If I can be vocal and I can crack a door for another trans person to squeeze through, then my life is purposeful.
-- Jada Cardona
Jada Cardona wears many hats on the national stage and in her near-native New Orleans. She is executive director of the transgender justice organization Transitions Louisiana and a health equity specialist with the Louisiana Office of Public Health; she is also the first openly trans person to be hired by the state of Louisiana. But, by far her sweetest role is as mom and mutual savior to her dog, Curio. "A dog really saved a person's life," Jada says of Curio; "he brought me out of [isolation]."
Jada and Curio are featured in the video Living With HIV: Turning Points on TheBody.com. I got to spend some time with the interviewees -- and TheBody.com's visiting video crew -- while they were in New Orleans. I caught up with Jada afterwards to hear more about her youth in the city, her journey to living in her truth as a transgender woman and how HIV played a role in that, and why she chooses to share her many stories.
Olivia G. Ford: Tell me about your experiences growing up. When did you come to New Orleans?
Jada Cardona: I was born in Belize. My mother and my family came over when I was three years old. I've been living in New Orleans since; I'm a New Orleans girl, through and through. I always knew I was a girl! I would look in the mirror, and I would see a girl's face. I don't know how to explain it any other way.
I grew up in the 3rd Ward, on Baudin Street, in Mid-City, in the mostly Latino area of New Orleans. New Orleans and Louisiana are dichotomous when it comes to race: It's either white or black. White folks think I'm "other"; black folks think I'm white. I can see how Latinx people try to assimilate with the white culture, because they feel like they'll become more successful. And it's all about survival, right?
But I can also see the trap: how if you're not white and if you're not black, you're not fitting in anywhere in society in New Orleans. That's where I got kind of alone, coming up. Especially being transgender, a lot of things I kept to myself, a lot of things I didn't, wouldn't, share.
Even to this day, there are still two parts of me: There's a very public side and a very private side. Once I feel like those two align perfectly, then I will be free.
It's always a learning process, not only for y'all, but for me. I'm new at this, too, you know? We're going through this life, learning how to change, grow.
I just have a mission of helping people. That's in my cards. Things happen in my universe to make sure that I do those things. So, I'm always on a mission, baby.
OGF: Speaking of which: How and when did advocacy first come into your life?
JC: I've always been a very passionate person. My mom was a strong woman with strong opinions, and that lives on! I've always lived my life standing for what I believe in. I fought for the gays when I was [living as] a gay man, and I also fought for women's issues. I'm still that same person; I have a stronger sense of self for the fight. It's just been recently, because transgender and HIV issues are always on the forefront, that I just so happen to be a leader in both sections of those fights.
HIV gave me the strength to come out; it's been more of a blessing than a curse. I found out I had HIV first. I had been ignoring who I was to the point of self-destruction before I started living in my truth. Being diagnosed with HIV made me pay more attention to my transition; it made me study myself, learn about myself and eventually embrace myself and become who I am today. Learning all these things about myself then turned me to learn about what it's like to come out as a person with HIV.
Coming out as a trans person has been shaping my coming out as a person living with HIV. It's still something that may be very, very scary in the present, but it is something necessary to smash the stigma and spread the truth about HIV. People think that HIV is some looming, dreaded disease, but really and truly, it's something that we can live with and manage. It's just like any other epidemic.
The stigma of HIV, and the stigma of being transgender: I tell you, it takes you to some dark places. Those dual stigmas both live around the same areas and hit these same intersectional categories.
Being a transgender person, people don't expect you to have a brain; people don't expect you to be able to speak well. People expect you to be just a whore. And maybe I have been -- but only to survive. Things that cisgender people take for granted, such as just walking down the street -- people don't know that being transgender, you can lose your life in an instant if it just crosses somebody's mind the wrong way. It brings some violence.
