The Disobedient | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Andrea Russell remembers that night very clearly. She says it happened shortly after starting college, around 2010. She was standing in front of a nightclub in Mexico City. She had arrived with some new friends.
[Andrea Russell]: So there I was, everyone was going in, and I was at the door. “Do I go in or not? Do I go in or not?”
[Daniel]: She was frozen, pretty much paralyzed. It was the first time in her life she went clubbing.
[Andrea]: I remember at that moment a girl came in and asked me, “Is there a cover, or no cover?”
[Daniel]: That is, what it costs to enter the place.
[Andrea]: I said, “What?” I remember I just stood there. I was at the door, I just stood there and said, “Yes.” But I didn’t know what a cover was.
[Daniel]: Half an hour passed, and Andrea didn’t dare go in. She was afraid to.
[Andrea]: I imagined it was like Sodom and Gomorrah, everyone kissing, everyone in there doing all sorts of things.
[Daniel]: Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities that, according to the Bible, were mercilessly destroyed by God because their inhabitants lived in lust and debauchery. She had grown up with very conservative and religious beliefs, as a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And that meant fearing everything that deviated from God’s rules. Andrea could only picture that many of the things that were going on inside that place were things that she had been told since childhood were of the devil.
[Andrea]: I grew up very, very much afraid of outsiders. Everything scared me very much. Because the Witnesses teach you that the people outside are evil. And that God is going to destroy all the people who do not do his will.
[Daniel]: So that night, she could only panic. She felt like she was exposing herself to a gigantic risk, but she was also very curious to try something new.
[Andrea]: It took me a long time to get in. I mean, I was about half an hour deciding, “Should I go in or shouldn’t I?”
[Daniel]: Until her friends came out and got her into the bar.
[Andrea]: And once inside, I felt like I was entering the underworld, the worst of it, because the images of clubs that I grew up with were people with outrageous hairdos, all of them tattooed. Everyone with a beer in their hand, some fighting in the corner, others kissing in another corner.
[Daniel]: The bar had two floors of narrow hallways and small rooms, each one with a different atmosphere: karaoke, electronic music, a terrace. There were neon lights, a disco ball, and the walls echoed with sound.
Andrea went in feeling afraid, but when she took a good look around her…
[Andrea]: It was the complete opposite of what I imagined, because I saw people—yes, people dancing, people drinking, but in a very normal way, that is, nothing out of the ordinary.
[Daniel]: She felt at ease and that surprised her. What’s more, it was a revelation…
[Andrea]: It is as if you are told, “The only roses that exist are red roses.” And you discover that it is not true. There are also yellow roses; there are white roses. And then you realize that you were lied to. And that, of course, makes you question yourself and say, “Well, if this isn’t true, what guarantee do I have me that everything else is?”
[Daniel]: And that question would lead her to more and more questioning of everything she thought was true, because maybe, out there, there was a place for her in the world.
We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back. Our production assistant Selene Mazón brings us the story.
[Selene Mazón]: The door of that bar in Mexico City was very far from the place where Andrea was born: Brooklyn, New York.
There she spent the first eight years of her life. She lived in an apartment with her Mexican mother and her American father of Irish descent. They both worked hard at the same hospital. He worked as a doctor and she was a nurse.
[Andrea]: My parents were never home. They were always working. I remember hearing them only when they opened the door, and it was late at night.
[Selene]: Andrea was an only child and was almost always home alone. The only time she spent with her parents was on Sundays, when they met with their congregation. During the week, Andrea attended public school. When she came home, after doing her homework she would start reading the Bible and studying books and pamphlets about God. Those materials were her main link with the world—her world. From a very young age, Andrea knew that she was part of a special community, one that was different, and one to which she felt lucky to belong.
[Andrea]: We were always told that we were the happy people. So, you should always feel joy, because since you are part of God’s people, there is no reason to be sad.
