"Everyone loves me in São Vicente," says Tchinda Andrade, perched, in knee-high boots and a dramatic faux-shearling coat, on a park bench on 148th Street. It's her second trip outside her home country, and it took her five connecting flights and a complicated, multilingual conversation about her gender with U.S. Customs and Border Control at JFK to make it to Harlem. But she's here and ready for the New York premiere of the documentary Tchindas, in which she stars. The demand from her friends back home for Facebook updates and photos of New York has become overwhelming, she says.
Homosexuality is outlawed in 34 of Africa's 55 countries, but on São Vicente — one of the ten islands that make up the small mid-Atlantic nation of Cape Verde (population 506,000) — Tchinda has assumed a role somewhere between matriarch and local celebrity despite, or perhaps because of, her very public coming out.
"I was the first," she says, smoothing her hand over her necklace, a silver pendant shaped like the letter T. In 1998, Tchinda (whose mother still calls her Alcides) came out as transgender in characteristic style, during a carnival in São Vicente. There were two marching groups: men and women. She joined the women, in a pair of pum pum shorts. Later, a journalist from a local newspaper approached her for an interview and when the article appeared the next day, with the headline "Tchinda-val!," it made Tchinda a local heroine overnight. "I just didn't want to hide who I was," she says.
Gay and trans people in Cape Verde were "all [...] in the closet" back then, she declares in Tchindas, which tells the story of her community — a group of variously identifying LGBTQ friends — as they lovingly make sequined mermaids' tails and octopus-adorned floats for the island's much-anticipated annual carnival. (The theme that year was "under the sea.")
Back in 1998, Tchinda's openness was unheard-of. There weren't even words, then, in Cape Verdean Creole for signifying non-cis, non-straight genders and sexualities. And so Tchinda's name became synonymous with queerness. "People didn't know the words [for gay or trans], so when they saw [a gay or trans person] they'd say 'There's a tchinda.'" she explains. In the film, Tchinda's friends Elvis Tolentino (who is gender-fluid) and Edinha Pitanga (another trans woman) are both affectionately referred to as "tchindas" by the other islanders who stop by for costume fittings, or drop off their children for minding on their way to work.
"When we do the catwalk at the carnival in Santiago [another island in Cape Verde], people say, 'All the tchindas are on the island today!'" Tchinda laughs. But sharing your name with an entire community can also be problematic. "The police once called up my house and asked me to come in to the station," she tells me. "When I got there, the woman [reporting the crime] said, 'No! Not this tchinda! Sorry!'"
Spanish journalist Marc Serena, who co-directed Tchindas along with filmmaker Pablo García Pérez de Lara, first traveled to Cape Verde over five years ago. He was fascinated by the country's embrace of its LGBTQ community, especially given the prosecution and discrimination faced by LGBTQ people 400 miles east in Senegal. "Cape Verde is the most gay-friendly and empowered country in Africa," he says. "Now you have the Afrobarometer, but that's something I experienced myself first." When I ask him why, he says, "One, there are women in power and in politics in Cape Verde. It's one of the countries in Africa where there is more gender equality. Women have more power and that includes trans women. There also isn't a law prosecuting same-sex acts as there is in many other places. And then the carnival also has lots of positive vibes, because that's a major thing."
Shot over a month in 2013, Tchindas captures just how central the carnival is to life on São Vicente, and how central Tchinda and her friends are to the carnival. In the sun-bleached pastel-plastered houses of the working-class neighborhood where they live, Edinha and Elvis handstitch elaborate gold lamé dresses and engineer ingenious tiaras out of cardboard and glue. In their living room, Elvis shows off trophies and framed awards for previous costuming efforts. And in between her rounds sashaying up and down the town's sleepy cobblestone streets delivering coxinhas (street food) to the neighborhood, Tchinda oversees everything — choreographing marching routines, and herding small costumed children on the day itself. "Tchinda rules, end of story," says one of her neighbors.
"Equally, Cape Verde is not always a paradise," says Serena. "There is still lots of discrimination." The film doesn't show, for example, the time when Tchinda was assaulted in Cape Verde's capital not long after coming out. Though the scars are still visible on her face.
"We went to a concert in Praia and there were no cabs so we were walking. When the crowd saw me with a friend, in heels and dresses, they started shouting, 'Look it's a man! A man dressed as a woman!' They started hitting us and someone was using a glass bottle," she remembers. "That was 1998. And in the capital it's still not that easy. But it is changing, people are becoming more visible. Even yesterday, there was a 'Miss Travesti' pageant in the capital for the first time."
Still though, when Africans from the continent visit São Vicente, they frequently cross to the other side of the street when they see Tchinda. "There are even people who start praying, because of the shock," she says. "But when they come to Cape Verde they also see how, in this society that is so small and poor, the mentality is so open; in Cape Verde we accept everyone as they are."
"I think queer people in Africa need films that can give hope to them," adds Serena. "So they can see it's possible to be African and gay or trans and have people respect them. For me, it's an example, even to the rest of the world. In the film, you see how families if they go to work, they take their children to the 'tchindas' and that's something that maybe even some parents here [in the US] wouldn't do because they would feel uncomfortable if there was a trans person there."
The day after the film's New York premiere, while Tchinda was somewhere over the Atlantic retracing her five flights home, Serena forwarded me a press release announcing that Tchindas has been nominated for Best Documentary at the African Movie Academy Awards — "the African Oscars." If one person's brave coming out can transform the culture of an entire island, it doesn't seem like a reach to hope a globally recognized movie can do even more.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Katie McCurdy