Chile: A Mapuche Trans Midwife Helps Women through COVID

How to survive discrimination and bring life in the midst of the pandemic

Originally published by: Agencia Presentes

Photos: Josean Rivera/Archive Presentes

Partera Trans Mapuche. Foto: Josean Rivera

Partera Trans Mapuche. Foto: Josean Rivera

A round of applause completely surprised her. They were heard outside her house but seemed very close. Claudia Ancapán Quilape did not expect it, but the clapping on the night of April 7 were for her: a 44-year-old trans woman, midwife, Mapuche, and survivor, who for several years has worked in a clinic in Santiago and continues today, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, to oversee births, cesarean sections, OBGYN controls, family planning, and gestational diseases, among other tasks related to obstetrics and childcare, the career she studied.

That night, some of her neighbors replicated the scene that started in Italy and spread to many countries, to thank health professionals who work in the frontlines to stop the spread of the virus around the world. Claudia went outside to confirm what she was hearing. She says she couldn’t believe it.

― Bravo, Claudia, bravo! They yelled at her from a balcony. We waited for you, neighbor, you deserve all our applause.

― Thank you very much.

Claudia paused, looked around, then stood looking up for a while, smiling. “Thank you all.”

That will never be forgotten, she tells Presentes. No one had applauded her like that, in public, since she decided to make her transition in 2005. Not even when she presented her degree thesis, with honors, after a long investigation on sex trafficking, sexual transmission of infections, and health services attention for trans people, at the Austral University of Chile, where she began to study with her new biological identity.

And now, who least expected it was from her neighbors. Until recently, she faced some awkward moments and attempts at discrimination in her own community. Claudia says that she is used to it, from so many blows she has taken in life. But this time it was not because of her identity or her roots, but because of her profession. It coincided with the complaints made by the Medical College of Chile during the first days of April, about discriminatory measures that were being taken in some buildings against health personnel, restricting the use of elevators and common spaces, in addition to demanding that they are made responsible of their own garbage, among other things.

“The first days I had to educate my community. There was a lot of fear, and I had some differences with a particular neighbor. He questioned my role, but out of panic. And although I understood his reaction, I was forced to stop him. I convinced him to listen to me, and I told him about all the security measures I take every day when I leave my house, at work, and when I return. I had to talk to everyone about this and make them understand that if the health personnel does not do the work, who else is going to do it,” Claudia told us over the phone, one Monday while resting at home, after returning from a 24-hour shift at the clinic.

Evangelical family and indigenous origins

She did not have an easy life, like most trans people. She was born in Santiago, but lived her childhood in towns in southern Chile. She grew up during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, in an evangelical setting and in a family of indigenous origin. She is the penultimate of six brothers and sisters. She went through a rural school, a public school, and later, despite the religion practiced at home, a Catholic school in Puerto Montt, one of the symbolic cities of German colonization in Chile.

“That was a very aspirational decision, of status, because in Chile, unfortunately, it is very common that the school is key in your professional future. In that Catholic school, there was a lot of whitening and I was a black spot. But I dedicated myself to studying and having the best grades so that no one could criticize me or point me out for anything else,” said Claudia.

At the age of five, she had her first encounter with her gender identity. She doesn’t remember it, but she knows it because of what her mother told her years later. “I wanted to be constantly surrounded by girls, playing with dolls, always in touch with the strength of my mom and my sisters, because I felt more comfortable with that gender side. I also wanted to have long hair, like Dorothy Gale, from The Wizard of Oz, but they made me get military cuts because during the dictatorship, all male children had to wear their hair like that,” she says.

She suffered anxiety and panic attacks, and some episodes of anorexia very early. And although her parents took her to many doctors, none of them could understand what was happening to her. “I suffered a lot because I wanted to be a girl and I couldn’t. At that time the lack of knowledge about these issues was absolute,” she recalls.

She decided to study obstetrics because she suspected what was happening to her, but she had no further references. She read in a couple of books she found in a public library that in other countries there was something called sex reassignment surgery. That discovery was one of her first beacons to follow her path and not give up.

