Body Positive: A Transgender Latina’s Perspective

How Ikal Avila achieved self-love without the support of her family

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

Looking at Ikal Avila’s Instagram, it is nothing short of ordinary for a young woman like her. Selfies, food, and makeup looks scatter her colorful feed. A few years ago, however, her Instagram may have looked very different—Avila is transgender. Recently, she came to the University of Minnesota to share her journey of growing up as a transgender Latina woman.

“Body Positive: My Personal Journey to Finding Self-Love and Acceptance as a Trans Woman of Color” was one of many events in the Queer X series by the Gender and Sexuality Center on campus. Past and future events put on by Queer X can be found on their Facebook, along with additional resources and contact information for those who are interested.

Born male, Avila grew up in Guatemala, and migrated to California at the age of four. “I knew that I was different,” Avila stated, explaining her fondness for women’s fashion and makeup that developed at a young age. Avila’s reluctance to conform to her biologically determined gender caused immediate detrimental effects to her short-lived relationship with her mother.

“She would call me names … and say how I ‘[wasn’t her] son.’” Avila had gender norms cemented in her head constantly, especially when expressing emotion. “That’s not a boy thing,” her mother would say, later shocked to discover that Avila was dressing in women’s clothing in secrecy. Avila only touched on the abuse that she endured but made it clear that her mother went to extremes to punish her for her choices. Oftentimes, Avila would be forced to kneel on sharp bottle caps for hours at a time. “I couldn’t be proud of who I was … [my mother] destroyed me internally.”

At the age of 17, Avila returned to her home country of Guatemala for what should have been a relaxing and heart-warming trip. Unfortunately, it was anything but that. Avila’s relatives became obsessed with pestering her for not having a girlfriend—something she could not even begin to explain. “It felt like I was there for an eternity,” she said, reflecting on how discouraging and exhausting it was to be around her own family.

Illustrator: Katie Heywood

At 18, she was kicked out of the house. Up until that point, Avila’s mother forced her brother to follow her everywhere to find out who her friends were and what she was doing. At a time in one’s life where self-discovery and expression are essential, Avila was patronized. Her last instruction from her mother was to get a girlfriend and have a baby. “I didn’t want to be stuck in the heteronormative way of having a girlfriend, a kid, and a family… so I said no.”

In 2017, Avila was diagnosed with mild post-traumatic stress disorder shortly after encountering her mother by accident in public. “I didn’t want to have that diagnosis,” she stated, not wanting the stigmas attached with PTSD. However, it was in that same year that Avila came out as a transgender woman. “It was a relief… [that was] the moment I was looking for.” Avila has been using hormone replacement therapy for the past nine months and has embraced the rollercoaster of emotions accompanying it. Avila shared her favorite Stephen Hawking quote, “If there’s life, there’s hope,” from which she was inspired to favor authenticity over all else.

Today, Avila feels excitement when going to the doctor, where she can celebrate small victories as a result of her hormone therapy. Her current dreams involve being approved and scheduled for gender reassignment surgery at the Mayo Clinic, becoming a lawyer, and remaining an ally for other transgender individuals.

When asked by an audience member how they could support Avila on her journey, her answer was simple—“Send me an e-mail! Talk to me on Instagram!” (her handle is @ikxl_mendozx). To her, words of encouragement are perhaps the most meaningful form of support. Additionally, Avila encouraged participants to be an ally to other transgender people by correcting others if someone is misgendered or treated in an unfair way.

“What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?” someone asked. “I hope I have a lot in my 401k,” Avila said, laughing. Law school, policy work, and giving support to migrants were only a few of many things on Avila’s list of aspirations. Considering her immense amount of bravery, ambition, and passion, one can be certain that her dreams will become a reality in no time.