[Selene]: A happy people: that’s one way Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to themselves. Andrea’s parents became members of this religion at different times. Her father was already a Jehovah’s Witness when she was born, and her mother converted after she married him.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are a religion that emerged at the end of the 19th century in Pennsylvania, United States. Unlike Catholicism, the Witnesses are characterized by worshiping Jehovah as the only God. They reject the existence of the Trinity, the concept that encompasses the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They have their own version of the Bible, called the “New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures,” the full text of which was published in 1961, and this they recognize as the only Word of God, which must be followed in order to survive the end of the world.
[Andrea]: The Witnesses teach you there will be a destruction of all evil people and the whole earth will be a paradise, where you are going to live eternally and everything is going to be wonderful.
[Selene]: A peaceful world, without death or suffering.
The Witnesses are divided into congregations. Local, closed communities, where everyone knows each other. They have weekly meetings either to study a religious book or pamphlet, learn public speaking, or teach techniques to approach other people, as part of their goal is to add more members to the congregation.
Every Sunday, Andrea and her parents went to the Kingdom Hall, as the temples of Jehovah’s Witnesses are known. It was a large space, with rows and rows of chairs, a stage, a lectern, a microphone and a biblical text in the back.
Sunday services were led by the pastor of the congregation, known as an elder. The attendees, like Andrea, sang, listened to the word of God and, when finished, organized into groups to go out to preach from house to house. Andrea loved this part.
[Andrea]: I liked it because for me, it was a game, because we preached covering different blocks. One person started at one corner, the other at another corner, and we would go around the block and we would meet, and for me it was fun, because I would say, “OK, let’s start. I’ll see you in a short while,” and it was like seeing who got to the meeting corner first, right?
[Selene]: They divided into pairs, usually people of the same sex or an adult and a child, and knocked door to door. As soon as someone opened, Andrea recited from memory a presentation she was very proud of.
[Andrea]: “Good morning, ma’am. We are visiting people, sharing important information with them. Do you know what God’s name is?”
[Selene]: Then, just as she had rehearsed, she would pull out her Bible and recite Psalm 83:18:
[Andrea]: Psalm: May people know that you, whose name is Jehovah, You alone are the Most High over all the earth.
[Selene]: And she went on:
[Andrea]: “Jehovah has a promise for you. Which is that this Earth is going to be a paradise. I would like to leave this magazine for you to read and learn more about God’s promises.”
[Selene]: People usually accepted the pamphlet and sometimes, since she was a girl about six years old, they would give her candy. Andrea felt she was a part of something special.
But at home things were different at home. Since she was almost always alone, she sometimes had panic attacks. A deep fear invaded her, which she could not explain, much less control. One time, she remembers, she picked up the phone and called one of the sisters in the congregation. She was a neighbor over 60 years old and a friend of her mother, who would normally look out for Andrea while her parents were at the hospital. She told her she was very afraid.
[Andrea]: Then she said, “Say a prayer, say a strong prayer to God using his name, and say, Jehovah, protect me and take this fear away from me.”
[Selene]: Andrea obeyed. As soon as she pronounced the name of Jehovah, she calmed down.
[Andrea]: I said, “Oh, so Jehovah is the true God, because he took this away from me.” And from that moment on, I prayed to God. I said, “I want to serve you all my life and I am going to devote my entire life to doing your will and your service.”
[Selene]: From that moment on, she began to believe strongly in the teachings of the Witnesses. She strove to be a good daughter to her parents and to Jehovah. She obeyed, she fulfilled her duties, she cleaned her room, she went out preaching, she was happy to go to services…
Still, being part of this community involved sacrifice. One of the most important rules for the Witnesses was that she could not have any friends outside that faith.
[Andrea]: There is a place in the Bible where it says that bad company spoils useful habits. And the Bible also says that friendship with the world is enmity with God.
[Selene]: Her religion rejected everything that was not in their scriptures. For example, when Andrea heard topics at school that contradicted the Bible version, such as the Big Bang theory, or evolution, she was always told that such topics were demonic. She could listen in class, but not believe any of it.
She also had to renounce some things of the outside world, or worldly things, as they were called in the congregation. For example, she was not allowed to celebrate holidays such as Christmas, Halloween or even birthdays.
