View Lukas Flippo’s photo gallery of the Immigrants Alliance for Justice and Equity Queerceañera at the bottom of this article.
Dozens of Latinx Mississippians arrived at Fondren Hall as guests of what the Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity believes was the first public Latinx Pride event in the state on Saturday, June 25, 2022. Volunteers from the IAJE, a Mississippi organization founded to support and advocate for immigrant communities, spent days transforming the event center from a blank, carpeted canvas with plastic chairs into an elegant ballroom for their first annual “queerceañera.”
A white covered carriage sat parked in the foyer, where volunteers staffed a table with educational materials on immigrant rights, outreach and fundraising. White tablecloths and wraps covered the circular tables and silver, metallic folding chairs. Drapes reached across the ceiling beneath the tiles, reflecting the blue, white, purple and green LED lights that shot across the dance floor from the DJ’s table.
A “queerceañera” reimagines the traditional Latin American quinceañera, which celebrates a girl’s 15th birthday and transition from youth to womanhood. A quinceañera brings family and community together to observe a series of traditions, such as passing a doll from an older sister to the younger sister or placing heels on the person-of-honor’s feet. The person of honor has a court of maids of honor, typically young women, and chamberlains, usually young men.
However, quinceañeras are traditionally not inclusive for trans people, IAJE Queer and Trans Justice Director Jess Mannriquez said.
“It is a tradition that goes back a long time,” Manrriquez said of a quinceañera. “And it’s very patriarchal. It’s gender-binary. Boys don’t get this, and non-binary folks don’t get this.”
As Li Ann Sanchez, the 34-year-old guest of honor, entered the room in a white dress with a white cape trailing feet behind her, the colored lights beamed stars across the banquet hall walls. The IAJE chose Sanchez, a Mexican and indigenous trans woman, to be the honoree for the celebration and the recipient of the organization’s new Deep South LGBTQ Freedom Fighter Award due to her activism for immigrant communities in the South.
During the event, Sanchez participated in the traditions of a quinceañera. She waltzed across the tiled dance floor with a doll a maid gifted to her, led a choreographed solo dance and accepted a pair of heels from a chamberlain. After receiving a series of gifts, Sanchez danced individually with members of the crowd who volunteered.
“I’m happy and proud to be part of this important event because a lot of indigenous and trans and gender non-conforming people deserve quinceañeras,” Sanchez said in a speech opening the event. “I asked for one as a child, but my parents said no and that they are for women only.”
Giving People Flowers While They’re Still Here
Sanchez, who transitioned nearly 15 years ago, founded Community Estrella, an organization based in Atlanta, Ga., that advocates and creates awareness for trans Latin American women after she received political asylum in the United States in 2018. Sanchez left her home in Mexico as an early teenager after her family would not accept her gender identity. She lived in Mississippi for more than three years as an undocumented immigrant, working in a factory in Meridian, Miss., where she folded clothing until she burnt her hand and lost employment.
Eventually, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her.
“I came to the U.S. looking for protection,” Sanchez said. “I was criminalized for being trans, an immigrant and monolingual.”
Sanchez researched organizations that might aid her while she was detained and contacted Immigration Equality, an LGBTQ immigrant-rights organization based in New York. After her release, Sanchez took inspiration from the help she received from Immigration Equality and founded Community Estrella, an advocacy organization for Latin American trans women in the South, a region Sanchez says can be particularly dangerous for trans women.
“The Deep South is a place where a lot of laws against trans people are happening,” Sanchez said. “This is sad because the U.S. is supposed to protect the LGBTQ community. Biden said he would protect the LGBTQ community, but we don’t have the support yet.”
Across the country, state legislatures have introduced bills to limit health care for trans people, to ban them from participating in sports, to restrict which bathroom they can use and to halt LGBTQ+ education in public schools.
For Manrriquez and the IAJE, recognizing Sanchez’s work in supporting the trans community as quickly as possible was highly important. Trans women are subject to violence across the United States at increasing rates.
‘We Have Always Been Here’
To Manrriquez, the queerceañera is an opportunity not only to honor Sanchez but also the Latin LGBTQ community across the state.
“I grew up in the Mississippi Delta, and there are a lot of events that are either white or Black, but when you are living in Mississippi and you are a Brown person you are relegated to the ‘other’ category,” Manrriquez said. “So having something by us, for us is important. I have been here for 35 years and have never seen a Latinx pride event (in Mississippi) before.”
Jesus Acosta, who married his husband Max Gonzalez in Cleveland, Miss., days after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, sees the queerceañera as a public display of representation and acceptance for those already out in the state and people who have not yet found or shared their identity.
“It’s very significant to show that you are welcome (in Mississippi) and you aren’t excluded,” Acosta said.
The IAJE, founded in 2019 following an ICE raid on a poultry plant in Jackson, plans to host a queerceañera annually to bring the community from across the state together in Jackson and honor a community member with the Deep South LGBTQ Freedom Fighter award.
“Having this event is us saying, ‘Hey, we are here, and we have always been here, and we will continue to be here.’” Manrriquez said. “Why not this year, why not every year?”
See more photographs from the first-annual Immigrant Alliance for Justice and Equity Queerceañera below.
Photo Gallery: Queerceañera