Isabella Cortez, 32, says when she was a small child growing up near San Salvador she loved to sleep “because gender was never an issue when I dreamed.”
“The nightmares happened to the boy when I woke up,” she says.
Isabella, who was born Ezekiel, a name she hasn’t used to refer to herself since she was 11 years old, says her father, Ramon, beat her daily, calling her “maricon” and pummeling her with his fist until she could not see, even threatening at one point to set her on fire. “He poured gasoline on me and told me to light a match.”
Ramon even had his friends’ kids try to beat her up and “make Ezekiel a man.” Of course the entire town joined in and in no time Isabella had no safe place and no friends anywhere.
But then fate intervened.
“When I was 14, one day my father took me to have sex with a woman to ‘break me of a homosexual demon.’” What his father didn’t realize was that the woman he had hired was transgender. “Angelita turned out to be a trans woman and she instantly took me under her wing. We told my father that ‘everything went very well.’”
“But my father figured it out and had Angelita beaten. He actually ordered her killed,” Isabella says. “She nearly died when some townspeople jumped her and stabbed her. The police would not help her, even the hospital refused to help her much.” Isabella, who was also brutalized, tried to help Angelita but it was nearly impossible.
Isabella says she lived in terror with daily beatings, threats, and being spit at in the streets where ever she went. “I was determined to help Angelita and when she was finally well enough we decided we just had to get away. We decided to try to go to the states.”
With $1,000 between them, Isabella says, she and Angelita stole a car and drove it to the border where they met other LGBT people. “It was like fate brought us together. I guess it had.”
Over the next six months, Isabella and Angelita, along with “about a dozen other LGBT people” made their way north. It wasn’t all bad. People on that journey became family and life-long best friends, the closest of any I have ever known in my life.”
By April 1990 the group had survived every indignity to make it to Mexicali where they crossed the border in the middle of the night. Angelita was captured and returned to El Salvador where she was murdered five years later, says Isabella. “Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.”
“The rest scattered to the winds and for the next six months I didn’t have a dime, living on the streets of San Diego. It was only when someone drove me into Los Angeles that things began to change. I lived on a sidewalk downtown with a few other trans people and we fought like hell to survive. I was ‘homeless’ until I was 26 years old.”
Isabella says she escorted to make a living and that’s how she met the man of her dreams, “an honest and loving man who has transformed my life and who says I am the best thing that ever happened to him.”
When asked what she hopes everyone will take from her story she said, “I hope everyone will realize when they see a homeless trans person they will think about how difficult their journey probably has been.”
Isabella is still not a U.S. citizen and has never registered in any way; she asked the Los Angeles Blade not to use her face in a photo.
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but I am afraid even to get a marriage license, that if I try they will send me back. I’m too happy here to even try,” she said.
“In America I am a woman when I am awake. I am very happy.”
How long have you been out and who was the hardest person to tell?
I have never been anyone but who I am and nothing has been easy.
Who’s your LGBT hero?
I am. We all are.
What’s Los Angeles’ best nightspot, past or present?
I love my friends who live on Cole Avenue at Santa Monica Blvd.
Describe your dream wedding.
I had it. A beach wedding at sunset in Venice.
What non-LGBT issue are you most passionate about?
What historical outcome would you change?
I grew up during the war in El Salvador. It was brutal.
What’s been the most memorable pop culture moment of your lifetime?
On what do you insist?
What was your last Facebook post or Tweet?
I don’t have papers so I don’t post.
If your life were a book, what would the title be?
“The adventures of Isabella and Angelita”
If science discovered a way to change sexual orientation, what would you do?
Nothing at all.
What do you believe in beyond the physical world?
I believe in the lord Jesus Christ.
What’s your advice for LGBT movement leaders?
Get over your fear of helping undocumented people like me.
What would you walk across hot coals for?
I walked across hot coals to live in this country, literally.
What LGBT stereotype annoys you most?
That transgender people want surgery.
What’s your favorite LGBT movie?
“En Algún Lugar”
What’s the most overrated social custom?
Trying not to make a noise when you fart. Sorry but that’s just dumb.
What trophy or prize do you most covet?
A U.S. Passport. One day.
What do you wish you’d known at 18?
That I would not always live on the streets.
Why Los Angeles?
I breathe it and I am me here.