Also, she could not take part in any patriotic activities, such as saluting the flag. For the Witnesses, this was considered idolatry and was an unacceptable act. According to the Bible, only Jehovah should be worshiped.
Other rules were unwritten laws, such as listening to the music that was popular on the radio at the time, such as Christina Aguilera or Britney Spears.
Andrea spent her afternoons reading the Bible or books published by the same organization.
When she was 8 years old, her life as she knew it changed in a moment. Without explaining anything, her mother packed her things and told her to do the same, and together they took a taxi to the New York airport, where they boarded a plane. Her father was not at home that day.
[Andrea]: I felt like I was being kidnapped, I don’t know, because I couldn’t see my father there and I had never been on a plane in my life, so I was like… why? No, no, I didn’t understand anything.
[Selene]: Andrea had many questions, but she didn’t dare ask them for fear of her mother’s reaction. After a few hours, the plane landed in Mexico City.
[Andrea]: Once here, I kept asking her about my father and she told me that we were not going back, that she had separated from my father—and yes, I had a very hard time. I cried a lot.
[Selene]: Her first year in Mexico was not easy. Starting with the language. Although she understood and spoke Spanish because of her mother, she had a hard time mastering it. She also had to adapt to the food and certain new schedules, such as dinner, which was served later. She finished the year at her old school in Brooklyn by correspondence, and the following year, she was enrolled in a bilingual elementary school.
And although Andrea never knew the reason why her parents had divorced, her way of making sense of it all that was religion. She thought that her parents probably separated because they did not follow Jehovah. The thing is that they were not really very active members of the congregation.
[Andrea]: That’s why I felt like I had to make up for it. Do what my parents didn’t do.
[Selene]: Be a godly example.
Some time later, her mother married someone else and had another child. Her stepfather was not a Jehovah’s Witness, and stayed apart from religion. Andrea was excited about the idea of a new family, but she soon realized that it would not be as she imagined.
[Andrea]: I didn’t feel affection from him, because when he was with my mother, they had my brother and it seemed like they were the nucleus of the family: My stepfather, my mother and my brother. And I felt like I was an extra, like something that was in the way. So he never treated me well.
[Selene]: Additionally, she didn’t feel that she could count on her mother, either. Their relationship had always been difficult. She was extremely authoritarian and demanded things Andrea felt were absurd, such as not allowing any folds on the bedsheets when she made the bed.
Andrea was afraid of her; afraid of making her angry, that she would yell at her or hit her. That’s why she preferred to go unnoticed. They hardly spoke. And the same thing happened with her biological father, who was in the United States. Andrea went to visit him a couple of summers, but their relationship was always distant. And at those times, religion continued to be her main refuge.
They moved to different houses and cities several times, and finally settled temporarily in Los Reyes, La Paz, on the outskirts of Mexico City.
She went through several congregations until she found one where she felt most comfortable: the English-speaking congregation. It was far away, but that didn’t matter. She felt more identified with the language. Mexicans went to that congregation, but also many foreigners living in Mexico who had gone to evangelize.
In the middle of so much change, the only constant was her devotion to Jehovah. Andrea wanted to be a missionary when she grew up, to bring the word of God to different parts of the world and at the same time guarantee her life in the paradise where all the suffering in her life would disappear.
And with that hope, there was one very important thing in her life among the others that were going to change. One that she kept a secret, that she was very ashamed to admit to others, and that only Jehovah knew…
[Andrea]: It was for God to allow me to be a girl as I had always felt I was, since I was born.
[Selene]: Although, at the time, Andrea had a masculine name and was seen by everyone as a male, deep down and from a very early age, she knew something was wrong.
[Andrea]: I always felt like a girl, but they always told me that I wasn’t a girl, that I was a boy because I had developed male genitalia.
[Selene]: Andrea learned from a very young age to repress what she felt. For example, when she asked for a Barbie or a doll, the answer was always no.