“Knowledge was my salvation. I decided that ir I couldn’t have access to specialists (because at that time it was unthinkable), then I would approach science myself, and for that I had to specialize in this area of ​​health, to know my anatomy,” she points out. She took the opportunity to study about hormones and made her body available for clinical studies.

Violence and discrimination

In the university, she experienced many episodes of physical, institutional violence, and discrimination. Shortly before starting school, a group of neo-Nazis attacked her in the same way, years later, another similar group would attack Daniel Zamudio, in Santiago. They beat her to destroy her face. They also raped her. “It was very hard to overcome that episode, but I always say that it was a lapse in my life that in the end only strengthened me. Those who did this to me did not win, because they did not kill me, they only pushed me to fulfill something that seemed impossible: for a transsexual to become a midwife in a country as retrograde and patriarchal as Chile.”

Years after going through several hospitals in the south, Claudia moved to Santiago but nobody wanted to hire her after she was fired from the San Borja Hospital. She dreamed of making a career in the maternity wing of the public health center. Since the doors of all the hospitals and clinics in the city were closed to her, she spent three years searching for her life with various trades, especially in the area of ​​fast food.

The death of her father, in 2007, was one of the final impulses to make the decision to live “full time” and to abandon the double life that she says she was living before traveling. And it did not affect her family as much as the medical union and her closed work environment. “For the professional circle in which I moved it was an insult. They told me that this was going to destroy my credibility at the time of working because transsexuality was associated with prostitution. That still happens to me to this day. Once, while looking for a job, a doctor told me that I had a mental illness and that I would never be able to exercise again,” she recalls.

“What inspires me most about the Mapuche cause is its resistance”

Claudia is a resilient person, partly because of all the obstacles she had to overcome. “I have a strong personality, that of a woman who survives violence in all its forms,” ​​she says. But she is also convinced that her Mapuche roots have a lot to do with her way of facing the road ahead and getting to where she is today. “Many times they have discriminated against me only because of how I look because it is evident that I have indigenous roots. For me, discrimination has always been twofold,” she adds. This makes her feel more proud of her origins, her family, and her community.

During the Women’s Day protests on March 8 or LGBTQI marches, she usually wears traditional clothing of her people, such as the Wenüfoye flag. Once she went to a Pride march with a sign that said, in Mapudungún: “Your freedom will be real when you manage to let go of the weight you don’t need.” She was dressed in a quetpám, a Sikil pin hanging on her chest and a trarilonko on her head, at the height of her forehead.

But even so, Claudia recognizes that her connection with the indigenous cause is not as deep as she would like it to be, and she regrets not having learned the language when she was little when she listened to her mother speak. As an adult, she took several courses, most recently online. She’s also doing research on coronaviruses, while the curve in Chile continues to rise and exceeds 10,000 cases.

“What inspires me most about the Mapuche cause is their resistance, how they fought against the conquerors, how they take care of their lands and the entire ecosystem,” confesses Claudia about this town that for years has discriminated in many ways in their country. A recent study by the Universidad de Talca on racial discrimination in Chile revealed that the majority of Chileans prefer to shed any indigenous ties and believe that having a Mapuche surname can be detrimental in seeking employment or promotion in a company. Claudia says that reality breaks her heart.

This year, she had plans to travel south to live with an indigenous community to learn more about them, and who she is, from everyday life and not from books, academia, or family history. But the coronavirus changed her compass and priorities. For now, Claudia is still in Santiago working, attending emergencies, assisting doctors in surgical wards. On their social networks and close surroundings, they share useful information that can help prevent infections. Every time she gets home, the routine is the same: she takes her clothes off before entering, leaves them in a bag to wash them immediately, she takes a shower, disinfects what she has touched, cleans the bathroom, and so it goes, every day, very aware of each step she takes: “I am vulnerable and I do not deny that sometimes I feel fear, but I do everything I can to protect myself and my community. This is the role that touched me, and I am grateful to be alive for that.”