I feel like if I can come out, in certain regards, nothing can really hurt me. I've given my life a second thought. What I came up with is that the power is in myself to break the stigma. People can understand what my life is like -- not just my life, but the lives of millions who are affected with HIV, and living around or with people who are affected. I am fighting for my own life -- it's incidental that it affects the other girls -- if I can shape and normalize folks' idea about who trans people are.
OGF: You've mentioned similarities between being a person of trans experience and being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. Can you talk more about that?
JC: The intersections between transgender and gender-nonconforming people and people who are undocumented are that they're both invisible; both are criminalized and marginalized. The way that a transgender person may feel about police coming up to them, with the fear, is the same way a person who is undocumented may feel when approached by an officer, because of fear.
The disappearance and invisibility of Latinx people in society (more than the absence is the invisibility) and how people, especially in these times, are trying to make it harder for undocumented people to even live and survive -- when they're an integral part of this whole society where, before others even came into existence, we were here; we were always here before -- that's the thing that really kills me about being Latinx in Louisiana.
OGF: You've told me about having a terrible experience with ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] -- even though you became a U.S. citizen before you were 18 years old -- that really illustrates the terror that ICE brings to vulnerable communities. Would you tell that story?
JC: Back in the day, when not living in my truth, I wouldn't give advocacy my all because of lack of self-esteem and fear of violence. About three-and-a-half years ago or so, I had a name change and started to live my life as Jada. I started living in my truth, and I started developing my advocacy. I started standing up for things around the city. I was one of the people who brought a proclamation, signed by the people of New Orleans, to the door of the New Orleans Police Department and started the relationship-building with BreakOUT! [a local LGBTQ youth activist organization]. I was becoming acclimated to living in my truth -- and then, one day, ICE came and blocked off my street.
They had a sting operation to get me, girl -- to come and get me out of my home after I started living in my truth. I was seized by ICE and dragged into this Suburban, driven all around the city through more ICE stings. And I'm sitting in the back, dying, like, "What in the hell is going on?"
There was a mistake in the computer; I was let free. [The experience helped me realize even more:] If I can be vocal, and I can crack a door for another trans person to squeeze through, then my life is purposeful.
OGF: There was a recent rash of murderous violence against transgender women of color in the New Orleans area. Your organization, Transitions Louisiana, hosted a town hall to address it. In your opinion, what would need to happen in this city for trans women, and especially trans women of color, to feel safe and supported?
JC: One of the things that need to happen is organization. We need to organize and be part of the discussions and forums being held to make sure that we have adequate representation and are more visible.
I believe that the Denver Principles should be used in the same way for transgender people. That's what I want: forming groups governed by trans people, for trans people, to show that we are capable. We are individuals that are capable of great benevolence; of great knowledge; and also of humanness, compassion, beauty.
OGF: How did your dog, Curio, become such a key part of your journey?
JC: It was a story that had been held in the wings forever! My dog helped my mental health. It's the story of a lonely shut-in being set free by an unexpected source who changed my world and morphed me into the person I am today. A dog really saved a person's life, an isolated person: He brought me out of that.
I wasn't even raised with animals. My mom condemned all animals in the house. He was my first pet. He needed me as much as I needed him. I've had him now for three years, almost four years. That's my baby, my honey-bunny. I'm telling you: He's made me forget about people and speak my truth. He's an amazing dog, truly amazing. My family didn't really like dogs, like I told you. But he actually got them to like him. And now they love them.
OGF: You support a lot of people. Besides Curio and Giselle, where do you go for care and support?
JC: I have not done self-care in so long! I've been trying to go to the beach. I love nature. I watch nature shows all the time.
I have my new partner and my real good friends. But that is my main struggle: to find connections that help me deal with my situations. My community supports me and connects with me when I need it, to help me out. I have a couple family members who support me -- not most, but some! My best friend, my transgender leadership team, all the new people I help, help me do self-care and help improve my feeling about myself. They show me new things [and remind me that] life is not just a fight.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.