A report by Michelle Santiago Cortés for Refinery 29.
Natasha Alor, 24, doesn’t see herself as an activist. Or rather, she never set out to be one. Last August, she joined what came to be thousands of Puerto Ricans in their demand to oust the now-former governor Ricardo Roselló after leaked group chat messages between the governor and his advisors showed rampant homophobia, corruption, and a callous attitude towards the thousands of lives lost to Hurricane María. The 15 days of protests resulted in Roselló’s resignation, ending his term as governor over a year and a half early.
Alor joined the protests as an artist — more specifically, a drag performer. She has long been committed to raising awareness about women’s rights and trans rights in Puerto Rico, but as photos of her protest performances spread through the local press and social media, Alor suddenly found herself with a fast-growing platform. Alor and other boricua activists have been demanding the government issue a state of emergency over spiking femicide rates. In February, for example, the murder of Alexa, a house-less trans woman, was met with outrage but little government attention.In response, Alor started a campaign on her Twitter page, making herself available to all six of Puerto Rico’s gubernatorial candidates to discuss their plans to address trans rights. She didn’t get any responses for a while. Until June, when Juan Dalmau — aspiring governor running with the Puerto Rican Independence Party — reached out for a meeting. As more candidates have met with Alor, her social media pages have slowly turned into an open forum for people to hear how the candidates plan to help trans people.
Refinery29 caught up with Natasha Alor to talk about why she doesn’t consider herself an activist, what it means to speak up, and what the election can and cannot do to improve life for Puerto Ricans.
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In your own words, describe what you do. Are you an activist? An organizer? An artist?
I never considered myself an activist. There are some people who put it in their Twitter bio or on Instagram or on any social media. They’ll write: “activist.” I don’t do that because I don’t consider myself an activist. I’m just a person who likes to speak up on the issues that I live and that people around me live. For me, it’s just part of what I do. It’s not a title. People say that I’m an activist but I just feel uncomfortable with the title sometimes. Because I feel it comes with a lot of responsibility. People are always watching every single thing you do or say and they forget that it’s just one aspect of me. It’s not what I intended to become. I don’t represent a community, I represent myself.
You kind of blew up in Puerto Rico after your photos from the summer 2019 protests were circulated and you went viral on Twitter. You said you joined those protests as an artist but now you’re taking meetings with gubernatorial candidates. Has it been an easy transition or do you struggle to reconcile being an artist and like, a public figure in politics?
I sometimes struggle. Now I’m trying to separate who I am as an artist and who I am as a trans woman because people tend to mix the two. They hear, “Oh, you’re a drag queen. You’re a man who dresses up as a woman.” And for people that don’t understand what drag is or what being a trans woman is, it’s a bit confusing. So I try to separate them but it’s really difficult for me. Drag is what I do for a living. But I’m also really vocal about the issues and that falls into my art. So I’ve struggled with that because people don’t really take me seriously because of the things I do in my performance. They say: “Oh, she’s an activist but she’s strutting around naked.” So that’s the hard part of trying to get people to take me seriously, especially when my views favor independence and more radical action — that makes people lose respect for me here in Puerto Rico.
Juan Dalmau was the first candidate to reach out to you. But you met with Victoria Ciudadana’s Alexandra Lúgaro first. And you’ve said you’ve been in contact with other candidates as well. You said you wanted them to share their plans but once you met with them in person, how do you turn those conversations into useful information for your followers?
After I met with the candidates, I went on Instagram Live and I talked about my experience, I also talked about it on Twitter. What I do is not very formal — it just happened, it’s not like I was expecting them to answer, so I wasn’t planning on filming. I just wanted to talk to them on a personal level and know for myself. And since I know a lot of people listen to me, I can tell them what I see in the meetings.
Even though I lean towards Dalmau, I’ve also been critical of him. But some people think I’m a fanatic for the pro-independence party, which happens whenever you lean left. A lot of people appreciate what I do and think I’m pretty objective. So there’s mixed feelings. I know a lot of people don’t like me and a lot of people do like me. I’m really just doing this because I feel it’s my responsibility to be informed. I like to share what I learn with other people. But I’m not necessarily expecting other people to listen to me or side with my views.
Let’s talk about elections. Despite us all being US citizens in Puerto Rico, you can’t vote for president if you live on the island, that’s often cited as an instance of voter suppression. But we are really invested in gubernatorial elections, as the governor is the top-ranking ruler in the land. So our voter turnout is extremely high — we vote the fuck out of our elections. But unlike in the US, who we elect can only manage the colony and can’t do anything of real impact without approval from Congress. In recent years, we’ve been more and more aware of how we’re only electing a colonial administrator. What’s your take on Puerto Rican elections this year?
That was another problem that we have here in Puerto Rico, trans people face a lot of difficulties when they register to vote. I think, and this is a really personal opinion, a lot of people think that this election is going to change everything and I think it’s the start but I don’t think much will change yet. But it’s really important to send the message that change is coming and that we are aware of what’s going on in the government and it’s important for everyone to participate and hopefully change something. Or if not change, then send the message that there are a lot people who dont like what’s happening and that they better beware for the next elections because change is coming.
And some things can be done in this election, but I’m not that hopeful yet. But I think it’s really important for people to vote and participate because even though we don’t get rid of the two parties we want to get rid of, we send a message of “we’re tired of this” and “we’re aware,” and “you need to do better if you want us to keep you in that position.” Because we already don’t want them so if they screw up again, they’re not going to get another chance.
If voting is such a limited course of action, what can people do? And what are you learning is more impactful?
Aside from voting, it’s really important to speak up on what’s going on and not turn a blind eye to all the problems that we’re living. It’s important to speak up, to participate in the conversation. To me, that’s the most important part and that’s what’s gotten me to be able to talk to candidates and influence people. Because when you speak up, it helps other people question their views. If you stay silent, nothing is going to happen. You can go vote and that’s fine, but I think that if you really want change you need to speak up.
And what does speaking up look like?
It’s being vocal in your family. It’s being vocal on social media. If you can, go to protests. If you are able to, go on a TV or on a radio show. If you have any kind of platform, you need to do it. In any circle where you have influence — because everyone has influence in certain aspects, and certain circles and certain places. That’s where you need to speak up.
I’ve learned with experience that silence is complicity and I learned the hard way that I need to speak up on these issues that are happening around the world. And in Puerto Rico, specifically, I do have a voice, people listen and we all have voices and we all have someone who is going to listen. And it’s not always going on social media or TV or going out to the streets. But at least talk about it with your family and your friends.