[Andrea]: I remember that sometimes on Sundays, there would be plans to go play soccer. And as a boy, I had to go play soccer and I didn’t like soccer. I wanted to be with the girls, making sandwiches.
[Selene]: Andrea didn’t understand those rules, but she accepted them. That is how she lived almost all her childhood, hiding who she was, until one day, at age 12, she was in physical ed class when she noticed something…
[Andrea]: We wore t-shirts, and either they were very tight, or… but it was clear that I… that I had something different there, right?
[Selene]: Comparing herself to her schoolmates, it was evident that her body was changing differently from theirs…
[Andrea]: My breasts started growing when I was 12 years old. My voice wasn’t so deep, so my mother found that to be kind of strange.
[Selene]: The breasts, the voice… Puzzled, her mother took her to the endocrinologist, a specialist who studies diseases related to metabolism and hormones. Andrea remembers she had several tests done, and when they returned to the office to read the results, there was an awkward silence.
[Andrea]: The doctor simply told my mom to have me wait outside.
[Selene]: Andrea left the office, scared.
[Andrea]: I felt bad because I felt like I was doing something wrong, like it was my fault we were there.
[Selene]: She was in the hallway, not knowing where or how to hide. Every minute that passed was eternal. Her mother left the office furious. Andrea remembers only that she scolded her, but she did not give any explanation.
[Andrea]: She told me that I had to take some pills, that I was going to undergo some treatment. And she hoped that would fix me.
[Selene]: The test results showed that she had a low level of testosterone. To balance it out, the endocrinologist prescribed some capsules that she had to take every day. Andrea didn’t understand, but she felt guilty.
[Andrea]: I thought that I caused it psychologically because I always felt like a girl. So I said, “Maybe I want it so much that maybe I’m causing it.”
[Selene]: Her mother started taking her to a psychologist, to supposedly treat a possible Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. However, the questions she was asked had nothing to do with that.
[Andrea]: They asked me, “Do you want to be a girl?” “Would you like it?” “Do you like dressing like a girl?” “Do you like girlish things?” “Do you feel like a girl?” That type of questions.
[Selene]: Andrea denied everything.
[Andrea]: Since I knew the psychologist had to tell my mother everything I said, when she asked me those types of questions, I always said no.
[Selene]: For one thing, it was fear of her mother’s reaction, but for another, it was also a way to protect the image of the organization to which she belonged. According to the Witnesses’ teachings, the psychologist had no right to judge her or learn about her life.
She continued the hormone treatment, and little by little, the effects became evident. She started to grow a little more facial hair, her breasts stopped developing… However, the cost was very high. It gave her nausea and headaches, and it made her irritable.
Sometimes, when she could, Andrea hid the pills in the potted plants at home or threw them in the trash. This went on for three more years, when she stopped taking them for good, with her mother’s reluctant acceptance.
But in her congregation, everyone had realized that something strange was going on with her. Although they never asked directly, Andrea noticed the strange looks from the other members. No matter how much she tried to hide it, there was something in the way she carried herself that could hardly go unnoticed. She heard comments all the time:
[Andrea]: “Why is he like that?” “Why is he the way he is?” “Why… why is he so… so feminine, if he is not a woman?” “That is ungodly.”
[Selene]: So she tried to sit with her legs open and make her voice deeper, but it wasn’t enough. She got strange looks; people talked about her behind her back. So she began to hate everything about herself: her physical appearance, the way she was.
[Andrea]: I felt very ashamed, I felt bad and I wanted to cry all the time. I felt like someone strange.
[Selene]: Because, in addition to her physical traits, her interests were not the same as those of her peers.
[Andrea]: Because I noticed that at that age, the boys that I grew up with in my congregation were eyeing the girls, and they were talking, “Hey, look, she is very pretty,” and I realized that I did not feel that and I began to feel very different. I don’t feel that.
[Selene]: Instead, Andrea was attracted to boys, but as soon as that idea entered her mind, she immediately censored herself.
