength and support.  I may not see the results of my work in my lifetime, but maybe my efforts will be the beginning for the future.  That is my motivation.

150 cases against transgender individuals have been reported with complete impunity by law enforcement.  That is unacceptable.





    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.