Lorena Borjas – Gone but not forgotten online
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Lorena Borjas

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Lorena Borjas, a longtime advocate for transgender people, undocumented immigrants, and sex workers in Queens, New York, died of COVID-19 on March 30. “Lorena is and will always be that trans mother, who, although she lived through hard times and life was unfair to her, she always wanted better for us,” Liaam Winslet, a transgender woman from Ecuador who sought asylum in the US in 2012 with Borjas’s help, told BuzzFeed News. Borjas was a mentor and champion for the community of Latina transgender sex workers in Queens for almost two decades. She would distribute condoms to sex workers on the street, help them access HIV care, arrange lawyers and bail money when they got arrested, and help undocumented immigrants win legal status. “Everybody would have Lorena’s number on speed dial,” said Cecilia Gentili, a transgender activist who first met Borjas in 2005 at a nightclub where Borjas organized HIV testing. A sex worker who was arrested in the middle of the night could always count on Borjas to pick up the phone, Gentili said. “Early in the morning, she’d go to the courts to wait for the girls to see the judge — it makes such a difference when a judge looks at a sex worker and sees if they have someone behind her.” Borjas did most of her activism without any formal organization behind her. Borjas ran away from her home in Veracruz, Mexico, at the age of 17, and came to the US in 1981 after a few years living on the streets of Mexico City, Gentili said. She got a green card when President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants in 1986. But hard years followed for Borjas — a drug addiction and more dangerous sex work. She also wound up in an abusive relationship with someone who forced her to do sex work against her will. She got her life back on track in the late '90s, but arrests during these years meant she couldn’t renew her green card. But she later received a pardon from the governor of New York, and she became a citizen last year. Her firsthand experience with sex work and the courts meant she knew what kind of help could make the biggest difference, Gentili said.