Soraya Santiago Solla, Transgender Trailblazer, Dies at 72

An obituary by Frances Robles for The New York Times.

She was the first in Puerto Rico to change a gender designation on a birth certificate and the first there to reveal that she’d had sex-reassignment surgery.

Always wearing her signature sun hat and large bangle bracelets, Soraya Santiago Solla would bristle when constantly asked about the dreaded “t-word.”

She knew she was a trailblazer, revered in some circles for being the first person in Puerto Rico to change the gender originally designated on a birth certificate. But she would not accept being called “transsexual.” She was a woman, her documents proved it, and that was that.

“I don’t permit anyone here in Puerto Rico or anywhere to tell me that I am transsexual,” Ms. Santiago, a beautician, said in “Mala Mala,” a 2014 documentary film about the transgender community in Puerto Rico. “If I have my papers, recognized as female, why the hell do they have to say I am transsexual? What is that? Sometimes I don’t even know what that is, and nor am I interested.”

Ms. Santiago died on Sept. 22 at her home in Carolina, a city on Puerto Rico’s northern coast outside San Juan. She was 72. Cancer had spread throughout her body, but the cause was respiratory failure, said her sister and only immediate survivor, Carmen Santiago Solla.

Ms. Santiago was born on Dec. 6, 1947, in San Juan to Alicia Solla, a hotel housekeeper, and Ramón Santiago Berrios, a government tax agency official. Her parents thought it odd that their son, from the age of 2, urinated crouching down instead of standing and tried to beat that behavior out of the child, as she recalled in a 2014 memoir. Her father, eager to change his effeminate child’s ways, would drag the child to boxing matches.

“She was between 15 and 17 years old when she said, ‘I’m leaving, I can’t continue with this,’” her sister recalled in a phone interview.

Ms. Santiago moved to New York and found acceptance in its gay community, hanging out at one of its gathering spots, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, before it became the scene of the famous uprising in 1969 that effectively kicked off the gay-rights movement. She was frequently interviewed about the protests, though she was not there.

In New York, Ms. Santiago was determined to undergo sex-reassignment surgery and, at 28, did so in 1975 after her mother gave her $3,000 to cover the cost.

Her identity now medically official, she moved back home, where she was believed to be the first person in Puerto Rico to publicly acknowledge having undergone the surgery. Doing so took some bravery on an island where there had been little tolerance for transgender people. Indeed, dozens of transgender people have been victims of violence in the past decade, and six transgender women have been murdered there this year alone.

Shortly after her return, Ms. Santiago petitioned a court to legally change not just her name — she chose Bárbara — but also her gender on her birth certificate.

“I remember telling her, ‘OK, show me your records,’” said Ana Delia Sánchez Crespo, who at the time was the administrator of the courthouse in Carolina, outside San Juan. “Nobody opposed it.” A gynecologist testified on Ms. Santiago’s behalf.

She officially became Bárbara Santiago Solla in 1976, although she was more commonly known as Soraya.

In court, Ms. Sánchez had recused herself from the case because Ms. Santiago was her hairdresser and friend.

“She was a leader,” Ms. Sánchez said. “She wanted everyone to have equal rights, civil rights — all their rights — and she did it.”

Ms. Santiago in “Mala Mala.” The owner of a hair salon that catered to the upper class, she became an idol to Puerto Rico’s transgender community.
Ms. Santiago in “Mala Mala.” The owner of a hair salon that catered to the upper class, she became an idol to Puerto Rico’s transgender community.

For decades, Ms. Santiago owned Soraya Hair Design, a popular salon for politically-connected upper-class women. She hobnobbed with powerful people and became an idol in the transgender community, even though she rejected being associated with the term “L.G.B.T.Q.,” explaining that she identified as a heterosexual woman.

She sold the salon a few years ago because of financial and health troubles.

In 1986, Ms. Santiago married a man from Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, Héctor Mejía Santana, and used her birth certificate to petition immigration services to allow him to take up residence with her in Puerto Rico. Some officials questioned whether someone who was legally born male should be allowed to sponsor another man’s immigration application, but she won that battle, too.

The marriage ended in divorce a few years later.

In 2008, Ms. Santiago ran unsuccessfully for a Municipal Assembly seat in Carolina as a member of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, becoming the first openly trans person to run for office on the island.

She published her memoir, “Hand Made: Gender Dysphoria, Soraya,” in 2014, attended international conferences and gave television interviews about gender dysphoria, which she described in medical terms that many people in the transgender community considered archaic.

“My throat has gotten dry from trying to explain that the only difference between a woman and me, is that one comes straight from the factory and mine was made by hand in the United States of America,” she wrote in her book.

She was featured in the documentary “Mala Mala,” which was directed by Antonio Santini and Dan Sickles and had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2014. Mr. Santini said that when the film played in Puerto Rico, Ms. Santiago would stand outside the theater with a bag of books to sign and sell.

In the film, she and Ivana Fred, a transgender activist, debate what it means to be trans. Ms. Santiago disliked the emphasis transgender women often put on good looks. “Being a woman is something you carry in your heart and soul,” she said.

She asserted that some transgender women give up living as females once they gain weight, get old and “are no longer the Barbie they aspired to be.”

“So what are you, a beauty queen or a woman?” she asked.

Mr. Santini, who was 22 when he began making the movie, said Ms. Santiago understood the importance of telling transgender people’s stories.

“Puerto Rico is an awfully transphobic and homophobic island,” Mr. Santini said. “She created a beautiful space for herself. Soraya dedicated her life to this.”

And despite her illness, she kept on with the business of her life. Last year she received her bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Puerto Rico, and at her death she was working on a second memoir. In an interview this year, she told the CBS News correspondent David Begnaud, “I have to keep on fighting.”

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