She began to drown in a feeling of guilt and shame that separated her from everything and everyone. She felt that she couldn’t talk about this with anyone, not even her mother. She became more withdrawn and stopped attending the congregation’s social events. She could spend days locked up at home. The only one who knew what was happening to her was Jehovah. So she clung even more to being his perfect daughter.
[Andrea]: The Witnesses would say that if you got closer to God, those things would go away. So I kept thinking, “I’m going to go out and preach all the time and I’m going to preach a lot, a lot, a lot so that it goes away.”
[Selene]: Andrea was 16 years old and was doing open high school, that is, an unschooling approach with distance learning. But her priority was God. She attended all the meetings; she went out and preached every day. But no matter how much she did this, nothing changed. She only felt worse. And the situation with her companions in the congregation was not improving, either. They kept making fun of her. Then a recurring idea started coming to her mind.
[Andrea]: “The best thing I can do is disappear and take my life,” because the Witnesses don’t… don’t teach about any hell; they teach that when you die, you simply disappear. You go to the grave and die. And if you were faithful, then you will be resurrected. But if you were not faithful, then that’s it; you just stay there.
[Selene]: It was a thought that came and went since her parents’ separation, but Andrea didn’t dare take the step. She was very afraid, and to do such a thing was to bring shame to Jehovah.
After finishing school, she still felt the same way. At that age, the young men who were exemplary, according to the religion, began to prepare to be elders or ministerial servers, or to go to the School of Gilead, the missionary school.
[Andrea]: In my case, since it was very noticeable that I was different, I did not have that possibility.
[Selene]: She felt like she didn’t really belong anywhere.
[Andrea]: So I felt isolated from everything. Isolated from my family, isolated from the congregation, from human society in general. So I said, “Well, there is no way for me to carry on.”
[Selene]: Then she thought about college. She had always been told that she was very organized and good with numbers. She took the admission exam and enrolled for an accounting degree at UNAM, the largest public university in Mexico.
Entering there was like entering a parallel dimension. More than 190 thousand students on a huge campus. Young people from different parts of the country, in different programs of study, with different stories, tastes, personalities…
At first, Andrea followed the rules that she had always been taught: don’t talk to anyone, don’t make friends. But as the days passed, she realized that, technically, this was impossible. So she began little by little to interact with her schoolmates. And in those interactions, there was something that caught her attention, a different treatment that she had not felt either at home or in her congregation.
[Andrea]: No one made fun of me because of the way I was.
[Selene]: It was something unusual for her. Although she continued to attend Sunday services, during the week Andrea began to allow herself to explore different things. She joined theater workshops, something that had always caught her attention but that she had not dared try.
The sessions were in the afternoon. There she met several classmates, who later became friends of hers. Many were part of the LGBTIQ+ community, and when she introduced herself, something happened to her that always surprised her:
[Andrea]: It was very strange that there were times when they asked me, “How do you want us to refer to you?”
[Selene]: That is, whether they should refer to her as a man or as a woman.
[Andrea]: But I thought, “What do they mean—I’m a man, right? I come as a man. Why do they ask me that?” I… I was very embarrassed.
[Selene]: Her classmates called her by the masculine name she used then. But that question alone made Andrea question herself again.
[Andrea]: That was the first time I said, “People realize who I am and I’m the one not accepting myself.”
[Selene]: As time went by, she began to feel more comfortable in that world that, for years in the organization, she had been told was hostile.
[Andrea]: And I realized that they were not bad people. They were normal people who had fun and who also respected me.
[Selene]: She felt she got more respect at school than in the congregation. And, although it was difficult, she felt increasingly braver and willing to try new things that were previously forbidden. That’s why she ended up standing in front of that bar where we began this story.
Her world opened up more and more, but she remained part of the Witnesses. She read the Bible, she went out preaching, and she attended services. At college they knew about her religion, but she didn’t provide many details on the subject. She lived a kind of double life. And, although she knew this was against the rules, she felt that she had to do it.
[Andrea]: Because I was very discriminated against in the congregation. I felt very alone, I felt isolated, I felt depressed. Then I justified myself and said, “Well, I need it, I need it”.
