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The world’s first school for trans students isn’t just building bright futures. It’s saving lives.

In Argentina, 3.8 million students attend almost 12,000 secondary schools. In this tremendous educational world, there is one school unlike any other: the “Bachillerato Popular Travesti-Trans Mocha Celis.” This institution was born in 2011 with the mission of promoting trans and nonbinary equality in formal education. It was the first of its kind in the world. The school is named in honor of Mocha Celis, a trans person who was murdered in the Flores neighborhood in circumstances that have never been clarified.

Today, twelve years after its opening, the “Mocha,” as its students affectionately call it, has 290 high school students. It has become a beacon for the community, and the idea has encouraged the creation of similar schools in other cities and countries. 

Although the construction was collective and required the impulse of the whole community, Francisco Quiñones Cuartas was one of the creators of the educational space. He is currently the school’s director and president of the civil association that was subsequently formed. During a lunch break, he speaks with LGBTQ Nation about this journey, their challenges, and the rights still to be won. 

“We started with a project so the trans population can finish high school. We thought of it as a non-exclusive space open to the whole community. As time went by, we grew, and after the pandemic, we became a civil association with eleven programs and projects that work in coordination with the school. The intention is to eliminate barriers to access to rights.” 

Access to education in a space free of discrimination is no small feat for the transgender population. According to a recent report by the Public Defender’s Office, the average life expectancy of trans Argentinians is between 35 and 40 years. In many cases, the population’s only source of income is prostitution. 

All of this even though compared to other countries in the region, Argentina is an advanced country in the fight for trans equality. In 2010, the Equal Marriage Law passed; two years later came the Gender Identity Law, which allows self-determination of gender. Finally. In 2021 came Law 27636, better known as “Cupo Laboral Travesti Trans,” which established a minimum quota of 1% of the positions and posts of the National State for the trans population. 

The creators of Mocha Celis used to visit the areas where prostitution was practiced to look for students. In the early years, classes were held in the afternoon so that education would not overlap with night work schedules. 

“I thought I was going to die while doing sex work,” Lariana Guerrerola, a student at Mocha Chelis tells LGBTQ Nation. “Beginning to study was like starting to dream of another life. You can aspire to a better job and a more dignified future with a high school degree. Going back to school has been the most beautiful experience I’ve had in recent years.”

Throughout their lives, trans people are denied fundamental rights such as health, decent housing and work. The Mocha Celis school is the first step towards gaining these rights. 

“The first initiative was to gain access to basic rights,” Cuartas said. “Then, it became a meeting place and a seedbed of ideas. We were born as a school but became more than an educational space. We are a place of access to rights so the trans community can express its full potential. Education and culture are the axes of this project.”

When Cuartas talks about the seedbed of ideas, he refers to ventures that emerged from the Mocha Celis experience. For example, one of the most outstanding is the Teje Solidario project. This care network provides comprehensive support and accompaniment in completing procedures and subsidies to prevent evictions and facilitate access to health care.

Quiñones Cuartas believes that the school breaks with the scheme of someone who teaches and another who learns. He speaks of a construction of knowledge with the other person. “We are all ignorant of something. In turn, all people know something and are constantly learning. There is a collective construction in that exchange. Trans people are producers of knowledge and meaning. They can generate debates and participate in public discussions. Other educational spaces in Paraguay, Chile, Costa Rica, and Brazil have applied our experience in their territories.” 

Obtaining a high school diploma is the first step for many transgender people to have access to a better life. Then, they can aspire to get a job and improve their living conditions. Through its complementary programs, the baccalaureate is concerned with finding jobs and encouraging the creation of productive enterprises.

The late trans activist Lohana Berkins used to say that to claim a right, one must first know it. One of the goals of Mocha Celis is to disseminate that knowledge through educational and civic work. Some powerful initiatives include the creation of a transgender employment network, a transgender library and regional meetings with similar schools in the country.

 “This allows us to transform reality,” Quiñones Cuartas says. “I know the situation is different in Buenos Aires than in a small, more conservative city. But in any case, many of our colleagues study at our school and then travel to build projects in their provinces. Please think of the change that this means for people who were victims of police and state persecution, which condemned them and pushed them to commit crimes.” 

Francisco Quiñones Cuartas finishes his lunch at school. Someone approaches him to tell him that a donation has arrived. He says that he is tired but proud of the construction of this space, which has been changing venues and now has a building granted by the Ministry of Education.

“The trans and non-binary found a place. The same schools expelled many classmates. Why did they expel them? They forced them to go to a bathroom that did not belong to them; they called them by the name on their ID and not by the name they felt, and they discriminated against them. A few years ago, education was unthinkable for them. The students have baptized Mocha Celis as ‘the tenderness school’ because it provides a place of love, care, and support. Today, they expect to study, pursue a university degree, and work. They realized that it was possible.”

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Source of data and images: lgbtqnation

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