[Selene]: One day, after a play rehearsal, Andrea was chatting with her friends at a traffic circle near the subway, when a couple of sisters from the congregation walked by….
[Andrea]: And at that moment I felt very, very afraid and ashamed too, because it was like, “I’m doing something that is not right.” And I also thought, “Now they are going to accuse me.”
[Selene]: Andrea tried to hide, but as she was in an open space, it was impossible.
[Andrea]: And they came up and talked to me. They said, “Hello, how are you?” As if to say without saying it, but like saying, “We saw you, we are going to accuse you,” and, well, yes, it was a very, very uncomfortable moment for me.
[Selene]: At the next meeting, the elders informed her that they would form a judicial committee, a kind of internal trial for the purpose of maintaining the organization—and here I quote—“clean.”
The hearing was set for the following Sunday at 9 in the morning, before the Sunday meeting. Despite everything, Andrea felt calm.
[Andrea]: The committees are always to ask questions about the person’s life, what the person did if they committed a sin, and since I had not done anything, I thought it would be nothing more than a wake-up call.
[Selene]: That meeting would define her future as a member of God’s People …
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after a break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Selene Mazón continues the story.
[Selene]: The elders summoned Andrea to a small room in the English-speaking Kingdom Hall where she attended every Sunday. When she arrived, she saw three seated men, and in front of them was a chair for her. She was accused of Lax Behavior, which is when a member behaves badly or brazenly. They began by telling her what she already knew: that she had been seen at the traffic circle.
[Andrea]: “We saw you with people who have a different kinds of morals.”
[Selene]: “People who have a different kind of morals,” the way the elders referred to her friends from the LGBTIQ+ community.
[Andrea]: It was as if just mentioning them made their mouths dirty.
[Selene]: The questioning began immediately. They asked what she was doing that day, at that time, in that area, with those people.
[Andrea]: They said, “At such and such a time, on such and such a day, such and such…” and I said, “I don’t remember,” “I don’t know,” “I really don’t know.” And they took it to mean that I was refusing to answer them or answer their questions.
[Selene]: Several hours passed like this. Andrea was tired, but she still thought that God was with her in that room.
[Andrea]: I thought to myself, “Is God really here?” Because what they teach you is that the Spirit of God is in the judicial committees because it is God who is judging. And if the Spirit of God is really here, the judgment must be fair.
[Selene]: But that didn’t happen. After more than five hours, they asked her to leave the room, and when she returned, the verdict was overwhelming:
[Andrea]: “The committee decided that you should be expelled. You have seven days to appeal if you think the decision was unfair. And in any case, if you take the right steps and repent, you can rejoin. The announcement will be made at the next meeting.”
[Selene]: Andrea left that room humiliated and confused, but at the same time, somehow relieved. She felt she could start doing new things, doing them without a sense of guilt. But that feeling disappeared as soon as she got home.
[Andrea]: When I got home, I opened the door. I go into my room. And suddenly I see all the books I had. And I’m starting to feel very sad.
[Selene]: One by one, she saw in her library dozens of books, pamphlets and magazines about her religion. Those materials had accompanied her during different stages of her life. They had explained and helped her understand the world she knew. The next day…
[Andrea]: I remember it rained all that day, and I spent the whole day lying down, depressed. I felt like a zombie, like in limbo, like I was one of the living dead.
[Selene]: Her mother, who attended another congregation, heard it from Andrea, and she didn’t react well. She blamed her for everything and accused her of abandoning God.
And although she felt ashamed, she wanted to say goodbye to some people in the congregation with whom she believed she had a more or less cordial relationship. She called them on the phone to tell them what had happened.
[Andrea]: I was expecting some comment like, “We’re with you, I’m sorry”— something. But no, they simply said, “Oh, well, what can you do.”
[Selene]: Because when a member leaves the organization, all of their active friends and family members are strictly forbidden to interact with them. This practice is known as ostracism, and it also happens in other religions. For Andrea it meant her social death to the community that— although she had begun to question it—still gave meaning to many aspects of her life.
She stopped attending college, she didn’t get out of bed, she didn’t bathe. Her mother took her to a psychiatrist, they gave her antidepressant treatment and, little by little, she returned to her life. At least in some ways.
[Andrea]: I still felt sadness, but I couldn’t express it.
[Selene]: Throughout that process, she did not distance herself entirely from religion. And although she did not go to the congregation, from time to time he visited the Witnesses’ website. She prayed, she read books and pamphlets. It was something she still had a hard time letting go of.
The following year, she returned to school and, little by little, the rejection and discrimination she had experienced in her congregation pushed her to do more things. And of all those, there was one that she wanted to explore more deeply: going dancing in nightclubs.
[Andrea]: I always liked electronic music, rave music, dance music. So I was going to have fun, with freedom. I didn’t have to try to apply a dress code or think, “Oh, I danced like that, that was wrong.” That is, having to be careful of every step you take.
[Selene]: Andrea felt free. By then, she no longer wanted to think; the only thing she wanted was to enjoy.
[Andrea]: “If God is going to destroy me at Armageddon, what I am going to do is enjoy life,” I say. “He is going to destroy me, but I have enjoyed it, I did everything,” you know? So I didn’t think; I was simply enjoying, enjoying, enjoying, enjoying, going out, exploring.
[Selene]: Andrea resumed her theater classes. This time in a cultural center near the Zona Rosa, an area known for its nightlife. After rehearsals, she and her classmates would meet up for a beer or coffee. One of those afternoons, they invited her to Alameda Central, a very popular public park in Mexico City. They wanted to visit some friends who were meeting there. Andrea accepted.
[Andrea]: Many of them were openly homosexual. Some of them knew a lot of those girls who were engaged in prostitution.
[Selene]: These girls she is referring to were trans women, and it was the first contact that Andrea had with them.
[Andrea]: At first it scared me a little, because you have that stigma, that idea of what people who engage in sex work are like. But I saw that they got along well with my friends, so I also started getting along with them.
[Selene]: Over time, she began to visit them on her own. She began to admire them and become very fond of them.
[Andrea]: I saw that it was very hard because they are people who live day to day, that is, they live off what they get from… well, yes, from the clients who hire them.
[Selene]: Some of them did not work, either because of their age or because they had an illness. And one of the things that impressed Andrea the most was the solidarity among them.
[Andrea]: The ones who worked bought food for everyone; it was like, “Oh, I worked, it went well, what do you want to eat?”
[Selene]: Andrea was surprised. Not even when she was an active member of the congregation had she seen anything like it.
[Andrea]: In the Witnesses, all help is monitored. It is very bureaucratic. If you have a need, you have to go to the elder and the elder has to see whether your need is genuine or simply not true. There are countless protocols.
[Selene]: Protocols and conditions that did not exist in her life with her new friends.
[Andrea]: And I thought, “How is it possible that these people who are classified as the worst, as the lowest in society, are more supportive than those who supposedly have the message of the Word of God?”
[Selene]: Andrea began to visit more often with these women, who soon became a kind of family.
One day, one of them, whom they called La Cubana, made a suggestion. She wanted to transform Andrea, that is, give her a makeover, a new image. They went together to her house, which was near Alameda. She had a huge closet, with wigs, accessories, dresses…
[Andrea]: She lent me her clothes. She lent me a wig she had, her makeup. And it’s the first time I ever dressed like that.
[Selene]: Up until that moment, when no one saw her, Andrea had only tried on her mother’s clothes.
[Andrea]: And how you look in the clothes of a lady, and especially of a Jehovah’s Witness lady, is very different from the clothes La Cubana had.
[Selene]: When La Cubana finished fixing her up, Andrea finally looked in the mirror…
[Andrea]: I fell in love with myself. I said, “Oh, how pretty I look. I can’t believe it.”
[Selene]: That was the first time she saw herself dressed completely as a woman. She had a blonde wig, straight on top and wavy at the tips. Her dress was strapless, black, fitted at the top and with a short, wide skirt.
[Andrea]: I felt happy and comfortable with what I was seeing in the mirror.
[Selene]: Together, they walked back to Alameda Central, where the other women were. And they spent the afternoon there. Andrea felt sheltered, protected. Since then…
[Andrea]: I started putting on makeup and wigs, and that’s when I started to see myself as I was.
[Selene]: But this was still hidden from her mother, with whom she still lived. When she went out dancing at night, she carried a backpack to change in the restroom. And before getting home, she took everything off.
By that time, Andrea had started taking several sexual diversity workshops, and with all the information she was learning, she soon recognized herself as part of the LGBTIQ+ community.
[Andrea]: And that was when I started to feel that I was a trans woman. And when I thought that, well, I started to feel joy and fear at the same time.
[Selene]: Fear of Jehovah, of her mother, of the things people could say. Of accepting the possibility of a reality very different from what she always believed about the world and about herself.
Andrea went to the clubs every week. On one outing, a friend of hers complimented her on her makeup and suggested that she go to a casting to become a makeup artist. She did very well and was hired. It was her dream job.
[Andrea]: Because the work was light and I earned well. I could continue going to school, and I enjoyed what I was doing.
[Selene]: The job consisted of going to shopping malls on weekends and promoting makeup products. Andrea started to do so well that she began taking professional courses and saving to move out of her house.
This is because, as Andrea discovered more information about herself, her relationship with her mother became unsustainable. She kept scolding her or complaining and, so, in December of 2019…
[Andrea]: I told her I had to go, and of course she said that it was fine, but that I couldn’t take anything with me.
[Selene]: Andrea already sensed that that was going to be her mother’s reaction. But she didn’t care.
[Andrea]: The important thing is to have tranquility, to have peace, to have my space.
[Selene]: She left home with practically nothing, but with a new life awaiting her.
Some months later, Andrea went back to psychotherapy. This time, se didn’t hide or hold anything back. She told everything, from the beginning. What she had experienced, the doubts, the pain, the uncertainty. She was determined to begin her transition as a trans woman. And for that, they asked her to have some hormone counts.
[Andrea]: I began to get other tests done, and, that’s when it was found that I had been born intersexual, with XXY chromosomes.
[Selene]: Intersexual, that is, born with sexual characteristics—including genitals and chromosomal patterns—that do not fit binary notions of male or female bodies.
She felt she had found the key that opened the box with the answers to all her questions.
[Andrea]: And then I started to cry, and I realized what my lifelong truth had been, and how I had always been deceived.
[Selene]: Deceived by her parents, by doctors, by the congregation… by the beliefs that, for years, had plunged her into feelings of shame and guilt of thinking that there was no place for people like her.
[Andrea]: When I was inside the organization, I was nobody. I was merely a lump. And as soon as I get out, I can say I’ve finished my degree. I’m independent. I work. I feel fulfilled and I feel happy.
[Selene]: The paradise she always dreamed of for herself.
[Daniel]: In 2020, Andrea wrote a post in a Facebook group called “True Experiences of Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses.” In that post, she shared a little about her story. Unexpectedly, she received a lot of support from the members of that group, unknown people and survivors of the religion, like her.
Today, eight years after her expulsion from the congregation, Andrea is an independent professional woman and is an activist on social media against hate speech within religion and their practices of social death, such as ostracism.
Selene Mazón is a production assistant at Radio Ambulante. She lives in Mexico City. This story was edited by Camila Segura, Natalia Sánchez Loayza and Luis Fernando Vargas. Bruno Scelza did the fact-checking. Sound design is by Andrés Azpiri y Rémy Lozano with music by Rémy.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Pablo Argüelles, Aneris Casassus, Diego Corzo, Emilia Erbetta, Nancy Martínez-Calhoun, Juan David Naranjo, Ana Pais, Melisa Rabanales, Natalia Ramírez, Natalia Sánchez Loayza, Barbara Sawhill, Bruno Scelza, David Trujillo, Ana Tuirán and Elsa Liliana Ulloa.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.